An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Marilyn & a subway fire

Posted in Books by Frieda on March 11, 2010

Norma Jeane Mortensen, AKA Marilyn Monroe

I’ve always thought that February is the cruelest month, not April as TS Eliot suggested. When I began this blog I promised myself I’d write at least one post a week and last month I wrote just one in all. I put it down to turmoil — some romantic kerfuffles, and my first ever time getting laid off. My February was exciting, but frankly, a bit traumatizing. It’s amazing how in New York drama can happen before you’ve even gotten out of bed. My layoff came in the form of an email (I was still in my pyjamas) asking, “did you get the email saying I don’t need you to work any more?” I hadn’t.

But it really is spring now, so this month I’ll write more. I’ve just finished reading a book about Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates, called Blonde, and I’ve been thinking about how personal information is often so much more interesting than history. Or even than reality. Blonde is fictional, although Oates does draw on history. Her account’s a bit overdone at times – for instance, when Arthur Miller comes downstairs in the middle of the night to find Monroe, who was then his wife, munching on a bloody raw hamburger, her eyes gleaming like a cat’s; and the unlikely end, which I won’t spoil for you – but it’s also an entrancing story. It portrays the actress as a vulnerable, wounded creature who is destroyed by the world, and especially by men.

It was probably a bad book for me to read last month. Oates draws absolute boundaries between the sexes, and they never succeed in working anything out – men pursue Marilyn but also hate and despise her. She craves love and affection but when she has it at her fingertips, she blithely throws it away. Could there be something about this that’s cultural, an American phenomenon? I do think the sexes are more divided here.

Oates directs readers who want to know the truth towards historical accounts, so this portrayal of Marilyn is not necessarily fully accurate. But how precise can you be in a retrospective of a person’s life, whether it’s your own or someone else’s? Plutarch, the great ancient biographer, famously remarked in the prologue to his Life of Alexander, that anecdotes reveal more about a person than historical achievements. He often stretched time and inserted events of dubious veracity when it suited characterization or the moral of the tale.

March has seen the publication of my erstwhile boss’s memoir, “An Irish Voice” (note: the layoff was for financial reasons; and I still work freelance for his company). The book promises to reveal some of the secrets behind the Northern Irish peace-process, in which he was involved, and about my boss’s life as an Irish immigrant in the States in the 1980s. Most interesting to me, though, was news of “his private wrestling bouts with the demons of sex, loneliness, drink, depression and poverty.” Gosh!

Why does personal info. hold so much appeal for readers? Maybe it’s because intimate revelations arouse both voyeurism and schadenfreude. More edifyingly, Plutarch might say the lives of others give us examples, showing us how to live — and how not to.

And the subway fire: that was early March. One of my greatest fears is to perish by fire in a small, crowded space, so I was alarmed last week when, after a long delay stuck underground, the train conductor stepped out of his office to announce, “There’s a fire at Bergen Street station. I may have to switch on the XX [some technical thing] so that you all don’t start choking with the smoke.”

I looked anxiously at everyone around me, and kept doing that for a while. After another scary announcement, the conductor said we’d be continuing towards Bergen Street. This seemed like the wrong direction to me.

We trundled on through the tunnel and nothing happened. So the lesson is: subway fires may sound terrifying, but if you happen to be on the New York underground, don’t worry. As for personal details and public confidences: well, it turns out I feature in a fashion blog today in a piece on what bloggers wear when blogging, and I think that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go in showing or telling all. The pics are not too revealing, but you could say they’re a little personal. I’m hard at work! Ie. in a cafe, and in bed (You’ve to scroll down).

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