BEAUTY, ELEGANCE and glamour have always been marketable commodities -- and never more so than when wed to celebrity. Obviously, this has not gone unnoticed by today's publishers, because the only rationale for the existence of these three books is that they are highly marketable "packages," a saleable subject linked to a "high visibility" name.
Norman Mailer's appalling homage to Marilyn Monroe is the most egregious and unrepentant of these concoctions. The notion that motivated Of Women and Their Elegance is so perverse it could only have been conceived by the agents for Mailer and Milton Greene, the photographer whose pictures illustrate and, supposedly, inspired the text. Only men obsessed with money, and money alone, could have devised this gimmick: Mailer, whose highly commercial Marilyn had already tested the market, has rerun the Monroe story in a new format. This time Mailer has written an "as told to" book, with the star herself as narrator. Of course, since Mailer is best known as a novelist, there is no need to stick to the facts. This is a fictionalized autobiogaphy -- an artistic breakthrough, a new literary genre! Such freedoms that literary genius allows have permitted Mailer to spice up the tale, to create incidents even people, that help to fill out the details of Marilyn's story.
There is no end to the fresh insight the reader gets into the actress' life. We witness Marilyn servicing studio executives in a manner not specified in her contract. We see her at an orgy at Bobby de Peralta O'Connor's, or engrossed in conversation about the duality of human nature with her acting teacher Abraham Robert Charles. Then there are the scenes from her marriage to Arthur Miller, references to her twelve abortions and her affiars with Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra. And best of all, there is no fear of a libel suit, for at the very end, after rending open every private part of Monroe's adult life, dissecting every photograph, gossip column reference or bit of biographical flotsam to find the germ of a fantasy, after the very last photograph, comes the disclaimer. It seems, dear reader, that Messrs. O'Conner and Charles and so many others are inventions:
"How can she be given a Bobby de Peralta O'Conner she never knew . . . ? In answer I can only plead that we cannot comprehend her inability to live with her success, or her incapacity to make movies without torturing herself and others around her, unless we are ready to posit some awful secret in her past."
If Mailer seems to have complete disregard for the trust of his readers, the memory of his subject, or the reputation of Monroe's friends and acquaintances, there are two individuals who are treated with respect throughout the text -- Milton Greene and his wife Amy. The book is studded with Greene's photographs, some of Marilyn, most of other movie stars, all of negligible artistic value. The pictures are presumably a counterpoint to the text but the truly key aspect of the Mailer-Greene collaboration is the memories of Moroe that her friends Milton and Amy provided for Mailer, recollections that are the armature around which the tale is molded. Not coincidentally, the Greenes are the hero and heroine of the book; she, "the smallest fashion model in New York . . . as beautiful as if she'd just popped out of a cake on the society pages," and he, "the only man who never took advantage of me." Amy Greene even supplied the theme from which the title is derived, for Marilyn apparently tried desperately and futilely to emulate Mrs. Greene's "elegance."
A final note: Mailer's attempt to imitate Monroe's manner of speaking and thinking is hilarious -- the literarcy equivalent of a falsetto.
Kenneth Clark has managed to keep his dignity even while trafficking in commercial goods. Feminine Beauty is a poorly disguised attempt to merchandise the Clark persona, but at least the reader is comforted that the author seems aware of the exploitation. As Lord Clark states in his introduction:
"Some time ago Lord Weidenfeld asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on the concept of feminine beauty. I told him that I would be very much interested. I saw fro the first that the subject was extremely difficult . . . All that I could attempt would be a sort of sketch or introduction to the subject, and even this would have to be limited."
Once again, Clark displays his gift for understatement. This is less than a sketch. Indeed it is scarcely a doodle. What the author has done is gather a selection of images -- paintings, sculpture, photographs -- of women throughout the ages in Western European culture. To this assemblage he has added a text which races through history and reveals little more than the fascinating fact that Western civilization has included women in art. Lest it appear that this is an overstatement, consider Clark's analysis of Rembrandt's great Lucretia in Washington's National Gallery:
"Indeed the Lucretia . . . is one of the most appealingly beautiful women in art. What led him to treat this subject with such intensity? The Rembrandt mystery deepens at every step."
For an historian capable of the most penetrating understanding of the visual arts, this breathless and uninformed prose can only be an embarrassment. To read Clark at his best on a related and frefquently overlapping subject the reader is referred to his study, The Nude. At $3.50 in paperback, it is, except for the illustrations, superior to this hardcover volume in all ways.
Somehow Diana Vreeland's Allure is the least offensive of these three offerings. Perhaps it is because marketing has always been Vreeland's metier. As editor of Harper's Bazaar, and later, Vogue, she was the consummate saleswoman, not only of clothes but, even more, of a certain way of living. Allure consists of photographs selected for their appeal to Vreeland's eye and sensibility. Some of her favorite personalities are included -- most prominently Maria Callas and the Duchess of Windsor -- but a number of the illustrations are anonymous paparazzi shots, admired more for their rawness and vitality than their chic. Unfortunately, the oversized format chosen for the book is not congenial to viewing photos. Too often the images are grainy or distorted or simply difficult to see.
Interspersed among the pictures are quotes transcribed from tapes of conversations with Vreeland. These are the real strength of the book. The lady has flair, and the quotes -- italics and all -- capture the woman pulsing with iconoclasm and laughter:
"Oh, Mrs. Vreeland,' they always begin, 'you've had such wonderful taste. You've always understood everything about elegance and . . . '
"And et cetera. I can feel the storm gathering for miles and miles. They think they've really got me by the tail. They think they're really going to get me to talk. 'What do you think . . . of blue jeans,' they say.
"Of course, they expect me to release myself and say, 'Oh, they're terrible! They've killed fashion!' Whereas, actually blue jeans are the only things that have kept fashion alive because they're made of marvlous fabric and they have fit and dash and line . . . the only important ingredients of fashion.
"So I always say the same thing. I say, 'They're the most beautiful things since the gondola,' and leave it at that."
Commercial? Yes -- even to having Jacqueline Onassis as editor. But unlike Mailer and Clark, Diana Vreeland did not have to create a counterfeit item in order to be commercial. Her instinct for commerce is genuine, and it is this quality of authenticity that saves the book. As for the other two, if they do succeed in making a profit, it will only represent the triumph of merchandising over the deficiencies of the product -- a Pyrrhic victory for all involved.