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Her Story

Then things will move at a very rapid clip: Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara, gossip columns, FBI file, Joe DiMaggio (“the Ex-Athlete”), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, marriage, The Seven-Year Itch, divorce, New York, the Actors Studio, Arthur Miller (“the Playwright”), Marlon Brando, Bus Stop, marriage, The Prince and the Showgirl, miscarriage, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits, divorce, JFK (“the President”—no RFK here, for simplicity’s sake), Something’s Got to Give, disintegration, murder. Passim: drugs.

The omissions are judicious and insignificant overall (Monkey Business? River of No Return? Yves Montand?). The interpolations can be curious. Most prominent is the story of the Gemini. Through the photographer (here there is only one, Otto Öse, Jewish and perhaps a Communist, who shoots every pin-up from her first appearance in Stars & Stripes to the epochal calendar shot) she meets and falls in love with Charles Chaplin Jr., known as Cass. He is witty, sloe-eyed, doom-bound. They complement each other, merge into each other, and both happen to have birthdays in June—they decide that they are twins. One day she finds him in bed with another boy, similar if taller: Edward G. Robinson Jr. “Norma, darling! Don’t run away. I want you to meet Eddy G—he’s my twin too.” So the three become a trio of twins. They cling to one another like shipwrecked sailors on a spar. They carry on a reckless party-a-go-go seven-day-weekend existence that seems right out of the American International films (The Trip, Riot on Sunset Strip) of a decade and a half later. She gets pregnant but isn’t sure which is the father. Can the reader’s prurient gossip-historical curiosity help being engaged? Fred Lawrence Guiles, Marilyn’s most sober and reliable biographer (Norma Jean, 1969; Legend, 1984), makes no mention of either Junior, but in the more sensational Goddess, by Anthony Summers (1986), we find the account, covering about a page, of one Arthur James: “They were all depressives, Marilyn, Charlie, and Eddie, and they would hunt each other down when things were bad…. Charlie and Eddie were suicidal, more so than Marilyn…. Sometimes it was Marilyn who literally kept them alive.”2

So the reality is a dun gray patch compared with the Technicolor of the invention—isn’t that what fiction is all about? And aren’t the author’s gifts particularly evident in her ability to tease a major ingredient of her novel, significant symbolically and plotwise as well as in its emotional dynamism, from a minor ripple in the vast sea of memories, rumors, and speculations that surround her subject? Yes and yes. But that still leaves the reader’s prurient curiosity, straining on the leash. Oates does not work carefully within the lines of established fact, supplying internal substance without touching any of the standing exhibits, but at the same time her inventions and elaborations do not announce themselves as such—she does not, for example, concoct manifest impossibilities that anyone could see through but that satisfy on some purely symbolic or iconic plane (at least one author has committed to print a romance between Marilyn and Elvis). Instead she approaches her “radically distilled ‘life”’ the way one might write a novel about a famous dead person the facts of whose life are not instantly familiar to the general public. Prurient curiosity is a factor here, and excusably so, because Marilyn—her life, her works, her image—have become common property. Oates has built her house in our collective back yard. This means not only that many readers, including those who protest otherwise or know better, will buy the book to obtain some version of dish, but that almost everybody will feel a certain territorial twinge, as if the subject were an actual intimate.

And Oates succeeds in making her even more of an intimate, or a qualitatively different kind of intimate. Her Norma Jeane is convincing, a riddle of layered and conflicting parts that compose a complete if not exactly cohesive personality. She is emotionally naked although much of her is hidden, completely bereft of self-confidence although driven by some iron force, intuitively brilliant although lacking even rudimentary education, seemingly vacant of personality although able to project a protean identity that changes coloration according to the circumstances. (She shows an early publicity still to her mother in the asylum and is met with the usual mute frown. “I guess there isn’t any ‘Norma Jeane,’ is there? Once I get to be an actress, if they let me—I’ll have people to be. I hope I can work all the time. That way I’ll never be alone.”) Like lonely children everywhere she has an imaginary friend, but hers resides in mirrors. This “Magic Friend” is more than just her own reflected image. It is her actor’s persona, the creation that underlies all roles, as well as the screen onto which she projects that persona. Its function is easily transferred from mirror to camera lens, accounting for her uncanny ability to “absorb…most of the light in any scene no matter how meticulously it was lighted.” And it is no mere facile metaphor for narcissism, either—she does not equate Magic Friend with herself, or even an aspect of herself. It is a familiar, a guardian angel, perhaps a deity. It strongly resembles the sort of schizoid depersonalization that children contrive as a means of enduring trauma, and if in Norma Jeane’s case its duties include creative expression, that is largely a matter of luck and circumstance.

Norma Jeane is a creature of Hollywood. Not only is that mythic realm all around her from birth, but her mother is more caught up in the hallucination than even the average thwarted star in greater Los Angeles. She encourages her daughter in the belief that her father is, if not Clark Gable, then a studio aristocrat with a castle on some inaccessible height of the Hollywood Hills. She tries to drive the two of them straight into the 1934 wildfires on those hills as a shortcut to apotheosis. She dresses up the child in uncomfortable child-star duds and drags her to Irving Thalberg’s funeral (perhaps he was her father?)—a frightening mob-scene set piece out of The Day of the Locust. That Norma Jeane will grow up to be a star, whether or not she displays any acting talent or grows into her nascent beauty, is an unspoken given. After all, nearly every single human being around is a star, an aspiring star, a would-be star, a failed star (one of Norma Jeane’s friends from the orphanage turns up a few years later as an aspiring star, renamed “Lizbeth Short”—this, oddly, six pages after an aside about the murder-dismemberment of “a Susan Hayward look-alike,” the fate of the real Lizbeth Short, known in death as the Black Dahlia). The Hollywood of the late 1940s is a place where delusion has metastasized: every aspect of life exists in service to the movies or at the very least alludes to them.

So it is no more or less improbable that Norma Jeane should engage in a menage à trois with the beautiful failed sons of two cinematic icons than, when she remarries, it should be to the Ex-Athlete, an icon himself, non-cinematic but masculinity personified. Their first date is so archetypal it might be Kabuki, might be a board game:

The Ex-Athlete “wolfed” his food. The Blond Actress “picked at” hers.

The Ex-Athlete had a twelve-ounce sirloin steak with sautéed onions, oven-roasted potatoes, and green beans. Except for the green beans he cleaned his plate. He ate much of a loaf of crusty French bread smeared with butter. For dessert, chocolate pecan pie with ice cream. The Blond Actress had fillet of sole in a light wine sauce, new potatoes, and asparagus. For dessert, poached pear. Often she raised her fork to her lips, then lowered it, as she listened with tremulous attention to the Ex-Athlete recounting one of his anecdotes.

As they eat she recalls reading in one of her acting textbooks: “All actors are whores. They only want one thing: to seduce you.” The seduction proceeds, and a year or so later, when he finally leaves her after (not for the first time) beating her, it is because he has just seen her in a billowing white skirt atop a subway grating on Lexington Avenue at 51st Street, surrounded by gaping crew and rubberneckers, acting like a whore. This, too, is drawn from life, and might seem ridiculously pat had it merely been invented.

Marilyn Monroe represents not simply an ideal of beauty, but an extreme of femininity, as if cultural and psychological gender characteristics were statistically measurable. But in her case they might as well be, just as her three best-known liaisons were with men who represent three distinct peaks of masculinity. The gravely serious champion athlete, the bespectacled but strong-jawed intellectual, the womanizing ex-war hero leader of the Free World—Central Casting could not conceivably have done better. Even the failures and dissolutions sound scripted. Oates cannot fight or improve upon what the life has handed her, only try to ground it in some sort of human context, which she succeeds in doing, if not absolutely.

But that is clearly a secondary task. No daily-life grit or census of inner demons could make Marilyn Monroe any less of an icon. Whereas an action hero could be toppled from his pedestal by revelations of cowardice, a humanist by proof of corruption, the blemishes and failures of a martyr to femininity only add to her luster. Things done to her add to the sum of arrows embedded in her flesh; things done by her count as evidence of a still-beating heart. That her worst behavior was directly attributable to the effects of pills speaks for itself. Anyway, Norman Mailer, groping for a counterbalance to radiant accounts of her sportiveness, her lack of affectation, her love of animals, could come up with nothing worse than that she once told a second assistant director to go fuck himself.

Blonde is, no question about it, a martyrology. Touring the producer Z’s aviary of taxidermized birds, just prior to his forcing her down on his white fur rug, she hears in “a voice like Mother’s All dead birds are female, there is something female about being dead.” Later, she learns why her twins call her “Fishie”: “‘Fish’ only just means female. The sticky scales, the classic stink. A fish is slimy, y’see? A fish is a kind of female no matter if it’s actually a male, specially when you see a fish gutted and laid out, get my meaning?” At that moment she realizes “Norma Jeane’s strength was Female…. They can’t have babies without us. They can’t have sons. The world would end without us! Females.” And indeed, during the filming of Niagara she experiences “waking dreams vivid as cinematic flashes” that reveal her inner identity, a giant woman:

Instead of a shameful bleeding gash between her legs there was a protuberance like an enlarged swollen pudendum. This organ pulsed with hunger and with desire. Sometimes Norma Jeane merely brushed her hand against it, or dreamt of brushing her hand against it, and in that instant, like a match flaring up, she came to climax and woke moaning in her bed.

But such episodes of “empowerment” are few. Mostly she is lusted after, acted upon, assaulted by countless incidences of outsized misogyny (an apparent fan at a press event hands her an envelope “addressed to MISS MARILYN MONROE in red ink and attractively decorated with several red Valentine hearts,” but when she opens it she finds “a square of white toilet paper on which someone had carefully block-printed, in what appeared to be actual excrement, WHORE”—this last word scrawled on the printed page as if with a felt marker). All men desire her, and those who cannot possess her consider her a whore, and since few can possess her… But even those who do possess her cannot possess her sufficiently and therefore consider her a whore.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be Marlon Brando, who in any case lives on his own personal planet, and the Playwright, whom she gradually abandons after their attempt to conceive a child together results in a miscarriage, and he fades into embarrassed ineffectuality during the disastrous shooting of The Misfits. Meanwhile, over the course of many chapters, she is being stalked by the Sharpshooter, a ubiquitous being, the synecdochic residue of unnumbered faceless FBI agents and intelligence operatives, the embodiment of murderous male America.

Men fare about as well in Blonde as Romans do in the Bible. They don’t exactly shine in the Marilyn saga as it’s been handed down in story and song, either, although there are a number of figures who seem to have acted blamelessly as mentors, confidantes, friends, and there is barely a trace of them here. It’s not that Oates owes any particular debt to the record—or, heaven knows, to men—so much as that she lays it on a bit thick. The misogyny is so constant and so violent that it loses force for lack of contrast—misogyny, perhaps by way of synecdoche, gobbles up every other malign force at work in Marilyn’s career, from the peonage of the studio system to the manipulations of the yellow press. So then Marilyn is not just any martyr, but something like a female Christ, born to incarnate the accumulated wishes and shoulder the accumulated pains and horrors of womanhood, to die as a consequence and be resurrected as an omnipresent soft-focus image and a patchwork of possessive misreadings. But that notion, too, is hardly Oates’s invention. In treating of an icon without resorting to debunking it is nearly impossible to avoid a certain level of grandiosity.

Grandiosity is also present in the writing (among other things, however attributable to reasons of delicacy and perhaps legal caution, labeling characters “the Ex-Athlete” and “the Playwright” in page after page of intimate scenes has an inescapably pompous effect), and there are gaucheries and unexplained anachronisms (a fan in 1953 carries a video recorder; Marilyn taunts the stiff-necked Secret Service men who are escorting her to the bed of “the President” with “You were expecting maybe Mother Teresa?”—the possibility that these are deliberate doesn’t make them any less awkward). The parts written in the internal voice of the subject, with their pileup of exclamatory phrases (“so high!”; “so delicious!”), are often as cloying as the stutter that decorates her spoken lines, and the prevailing breathlessness tends to invade the rest of the text. But the reader is likely to barrel right past such incidentals. The writing certainly does, possessed by a diesel engine force that throws aside small-minded matters of form and verisimilitude and sometimes taste in its headlong rush inward and through time. The book finally resembles a massive stone sculpture, like Rodin’s Balzac, rough-hewn and maybe even unfinished-seeming if examined by the square inch, but considered in its entirety an overwhelmingly vivid and powerful rendering of a human being who outlived her life.

  1. 2

    Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Onyx Books), pp. 96-97.

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