Norma Jeane, named for films stars Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow, is born on June 1, 1926. Her unwed mother, Gladys Pearl (Monroe) Mortenson, works at The Studio. Unable to take care of her child, Gladys leaves her daughter with her own mother, Della Monroe. Grandmother Della is an alcoholic and abuses drugs, but she takes care of Norma Jeane the best she can. Gladys becomes ill from handling toxic chemicals at work. Mentally unstable, she is hospitalized in 1934, when Norma Jeane is eight years old. Also in 1934, Grandmother Della dies, forcing Norma Jeane to enter an orphans’ home. In 1942, she is placed with foster parents Elsie and Warren Pirig in Los Angeles.
The Pirigs enroll Norma Jeane in Van Nuys High School, but she drops out of school during her sophomore year. When she is sixteen years old, she is encouraged by her foster parents to marry Bucky Glazer, a twenty-one-year-old high school graduate and local sports star. As World War II rages, Bucky joins the U.S. Merchant Marine and sets sail on The Liberty. Norma Jeane begins working at Radio Plane Aircraft.
In 1944, a U.S. military magazine photographer named Otto Öse takes photographs of Norma Jeane, marking the start of her career as a pinup model. Her photos are seen in Stars & Stripes, Pageant, and other publications. In 1945, she is named Miss Aluminum Products. She then establishes herself as a model and starts auditioning for film roles.
At the age of twenty-one, Norma Jeane gets her first part in a film. Early on, men take advantage of her beauty for profit. They even give her a new name—Marilyn Monroe. At about this time, Cass Chaplin, the son of actor-comedian Charles Chaplin, begins a romantic relationship with Monroe, also becoming her confidante. However, Cass is also the lover of Eddy G. The three are close-knit and begin calling themselves the Gemini. Monroe becomes pregnant but is not sure who the father is. She has an abortion rather than give up her career. Though Monroe leaves the “trio,” Cass remains her friend, and he even ghost writes letters to her, from her father, to make her happy.
Although Monroe has only minor roles initially, she steals scenes in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve in 1950. Her first lead roles were in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, both released in 1953. Comedies Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like It Hot (1959) are huge hits as well.
Monroe attracts the press, fans, and romantic interests, such as the Ex-Athlete (Joe DiMaggio). They marry in 1954, but because of her work schedule and his travel, the marriage does not last beyond one year. The Ex-Athlete is extremely jealous; he hires private security to watch her every move, even after the divorce. As her relationships unravel, it also gets harder for Monroe to look fresh and flawless. Her perfectionism on set causes her reputation to suffer. She takes pills to relax. She is late for filming, wrecking schedules and filming budgets.
The Studio has made millions from Monroe’s talents while paying her a low salary. She finally gets a better contract. She studies with the Actors Studio in New York City and meets the Playwright (Arthur Miller). The Playwright, who is older than Monroe and is well established, leaves his wife to marry Monroe. They do not have children, in part because of Monroe’s earlier abortions. (She also has a miscarriage.) Monroe and the Playwright divorce five years later. Monroe’s last film, The Misfits (1961), had been written...
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by the Playwright.
On August 5, 1962, Monroe is found dead in her bed at home, alone. It is not known how she died, but many speculate that she died either after overdosing on drugs or after having some sort of accident.
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Presents analysis of selected significant works by Oates, with a focus on her philosophical and cultural worldviews. A valuable addition to studies of Oates’s work.
Johnson, Greg, ed. Joyce Carol Oates: Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 2006. A collection of previously published interviews with Oates spanning the years 1970 to 2006. Topics covered include the author’s thoughts on the art of fiction, her “lighter” side, and Marilyn Monroe, the subject of Blonde. Includes a brief chronology of Oates’s life.
Oates, Joyce Carol. The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982. Edited by Greg Johnson. New York: Ecco Press, 2007. A wide-ranging collection of thoughtful, reflective entries traces Oates’s life through her move to Princeton University. Oates discusses the joys and frustrations of writing. Provides a record of her productivity as a writer as well as insight into her philosophical explorations and her views of the human condition.
Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A collection of twenty-eight reviews and essays that include discussions of particular works as well as analyses of Oates’s general themes and stylistic considerations. Predates Blonde, but remains helpful for understanding Oates’s literary style.
Wesley, Marilyn. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. This feminist analysis focuses on the family as portrayed in Oates’s fiction, before Blonde but relevant to this later novel. Contends that the young protagonists of many of Oates’s stories and novels commit acts of transgression that serve as critiques of the American family.
York, R. A. The Extension of Life: Fiction and History in the American Novel. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. York examines the “complementary tendencies” in the fiction of American writers, including Oates, to document history while balancing creativity, to be true to facts while maintaining “self-conscious fabulation.” Also examines works by Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Toni Morrison, Jane Smiley, Barbara Kingsolver, and others.