What Becomes a Legend

Developing side by side in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, biography and the novel made private lives public. Abiding interest in the unsolved mystery of personality has kept both these long-winded genres popular--and especially so since the culture of celebrity began to blur the distinctions between them. Today, the life stories of prominent people, played out in the media, are followed with suspense, as serialized fictions used to be. Presidents turn up as characters in novels (Joyce Carol Oates's Blonde, for example); one biographer turned himself--chronologically altered--into a character in a presidential life story. To both novelists and biographers, the facts about well-known people can seem less telling than the well-known fictions. The real people whose lives interest us most are the ones we describe as legendary. And the most compelling legends, as publishers have known since Richardson's Pamela in 1740, are those that bare the inner lives of beautiful women.

Two genre-bending recent books, Frances Kiernan's biography of Mary McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates's novel based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, confront all this head on. Both consider the ways their celebrity subjects were implicated in their own images--and in stereotypes, images, fictions of Woman more generally. Kiernan's inno-vative biographical technique suggests that the stories Mary McCarthy made up out of her own life, and what her friends wrote and said about her, partly created her character and destiny. Oates's historical fiction explores the processes by which the Hollywood dream factory made Norma Jeane Baker, altered her into Marilyn Monroe, and then unmade her.

Alliteration aside, Marilyn Monroe and Mary McCarthy have, on the face of it, little in common; they might even be seen as opposing archetypes of Woman. The actress lived out her brief span during the writer's long lifetime, and the careers and celebrity of both were inflected by the Cold War obsession with secrets and lies. But the sex goddess and the darling of a highbrow coterie were and remain worlds apart, except in one respect: On the screen or on the page, both of them seemed to be teasingly performing a sexy, dubiously sincere self. Both seemed to invite an audience to know them, and to elude being really known. Each successfully put her distinctive imprint on an accepted idea of Woman--the easy sexy blonde, the dangerous sparkling wit--but these conventions, in turn, informed the lives they lived. In order to consider their stories as compounds of fact and fiction, the biographer and the novelist have devised provocative, very different, equally original literary strategies.


Blonde takes up Marilyn Monroe as if a novelist had a perfect right to her, playing riffs on a tune the reader is presumed to know. For Joyce Carol Oates, the true, fantastic, much-recycled history of how Norma Jeane Baker, fatherless child, became a beauty, a star, an icon, a myth, and a tragic victim is the pretext for a Great American Factual Fiction. Like the fin-de-siècle work of Roth and Doctorow, Updike and DeLillo, this novel indicts a culture that manufactures fantasies and nourishes greed, conspiracies, and violence. Oates's is a feminist vision: She develops the theme of her brief last novel, Black Water, which, in its fictional retelling of the drowning at Chappaquidick, explored another notorious collision of the personal and the political, another fatal attraction of a father-hungry woman to a powerful man. (Neither the Senator of the earlier novel nor the President of this one is explicitly named Kennedy.) In Blonde the force of the victim-heroine's tragedy once again depends on the reader's foreknowledge of her fate. Far more insistently than in, say, George Eliot, who turned the phrase, it is clear to the reader--who has after all read the sad story before--that "Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae in her hands." And once again, the storied truth, agonizingly replayed in close-ups, hurts a little too much.

The first two sections of Blonde ("The Child 1932-1938" and "The Girl 1942-1947") are rough and bruising going. In morbid, utterly persuasive repellent detail, Oates renders the pathetic and banal anguish of the bewildered little girl, the seedy distracted adults who abuse her, the arid end-of-the-world atmosphere of the underside of Hollywood and environs. Things don't ever exactly lighten up, but the doom and gloom and terrible irony are shot through with many brilliant flashes and some witty ones after Norma Jeane is rid of her first husband, a part-time embalmer (who makes her up, for sexual fun, with the tools of his trade). Joyce Carol Oates has said that a snapshot of the seventeenyear-old not-yet-blond Norma Jeane Baker, smiling too hard, inspired her to write what was to be a short book about the transformation of that girl into Marilyn Monroe. She was right to go on.

Blonde, as she continues, becomes exhilaratingly high-handed in its deployment of truth and fantasy, shrewd in its analysis of how the relation of life and the movies--as Mary McCarthy once said about life and literature--is "one of mutual plagiarism." Oates's cinematic takes, her scenes in theaters and studios, all insist that the generic informs the individual. The Blond Actress and the Dark Prince--movie myths--invade and eventually overwhelm poor, real physical Norma Jeane with her awfully painful menstrual cramps; so do those almost as mythic historical characters, the Ex-Athlete and the Playwright, as Oates calls Marilyn Monroe's celebrity husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller.

Naming names was an issue in the '50s (the Playwright's tussle with Senator Joe McCarthy figures here), and the theme is underscored by the ways the novelist names, giving pseudonyms to some famous people in Monroe's life (like Lee Strasberg) and simple letters ("Z," for instance) to others. Taking a novelist's privilege, Oates also collapses well-known incidents and leaves out whole hunks of Marilyn's story (for instance, her important psychoanalysts). A flimsy rumor most of us hadn't heard is the basis for the boldest stroke in this nonbiography: giving Norma Jeane a kinky sex life with a pair of bisexual lovers named Charles Chaplin, Jr., and Edward G. Robinson, Jr., sons of their famous fathers. And, of course, Oates occupies every cranny of her subject's imagined inner life.

The resulting vision of a needy, bewildered, very occasionally shrewd and funny Marilyn Monroe, and the brutal and greedy America that made and destroyed her, is smart, inventive, provocative, and often persuasive. And astonishingly, in spite of the ominous foreshadowing and all the gossip we've already heard, the plot works. You come away from Blonde a little overexcited and sick, a little guilty and also a little pleased by a story that thoroughly explains the real Marilyn, whose beginning and end is the doomed quest for an absent father.


The jackets of both these fat juicy books suggest the similar games they play with appearance and reality, pose and point of view, self and other, subject and object. Gleaming out from the movie-theater darkness on the dust jacket of Blonde, in silvery negative, are the head and shoulders of, indisputably, Marilyn Monroe--identifiable even in outline, even from the back. Turn the book over to see the attractive face of the not-blond novelist. Less theatrically, the title of Frances Kiernan's biography Seeing Mary Plain puns on the book's cover snapshot of Mary McCarthy in freckles and seersucker while alluding to its epigraph, a line from Robert Browning, "And did you once see Shelley plain?" (Kiernan caught a glimpse of McCarthy once in the ladies' room at The New Yorker.) On the back cover, a sexy rear view of Mary in the pose of the Rokeby Venus belies the suggestion that she might really have been plain.

Kiernan implies, a little disingenuously, that she is in no better position to explain what made Mary McCarthy tick than the man who astonished Browning by having actually seen the poet Shelley. Looking back, as Browning did, to a literary figure of a generation before, she assembles a variety of accounts of her subject and cuts windows into her own narrative with quotations from her sources, in boldface. Often they are contradictory. One person, for instance, describes an apartment Mary McCarthy shared with her second husband, Bowden Broadwater, as "decorated exquisitely" and elaborates: "Black and white and gray was the scheme." About the very same apartment Jason Epstein is quoted as saying it "had those dark green walls that everybody had in those days, and ivory enamel trim." Memory plays strange tricks, so how can you trust a biographer? Precisely because she knows and shows how unreliable sources are, you do--lightly, provisionally--trust this one.

Even if you never heard of Jason Epstein or Edmund Wilson or Partisan Review, there is a novel-like allure to seeing McCarthy from multiple angles, and to her story. McCarthy transformed it into legend herself: In the 1950s, sharp ambitious girls were thrilled and encouraged by the story of how the dashing Mary McCarthy managed to have it all: various and brilliant lovers and husbands, dazzling publications, a child even, and the best of every battle of wits. The most familiar chapters of the life--the orphaned childhood, the Catholic girlhood, the assumption of WASP entitlement at Vassar, the hard-drinking, free-loving bohemian life in New York--still make a good story. So do the travels and further adventures--the handsome fourth husband, the apartment in Paris, the good clothes and elaborate parties and two courses, always, at lunch. An earlier biographer wrote of McCarthy that she lived in relations more than most people do: Sometimes she seems to have lived only in them, becoming a Trotskyite, for instance, because she heard a friend speak well of Trotsky. Her friends were very important to her, and--surely not accidentally--they included her most influential contemporaries.


Kiernan's technique illuminates not only Mary but also the people around her. Self-centered Diana Trilling, for example, asserts that her husband Lionel of course disliked the sort of woman who would ignore his wife; Isaiah Berlin, amidst the dozens who remember McCarthy's beauty, recalls her wearing open-toe shoes and looking like a prostitute. The celebrated McCarthy scorn--"Torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile," Randall Jarrell wrote immortally about a version of her that he put in a novel--inspired others to put her down. It is amusing to find Alfred Kazin using the same word Jarrell used about her, writing that "she leaped with cries of pleasure" at people's weaknesses, "surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity." Mary McCarthy ran in quotable circles. "She was highly competitive," Eleanor Clark says. "When I was doing The Oysters of Locmariaquer ... I said to somebody, 'Don't tell Mary, she'll do a book on clams.'" Her friends and enemies are often both at once. Elizabeth Hardwick, who published a mean, funny send-up of McCarthy's 1963 best-seller The Group, tirelessly sat with her while she died. With such fluent acquaintances and a long lifetime of writing her life, a subject hardly needs a biographer. Kiernan's decision to avoid synthesizing what people said about her subject leaves McCarthy as complicated as she was and lends, as well, a pleasant breeziness to this book. It is not a technique every biographer can borrow, but Mary McCarthy is a perfect subject for a study that sees a person in the context, as a function, of other people's views of her.

The big question about Mary McCarthy is the one that has been asked about women who mock men since at least the early eighteenth century: Did she have a heart? Was she, as Norman Mailer put it, "simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel"? Did she, in more reasonable terms, have emotional and intellectual depth? Or was she merely clever and charming, an attractive, superficial, fluently social person with a gift for making the right friends and phrases? Is her fight with Lillian Hellman, provoked by a barb McCarthy delivered on a talk show, the thing she will finally be remembered for? Will anything she wrote be read years from now? (In the last paragraph of Seeing Mary Plain, Alison Lurie, fronting for Kiernan, votes for Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and early stories like "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt." I agree and would add some of her critical essays, especially the brilliant analysis of Nabokov's Pale Fire.) How much does it matter that Mary McCarthy, in the end, was bour-geois and self-important? That she had been a snob and an anti-Semite all along?

McCarthy's well-intentioned but arrogant and foolhardy trip to Hanoi, as a guest of the North Vietnamese government in the middle of the Vietnam War, raises questions about her political savvy. And concerning an earlier adventure in Florence, it is interesting to read Bernard Berenson's reflection that she felt so little about the art he showed her, yet nevertheless wrote about it so well. Was he merely resentful, like the other men she didn't sleep with? Can we trust his sense of what she really felt? The strength of Kiernan's biography is that it raises all these questions and doesn't give answers. Her account of a rich, entertaining, productive life--much like Oates's wildly different story--exposes how the life of a Fascinating Woman gets constructed. But it leaves you also wondering--as Mary McCarthy wondered in a speech she made in old age--what really matters about any life. ¤