Friday morning I had a meeting here in the City before making the pilgrimage to Oakland, and since the meeting was downtown, I stopped in at one of my favorite (and few remaining) bookstores--Alexander Book Company. On the remainder cart was a book that I had been looking for on the Kindle for some time, but could not find available--"Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates wrote the book as a novel of the imagined inner torments of Marilyn Monroe, biography-style. I had previously tried the book in Missouri, but I was little more tender-hearted then--I couldn't make it through the beginning chapters where Norma Jeane's mother loses her mind. At one point I actually took out the bookmark, closed the book, and gave it to the library.
I figured I'd never be able to handle reading that book--and besides, in those days I thought Marilyn was a bimbo. A friend of mine had tried to introduce me to classic Marilyn comedies with "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "The Seven Year Itch," and, my friend's personal favorite, "How to Marry a Millionaire," and I thought they were acceptable cinema but I also felt they didn't warrant me watching them more than once.
Six years and four lessons in extramarital city-girl whoredom later, I feel as though I am strangely (and sadly) drawn to Marilyn's story and to the movie "How to Marry a Millionaire." I can read the book now without cringing, even though I'm aware that her life was a constant and ugly car wreck. I just pull of the delight of the lyricism that Oates brings, and I just watch with a kind eye.
Was it not a kind eye before? Were the characters just crazy Californians before? Was it because the story was so disintegrating? It's hard to say. Maybe, too, that I was thinking, "Oates, why do you have to make this so depressing?" Now I read it and stay suspended with it, instead of letting it drag me under. Now I read it and see my own humanity...the point, I suppose, of any art.
It's not that it got prettier. It's that I can handle the scene.
I spent yesterday afternoon in this book, and then drifted to booting up the computer and watching screen tests, interviews, and even painful footage from the final years. Since I'd never had much of an interest in Marilyn before, this was the first time I'd seen quite a bit of the clips, including the clip of Marilyn singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK. Since I had never seen it before, I thought it might be funny and entertaining...I went from being amused at the gentleman introducing her (she was late to the stage and he was trying to stretch for time) to being horrified at her performance. It didn't help having watched the Edward R. Murrow "Person to Person" interview prior to the JFK birthday clip. The Marilyn of Murrow was younger, fresher, and more articulate--a before and after snapshot compared to the JFK song. In the JFK clip (if you haven't seen it and have a queasy stomach I don't recommend watching) Marilyn stumbles to the podium, shed her wrap and gave it to the man who introduced her, and found the mic by tapping on it. Then she grabbed as though hanging on to a life-support system.
Ironically, in "How to Marry a Millionaire" Marilyn's character would have done the same thing--but only because she was portraying a woman who was tremendously nearsighted. In the birthday reception clip she was actually a woman who was tremendously stoned.
"Blonde" suggests at several points that a scene that is played out in the movies can be comedic in the movies and a nightmare in real life. Less than a decade separated "How to Marry a Millionaire" from the JFK reception, and the same scene is played by the same woman--the first one is funny, and the second one was hard to watch all the way through. At the reception she adjusts the mic, creaking it up and down with a lot of noise roughly, and then stands before it. She gives a shot at the opening lines of the song and is surprised to find no notes emerge. So the orchestra keeps with the introduction and she tries again.
And therein enters in the bimbo.
The movies I watched in Missouri were starring a brilliant woman playing bimbos. The footage I saw yesterday afternoon was a bimbo trying to be a brilliant comic. As she wrapped up the music I found myself fervently praying that the rumors of JFK sleeping with her were just rumors--because if he had in fact slept with her I was going to lose complete respect for him as a man. Correction: if he had slept with THAT, not "her." I think at that point there was no "her" left--she was no longer present. And would he want to sleep with her because he wanted Marilyn Monroe? He couldn't brag about it, for heaven's sake. Looking at her state at that time, why would he want to brag on it? Even worse...why would he be attracted to that? She wasn't just the body to men who met her...she states of Arthur Miller at one point in her career that "he wouldn't have married me if I were nothing but a dumb blonde." (That's not from the book but from an internet source.) It was the toxic combination of body and personality, and from the performance I don't see much personality left.
Maybe JFK was expecting the girl from "How to Marry a Millionaire." I know I was. That's why the change was so shocking. Still, I understand the change.
And in reading "Blonde," I am honing that understanding.