MAF, MARILYN AND MY ACCIDENTAL HIT NOVEL; an Auction at Christie's, a Passion for Cinema and a Writerly Urge to Have Fun Have Brought Good Fortune to Andrew O'Hagan

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

MAF, MARILYN AND MY ACCIDENTAL HIT NOVEL; an Auction at Christie's, a Passion for Cinema and a Writerly Urge to Have Fun Have Brought Good Fortune to Andrew O'Hagan


Byline: Andrew O'Hagan

CHARLIE Chaplin, writing in his autobiography, said that all he needed to make a comedy was a park, a policeman and a pretty girl. He might also have added a little dog. Chaplin showed that the tramp's point of view can be very humane, but so can the dog's, if you let him off the leash.

In the right circumstances, such a mixture can give us what we really want from a beautiful film -- the pure comic touch, the surprises of life, the adventure and the heartbreak. When I started writing a novel in the voice of Marilyn Monroe's dog Mafia Honey, I hoped -- for all the daftness of it -- to borrow not only from Orwell's energy and Jonathan Swift's, but also from the joy that movies have given me since I was a child.

Maybe it's the tough couple of years we've been having, or a general wish for the sun to come out, but I've never experienced, with any book of mine, such a willingness in readers to be humourful and engaged. People from countries I've never been to seem happy to take on the philosophical journey of this little terrier, who was given as a present to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra in 1960.

Film people and stage actors have been getting to grips with it, too, which brings me back to some of the sources for the book, the films that always seemed to me, next to my favourite books, a wellspring of wonderful improbability and new ideas and fun. And there's a secret that only an author ever knows: the research, the craziness of the research, how I scoured the streets of Hollywood armed with old maps, trying to establish the entertaining story of a dog that died 35 years ago.

Writing about the current cinema for this paper, I'm often drawn back, in a fairly autobiographical way, to how the tribulations of characters on screen can map out so much of what living is all about. It's not just that the cinema provides moral exemplars or sexy people, but it also shows you the reverse: low life, ugliness, and the costs of jealousy and pride.

We all see that in life, of course, but in the movies it can become shaped and coloured in ways that enliven you. I'd argue that we need cinema and literature, and the other arts, for that: to make us live imaginatively, instead of merely being cemented in the everyday.

That's probably a core belief of people who try to make good films or write interesting books or who make arts pages such as the ones you are reading now. Facts are essential, but they never alone make a life, or a culture, and "attention must be paid", as Marilyn's husband Arthur Miller once said, not just to the dying man, but to the living, laughing one.

So, enter the dog. I met people who thought they remembered him, who passed on rumours, incidents, digressions.

I quickly saw the dog was wiser than me. He is wiser than all of us. And he is a perfect little yapping 20th-century absurdity. I first heard his "voice" at an auction at Christie's in New York 10 years ago. They were flogging Marilyn Monroe's personal belongings -- her books, her rollers, the dress she wore while singing Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy -- and I saw the way people like Tommy Hilfiger, the designer, were vying for Marilyn's jeans, as if the jeans were a Rembrandt. …

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