Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe; drawing by David Levine

“Yeah, that beast was huge and then huge again, and he was still alive.”

—Norman Mailer
Why Are We In Vietnam?

There is a passage in The Armies of the Night which has become something of a set-piece for Mailer’s critics. Mailer describes his lack of satisfaction with himself as he comes across in film:

For a warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter—he had on screen in this first documentary a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable—the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. Something in his adenoids gave it away….

Mailer may be saying many things here: that he is a nice Jewish boy at heart, whether he likes it or not; that he retains embarrassing traces of that personality, although he has largely escaped it; that he has escaped it completely, although its unfortunate stigmata still show. The length and quality of the catalogue, the discreet hyperbole (“fatal taint,” “absolutely insupportable”) and the context (he is talking not about his character but about his screen personality) make the whole business very funny and very oblique. The one thing we can’t see him as saying, it seems to me, is that he simply finds the personality of the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn insupportable (and therefore, of course, to be repressed and fiercely compensated for). Yet this is just what Richard Poirier, in his lucid and generous book on Mailer, wants Mailer to be saying, and I suspect that Poirier here represents many of Mailer’s admirers. The nice Jewish boy, Norman the good fellow, literally pays for Mailer the bully and wild man, saves him for sanity and civilization and literature.

Poirier insists on the literary nature of Mailer’s mind, and shows brilliantly how Mailer, by risking himself and his style at every turn, eluded the safe and sterile literary career that his early books seemed to promise. Poirier thinks, as I do, that An American Dream, Why Are We In Vietnam?, and The Armies of the Night are Mailer’s best works and constitute a more than sufficient claim to substantial fame; and Poirier has some extraordinarily eloquent and subtle pages on Why Are We In Vietnam?, which he calls the “most dazzling and most incomprehensibly slighted” of Mailer’s novels. I couldn’t agree more. And yet my feeling is that Mailer is a much more dangerous animal than Poirier will quite allow himself to see. If he is infinitely more talented than his detractors seem to realize, he is infinitely more brutal and unruly, even as a writer, than his academic fans wish to acknowledge.

I don’t mean to say that Mailer is not a good fellow, and immensely attractive. What I mean is that he really is a bully as well, and the one side of his character doesn’t excuse the other. Stephen Rojack, in An American Dream, overcomes an armed man and humps him down the stairs of an apartment building. Rojack knows that this is a stupid squabble and that it is doing perhaps irremediable damage to his relation with the girl he is fighting for. He also knows, since he is a white man defeating a black, that his victory has an ugly historical ring to it, even if the black man has a knife and the white man has nothing. But none of these considerations can keep Rojack’s intense satisfaction at winning out of this passage, and I see nothing in the book to suggest that Mailer parts company with Rojack at this point. We may admire Mailer’s honesty in leaving such feelings intact, but I don’t see how we can admire the total effect of this scene. In spite of passing disclaimers, it remains an uncorrected assertion that a violent scrap is a fine test for a man, maybe the only test a man can find in these lame, effeminate times.

Of course male egos confront each other constantly in Mailer’s work. Rojack stares down the boxer Romeo Romalozzo earlier in the book. D. J. faces a dying grizzly in Why Are We In Vietnam? D. J. and Tex later drive off a wandering wolf, who is “knocked on his psychic ass” by waves of murder coming off the two boys:

…that wolf slides off them and goes ambling down the ridge, no longer leaping and swinging at how loose, hippy-dippy, juggler balls and ass he is, no, the wolf he older, he been put down, that’s no good for any presumptive continuer of his own species.

Again, any serious irony there is in this passage gets there, it seems to me, by the courtesy of the eager critic, anxious to apologize for Mailer but not very keen on listening to him. When Mailer remarks in his book on the moon that a sense of virility is an artist’s most valuable possession, there is no suggestion that he is joking, or that he even thinks the remark might be questioned by anyone. Perhaps he is thinking of George Sand, but what about Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë? To say nothing of Proust and Gide and Truman Capote.


War was an early subject for Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead and before, and Poirier, picking up a later remark of Mailer’s own, sees war as a metaphor for what endures beneath Mailer’s changing themes and styles. But war is, in one sense, too civilized a notion for what Mailer is up to much of the time. Mailer deals not so much in war as in murder. His characters are surrounded by sudden death, and driven by their own desire to kill. Stephen Rojack throttles his wife, and while there is clearly no point in complaining, as many critics and readers have done, about his getting away with it, it is worth wondering, perhaps, about the extreme ugliness of what brings out the best in Mailer.

Mailer’s finest critics, like Poirier and Leo Bersani and Tony Tanner, tend to err by adopting him for their gentler, more complex vision of the world. They make him more humane than he probably is. They see him as critical of the magic and machismo of which he is more likely the victim. They insist on his mastery of the shifting tones and meanings of his prose, whereas I think he has bravely and erratically delivered himself up to the vagaries of language in his time.

Of course Mailer is a wonderful ironist, as the passage quoted above from The Armies of the Night fully shows. But his irony is floating and playful rather than critical. Mailer is capable of passionately believing in something he has just shown to be quite incredible. He has many voices, many selves, as Poirier reminds us. He is, as Poirier memorably says, “the most accomplished ventriloquist of styles now writing in English.” And Mailer is right to prefer his multiplicity to a more artful unity. There are evils and energies in America which will not speak at all unless they speak through Mailer. He is the ordinary guy as bad guy, he is the indiscreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. But then he speaks so well for the enemy because he is in large part the enemy, and we can’t have him as our hero as well. We cheat Mailer and ourselves by pretending he is tamer than he is.

* *

…so a writer is at last all the language he uses.

—Poirier, Norman Mailer

“D. J. will not dwell on why an asshole is bound to hit the ass, for that is homeopathic magic, man”

Why Are We In Vietnam?

Tony Curtis, on the set of Some Like It Hot, was asked whether he enjoyed kissing Marilyn Monroe. The question, presumably meant to be cute, was either stupid or ingenuous, since she was causing a lot of trouble at the time. She was hours late almost every day, Billy Wilder was crippled with psychosomatic backache as long as the shooting lasted, Curtis and Jack Lemmon had to stand around in drag and high heels while she fluffed some forty-six takes of a simple line. We can expect some irritation in the answer. Nothing prepares us, though, for the violence or for the wit of Curtis’s reply: “It’s like kissing Hitler.”

“If the center of things is insane,” Mailer wrote in Why Are We In Vietnam?, “it is insane with force.” Mailer, the apostle of murder and insanity as ultimate truths, the man in love with war, confrontation, and the dark urges lurking in all of us, will surely do something with this anecdote in his book on Marilyn. The angel of sex was also the mad dictator, she was as monstrous as she was pitiable, she was both beauty and the beast.

Apart from retelling the story, however, Mailer does nothing with this aspect of Marilyn. He says she was a “queen of a castrator who was ready to weep for a dying minnow,” but since when was virility such a thing with minnows, and dying ones at that? Mailer insists on Marilyn’s ambition, speaks of a “simple rage to put one’s signature upon existence,” but refuses to see in this anything other than a cosy dream of glory. She was a hustler, he admits, but then she had been hustled, poor thing, and the man down the road shot her pet dog when she was a child, and Mailer waxes eloquent on Marilyn in the Los Angeles Orphans Home. His trick is to convert Hitler into Napoleon, and then turn Napoleon into a saintly hero, exiled on Elba, regaining his empire only to become the great mourned loser. “Are there ten women’s lives so Napoleonic as her own?” Mailer asks operatically. Not even Napoleon’s life was so Napoleonic. Mailer dresses Marilyn in military metaphor so often that I was waiting, throughout the book, for him to call her the Clausewitz of the come-on, or maybe even a Blücher of the boobs. He does call her a “very Stradivarius of sex” and evokes the “insane sexual musk” she is supposed to have given off at the age of fifteen.


The strained, silly language, of course, gives the whole sentimental game away. Mailer, like the courtly Elizabethan gent he is at heart, is spreading out his cloak for Marilyn, playing a beefy Walter Raleigh for this damaged Fifties princess. He is wooing her with a poem, trying, even now, to take her away from Arthur Miller. Mailer confesses to this, his “secret ambition” when he lived near the Millers in Connecticut, and adds, with that rueful, phony humility he puts on so well, that he now knows he would have “done no better than Miller.” Yet here he is, busy doing better, offering Marilyn all his understanding and sympathy, everything she never got from all those men who let her down. Eternity is not too late for Mailer’s homage, and he will eclipse Miller and DiMaggio and Yves Montand in the way he knows how: on the page, in his prose. His strategy with Marilyn is exactly analogous to his performance in The Armies of the Night as Poirier defines it: he will come alive in writing where he was ignored or insignificant in the flesh.

But if it now seems predictable that Mailer should want to compete for Marilyn rather than interpret her, this can’t have been at all clear to him when he took on the job. We need to recognize what a good idea this book was. “Set a thief to catch a thief,” Mailer murmurs, “and put an artist on an artist.” What he means, surely, is set a myth to catch a myth. Who but Mailer, a mythological figure in his own write, ought to tell the story of a fellow-inmate of that American Madame Tussaud’s inhabited by Sinatra and the Kennedys and DiMaggio. Mailer’s fantasy has always played in precisely that pantheon, in those big, interdepartmental leagues of stardom. The first sentence of An American Dream, after all, names Jack Kennedy, and Rojack receives a message from Marilyn herself on the last page of the same book.

And Mailer is absolutely right about Fred Guiles’s Norma Jean, on which he leans for most of his facts. Guiles is modest, decent, sensible, and thorough, and conveys no sense at all of who Marilyn was. His book cries out for a book to be built on it, and Mailer has come building. That Mailer didn’t do much better than Guiles—in fact, did rather worse—is another story. Mailer finds himself so close to Guiles (and to Maurice Zolotow’s Marilyn Monroe, his other chief source) not because he means to steal from him but because he can’t get his own book, the book he is after, off the ground.

Mailer looks a bit like a plagiarist, then, because his wings fail him; and he looks a bit like an opportunist for the same reason. It is pointless to accuse Mailer of irresponsible speculation on the subject of Marilyn’s relations with Bobby Kennedy, or the FBI’s possible dabbling in her death. Irresponsible speculation is Mailer’s profession, the very condition of his gift. The thing is to make the speculation stick imaginatively, not scale it down into something safe. Much of Mailer’s best writing rests on his ability to convert personal obsessions or superstitions into eloquent metaphors for things that matter to all of us. Thus we learn, in An American Dream, that New York City is run by a “buried maniac,” who sets up all the city’s awkward, improbable plots and coincidences. Thus we are told, in Of a Fire on the Moon, that our sense of smell is an instrument for scenting time, since odors are our “marriage to time and mortality.” Mailer himself may well believe these things literally, but all we have to do is recognize the truth and strength and humor of the metaphors: doesn’t New York feel like that, and isn’t there something scaring and inhuman about a world without smells?

Mailer’s talent and inclination, as he says, are for sniffing out the center of a situation from a distance, and this is what he has tried to do with Marilyn. He has tried to leap from a handful of facts into a full-blown myth, “a literary hypothesis of a possible Marilyn who might actually have lived and fit most of the facts available.” The italics are Mailer’s, and he could hardly sound less like a man throwing caution to the winds.

What is wrong with the book is not Mailer’s recklessness but his timidity and piety. He is writing a book, he says, which will “stray toward the borders of magic,” but all he can do is mention witches and covens when he can, mumble portentously about the soul and eternity (“Is it not hopeless to comprehend her without some concept of a soul?” “No, it must be that all acts of violence, love, and war presuppose some unconscious dialogue with eternity”), and overwork what poor coincidences he can find in Marilyn’s life. One of her movies was directed by a man named Baker, which was Marilyn’s own name at one time. On her way to get her divorce from Miller she waits in Dallas on the day of Jack Kennedy’s inauguration. Dallas, see? And she dies in a natty allusion to Napoleon, in a house on Fifth Helena Drive. This last touch is quite amazing, since it is not even a coincidence: merely a piece of Marilyn’s life that has crept into Mailer’s metaphor.

This is the best Mailer can do by way of magic. His language is tired and full of self-quotation, and his psychology a sort of muddled borrowing from R. D. Laing, who I should have thought was muddled enough to start with. We need a sense of identity, you see, because that enables us to feel real (Mailer’s italics again), and because “a void in one’s sense of identity is equal to a mental swamp where insane growths begin.” Actors are people with slender senses of themselves, and so they rush to take on many roles. They are on the run from, hold it, “that hungry hole of the mind which asks ‘Who am I?’ ” In the face of this kind of stuff Mailer’s appeal to professionalism—he had to meet a deadline with the book, and “in a polluted and nihilistic world, one clings to professionalism”—seems downright shoddy. What kind of professional meets his deadline with any old rubbish?

Who was Marilyn? She was too many people, she appeared in too many scattered places. She believed too passionately in her own myth, and also she betrayed it far too often. Fred Guiles tried to cope with her by means of a dualism: the actress and the woman. But his own book simply showed how inextricably those roles were tangled. Mailer tries all kinds of dualisms, from the castrating queen with her dying minnows to a divided self to a life lived here and in other karmic incarnations. Maybe two is just too small a number, whichever way we chop it up. There were more Marilyns than we can count.

How do we connect, for example, the amateur sexpot who married Jim Dougherty at the age of sixteen with the repentant, intellectual nude who later fell in love with Arthur Miller? Or the actress who drove Billy Wilder crazy with the fragile figure loved even by rival Jane Russell? Or for that matter the bird-brained blonde of The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot with the bewildered, broken creature of The Misfits? The photographs in this book offer us dozens of Marilyns: the raw girl trying to look sexy while her photographer tries to capture her innocence; the accomplished vamp, a wet-lipped, large-mouthed Rita Hayworth; the sweet but seductive calendar girl; the tender, disorderly housewife; the tomboy full of good, clean fun; the soft-focus princess with misty eyes; the Chaplin waif in black-net stockings; the drab-looking working lass at the Actors’ Studio; the distracted celebrity with Olivier in England.

And on and on to the last pictures. She is seen as a child again during the shooting of The Misfits, converted at thirty-four into the all-American teenager she had never been in her teens; then cruelly caught as a skinny, defeated hag in some nude poses taken two years later, in the year of her death. And these are stills, of course, and not even stills from movies, but photographs taken either away from the movies or during shooting. In the movies themselves Marilyn was yet another person, several persons, a new, shifting, elusive face and figure and character. Think of her again in Some Like It Hot. No photographs will show us that Marilyn, that overloaded and not quite credible babe in the world, that lovable, lethal innocent.

But we can’t save ourselves by sticking to Marilyn’s movies, as Mailer once or twice suggests we should—without paying the slightest attention to his own advice, to be sure. For beyond the woman and the actress, and more important than either, there is the Marilyn myth, which is made up of both truth and gossip, compounded out of pieces of her movies and pieces of her life and pieces of her legend. This is the Marilyn who was, as she said in an interview, always running into people’s unconscious. Our unconscious was her home, and the Marilyn myth came to count for her as much as it did for us, so that even before her death she had made herself the sacrificial bunny that intellectuals later came to worship.

The myth concerns a perfect innocence maintained in the murkiest of worlds. It is a man’s idea of a woman’s purity. She is forever entangled in sexuality, trapped by her own excessive body and the things we all know go on in Hollywood producers’ offices, and yet she is never guilty, she is always clean. On its edges the myth even allows for our disbelief. Marilyn whispers to us that she can’t be as innocent as she seems, and we are grateful for her confidence. But then she continues to seem innocent, and we continue to believe in her, our faint-hearted doubts entirely laid low by that quick, forgotten moment of skepticism. And beyond that, in areas of the myth that we are understandably reluctant to explore, Marilyn offers us a vision of the scapegoat as empress, of the victim as dictator. It is like a cruel scene out of Isaac Babel. For there she is, a wide-eyed, schizophrenic orphan, beneficiary of all our loves even now, even at this late date for loving her.

And yet she could cost a studio a fortune just by staying in bed. She could torment the world’s most famous people with her delays and switches of mood. She could marry Arthur Miller and wipe him out. She could marry Joe DiMaggio and harry him back and forth across the country. I don’t mean to blame her for this, especially since, unlike Mailer, I don’t think she can be reached by the Book of the Month Club in heaven. And I am speaking here, in any case, of Marilyn the myth rather than Marilyn the person—who was presumably no more ruthless than the next Stradivarius of sex. But the structure of this particular dream of conquest does seem disturbing. If we get so sentimental about the poor little mad girl who rose to dazzling fame and then destroyed herself, what about that underprivileged house painter who climbed the heights of a thousand-year empire, only to die in a bunker?

This Issue

September 20, 1973