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Her Story

Blonde

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.

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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

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