In a 1999 London Review of Books essay, theScottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan recalled stopping one night at the window ofthe Ferragamo store on Fifth Avenue.On display were a pair of stilettos once owned by Marilyn Monroe, “scarletsatin, encrusted with matching rhinestones,” which put O’Hagan in mind of rubyslippers. After a decade, or perhaps much longer, of contemplating Marilyn, itseems O’Hagan has finally got her—and her little dog, too.
Yes, the star and narrator of O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and OfHis Friend Marilyn Monroe, an evocation of Marilyn and her milieu, is a Malteseterrier. But please don’t head for the exits just yet. Though this may soundlike a doomed gimmick, and though the book’s jacket makes it look like chicklit (I stripped it in public places), O’Hagan achieves an improbable success.Mafia Honey, or “Maf,” given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra in 1960, is a “bichon maltais” of intimidatingintellectual attainments and penetrating insight, with his head always cockedtoward the most telling dialogue.
The use of dialogue to raisethe dead is one of O’Hagan’s powers, and he has a great command of perioddetail, too. We meet Maf at Charleston,home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and he hobnobs with Cyril Connollybefore being taken to the States by Natalie Wood’s mother, Maria Gurdin.Natalie’s friend Frank comes to collect Maf, but not before nearly losing hiscool on a Hawaiian bartender for asking if a Gibson should be made with gin orvodka.
This ugly Sinatra, violent,vulgar, and self-pitying, reappears throughout the book, and is one of its mostpersuasive portraits. It’d be nice to be able to say “second only to Ms.Monroe,” but that isn’t quite the case. O’Hagan’s canine conceit suggests aparallel that becomes, alas, a cop-out: “That’s what humans do,” Maf says. “They talk to you and they talk for you.. . . Every minute they are with you they are constructing you out of what theywant.” Get it? In case you don’t, Maf goes on to tell his master, subvocally, “You know damn well you can’t hear me. You’redoing to me what you say those studio bosses do to you. Stop assuming I’m onlyreally here to accord with your goddamn version of me.”
So Marilyn was whatever thepublic or the “male gaze” wanted her to be—that’s familiar territory. But whatdoes O’Hagan make of her?
At times, it seems like thebest he can dream up is a bewitching, voluptuous woman who also pays lipservice to the life of the mind. She totes around a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and reads it,too. She matches wits with her analyst. She hangs onto Lee Strasberg’s everyword in her effort to become a real actress, a more palpable—were itpossible—presence.
She mingles with the likes ofCarson McCullers, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg(the author, Maf notes, of “a thing I was bound to like called ‘Howl'”), SusanSontag, Robert Motherwell, Stephen Spender, Norman Podhoretz, Lillian Hellman,the Trillings, and Edmund Wilson. Two of them get bitten. Collectively, theyget far more lines than Marilyn does.
So Marilyn comes alive, butonly intermittently. Her well-bred and well-read best friend, however, morethan compensates for the gaps. He is at ease with literature and philosophy,psychology and politics, cinema history and Hollywoodgossip. He drops names from Heidegger to “Flush,” the latter a cocker spanielowned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the subject of a “biography” by ViriginiaWoolf, and just one of many famous dogs described herein.
Maf’s sincerely felt andeloquently expressed concern for his owner is what keeps O’Hagan’s book frombecoming a variation on the very fantasies it criticizes. Whatever Marilynlooks like to the reader, she remains for Maf the subject of loving andintelligent inquiry. O’Hagan, for his part, situates Marilyn marvelously in a panoramaof hedonism, history, and intellectual ferment. “Affection” is the best wordfor his mode, which is to say that he makes a very excellent dog.