The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe

In a 1999 London Review of Books essay, the Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan recalled stopping one night at the window of the Ferragamo store on Fifth Avenue. On display were a pair of stilettos once owned by Marilyn Monroe, "scarlet satin, encrusted with matching rhinestones," which put O'Hagan in mind of ruby slippers. After a decade, or perhaps much longer, of contemplating Marilyn, it seems 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 Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, an evocation of Marilyn and her milieu, is a Maltese terrier. But please don't head for the exits just yet. Though this may sound like a doomed gimmick, and though the book's jacket makes it look like chick lit (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 intimidating intellectual attainments and penetrating insight, with his head always cocked toward the most telling dialogue.

 

The use of dialogue to raise the dead is one of O'Hagan’s powers, and he has a great command of period detail, too. We meet Maf at Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and he hobnobs with Cyril Connolly before 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 his cool on a Hawaiian bartender for asking if a Gibson should be made with gin or vodka.

 

This ugly Sinatra, violent, vulgar, and self-pitying, reappears throughout the book, and is one of its most persuasive 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 a parallel 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 they want." 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're doing to me what you say those studio bosses do to you. Stop assuming I'm only really here to accord with your goddamn version of me."

 

So Marilyn was whatever the public or the "male gaze" wanted her to be—that's familiar territory. But what does O'Hagan make of her?

 

At times, it seems like the best he can dream up is a bewitching, voluptuous woman who also pays lip service 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 every word in her effort to become a real actress, a more palpable—were it possible—presence.

 

She mingles with the likes of Carson McCullers, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg (the author, Maf notes, of "a thing I was bound to like called 'Howl'"), Susan Sontag, Robert Motherwell, Stephen Spender, Norman Podhoretz, Lillian Hellman, the Trillings, and Edmund Wilson. Two of them get bitten. Collectively, they get far more lines than Marilyn does.

 

So Marilyn comes alive, but only intermittently. Her well-bred and well-read best friend, however, more than compensates for the gaps. He is at ease with literature and philosophy, psychology and politics, cinema history and Hollywood gossip. He drops names from Heidegger to "Flush," the latter a cocker spaniel owned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the subject of a "biography" by Viriginia Woolf, and just one of many famous dogs described herein.

 

Maf's sincerely felt and eloquently expressed concern for his owner is what keeps O'Hagan's book from becoming a variation on the very fantasies it criticizes. Whatever Marilyn looks like to the reader, she remains for Maf the subject of loving and intelligent inquiry. O'Hagan, for his part, situates Marilyn marvelously in a panorama of hedonism, history, and intellectual ferment. "Affection" is the best word for his mode, which is to say that he makes a very excellent dog.

April 24: "[The HST] lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way..."

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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