FSB Author Article
By Anna Godbersen,
Author of The Blonde
SHE was a beautiful child.
There was no one else left to remember, and yet her memory of the little girl she used to be wasn't sentimental. A woman like that puts about ten thousand miles between herself and the little girl she used to be if she has any chance of getting up in the morning. "Detached," her shrink had said on occasion, except that they never did so much of that kind of talk. (Mostly they both liked the sound of her voice, and of course he wasn't shy about prescriptions.) She wasn't beautiful the way the world wants children to be beautiful -- pink cheeks, blonde curls. Her hair wasn't blonde yet, and she had learned to control a blush before she learned to talk. She was beautiful the way grown women are beautiful, all slim limbs and knowing eyes, which is perhaps why men were inspired to treat her like a woman early.
Those unflinching eyes went a long way to explaining everything that happened later. Not the fame -- the secret part. The strange clicks on the line late at night, the trench coats in the crowd, the paranoia of being trailed. How she'd fallen in with dangerous people, and why she had pursued Jack in the first place. How she came to betray her country, and all of that.
When she was born, in June of '26, there had been no daddy to point to -- her mother was wild and pretty, and she got low the way her daughter later would. She was her mother's third to come to term, and her mother wasn't any more prepared than she had been for the first two, although those babies at least had a father. The third baby was a child nobody wanted; that was the lattice upon which she grew. She was sent away to live with folks called Bolender, who boarded babies for people who couldn't care for their own, out on the fringes of Los Angeles County. Eventually her mother did manage to buy a house for them to live in together, on Arbol Drive. Doesn't that sound lovely, Arbol Drive? Her mother thought so, too. She bought a lot of furniture she couldn't afford, all in white. That was when the little girl first saw that white is sometimes just a story we tell, innocence a feint.
The Bolenders taught her songs about Jesus, but on Arbol Drive they listened to big band on the phonograph and the grown-ups played cards and drank gin until their laughter got loud and they danced around the living room. Her mother and her mother's best friend, Grace, worked at one of the studios, and they'd stare at the little girl sometimes and say how pretty she was, how she could be a movie star when she grew up, and they wouldn't have to worry about money anymore. There was never enough money -- this was the Depression -- and they were forced to take in boarders, a Mr. Kennel and his wife, but this seemed fine. The Kennels were actors, and they talked in a plummy, movie aristocrat way, and they'd invite friends over who worked in the pictures and always came with gossip about the business.
He was one of these. His name was Perry and he had been a bit player, too, but he'd shown up drunk at work too many times, and the studio terminated his contract. He wasn't a bad drunk, though. He got very happy and made everybody laugh. He was handsome, and when his eyes were red from drink they glittered in a way that made her feel special.
So it was on an evening when everyone was feeling loose and some tall, dark fellow was dancing her mother close. Perry came to the corner where she sat, observing the grown-ups from a safe distance. He must have noticed how Mr. Kennel stared at the little girl, touched her, asked her to sit on his lap, tried to get her alone whenever he had the chance. "A girl as pretty as you needs to know how to defend herself," Perry told her, with a grave and comical lowering of the eyes. "All men aren't so kindly as me."
She was so shy she could barely speak, but she smiled to reward him for looking out for her, and he gave her a dime and told her to go see the new Jean Harlow picture. Someday, he said, she'd be even bigger than Harlow.
Not long after that her mother stopped paying the bills or talking sense. Her eyes went dead and she was shouting up the stairwell for days before Aunt Grace called the ambulance and had them take her away. Grace said she'd look after little Norma, but she wasn't a real aunt, and she was busy trying to keep the attention of a younger man. For a while Norma Jeane went to the pictures every day. She watched Jean Harlow over and over and learned how her gaze changed after settling on a man. It was during that period that Perry made good on his promise -- she was walking to Grauman's Egyptian, and he pulled up in his old Ford and told her to get in. "Today's the day I teach you how to defend yourself," he said.
As they drove, she was very impressed by how fast you can leave a place in a car, how smoothly this one rolled into the sun-dappled afternoon. It was a hot, dry day, the dirt rising off the road and the hills that scorched, California umber. The air smelled of eucalyptus and chaparral, and as they traveled away from the familiar streets, she was conscious of the earth spinning very slowly and how truly alone she was.
They pulled off the road into an open space with a lot of long, dry grass and a hazy view of snowcapped mountains. First he set the cans up on an old split-rail fence and then he showed her the gun, and it was just like the six-shooters that men in the movies wear in holsters under pinstriped suits.
"Do you want to load it?" he asked, gently putting six bullets in her palm. Then he showed her how to open the chamber and slip them in. She must have appeared frightened, because he told her that there was nothing to be afraid of and brushed the hair off her forehead. Then he warned her that when the gun went off it would make a loud noise and that its force might knock her backward. She'd have to stand firmly, legs apart, and hold it with both hands, and he bent to put her feet in place. Then he moved her fingers, showing her how to cock the gun so that it was ready to hammer a bullet.
The first shot was a thunderclap inside her ears, and she was sure she'd never hear again. But then she noticed him chuckling, and knew she hadn't hit a thing. Determination rose up inside her. That was how she'd always been -- by that age she'd figured out nobody was going to stick around long enough to raise her right, and so she took her lessons where she found them, paid fierce attention when there was something to learn.
The canyon was quiet, and she gripped the gun and concentrated on the cans glinting in the sun. She imagined the bullet inside the chamber and how it would hurtle straight to that can and knock it from the fence. She gave the bullet a little talking-to, so it knew she was going to have her way, squeezed the trigger, cocked the gun, squeezed again. The sound was just as loud but it didn't bother her this time, because she'd hit her targets. Two cans had flown right off the fence, and the burning in her palms was a pleasure.
Perry clapped his hands. "Hot damn!"
He'd been crouching behind her, and now he lay down, folding his arms under his head. She turned around for approval, but saw right away that he wasn't smiling in the goofy way he did on Arbol Drive. Now he was smiling like a wolf.
"Did I do it right?" she whispered and for a long time he made no answer. The sun was very bright, and sweat pooled on her upper lip.
"Forgive me, Norma Jeane," he said when he reached up her skirt. With one hard pull he took her underpants to her knees. "But I just can't help myself."
Perhaps he forgot the gun in her hand, or maybe he believed she was as she appeared. Whatever went through his mind at that moment, it was the last thing he ever thought. She stared down at him, childlike and trusting. Her eyes got wide, and there was a moist dark sliver between her lips. He grinned and she twice rehearsed how to do the thing. Then she cocked the gun, lifted it with both hands, and blew his face away. One moment his grin was there, framing his slick, shining slug of a tongue, and the next it was gone. There must have been a great deal of blood, but she tried not to see that. She dropped the gun on his belly and walked back down the canyon while her heart kept marching time.
It was almost thirty years before she heard her heart beat like that again.
"This isn't how you imagined it'd feel to be alone with Marilyn Monroe, is it?" she asked the man who sat across from her. He wore a black suit, an ominously straight tie, kept his eyes cold and impassive, but she held his gaze. "You figured I'd be a hundred and twenty pounds of quivering delight, whispering cotton candy and blowing kisses. Well. All that burbling sweetness isn't a lie, not totally, but men can be so stupid when it comes to vulnerability. They forget that vulnerability can be itself, and it can also be a shield, and also a knife. Any old thing can be a weapon, so long as you know how to use it right."
The man showed no reaction, only prompted her by clearing his throat. But she had known he would come eventually, and was not about to be hurried.
"You want me to get on with it," she observed. "Stop talking about myself, tell you how I met Prez, why I wanted to reach him so badly. Get me a cigarette and a drink, and I'll tell you everything. I deserve it, you know. All appearances to the contrary, the story I am about to tell you is a love story."
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Weinstein
Books, from The Blonde. Copyright © 2014 by Anna
Anna Godbersen, author of The Blonde, is the New York Times bestselling author of The Luxe and Bright Young Things. Anna grew up in Berkeley, California, graduated from Barnard College, and lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.