REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
If Marilyn Monroe hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent her. Of course that’s exactly what happened to Norma Jeane Mortensen (later Baker) born June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles. But the transformation of Norma Jeane into Marilyn isn’t enough for Anna Godbersen.
In “The Blonde” (Weinstein Books, 400 pages, $26.00) Godbersen — in her first novel for adults — re-imagines Marilyn Monroe as a Soviet spy controlled by a mysterious Russian named Alexei Lazarev. It’s the dawn of the Cold War and the Russians see in the young aspiring actress something even the moguls of Hollywood didn’t grasp: A smart woman with glamour potential who can help them achieve their vision of world dominion.
In Hollywood In 1947, Alexei provides N.J., as he calls her, with a young agent at the William Morris Agency. As anyone in Hollywood or anywhere else in show business knows, without an agent there’s no way of succeeding, but with the help of Johnny Hyde at the powerful Morris agency, Marilyn gets the start she — and Lazarev — needs.
Her early roles were small, but her acting in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve”, both in 1950, showed the moguls that Marilyn had the potential to be the hottest property in Hollywood.
(In real life, Norma Jeane Baker was signed by 20th Century Fox in 1946 to a film contract, after a brief career as a model, but Godbersen is not concerned with the facts in her re-creation of Marilyn). And that’s a good thing as we plunge into an alternate universe with Alexei returning twelve years later, in 1959, with an assignment for Marilyn. In return for a meeting with her father — whom she’s never met — Marilyn is tasked with seducing a young Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy.
Not only do Alexei Lazarev and his Soviet bosses suspect that JFK is a rising star, but also the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who has index cards on everybody of interest. Hoover is particularly interested in womanizers like Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Enter another important figure in the novel, Doug Walls, an FBI agent assigned to follow Marilyn and JFK. Thanks to his mother’s show business connections, the young agent has access to parties like that given by actor Peter Lawford, who is married to JFK’s sister Patricia (1924-2006). Dougie, as his mother, actress Maureen “Mosey” Douglas Walls, calls him, has the kind of social background and Ivy League education that would normally have drawn him to the CIA, but instead he chose the FBI.
I won’t give away any more of the complicated plot of “The Blonde.” Suffice it to say that you’ll never guess what happens as Marilyn Monroe’s involvement with Kennedy continues — or where it will lead. Godbersen has produced a thriller, a counterfactual portrait of the late 1950s and early ’60s and a stunning portrait of a Marilyn Monroe that might have been.
About the author
Anna Godbersen was born in Berkeley, California, in 1980, and moved to New York to attend Barnard College. After graduating she worked in the literary department of Esquire magazine, where she also wrote book reviews. Her debut novel was the first installment of the bestselling LUXE series for young adults, which she followed with the BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS series. “The Blonde” is her first book for grownups. She lives in Brooklyn.