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In 1947, a young, unknown Norma Jeane Baker meets a mysterious man in Los Angeles who transforms her into Marilyn Monroe, the star. Twelve years later he comes back for his repayment, and Marilyn is given her first assignment from the KGB: uncover something about JFK that no one else knows.
But a simple job turns complicated when Marilyn falls in love with the bright young President, and learns of plans to assassinate Kennedy. More than anything, Marilyn wants to escape her Soviet handlers and save her love — and herself. Desperate, ruthless and brilliant, what she does next will leave readers reeling.
From New York Times bestselling author Anna Godbersen comes a whip-smart re-imagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe, set in a world of silver screen glamour and political intrigue. At once a crackling portrayal of Old Hollywood, an intimate portrait of the larger-than-life star, and a cat-and-mouse thriller, The Blonde is history rewritten as it could have — and might have been.
New York, March 1959
THE biggest spectacle in Manhattan, on the eve of Easter Sunday, was at the corner of Forty-fifth and Broadway, where Billy Wilder’s new picture was having its premiere and the press swarmed the sidewalk to document the famous faces emerging from the chandelier-dappled lobby of the Loews State Theater. There were so many onlookers and full-time fans jockeying for position in the street that the police several times had to push them back. The last of the film’s stars to appear was the blonde who’d played Sugar Kane. The temperature had just dropped into the thirties, and she wore a sleeveless, low-cut gown that appeared to have been made out of a thousand silver filaments clinging by some magnetism to every rise and fall of her sure body.
“Here.” Her husband, a step behind her, tried to pull the white fur over her pale shoulders, but she moved away from him, toward the crowd, the red heart of her mouth trembling and swelling before it spread into a broad smile. The camera flashes and the desperate waving of hands became orgiastic, and for a few moments, for anybody lucky enough to look on her, at her naked shoulders and her half-naked breasts wagging against their triangular silver constraints, the whole world was made up of diamonds and palm trees and soft, suggestive kisses.
The crowd convulsed and called her by her first name. Microphones were thrust in her direction. She had been famous a long time by then, and the rabidity of crowds had ceased to frighten or thrill her as before. Their pitch continued to increase, and the likelihood of some kook who meant her harm being out there, amongst the sweet boys who kept her picture under their mattresses, was surely the same as it had ever been. But the idea of harm no longer troubled her. In fact, she went toward it. By now she knew perfectly well that empty rooms could swallow her whole, even after the bright frenzy of a night like this. Anyway, it was too late; she had promised to be this way and was too familiar with the pain of broken promises to betray her public by being anything less.
“Marilyn, did you enjoy the picture?”
Resting a hand on her hip, she moved to face the reporter, a young man with his fedora pushed back on the crown of his head. In the movie, you could make out the curve in her middle and guess that she had been pregnant, and watching it had reminded her that the months she’d spent on set had cost her another one.
“I thought it was Mr. Wilder’s best yet,” she almost whispered, her breath suspended in the cool air between them like a veil. “Did you enjoy the picture?”
Of course she knew he hadn’t seen the picture, and before he could attempt an answer, ten more questions were hurled her way. “What’ll you do now?”
“Well, we all worked very hard, so I expect we’ll go to the party and celebrate and enjoy ourselves a little.”
Another voice, this one more charging than reverent: “Is it true that the studio plans to put a weight clause in your future contracts?”
Marilyn gazed back at the question, and her lids sank slightly to protect her eyes from the cameras’ light. Suddenly her false lashes were too heavy, and she felt her stomach turning over the white chalk she’d had in lieu of dinner. The smile sank and rose again, curling the edges of her lips. “My husband likes me a little plump.” She issued a soft, careless laugh and looked up at Arthur in his bow tie and black-rimmed glasses, who returned her smile enigmatically. He was so tall; for a moment she remembered why she had thought he could give her shelter. The creases of the smile lingered in his healthy, olive skin—the marks of a person so distinguished he was beyond intimidation. “That’s all that matters, really. Don’t you think?”
Another question: “Did you read Mr. Wilder’s comments in Parade this morning?”
“No, I didn’t. Is that a newspaper or something?” She winked and tipped herself forward. “I live in New York now, so I read the New York Times in the morning.”
The flashbulbs had become explosive, atomic. They had no center.
“What do you think of Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Curtis?”
“Oh, they’re cutups, both of them, and Tony especially is such a darling, I could just eat him!”
“All right,” Arthur said, his mouth at her ear. Then he was steering her, and she let him, even as she kept her gloved hand raised and her lashes batted back and her face gently radiating her own girlish femininity, which she had once practiced so assiduously but now had the purity and force of habit. The white moon of her face turned toward the crowd, as though what she really wanted was to shine on them. “Come,” he urged, once he had spotted the limousine the studio had hired, his big, tapered fingers strong and goading. “Come, my dear.”
She loved it when he talked that way. They were still calling her name, and her heart stretched out, and she wanted to show them once more how much she had given. But she loved it when he said my dear, and couldn’t say no. He opened the door for her, and lifted up her glinting train so that it would not get caught. Delicately he arranged it around her satin high-heeled shoes, and he paused a moment so that she could wave again before closing the door and coming around the other side.
They rushed toward her window. Several sets of eyes—human, and the bug-eyed camera kind—stared at her through the glass, and she gazed back from beneath drooping lids and tilted herself forward in offering. They were still taking her picture and she was still gazing back at them when Arthur slammed the door. The limousine was halfway down the block and the sound of her name was beginning to fade before she looked at him.
He was lighting a cigarette and did not meet her eyes. “Sutton Place and Fifty-Seventh,” he said, playing up the Brooklyn in his gravel voice.
It was not the first time the sound of their home address had disappointed her. “But what about the party?”
She’d spoken in the high, childish cadence that once would have made him do anything for her—saying party as though it signified a kind of candy that little girls cannot resist—but now he went on without meeting her eyes. “I’m going up to the country early tomorrow.” He exhaled in the direction of the passing city. “I’m going to work.”
In the silence that followed, the crowds and the noise began to seem abstract, like something she’d read about once long ago, or a story she told when she was on the couch, and she felt the supple self she had been presenting for the last several hours begin to frost over.
“If you want to go, I won’t stop you,” he went on without turning his head. “But I don’t have the patience tonight.”
“The patience for what?”
The flat, judgmental faces of New York’s buildings passed by, and Arthur said nothing.
“The patience for what?” Now she was almost shrieking, even though it would worsen his silence. They both thought how it wasn’t the voice of the woman he’d meant to marry. How it was the voice of some other creature, bent on making the party, and everything else, a special hell. How she would send him off to mix just the right amount of scotch and soda in a champagne glass so everyone would think she was drinking bubbly. How her pulse would quicken in his absence and her whole body would seek the most admiring male gaze. How she would purr at Billy and Jack and Tony and say flattering things to their wives and then, later, rage about how they’d trashed her in the press, the nasty, unkind things they’d said to put her down, keep her in her place, justify paying her too little, and on and on. The fury she’d set loose, and the unquiet night to follow.
“Who needs the party?” Her voice was weightless again, a very fine imitation of unself-conscious delight.
Arthur said nothing.
“Maybe I’ll come with you, to the country. The dogs would like it, wouldn’t they? I’ll bake you bread while you write, and maybe a berry pie. It will be just like when we were first married, the night it rained so hard? I made you a pie and we drank bourbon and played cards and you knew how much I loved you.” She smiled at the back of his head. But he didn’t turn around, so she swung in the other direction and gave it to the passing street. The pale mask of her face was reflected in the window, not quite as vivid as the red on her mouth. “I have so much reading to catch up on anyway,” she went on, although now she was speaking more slowly, as one does when they have begun to employ the future impossible. “And it would be so nice to see the Diebolds’ children.”
The night was silent, and so was Arthur, as their limousine glided along Fifty-Seventh Street past the Art Students League, where the bearded young man she’d gone down on in the bathroom of the Subway Inn last week had said he was taking figure-drawing classes, and past the diner where she sometimes liked to have a BLT alone in her black wig and pretend she was just another rich housewife wasting away the afternoon. The headlights of the passing cars were big as squid’s eyes, and just as seemingly innocuous. She told herself they were not squid’s eyes. They were celestial orbs; they were bioluminescent eggs; they were jewels sent from another planet to honor her otherworldly beauty; they were symbols of fertility; everything was going to be all right.
Everything is going to be all right, she thought as they went through the lobby, and she actually believed it until they were in the elevator, and she saw him press the button for the floor with his long index finger—the one he pressed against his temple when he was thinking about things she couldn’t understand, the one he pointed at her when he was angry. The button said 13, and she shuddered, remembering how they’d fought over that one. He’d said it was a silly superstition, and she hadn’t wanted him to think her silly, and let him win. The apartment was affordable, he’d insisted, the bookshelves already built in. Of course he didn’t know, and how could he, how vigilant she was, how carefully she read the signs, how assiduously she avoided bad omens of any kind. Now the elevator was lifting her, slowly, to the unlucky apartment where she should have known everything would go wrong.
Arthur said nothing as he crossed the white carpeted living room and put Billie Holiday on the record player. The fragile music filled the room, and Marilyn lingered at the large entryway mirror while the door drifted closed behind them. She had hung it there—why? For this, she supposed. To see her mystery faded, her face slack with disappointment, with the sheer effort of buoying herself up, while all the while her hair remained set, a helmet of floss. Perhaps the things they said about her were true. She was crazy and unreliable and couldn’t remember lines. She would never make another picture, for who would want to work with her? But this was the kind of thinking she could not allow, and with a brightening of the eyes she let her fur slip off her shoulders and went swiveling and tiptoeing across the floor to the chair where Arthur sat, smoking his pipe by a lamp, one long leg crossed over the other, his focus on the book spread open in his lap.
“Poppy?” she said as she sank down beside him. A strap slid down her shoulder; the dress strove to contain her breasts.
Arthur said nothing.
“Poppy, take me with you to the country, why don’t you? I’ll be a good little wife.”
Not looking up: “I’m going there to work.”
“But I won’t make a sound. I’ll darn your socks and bring you tea. Just don’t leave me here alone. Please?”
The passage of Arthur’s gaze from the pages of his book took an era—whole species came and went in the time it took him to look at her—and by then she no longer wanted to go to the country with him. She wanted to tell him: One phone call, Joe DiMaggio will be over to knock your teeth out, but she had used that line before, and Arthur had only laughed and left the room. His eyes were weary, and they barely blinked as they stared into hers. His nostrils were hatefully wide, and the sigh that came through them was violent with unsaid things.
“If you come to the country you’ll miss your appointments with Dr. Kurtz …” Each word issued from his thick lips was a pretense of patience. “No, I think you had better stay here and let me get a little work done. It will go quickly, you won’t even miss me. You have so many friends.”
As he stared at her she blinked and blinked. Like a fish, her lips parted and closed, parted and closed. Her shoulders were so heavy and her feet so pinched and red and her heart felt waterlogged and ill-used. She knew what he was thinking. He thought of her the way Wilder did, as a bitch and a child, a destroyer of other people’s plans. This was not paranoia (as Dr. Kurtz might carefully have suggested); she had read his diary, those many lines of eloquent disappointment.
“Oh, never mind,” she said hatefully. She tore off the dress and left it in a heap on the carpet as she proceeded to the far side of the apartment.
When she was single and suffering sleeplessness, she’d at least had the consolation of the telephone. She’d get a man on the line (any lover or friend would do), provoke him to say reassuring things. Using a soft, halting voice, asking simple and naïve questions, usually did the trick. How big was the universe, and where did it end? How had he made his first fortune, and what was the weather like where he was calling from, and did he think everything might still turn out all right? She was soothed by the sound of their confident pronouncements, which perhaps they really did believe, and after a while her eyes might close and her thoughts grow quiet.
But she wasn’t single, and she knew she’d just be crazy and wide-awake as long as she stayed in the apartment with Arthur. She was careening through the rooms, her mind lit up with some heady combination of emotion and pills wearing off and a sweating need for a stiff drink. An old slip going over her naked body, and a navy fisherman’s sweater over that, and then the London Fog jacket she’d bought when she first moved east after divorcing Joe. She took Arthur’s hat from the hook by the door and put it over her hair. Ha, she thought when she glanced in the mirror, I’m Sam Spade.
“Fuck you,” she shouted at the living room as she went through the front door and put all her energy into jamming her finger against the elevator button, hoping he’d come after her, and hoping he wouldn’t. In her mind: fuck you fuck you fuck you.
The cool, quiet air did nothing for her anger, and she walked several blocks without thinking of direction or registering any faces. She thought about how ugly New York was, how California would be better. They had already discussed it—a trial separation—and Arthur had tried to pass the arrangement off as her idea. Maybe she really would go now, see how he liked it, how he did without having her body when he wanted it. Perhaps if she’d had a father, she thought, he would have warned her not to fall for creeps, and she wouldn’t find herself so often alone, on some street late at night.
She turned off an avenue and saw, through a canyon of apartment buildings, the lights of a barge on the water. Then she heard the voice, and wondered if she were hallucinating.
“N.J.” The voice was quiet, almost disembodied.
“What are you, CIA? FBI? Isn’t it enough you tap my phones?” She took three swift steps backward from the building’s shadows, not wanting to catch the stems of her heels in the gaps of the sidewalk. She couldn’t remember now if it had originally been Arthur’s paranoia or hers, that sense of someone always listening in, or if she had been born with the fear of a constant, hovering presence that intended no good.
“N.J., it’s me,” he said again, and this time she could not pretend with herself that that vaguely accented voice, with its touch of European courtliness, was not familiar.
“Fuck you.” She went toward the river, trying to loosen the fearful grip that voice had on her throat. But she wouldn’t run, she wouldn’t sacrifice the dignity of walking on the way she always did—ankles practically knocking against each other—just to get away.
It took no special effort for him to match her speed, and soon he was walking alongside her at barely more than an amble.
“N.J.,” he said as he laced his arm through hers. It was a gentle gesture, but firm, and she had no choice but to turn and look at him. Those sun-washed blue eyes, the nose like a downward pointing anchor carved of gypsum. He smiled with one side of his mouth, revealing a dimple, and as he gazed at her his exhalation relaxed his shoulders. “Remember me?”
“Of course I remember. Nobody ever called me that but you.” Her smile shone brilliantly through the darkness; the words were true, the smile false.
“It’s cold—you’ll catch cold. Let’s get you indoors.” She had forgotten this about him, the solicitousness. Unusual for her—when she noticed the impulse to protect in a man, she rarely forgot. Even now, there was a map of safe harbors fixed in her memory, men like Joe who were always willing to play hero when she was in distress.
“The Subway Inn. I like it there. Nothing fancy, but they treat me just like any other drunk,” she said with a wan, self-effacing smile.
“I know you do. You spend too much time there,” he said, with faint disapproval, and his arm swooped around her shoulder. “But it will do for now.”
New York, March 1959
SHE let him lead her past the neon storefront into the mostly empty bar. The air was dense with cigarette smoke, and the only bodies left belonged to true drunks, the kind who wouldn’t slow their march to oblivion by seeking trouble.
“I’ll have a double bourbon,” she informed him and crossed the tiled floor to a booth upholstered in cracked oxblood leather. There were no eyes to meet—nobody looked up. She threw her coat across the seat, but left her hat on.
Beneath the brim she let her eyes close, and for a moment she was in Schwab’s again, and everything was different. There was all that wonderful electric light, for starters, and the cigarette smoke was mixed with wholesome smells, like cheese sandwiches melting on the griddle, and she was hungry (she hadn’t eaten for days, and the hunger cut pleasantly into her torso), and she was desperate to catch anybody’s eye. All around her were people who worked in the movies, some of them big time. That was why she’d worn a skirt that was too tight and her fur stole, in the hope of being noticed. She was already Marilyn Monroe, but the name didn’t mean anything yet.
The hours passed and the crumbs of her grilled cheese got stale on the plate and the ice from her Coke melted in its voluptuous glass, and then she finished even that thin brown liquid. The boy behind the counter started watching her, and she knew he was beginning to suspect that she couldn’t pay for lunch. They liked her there—people usually did at first—but they could smell bad luck. Show business people are worse than baseball players when it comes to superstition. The boy left the check in front of her without comment, and walked to the other side of the bar and put his elbow against the counter and started up a conversation with Joe Gillis, the screenwriter.
Seventy-five cents. She read the check like an indictment of every breath she’d ever taken. After her first divorce, when she was just twenty and it seemed every day a stranger told her how pretty she was, how the country needed a beauty like her to lift its war-trodden spirits, she thought if she could just get in the pictures she’d always be all right. Well, now she had been in the pictures. She’d done everything they told her to. She’d changed her hair and her walk and her name. She’d gone down on her knees on hard pool tile, and she’d let studio big shots poke at her with their geriatric cocks. But she didn’t have a job or a home. She didn’t have seventy-five cents for lunch, and if the collection people caught her, they’d take her car. The last time she’d had an audition her mind had gone blank, and the best she could do was mumble a little something and get out fast.
When she put her head down on the counter it was to forget what she had come for. She couldn’t be fearless again, the way she’d been at the beginning, because she had tried, and her trying had come to dust. She was twenty-two, and washed up. For a while she stayed still like that, imagining every variety of suicide, until her mind put together what she was seeing. A five-dollar bill had been placed on top of her check, and after a few minutes the boy made change. Now that change was glinting at her.
“Oh.” She straightened on the stool and made her features soft but no less sad. “I’m awfully sorry. That can’t be very nice, eating your lunch next to a mess of curls.”
“On the contrary. You have lovely hair, and I wasn’t in the least bit hungry.” There he’d been, with that prominent nose and the pale blue eyes with their intelligent, observant light. He spoke beautifully, in the kind of charming, unplaceable accent that a certain kind of man uses in the pictures. At first she’d thought it was put-on. His clothes had been nondescript, but they’d fit him well—she had noticed that right away—the white dress shirt tucked into dark blue slacks. “I’ve seen you here before,” he went on in an easy, conversational way as he sipped black coffee. “Are you an actress?”
“I—I—I guess so.” Her posture went slack, and she put her weak chin against her fist. “I don’t feel much like one today.”
“I think you’d make a fine movie star.”
“That’s swell; could you tell Mr. Zanuck over at Twentieth Century-Fox? He keeps giving me these crummy little parts and then firing me.” She knew he wasn’t somebody—he wasn’t wearing anything flashy or expensive, and anyway by 1948 she recognized most of the big fish. He wasn’t the type she went after when she needed a job or to meet somebody important. He was the type she went to when she wanted to be held: fatherly, distinguished in a conservative way, hair graying, on the cusp of forty—old enough that he probably really was a father already. Anyway, he’d paid her bill, and that was what mattered.
“You seem like you haven’t been getting enough to eat.”
She shrugged. “I’m used to it. I grew up being packed off from one orphanage to another.”
“It’s a terrible country where a pretty girl like you could grow up so deprived.”
“Oh, that’s all right.” She winked at him. “Helps me stay trim, so I won’t complain.”
“Here, you keep this.” He took a quarter from the change on the counter, to leave as a tip, and pushed the rest to her. “Why don’t you use some of it to play a few songs?”
She made the most of her walk to the jukebox, moving slowly and with her slight, affected limp. She redid her lipstick with her compact, and then she put the Peggy Lee record on the juke and went back to the soda counter. After that it all happened very simply, almost too simply, like the first act of a picture.
The music was loud, and it created a wall of privacy around them.
“This was a good choice of song,” he said. “Mañana, do you know what it means?”
“Of course.” She closed her eyes and shimmied her shoulders. “It means tomorrow.”
“Do you believe in tomorrow?”
She giggled, but the giggle was faint with sorrow, and her eyebrows lifted when she replied: “Can’t be worse than today.”
“I think it’s going to be a great deal better.” He paused when the boy returned to fill his coffee cup. His back straightened and his face got serious, and he gestured for him to fill her soda glass, too. When the boy was gone, he went on: “What would you say if I told you that I could make you a star? The most famous movie star in the world—wealth, fame, glamorous friends, everything you’ve dreamed of. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Suddenly the music was too loud. It shook her insides. Her body retracted and her throat went tight and her features got hard. “I’d say you must think I’m pretty dumb. And that you must be pretty dumb yourself. You could’ve found out I was an easy lay by asking anybody. You could have laid me for a lousy sandwich and a few songs on the jukebox. But I don’t like liars. I don’t like big, trumped-up lies like that. A child wouldn’t fall for that line.”
“Shhhh …” His eyes glittered, darted, his hand caressed her wrist, and she realized she’d been shrieking. “I know you’re not dumb.”
- On Sale
- May 26, 2015
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Hachette Books