In The Guardian today, Monroe biographer Anthony Summers – author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1985), and more recently, presenter of the Netflix documentary, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe – has shared his misgivings about Blonde, the upcoming movie based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel (view trailer here.) Summers is right to point to the more outrageous scenarios depicted in Oates’ Blonde (and it seems likely that these episodes will also appear in some form onscreen.) But Goddess is a highly speculative biography, including testimony from widely discredited sources like Robert Slatzer; and its massive success ultimately paved the way for a slew of lesser authors to capitalise on Marilyn’s enduring fame.
“In Oates’ 700-page novel, the lead character is usually named as Norma Jeane, the name Monroe was born with and known by until her movie career took off. Later, she is ‘Marilyn Monroe’. During the second world war, the novel’s Norma Jeane works at Radio Plane, a company doing war work – and the future star did work at such a company. Later, when she finds fame, she marries first ‘the Ex-Athlete’ and then ‘the Playwright’ – transparent references to Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller.
Sexual experiences, mostly miserable ones, dominate Blonde – with an emphasis on the tyranny and treachery of many of her men. Early in the book, Norma Jeane is raped by a Hollywood studio mogul who is allotted the name ‘Mr Z’. The rape scene is graphically written, sparing no detail. ‘Mr Z’ has been interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the founder of Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck. The real-life Monroe recalled ‘casting couch’ sex encounters, but nothing suggests any of them were with Zanuck. In interviews with almost 700 people, I encountered nothing to suggest that any Hollywood producer raped Monroe.
In Oates’ novel, though, the most blatant historical libel targets Monroe’s 1962 involvement with ‘the President’. ‘The President’, from a hugely wealthy Irish-American family, is a clear reference to Kennedy. In the novel, the President asks peremptorily to see Monroe, has sex with her repeatedly, then becomes inaccessible until ‘the summons’ comes again.
In the novel, death comes ‘hurtling toward her’ in the form of a man ‘without passion and without pity’, an assassin. The man does not know whether his mission is ‘to protect the President from the President’s blond whore’ or whether the real purpose is ‘to damage the President for being associated with the blond whore’. Using a key he has been given by a person identified as ‘RF’, the assassin gets into Monroe’s house at night when she is asleep. Then, equipped with a syringe loaded with a fatal dose of a sleeping medication, he ‘[sinks] the six-inch needle to the hilt into her heart’.
Oates’ novel makes it clear that references to ‘the President’ in the book are to Kennedy. Moreover, no one would interpret her reference to ‘RF’ as code for anyone other than ‘RFK’ – the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy.
Why do I call Oates’ ‘fictionalised’ tale of dalliance with the Kennedys ‘historical libel’? Credible information does suggest that Kennedy dallied with Monroe. His brother Robert, research indicates, also had some sort of covert connection to her. There is zero evidence, however, that they or anyone else murdered her. Is it defensible to write and publish this scenario in a novel – not least when the individuals involved are still fresh in the memory? A scenario that could suggest the president’s brother aided and abetted – ordered? – murder?
When Oates’ novel came out, her defence was that, in a work of fiction, she ‘had no particular obligation’ to the facts. In my view, that is not so. The people she named in her novel were real people with real reputations – and historical legacies – and such fictional fabrication is unjustifiably cruel. The fact that the individuals concerned are dead is no defence.
‘The scale of the Monroe myth is impossible to measure,’ Prof Sarah Churchwell has written. More books have been written about the star than about any other entertainer. More than 20 films already offer a fictional version of her life story. Will the coming film be an indulgent wallow in her sex life and in conspiratorial fantasising about her death, or deliver something worthwhile?”