Taschen has published an expensive"art edition" re-issue the long out of print controversial Norman Mailer biography of Marylin Monroe, 1973's Marylin. It will, I think, make available what is one of the most underrated of Mailer's books. The book was controversial indeed when first published in 1973; charges of plagiarism and an attendant lawsuit from the authors of biographies used in his research put a pall over Mailer's interpretative accomplishment, and feminists and progressives were particularly at arms by the fact that Norman Mailer, of all people, had written anything at length about Monroe. Mailer had, shall we say, a problematic relationship with women, personally and philosophically, during his public life, and it was easy enough to accuse the late author of indulging in a kind of literary onanism, projecting his ego on the public perception of Monroe, the actress and superstar, and inflicting those results on to us? I think it took courage on Mailer's part who, fully aware of his infamy regarding women's rights, birth control and his insistence on a cult of masculinity, to take on the subject of Monroe anyway (even, as Mailer has admitted, for the money) and to investigate his own conflicted perceptions of Monroe. Mailer is an arch romantic, and allows his prose to soar and swerve and swoop from great heights in an attempt to capture something about Monroe the cultural force that film criticism, fashion commentary and sociological analysis couldn't get near. This book contains Mailer's Private Marylin Monroe, and at the time it was published it was a florid, beautifully written, occasionally interpretation of the dry facts about Monroe's life and career. Monroe is one of the central icons of 20th century American culture, no less than Elvis or JFK, and one ought not be surprised that dozens of smart writers like Mailer have taken their turns re-imagining, recasting, reinterpreting the life of historic figures. Mailer's interpretative biography, I think, is a well written, occasionally brilliant piece of speculation about the source of Monroe's persona and the effect she had on a generation of male psyches. He does the splendid trick of bold speaking of her as a sexual creature who honed her limited craft into an Art that could not be ignored, the notion that Presence itself sometimes suffices as a legitimate aesthetic gesture, and then qualifying his pronouncements that what he proposes, based on other people's facts, is his conjecture. Monroe's' career as an actress was entirely fascinating. Mailer's public musings on what she meant beyond the films she made is not less intriguing, even now.
A later book Mailer wrote on Monroe was published in 1980, Of Women and their Elegance, which combined Mailer's latest interpretations of the actresses' life along with the photographs of Milton H. Greene. This time eschewed doing further interpretative biographical work and instead composed a fictional portrayal, an imagined first-person narrative Monroe that can be taken by the reader either as readings from a secret journal or a long conversation with an unnamed confidant. It's a short novel, generally unheralded when discussions of Mailer's fiction arise. I think it's a bit of a minor masterpiece. An underappreciated Mailer work, one which, to my mind, debunks the general charge that Mailer couldn't write complex or compelling women characters. The controversies involving Mailer and his feminist critics is likely to remain current for the foreseeable future, but his fictionalized account of Monroe presents the troubled actress--part naif, part fighter, smarter than likely men and women film goers and critics preferred to think--as someone caught between different personalities that constitute the Hollywood snake pit. Mailer allows her a first person narration and creates a voice and personality that attempts to be a serious artist and to do good work and also, please bosses, boyfriends, husbands, friends real and doubtful. The accusation might be put forth that this merely more male fantasy stuff that Mailer was given to composing when he sought to discuss the dynamics or difficulties of men and women relating to each other in a consumer culture --his previous "Marilyn biography, a marvelous and occasionally beautiful tribute to the actress did, at times, veer off into the most purple of prose stretches this side of Cornell Woolrich--but I think here the author allows the actress to address her narrative, in a clearly plain-spoken and sympathetic tone. It's a product of Mailer's imagination, I admit, but it is an intriguing read, a fine short novel.
To that point, let me add that I wish Mailer had written larger number of shorter fictional works. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Tough Guys Don't Dance, An American Dream --these novels are controversial and have been subject to great praise and red-hot scorn, but it's been my feeling that he functioned as a fabulist engaged in outrageous notions when he was pressed for time and wrote feverishly, his language loose, nearly chaotic, brilliantly conveying the fevered spirit of Mailer's best and worst thinking. Of Women is one of those novels that introduces its ideas quickly and explores them vividly, daring to tweak the conventional thinking , willing to be assumed the fool for doing so, and willing as well to have his best writing and his worst ideas exist in in concise firepit of linguistic experimentation and ersatz mysticism.