How Norma Jeane Inspired ‘Blonde’

Norma Jeane visiting her half-sister Berniece (centre) in 1944

With the Netflix adaptation of Blonde now in production, Joyce Carol Oates tells Crime Reads that it was originally conceived on a more modest scale – and while this epic novel has its admirers, others may wish it had stayed that way. (The photo above shows Norma Jeane aged 18. Oates was inspired by a picture of her at 16, but doesn’t say which one. As there aren’t many photos of Norma Jeane at 16 apart from her wedding portraits, I’ve chosen this one as it seems to capture the wholesome quality that first caught Oates’ eye.)

“I saw a very touching photograph of Norma Jeane Baker taken when she was 16—brunette, pretty but not glamorous, very sweet & hopeful—looking—not unlike my mother & girls with whom I went to school many years ago. Girls whose great hope was to be loved—married, & to have children. I felt such sympathy for her, who would be dead in twenty years, as an American ‘icon’—who made millions of dollars for others (men) but not so much for herself. The project began as a short novel, a post-Modernist ironic tragedy that would end with Norma Jeane’s new name: ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ But when I came to this ending, I saw that the great story lay ahead—& reconstituted the material as an epic, with many sub-themes that allowed me to explore obsessions of the era, particularly Cold War politics.”

Marilyn Book News: The Starlet, the Spy and the Blue Book Years

Marilyn and Me, Ji-Min Lee’s novel set in Korea, is now available in the US under a different title: The Starlet and the Spy. As any classic film buff will tell you, a starlet is an aspiring actress and by 1954, Marilyn was a global megastar. However, it’s a worthwhile read. Marilyn’s part in it is actually quite small, as the main character is her (fictitious) translator, a young woman confronting the trauma of war. I struggled to relate to her story – at times, it felt more like an outline for a movie – but it was interesting to revisit the conflict from an insider’s perspective, and Lee writes about Marilyn with care and imagination.

Also coming soon is a paperback reissue of Michelle Morgan’s excellent Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years – and you can read an extract here.

Marilyn Book News: From Korea to Doris Day

Montage by MM Picture Page

Michelle Morgan’s latest, The Little Book of Marilyn, is now available and has been getting rave reviews from fans. It’s packed with well-chosen photos which aren’t often seen in print, plus chapters on why Marilyn continues to inspire, hair and make-up tutorials, fashion tips, and craft ideas.

Another tempting summer read is Ji-Min Lee’s Marilyn and Me, a novel set during Marilyn’s time in Korea. It’s next on my reading list, and hope to review both books at a later date.

Of related interest is Gravité Sur Billy Wilder, Emmanuel Burdeau’s French-language study of (arguably) Marilyn’s greatest director.

Coming in September, John William Law’s Goddess & the Girl Next Door compares Marilyn and that other fifties blonde, Doris Day. It’s a timely publication, arriving so soon after Ms Day’s passing (you can read my tribute to her here.)

And finally (for now), Biographic: Marilyn retells her story in infographics, coming in October from artist and author Katy Greenwood.

‘Blonde’ and the Hollywood Novel

Following reports that Cuban actress Ana de Armas will star in a big-screen adaptation of Blonde, Karina Longworth – author of a new Howard Hughes biography, and podcaster at You Must Remember This – lists Joyce Carol Oates’ epic novel among the best Hollywood-inspired fictions in an article for the Wall Street Journal. While Karina believes Oates’ liberal attitude towards the facts is forgivable, I think there are many better novels based on Marilyn’s life (including Doris Grumbach’s The Missing Person, Adam Braver’s Misfit, and Sean O’Hagan’s Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog.)

“The magic of Joyce Carol Oates’s epic imagining of the life of Norma Jeane Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe) lies not in its realism or accuracy but the quality of its fabrication. All of the characters around the orphan-turned-bombshell feel not like ‘real people’—even though most of them are, or were—but like characters in a novel, each with an inner life as richly drawn as the protagonist’s. The star herself remains an enigma, which feels more true to life than any biography that has tried to psychoanalyze or explain this woman who seemed at best a fragmented puzzle to herself. Ms. Oates heartbreakingly juxtaposes the construction of the Marilyn image with its meaning, evident in a snapshot from the set of The Seven Year Itch: “She’s been squealing and laughing, her mouth aches. . . . Her scalp and her pubis burn from that morning’s peroxide applications. . . . That emptiness. Guaranteed. She’s been scooped out, drained clean, no scar tissue to interfere with your pleasure, and no odor. Especially no odor. The Girl with No Name, the girl with no memory.'”

Marilyn’s Misfits and the ‘Big Bang’

Marilyn and the making of The Misfits are among the many historical touchstones featured in Big Bang, David Bowman’s posthumously published novel of mid-century America, as John Williams reports for the New York Times. (According to Publisher’s Weekly, Bowman – who died in 2012 – also delved into the origins of The Misfits in 1956, when Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow were waiting out their divorces in Nevada. Events which followed the movie – such as Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy in 1962, and Miller’s depiction of her in the 1964 play, After the Fall – are also mentioned.)

“The novel’s central nervous system is formed around American politics — it ends as well as begins with Kennedy’s death, and spends considerable time on the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. But J.F.K., Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Richard Nixon and Ngo Dinh Diem are joined in this story by — among others — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Dr. Benjamin Spock and his wife, Jane, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, J. D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas.

The events recounted in Big Bang include, but are far from limited to: Mailer stabbing his wife, Burroughs shooting his wife, Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, Khrushchev at Disneyland, the director John Huston making The Misfits, Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Nixon playing the piano on The Jack Paar Show, the release of the Ford Edsel, Montgomery Clift nearly dying in a car wreck after leaving a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and, for about the blink of an eye, a young George W. Bush in the car with his mother, Barbara, after she has suffered a miscarriage.”

Italian Novelist Inspired by ‘Hummingbird’ Marilyn

Come Il Volo Di Un Colibri, a novel by Italian author and politician Giovanna Grignaffini, was published in 2016. The title translates as Like The Flight Of A Hummingbird, which is how Marilyn’s acting teacher, Constance Collier, described her elusive presence; and Eve Arnold’s photo of Marilyn on the set of The Misfits graces the cover. The novel – currently only available in Italian – is set in a house in the woods, where five people come together to discuss Marilyn’s mythic life.  Lea Melandri reviewed it for Il Manifesto.

“To remain there, forever hanging on those walls and mirrors, copied and glued to all those books, paintings, backpacks, ‘it took genius,’ is the conclusion of the author: ‘pure feminine genius.’ If Marilyn had had the doubt of being ‘just a fantasy’ – I guess I am a fantasy – the novel of a singular essayist of cinema and writer like Giovanna Grignaffini, who for years has studied and loved her through her films, it returns it to the collective memory, ‘finally’ as the whole body of a woman: inseparable life and cinema.”

Thanks to Marilyn Monroe: Italia

Korean Writer Inspired by Marilyn

A new novel loosely based on Marilyn’s 1954 trip to Korea will be published by Harper-Collins imprint 4th Estate in Spring 2019, reports The Bookseller. Penned by Korean author and screenwriter Ji-min Lee, Marilyn & Me imagines a friendship between Marilyn and a Korean translator. While the premise is probably fictitious (as far as I know, Marilyn didn’t require a translator during her tour of US army bases), it’s a fascinating part of her life and a Korean woman’s perspective on those events should be intriguing.

“Set in 1954, in the aftermath of the Korean war, Marilyn & Me unfolds over the course of four days, when Marilyn Monroe took time out from her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, performing for the US soldiers stationed there. Her translator is Alice, a typist on the US base – where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes she is. As these two women form an unlikely friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the war emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to forget.

Helen Garnons-Williams, publishing director at the HarperCollins imprint, described Marilyn & Me as ‘a compelling and surprising story of damage and survival, grief and unexpected solace.’

‘Alice, raw and wry and wearing her grief like armour, is a wonderful character, and her experiences offer a fascinating – and timely – insight into an extraordinary time and place. We are thrilled to be publishing this darkly beautiful novel.'”

Book News: ‘Marilyn My Marilyn,’ and More

Marilyn, My Marilyn, a novel by Art Johnson, has just been published in paperback and via Kindle. The eye-catching cover shows Marilyn backstage in 1956. Here’s a brief synopsis:

“It’s the summer of ’62, and twenty-five-year-old journalist Rory Long receives a phone call at quitting time: it’s Marilyn Monroe. She wants to personally compliment him on a review he wrote of the new collected works of poet Carl Sandburg. She then enlists the cub reporter to tell her story; she doesn’t want to be remembered as a joke. When they meet, Rory is captivated by her knowledge of classical music, art and literature. As their relationship intensifies, Rory experiences a coming-of-age inspired by this side of Marilyn few know, and at the same time, Marilyn is influenced by Rory to begin reassessing her own life …”

And coming in August, Marilyn in Manhattan is a novel by French author Philippe Ward, published in English for the first time. (It shares its title with Elizabeth Winder’s 2017 non-fiction book, as well as a 1996 documentary.)

“Kristin Arroyo is a former Marine who served in Iraq. In the personal effects of her late grandfather – a once famous photographer – she discovers several unpublished photos of Marilyn Monroe. With the help of a friend, she decides to put on an exhibition to honor her grandfather; unfortunately, nothing goes as planned, as a mysterious organization suddenly starts pursuing her, trying to kill her. Kristin comes to realize that her fate is mysteriously tied to the photographs of Marilyn and, if she is to save her life, she must reconstruct the last days of the Hollywood star and solve the mystery surrounding her death – but did Marilyn really die on August 5, 1962?”

Terenci Moix: ‘The Day Marilyn Died’

El día que murió Marilyn (or ‘The Day Marilyn Died’), an award-winning 1969 novel by the Catalan author Terenci Moix, has been reissued in Spanish. Moix, who died in 2003, was fascinated by the iconography of classic Hollywood, and a vocal critic of the Franco regime. An annual prize for LGBT literature has since been established in his name. Here’s the synopsis (via Google Translate…)

“The vital itinerary of the protagonists, two young people who were twenty years old in 1962, develops a kaleidoscope formed by their memories of childhood and adolescence during the fifties and sixties – the cinema, the comics, religious education – confronted with the memory of their parents about the Barcelona of the thirties and the civil war.”

Selected covers from previous editions

Marilyn in the ‘City of Myths’

Martin Turnbull is the author of the ‘Garden of Allah’ series of novels set during Hollywood’s golden age. Previous books have covered the making of such classic films as Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane; historic events from World War II to the Red Scare; and threats to the movie capital from television and gossip rags. Now Marilyn’s conflict with Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck is featured in the just-published eighth instalment, City of Myths. Although his books are fictional, Turnbull has an encylopedic knowledge of Old Hollywood, and City of Myths begins, Marilyn is re-shooting scenes for River of No Return with Jean Negulesco (seen in the above photo), after clashing with director Otto Preminger. City of Myths is available in paperback or via Kindle – and it’s also on offer as part of an Amazon ebook bundle with Turnbull’s other novels.

“When you live in a city built on shifting sands of myth, it can be hard to know which way is up. Kathryn Massey spends her days spreading rumors and keeping secrets. Losing herself one headline at a time has left Kathryn’s personal identity scattered—and dumps her at the narrow end of the bargaining table with the man she trusts the least. Gwendolyn Brick has simpler aspirations. As a costume designer, her sights are set on glamour, not heights of fame. But her friendship with Marilyn Monroe puts her directly into the crosshairs of studio head, Darryl Zanuck—and he’s someone you don’t say no to. Marcus Adler is stuck in a much more precarious situation. Exiled in Rome but under the spell of an unexpected romance, he’ll have to learn to say goodbye to everything he’s accomplished in order to give love a chance. In City of Myths the road through Hollywood bears sharply to the right as those who dare to play its game can easily become lost in its intoxicating glow.”