Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blonde” Is the Definitive Study of American Celebrity

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blonde” was conceived on a grand scale, using the legendary Marilyn Monroe as an emblem of twentieth-century America. The novel opens with a breathless prologue, dated August 3, 1962, the day before Monroe’s death, as a teen-age bike messenger speeds at dusk through the L.A. traffic with a special delivery for


He is “Death-in-a-hurry. Death furiously pedaling,” and also Death, the messenger from the Emily Dickinson poem, who kindly stops for the restless person who cannot wait for him. With this hallucinatory passage, Oates pulls us into a book about the fate of a female star in the Hollywood world of mirrors, smog, and shadows, a world where women’s bodies are commodities traded for titillation and profit. In her most ambitious novel, Oates uncannily channels Monroe’s inner voice and demands that the star be given recognition, compassion, and respect.

Oates first had the idea for this book when she saw a photograph of a radiant fifteen-year-old Norma Jeane Baker, not yet looking anything like Marilyn Monroe, winning a beauty contest in California, in 1941, with a crown of artificial flowers on her curly brown hair and a girlish locket around her neck. Oates identified with Norma Jeane’s innocence, as she recalled in an interview with her own biographer, Greg Johnson: “I felt an immediate sense of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes.” Such girls, many of whom she had known growing up in rural upstate New York, had become characters in her short stories and novels, where their dreams usually ended in defeat. Initially, Oates planned to write a novella about the metamorphosis of an ordinary high-school girl into a star, who loses her real name and is given a studio name that will obliterate her history and identity. The book was to have ended with the words “Marilyn Monroe.” But as Oates watched all of Monroe’s movies, learned more about her intelligence and humor, her determination to be seen as a serious actress, and the intersection of her career with multiple strands of mid-twentieth-century American culture—sports, religion, crime, theatre, politics—she realized that she needed a larger fictional form to explore a woman who was much more than a victim.

In 2015, Oates told Nikolas Charles, a journalist from Time magazine, that, as the book evolved and grew over two years of research and writing, she began “half seriously” to think of Monroe “as my Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image about which an epic might be constructed, with myriad levels of meaning and significance.” Building an epic novel around a woman, let alone a celebrity out of popular culture, gossip, and fan magazines, was a bold undertaking, but Oates saw profound aspects to Monroe’s story that made it possible to think of her seriously as a tragic and representative American figure. And, in the words of one reviewer, who did not know Melville had been one of Oates’s models, she succeeded completely: “Blonde is a true mythic blowout, in which Marilyn is everything and nothing—a Great White Whale of significance, standing not for the blind power of nature but for the blind power of artifice.”

The myth of Marilyn Monroe is special because it combines three feminine personae. First, there is Norma Jeane Baker, the wholesome, normal girl with a naïve, vulnerable heart. An illegitimate child growing up in an orphanage and foster homes, she longs for Daddy, family, education, romance, money, and security, and her first memories are of sitting rapt in a dark theatre, the Church of Hollywood, where she goes to worship stars instead of saints.ADVERTISEMENT

The second persona is Marilyn Monroe, the pinup, bombshell, sex symbol, and movie goddess. She is the artificial creation of the Hollywood studio system, with a “sexy murmurous” name and a whispery, babyish voice. Voluptuous and seductive, her natural beauty transformed with braces, peroxide, false eyelashes, bright-red lipstick, tight clothes, and wobbly stiletto heels that make it hard for her to run away, Marilyn is all body. Yet, paradoxically, behind that glittering, glamorous image, Marilyn bears the shame and self-hatred of living in a female body in a misogynist culture: fear of being unclean; disgust with her sexuality; a lifetime of menstrual cramps, gynecological problems, miscarriages, and abortions.

The third persona, the Blonde, is a symbol, the pure and virginal creature of fairy tales and religious parables. In popular culture and advertising, she stands for the upper-class, tidy, and stainless existence that Oates calls a “blond life.” You don’t have to be born blond. Blondness is attainable, but it can’t guarantee a flawless life. Desired and worshipped as an ideal image of white beauty and class, the Blonde is nonetheless despised and defiled as a whore in pornography and fantasy.

Oates found herself obsessed by the intricate riddle of Marilyn Monroe. “Blonde” expanded to be her longest novel, and, indeed, the original manuscript is almost twice as long as the published book. As Oates writes on the copyright page, “Blonde” is not a biography of Monroe, or even a biographical novel that follows the historical facts of the subject’s life. Indeed, Monroe’s dozens of biographers have disagreed about many of the basic facts of her life. “Blonde” is a work of fiction and imagination, and Oates plays with, rearranges, and invents the details of Monroe’s life in order to achieve a deeper poetic and spiritual truth. She condenses and conflates events in a process she calls “distillation,” so that, in place of numerous foster homes, lovers, medical crises, and screen performances, she “explores only a selected, symbolic few.” At the same time, Oates develops and deepens background themes inherent in Monroe’s story, including the growth of Los Angeles, the history of film, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunt for Communists in the film industry, and the blacklist. Each of these story lines could be a novel in itself, but, like the chapters on cetology and whaling in “Moby-Dick,” they heighten the epic quality of the novel.

Of the hundreds of characters who appear in the book, some are identified by their real names, including Whitey, the makeup artist who created and maintained Monroe’s iconic look, although the name also ironically suggests the white-skinned, platinum-haired doll he crafted. Others, including two gay sons of Hollywood, Cass Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, Jr., are invented. Monroe’s famous husbands are given allegorical names—The Ex-Athlete and The Playwright—and are fictional characters rather than portraits of Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Similarly, fragments of poems by Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and George Herbert appear along with bits of poetry attributed to Norma Jeane, which Oates composed herself.

Two major themes help to structure the vast sweep of narrative detail. The first is acting, as a metaphor, profession, and vocation. Oates quotes from classic handbooks of acting by Konstantin Stanislavsky and his disciple Michael Chekhov, who was a nephew of the playwright. (Monroe was photographed studying Chekhov’s book “To the Actor.”) Among the epigraphs is a passage from “The Actor’s Freedom,” by Michael Goldman: “The acting area is a sacred space . . . where the actor cannot die.” (Goldman is a drama theorist and scholar, and Oates dedicated “Blonde” to him and his wife, the novelist and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein.) Oates also quotes works on acting that she has invented, allowing her to emphasize the differences between the individual dedication demanded by theatre, an art to which Monroe aspired, and the collective process of film, where the director, editor, costume designer, and cameraman are co-creators. Monroe tries to bring the intensity of stage performance to the more technical medium of the screen.

Oates also drew on the literary traditions of the fairy tale and the Gothic novel. In a 1997 essay on fairy tales, she notes their limited view of female ambition and the way they promote simplistic wish fulfillment. Competition between women is inherent in many of the plots: “In the great majority of the tales, to be a heroine . . . requires extreme youth and extreme physical beauty; it would not be sufficient to be merely beautiful, one must be ‘the greatest beauty in the kingdom’—‘the fairest in the land.’ ” But these tales also offer “an incalculably rich storehouse of . . . images, a vast Sargasso Sea of the imagination.”

The Hollywood version of that fairy tale is the romance of the Fair Princess and the handsome Dark Prince, the plot of the first movie Norma Jeane ever sees, and the recurring fantasy of her life. Her first agent, I. E. Shinn, tells her that to be a star means to compete: “There must be a Fair Princess exalted above the rest.” The dark side of the successful Fair Princess is the excluded Beggar Maiden, the outsider trying hopelessly to break in. Moreover, in the Gothic version of the fairy tale, the Dark Prince is a powerful male who imprisons the princess in a haunted castle. The Studio stands for this macabre space, as Norma Jeane works her way up through a system run by ruthless, predatory men she must pacify, satisfy, and serve. Being “groomed for ‘stardom,’ ” Oates writes, is “a species of animal manufacture, like breeding.” At its lower levels, The Studio is staffed by employees who look like fairy-tale gargoyles and trolls. I. E. Shinn is Rumpelstiltskin, compared to “the ugly little dwarf man who taught the Miller’s daughter to spin gold out of straw.” Beyond the walls of The Studio are The Magi: gossip columnists, writers for fan magazines, and the tabloids. They are quasi-religious figures of the Church of Hollywood, but, also, like the evil witches of fairy tales, they are “there at the birth of the star and . . . there at the death.”

These themes come together in a chapter called “Hummingbird,” narrated as Norma Jeane’s diary of September, 1947, when she is twenty-one and heading to her first movie audition at The Studio. She is the only girl in her acting class invited to audition, and to meet the producer Mr. Z, and she thinks it’s because her talent has been recognized. She has also been invited to Mr. Z’s famous aviary, which she believes is a collection of beautiful tropical birds; but, when she goes into the room, she sees instead a collection of dead stuffed birds in a glass case. “All dead birds are female,”she thinks; “there is something female about being dead.” Mr. Z quickly takes her into the private apartment behind his office, where he orders her to get down on a white fur rug and brutally rapes her. Norma Jeane tries to justify what has happened: “He was not a cruel man I believe but one accustomed to getting his way of course & surrounded by ‘little people’ there must be the temptation to be cruel when you are surrounded by such & they cringe . . . before you in terror of your whim.”

Humiliated and in pain, she gets up to go to her audition. But the rape was the audition, and she gets the part. What’s left is for them to give her a new name. The chapter ends with her ecstatic, terrible declaration of rebirth: “My new life! My new life has begun! Today it began! . . . It’s only now beginning, I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE.”

When “Blonde” was published, in 2000, it was nominated for literary prizes and widely reviewed as Oates’s masterwork. But it was also called lurid, eccentric, and fierce. Darryl F. Zanuck, the model for Mr. Z, had been called a cynical sexual predator—but that was just rumor. Readers of “Blonde” today, however, will recognize in that hellish rape scene a script from the casting couch of Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood moguls, whose years of molestation, harassment, abuse, and sexual assault of aspiring actresses were brought to light in 2017, when accusers came forward to create the #MeToo movement.

We know from the first sentences of the novel, and also all the books and movies that have been made about her, that Marilyn Monroe’s story ended with her death, at the age of thirty-six, a death that has become part of her legend. “Blonde,” too, has been written about and adapted for the screen. Just a few years ago, it could still be read as sensationalizing the story of Monroe. Now it must be seen as a passionate and prophetic defense. (Copied from the New Yorker)

This excerpt is drawn from the twentieth-anniversary edition of “Blonde,” by Joyce Carol Oates, which is out in April from Ecco.

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English and American literature at Princeton University.

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