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Before the Literary Bar

In which the author puts his new Marilyn Monroe book on trial—before the critics do.

From the November 10, 1980 issue of New York Magazine.

PROSECUTOR: Your Honor, our first and only witness will be the defendant, Norman Mailer.

THE COURT: He has waived his rights?

PROSECUTOR: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: All right, let’s put him on. [The defendant is sworn]

Mr. Mailer, I will remind you of the charge. It is criminal literary negligence. On this charge, the court may find against you for censure in the first or second degree, or for reprimand. You may also be exonerated.

MAILER: I am aware of the charge, Your Honor.

PROSECUTOR: Mr. Mailer, I am holding in my hand a work entitled Of Women and Their Elegance, which has your name on the cover as author. Would you describe it?

MAILER: It is a book of photographs by Milton Greene, with a text of 50,000 words by myself.

PROSECUTOR: Fifty thousand words is the length of the average novel?

MAILER: Maybe half to two thirds the length.

PROSECUTOR: Would you say this work presents itself as an autobiography by Marilyn Monroe?

MAILER: Originally, I wished to title it Of Women and Their Elegance, by Marilyn Monroe as told to Norman Mailer, but it was decided the title could prove misleading to the public, who might think the interview had actually taken place. I suppose it would be better to describe the text as a false autobiography. Or an imaginary memoir, since the story, but for a few recollections, only covers a period of three or four years in her life.

PROSECUTOR: It is made up.

MAILER: More or less made up.

PROSECUTOR: Could you be more specific?

MAILER: Much of the book is based on fact. I would say some of it is made up.

PROSECUTOR: Are you prepared to offer examples of fact and fiction as they occur in your pages?

MAILER: I can try.

PROSECUTOR: Let me read a passage to the court, written in the first person, which purports to be Marilyn Monroe’s voice. The Amy she refers to is one Amy Greene, Milton Greene’s wife. I will enter it as Exhibit A. It is taken from page 24 of Mr. Mailer’s book.

THE COURT: All right, go ahead.

[The prosecution reads Exhibit A, page 24]

I went out shopping with Amy. She took me to Saks and Bonwit Teller’s, and people lined up to look at me as soon as I got spotted. Women were ripping open the curtain in the dressing room, which was enough to do Amy in, if she hadn’t been made of the toughest stuff. First, she discovered I wear no panties, and to make it worse, a bit of my natural odor came off with the removal of the skirt. Nothing drives people crazier than a woman with an aroma that doesn’t come out of a bottle. Maybe I should use deodorant, but I do like a little sniff of myself. It’s a way of staying in touch.

Anyway, Amy turned her head at the sight of my pubic hair, which is, alas, disconcertingly dark, and then the curtains flew open, and shoppers gawked, three big mouths and big noses, and a tall, skinny salesman came over to shut the curtains and croaked, “Miss Monroe!” and disappeared forever. I had to laugh. I knew I’d changed his life. I think, sometimes, that’s why I do it. PROSECUTOR: Now, Mr. Mailer.

MAILER: Yessir.

PROSECUTOR: Did this scene occur?

MAILER: Yes. Mrs. Greene told me that hordes of shoppers did indeed gawk at Marilyn.

PROSECUTOR: And ripped open the curtain to the dressing room?

MAILER: It is my recollection that Mrs. Greene told me something of the sort.

PROSECUTOR: In a tape-recorded interview?

MAILER: [Pauses] Perhaps, in casual conversation. I am old friends with Mr. and Mrs. Greene, and we have had many unrecorded conversations about Marilyn Monroe as well.

PROSECUTOR: And you drew your impressions of Miss Monroe from these conversations, recorded and unrecorded?

MAILER: Some of my impressions.

PROSECUTOR: So Mrs. Greene told you that Miss Monroe was wearing no panties on this occasion?

MAILER: I don’t recollect that Mrs. Greene told me that.

PROSECUTOR: Then how did you arrive at such a conclusion?

MAILER: On the basis of many conversations with many people who knew Marilyn Monroe, it seems to be established that Miss Monroe did not like to wear panties.

PROSECUTOR: So you took the liberty of deciding she was wearing none that day?

MAILER: It seemed a fair assumption. You try to be fair.

PROSECUTOR: You weren’t just trying to sell copies?

DEFENSE: Objection. The witness is being manhandled.

THE COURT: Overruled. I want to hear the answer.

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