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Her Story


by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco/HarperCollins, 738 pp., $27.50

Was there such a person as Marilyn Monroe? The more her image is replicated the more invented it seems; the more her name is employed the more it sounds like the trade name it in fact was. Her face, once a particular example, however shining and glorious, of movie star beauty, is now its unattainable ideal, the template from which all future beauty will descend and which all prior beauty prophesied. The icon in the billowing white dress may historically derive from a scene in The Seven-Year Itch, but it might just as well have been magically imprinted on the lining of a peasant’s cloak. This air of unreality, or super-reality, doesn’t seem restricted to her posthumous career. Her image detaches itself from her films, estimable and lousy alike, and floats free of them. The paradox is that she was as gifted an actor as anyone who ever employed the Method, inhabiting and developing each role well beyond the often crude sketches she was given to work with, and yet each role is partly or completely eclipsed by the iconic image of Marilyn, glowing in the dark.

A mountain of books have already been written to explain or exploit her, from poetry to the rankest trash. The ephemera has never stopped being generated and doesn’t seem as if it ever will. Hers may be the mightiest of the pop-culture religions—only Elvis comes close. Valentino is barely a memory by now; James Dean recedes from view as the years reduce him to three movies and a handful of stills; the dead Sixties rock stars have lost their mass appeal and their worship has narrowed to fringe cults. But Marilyn’s mystery remains evergreen. Her beauty itself is mysterious—it is both real and concocted, just as sexually she appears both vulnerable and overpowering, or maybe it’s that her vulnerability is itself overpowering. She is the very personification of the Hollywood star, intimate with each viewer while as remote as a marble statue. Her life sounds like a parable, or a pulp novel, from the mystery of her parentage to the mystery of her death.

She is a great ready-made for a novelist—far too good, actually. Joyce Carol Oates’s decision to write a novel based upon her life might sound like a sure thing, but it was a huge gamble, fraught with every peril. Marilyn died in 1962, which is a considerable distance away, but were she alive today she would merely be approaching her seventy-fourth birthday. Many of her friends and colleagues—and two out of three husbands—are still around; for the novelist, the legal hazards alone are a minefield. More significant, though, is the hazard of reinventing a life that has been so thoroughly documented that readers with even the most casual interest in Marilyn cannot avoid noticing divergences from the record. This can undermine suspension of disbelief and make for a constant dissonant buzz in the reader’s ear. Another writer might have tackled the problem bluntly, by dispensing with realism altogether, by leaning toward the Brechtian or the pop, but that is not Oates’s style.

The subject is a natural for her, combining many of her recurrent themes: the innocence and darkness of the postwar decade, the construction of myths, the sexuality and autonomy and exploitation of women. She wanted to give a voice and a material core to this elusive being, whom the accumulation of biographies has only succeeded in making ever more fictitious and distant. Although the book is written in the third person, the focus is extremely subjective, sometimes almost claustrophobically so. “For all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation,” Oates writes in a prefatory note, meaning that the amount of repetition in Marilyn’s life has been trimmed—a handful of lovers, one abortion, a selection of movie parts, a couple of medical emergencies stand in place of the bulk quantities of each in the life. Besides that, though, no other guiding principle of selection or organization is apparent. It seems as though Oates had steeped herself in the literature concerning Marilyn and then reconfigured the picture by borrowing, inserting, transposing—a hint here, a rumor there, an invention (such as can be found in the rich trove of autobiographical fiction Marilyn herself generated for My Story, as told to Ben Hecht in 1954) somewhere else. The result is neither kitchen sink nor cotton candy, but a promiscuous mingling of what was, what might have been, and what should have been, sometimes bigger than life and sometimes smaller.

The story begins in 1932. Norma Jeane Baker is six; she is living in Venice, California, with her grandmother Della Monroe, “a Tugboat Annie character,” sharp-tongued, thickset, affectionate, devout. Her mother, Gladys Mortensen, an employee of “The Studio,” has come to whisk the girl away to celebrate her birthday and give her a tantalizing taste of Hollywood glamour. Gladys, for all her glamour and drama, works in the film-processing end of the business, where she is daily ravaged by toxic chemicals. She is also insane. Never far from the surface is an urge for self-destruction, and it alarmingly encompasses her small daughter. She drives recklessly with the child in the car, falls drunkenly asleep with a burning cigarette between her fingers, and, ultimately—when mother and daughter are living together after the grandmother’s sudden death—attempts to plunge the child into scalding bathwater. And what of the other parent?

Norma Jeane stared speechless at the man said to be her father. The man in the photograph. The man on the wall beside the bureau mirror. Father? Her body was hot and tremulous as a cut thumb….

He—he’s my f-father?”

He certainly is. You have his sexy blue eyes.”

But—where is—“

Shh! Look.”

It was a movie scene. Almost, Norma Jeane could hear the excited skittering music.

A movie scene it is indeed, down to the stutter, not to mention that the man in the photograph in question may be Clark Gable. Actually, the whole first section of the book feels as if it might be taking place just offscreen from Stella Dallas (1937). But, as is often the case here, it is exactly those details that are not invented that seem the least plausible, and vice versa.

Norma Jeane may or may not have been named after Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow, those Hollywood martyrs to drugs and blondness respectively, but her mother was both glamorous and melodramatically mad (so was her grandmother) and might have attempted to kill her at an early age; she was led to think that her father might have been Clark Gable (although she more realistically believed him to have been C. Stanley Gifford, a salesman for Gladys’s lab, who did sport a pencil mustache); her mother did buy a white piano that may have once belonged to Fredric March (and Marilyn years later did indeed locate and purchase this piano, dispersed along with most of her mother’s effects around the time the latter was institutionalized); and likewise numerous additional details that could strain the combined imaginations of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. Faced with such material Oates is in the position of having to dilute it, eschewing, for example, the story of Tippy, Norma Jeane’s dog and most reliable emotional constant, shot dead by a neighbor when she was six. As Norman Mailer observed, “Omens surrounded her like the relatives she never had at a family dinner” and “at every step of her life, coincidences spring underfoot like toadstools.”1

Oates does not, however, simply edit the life and add a continuo of reflection. When the historical Norma Jeane was sent to the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home at the age of eight, it was because two couples of potential adoptive parents both found their means too straitened to take her in, and the orphanage itself turned out to be a relatively benign and well-tended institution. In Oates’s version she is dumped there by neighbors after escaping her mother’s murderous clutches, and the orphanage comes packaged by Gothic Props, Inc. (“the barred windows, steep stairs, and endless corridors; the dorm rooms in which cots… were crowded together amid a mix of odors in which the acid stink of pee was predominant…”). An even stronger scent is that of brimstone:

…There were the five-year-old boy twins found nearly dead of malnutrition in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, where they’d been left tied up by their mother as “a sacrifice like Abraham in the Bible” (as the mother’s note explained); and there was an older girl who would befriend Norma Jeane, an eleven-year-old called Fleece,…who told and retold with lurid fascination the story of her year-old sister who’d been “banged against a wall until her brains spilled out like melon seeds” by their mother’s boyfriend. Norma Jeane, wiping her eyes, conceded she hadn’t been hurt at all.

At least, not that she could remember.

Poor Norma Jeane, surrounded on all sides by cruelty and horror, takes solace in climbing out onto the gabled roof and staring at the blinking RKO logo etched upon the Hollywood night, thinking “Someday.” But then that, too, is drawn from life (when Marilyn finally went to work at the RKO complex, in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night in 1952, she made note of her feeling of vindication). The Dickensian trappings of the orphanage, meanwhile, arguably derive from the account Marilyn fed to Ben Hecht, and that is perhaps part of the point: she conceived of her own early life in the most lurid, not to say sordid, terms, which gives melodrama a greater psychological validity than any mere inventory of biographemes.

And so Blonde rolls on in the manner of a Victorian triple-decker, its heroine undergoing sequential travails as she transits from berth to berth like some hybrid of Oliver Twist, Black Beauty, and Diderot’s Nun. From the orphanage she goes to a foster home on Tobacco Road, where the father never lays a finger on her but his seduction or rape is imagined in such vivid detail by the mother that she removes Norma Jeane from high school and marries her off at sixteen. The marriage to a big, naive jock is peaceful but stifling; she is rescued by the war, which ships husband away and allows her to take up a job at a defense plant. One day a photographer for Stars & Stripes, looking for a curvaceous morale-booster, spots her on the job. Then she is on her way, posing for Pix and Swank and Sir!, earning $12 a day as Miss Aluminum Products 1945 and Miss Paper Products 1945 and Miss Southern California Dairy Products 1945, breaking into the movie business on her hands and knees, on the white fur rug of a producer called Z, just outside his monstrous aviary of dead birds.

We know the rest of the story, more or less. She will be renamed and platinum-dyed by her handlers, work a few bit parts in second-rate movies, pose nude on a red velvet spread for a $50 fee for an ignominious gas station calendar (a shot that will be rediscovered at the height of her fame, cause a minor scandal, find its way onto the first issue of Playboy), then, in 1950, be brought to the attention of John Huston (called just “the director” here), who will note both her extraordinary piston-driven sashay of a walk and her equally extraordinary acting style, so vivid nobody can tell whether it is artful or artless, and cast her in a minor but very visible role in The Asphalt Jungle, which will fix her in the American imagination.

  1. 1

    Marilyn: A Biography (Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), pp. 21 and 35.

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