I have to be honest, I never got the cult of Marilyn, even with an aunt whose sloe eyes and platinum hair invited a comparison she doubled down on by naming my cousin after Monroe. I’ve seen quite a few of her performances, and wasn’t unimpressed – you have to be pretty clever to play dumb convincingly, and even in her low-watt-bulb roles Marilyn never seemed dumb, just sort of airily unconcerned with whether she seemed smart or not. I’ve seen Niagara, I’ve seen Some Like it Hot, I’ve seen The Seven Year Itch; she’s been good if not great in all of them. (Edited to italicize movie titles, but had to add that she was amazing as the low watt bulb that exasperates Addison DeWitt in All About Eve: “but his name could be Butler?” “You have a point, my dear. An idiotic one, but a point”) But the idea of her being some eternal vision of Hollywood glamour and sexiness was just sort of beyond me. Not Ann Veal levels of “HER?” I could get why she was a bombshell. I just didn’t get why she was THE bombshell, the one that endured after dying young, when there were plenty of other candidates to fill the role. As Oates herself says in the book, there’s always a blonde.
Oates makes a compelling case for Monroe’s legend as much by filling in why she was eternal, as much by explaining it as by leaving it a mystery. She describes Monroe’s charm as being attributable to her desire to be loved and cared for in the absence of a father and the presence of a mentally ill mother, being bounced around from an orphanage to a foster home to a marriage to the less than tender men who followed. She shows the balance of naivete from a woman too trusting that others had her best interest at heart to an aspiring intellectual who studied her craft and learned on her own even if she left school to marry at sixteen. She explains it all, but ultimately, Oates makes that all set dressing to the real reason: Monroe had SOMETHING about her that made you love her, even if the people close enough to her couldn’t, at least not the way she needed. Trying to define it is like taking a picture of a black hole – you’re not showing it, you’re showing what’s around it – you can only describe Monroe’s appeal in calculus curves, approaching the limit without ever reaching it.
The book benefits by playing a bit loose with history, fictionalizing Monroe’s life to get to the greater truth of who she is. But really, how else could you?