Monday, March 12, 2012


Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) 738 pp.

Next year Marilyn will have been dead for fifty years. Fifty years. It boggles the mind. She would have turned 85 years old this year. I can't imagine that beautiful face withered, that plume of blonde hair thinned and her vitality diminished. She still has a grip on us. Her image is ubiquitous. Her memory lingers in films, books and many other, sometimes inappropriate, vessels.

Right now I am fixated on a new NBC TV series called Smash which is about a group of songwriters trying to mount a musical about Marilyn's life. As artful as the lead actresses are (and the show is great), no one really resembles Marilyn although many have tried.

The Cannes Film Festival announced that it would pay homage to Marilyn Monroe in 2012 by featuring her on its official poster. To celebrate its 65th anniversary, the poster features a b&w photo of Monroe blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.

It wasn't just beauty. There are many beautiful women. It wasn't just that she died at such a young age (36). Many beautiful women have died from natural and unnatural causes. Why does the memory of her linger so? The usual Marilyn stereotypes come to mind: orphan, pin up girl for the war, aspiring starlet, movie star, addict, sex goddess, icon.

Lately, I have read a great deal about Marilyn assuming the mask of Marilyn - how it was a facade she built and used as required. Likely this was so. She was astute enough that she was able to gauge what the public desired - even if it chafed at times, constricted her and possibly even destroyed her.

I am an admirer of Oates but this book could have been edited by a third or more. Marilyn's (then Norma Jeane's) history with her mother is inchoate, troubled and long-winded here. Her mother, Gladys Mortensen, was mentally ill, delusional, and likely a liar who intimated who Norma Jeane's father was but never told her definitively. I cannot imagine this dialogue coming out of a mother's mouth, even one reputedly as obsessed with film and Hollywood as Gladys was: "Remember, Norma Jean ... die at the right time.'' I can't even imagine that on a fictional level. No mother could have foreseen the astronomical ascent of her daughter's career. Marilyn's career ins unduplicatable.

A scene from Smash with two 
young ladies vying for title role
Norma Jeane's fantasy runs wild as to her father's identity. As in a classic orphan's tale, the mysterious father of the orphaned girl is always presumed to be a Prince (or a Prince of Industry) and never the simple stagehand who seduces the hapless female. I am unsure if this is based on fact but Marilyn as a character in this novel, receives on-going cryptic notes form someone claiming to be her father. These both delight and unnerve her as they are not necessarily esteem-building missives but rather harsh critiques of her life and career choices. The stranger always promises to reveal himself but never does.

The book does not come to life for me until almost 300 pages in when Marilyn lands her first role as Angela in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle. Everyone in Marilyn's life appears so reprehensible - her mother, her mother's friends, her foster parents. They are odious, prurient and self-interested. Perhaps they all were but it certainly feeds into the stereotype of the hapless waif, used and abused by all. Her beginnings were horrendous but I think she eventually evolved into a canny manipulator of the desires of others, particularly men.

Oates cites some pretty interesting scenarios (of which I personally have no idea if there is any truth): the threesome between Marilyn, Cass Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son who was also rumored to be her one time lover, and Edward G. Robinson Jr. - two failed, struggling sons of Hollywood royalty with substance abuse issues. Oates also combines Monroe's many reputed abortions into one - why so? Would we like Marilyn less if we think of her having had many abortions? Would it be too monotonous to list them or is she less sympathetic to us if we are exposed to them?

One very effective scene is of the Geminis (a name the threesome - Marilyn, Cass & Eddie - have given to themselves) touring a house that they are considering purchasing when they find that Marilyn is pregnant. Rumour has it that a fading silent film star, who had adopted many children, had mistreated and possibly even murdered a child in the house. Oates creates an eerie, mysterious atmosphere that spooks Marilyn. She imagines that she hears the voices of the abused children. The voice of the child that she will never have? The voices of the children from the orphanage, including her own?

The prolific Joyce Carol Oates
The insecurity of a child placed in an orphanage goes a long way in explaining the attraction to strong males such as Joe DiMaggio (named only as the Ex-Athlete here for obvious reasons). The depiction of DiMaggio, perhaps accurate, perhaps not, summons up the image of the possessive, macho, jealous, violent Italian-American male who, though madly attracted to Marilyn, little understands her or her desire for success. The Italian relations smell of garlic, the mother is a nasty-tongued, old crone ... could you sink to a more condescending stereotype?

Marilyn's third husband, Arthur Miller, gets a similar treatment - referred to only as The Playwright - he is depicted as neurotic, shameful of his immigrant origins, cerebral, high strung, jealous. I can't say if these representations are true, I can say they fall into familiar, cliched tropes of ethnic American identities. Yet this particular relationship seems the most real - the Miller depicted here seems to feel a mixture of repugnance and attraction, fidelity and a desire to flee from an unhappy, possibly unbalanced woman.

The tone that Oates adopts - Monroe's self-denigration and the way others seemed to perceive her grates at times - it's vulgar, disrespectful, lewd, and extremely

Marilyn as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot
However, I do think that Oates captures a few things accurately - the fear and loathing that men have for potent female sexuality that she especially epitomizes in the onscreen characters of Rose Loomis (Niagara); Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes); the nameless Girl (Seven Year Itch); Cherie (Bus Stop); Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Some Like it Hot); and, finally, Roslyn Taber (The Misfits).

Oates creates two mythic personae that come to symbolize Marilyn's and female sexual desire: the Dark Prince and the Fair Princess. The Dark Prince is sometimes dangerous, potent, desirable - representing many of the men in her life. But he is not always threatening. At one stage he is also represented by the characters of Marlon Brando and Clark Gable - beautiful, strong, protective but also vulnerable, willing to shield Marilyn if they can from malevolent forces. Brando is depicted as friend, not necessarily a lover, although they might have been.

Less effective to my mind is another character referred to as "The Sharpshooter". He appears to be, and this is never quite clear, a CIA operative who is spying on Marilyn when she becomes involved with left-leaning Hollywood people and then the President. Is he real or a figment of her fevered, tortured mind? Does he provide the final denouement of her life? 

By the end of the novel, all the sad pieces all fall into place: the miscarriage of Marilyn and Miller's child at six months; the rocky production of her last completed film The Misfits; the end of her marriage to Miller, the disappointment of her last film Something's got to give; a last enigmatic letter from Cass Chaplin after his death, at 36, with him claiming that it was he who sent those mysterious letters pretending to be her father ...

There is also a sordid last episode as the President's mistress and doesn't he fare well in this depiction? The clandestine meetings that echo (here in Oates' imagination) the Clinton/Lewinsky business. The infamous "Happy Birthday Mr. President" episode at Madison Square Gardens. There are certain fantasy sequences (one assumes) where Marilyn imagines herself dragged from her little house by the President's men and forced to abort the child she is carrying to keep her quiet and then the inevitable conspiracy inspired sequence where she is actually murdered by one of the President's secret agents with a lethal injection.

How would she have fared in the 1960s had she lived? Not well I imagine ... her voluptuous beauty and platinum blonde hair would have seemed old-fashioned. She would have seemed an amusing relic  - a pretty blow up doll from a bygone era.

Her imagery is still so powerful, her sexuality so potent, it excites all sorts of sordid speculation in writers and fans. Passages here sometimes read like some sort of pornographic re-imagining of her life. I can't say it was always effective for me as a reader although I do believe that Oates is infinitely brave in the places that she goes as a fiction writer, as a woman, imagining the ugly, the sordid, the sad.

I try and remember MM in a particular way. I love the early photos of her with her curly hair and apple cheeks pre-stardom. So joyful, so lovely ... I hope you found peace at last my beautiful girl.

Marilyn during the war years, pre-stardom

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