Blonde Bombshells

From Karina Longworth’s phenomenal podcast series Dead Blondes (where 5 out of the 11 Blondes profiled were of the Bombshell persona variety), to Tumblr fan pages, it seems that society is still obsessed by the idea of the Old Hollywood “Blonde Bombshell”. While Hollywood has had many popular blonde actresses during its century-odd existence, (from the ice-cool elegance of Grace Kelly in her pre-princess roles, to perky sweetness and intelligence of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, and beyond) the specifics of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood’s “Blonde Bombshell” archetype seems to be perennially popular. Perhaps this is because the tale of the Blonde Bombshell in some ways charts the first decades of Hollywood itself, when it was first emerging, mythmaking, and figuring out what stories it wanted to tell about itself. The Bombshell emerged alongside the talkies, with the era’s most popular actress (and the Original Blonde Bombshell) Jean Harlow, and continued to co-evolve in the 50s and 60s with the massive, enduring stardom of Marilyn Monroe, who is perhaps the embodiment of the Blonde Bombshell archetype that most envelops pop culture to this day. Indeed, Marilyn’s take on the Blonde Bombshell persona was so popular that studios sought to create their own copies – by far the most successful of these attempts were the examples of Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, so much so that during the 1960s, the press christened the trio “The Three Ms”.

This got me to thinking about historical legacy within the Hollywood archetype of the Blonde Bombshell – a female archetype characterised as being a larger than life, glamorous, sexy, and of course… blonde. Firstly it’s origination with Jean Harlow in the 1920s. Then, how she was, after her untimely death, “succeeded” by Marilyn Monroe as the de facto Blonde. Marilyn had grown up wanting to be like Harlow, and had actually received the blessing of Harlow’s mother’s to play Jean in a biopic before Monroe’s untimely death. Marilyn was then circled by those who are made in their image, in attempt to take her place; and ultimately the ways these women and their careers are intricately interwoven together – by themselves, by their studios, by the popular imagination. This gave me the idea to create a Family Tree of Hollywood Blondes, as a way to visualise how these women’s personas and careers “descend” from each other – how, even when one woman passes away, the archetype itself remains alive in her successors. We see a direct line from Harlow to Monroe. Junior branches coming off Marilyn depict Jayne and Mamie, as a visualization of  the studio system’s attempts to artificially mould their own Marilyns. But, if this is a monarchy, then Mansfield and Van Doren never really elevated themselves above the role of pretenders. Monroe remained on the throne as the ultimate Blonde Bombshell within 1960s pop culture, and has retained that role to this day within the popular imagination. Yet, I would also argue that, decades after her death, Marilyn found a kind of successor in Anna Nicole Smith, and this is why she is depicted as Monroe’s direct successor within the tree. Anna Nicole is a fascinating case because she is the only Blonde in this tree whose career did not begin during the Old Hollywood era – and yet, her story and persona was that of a Golden Age of Hollywood starlet dropped into the reality TV age. During the nineties, her hairstyle and makeup was clearly modelled on the Blonde Bombshells of Hollywood old, particularly Marilyn. And Anna spoke of her desire to emulate Monroe many times. Yet, Anna Nicole succeeded in creating a career like Marilyn’s not through her acting, but through the phenomenon that was herself. Despite a few (generally poorly received) attempts to become an actress, the greatest role that Smith would play was that of herself, through her iconic reality show and permanent place in the tabloids. From her marriage to an octogenarian oil tycoon, and then a legal battle against his children to receive the inheritance he left her in his will that went all the way to the Supreme Court, to her tragic death and the posthumous battle from various men (including her own lawyer and the pseudo-prince husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor) over the paternity of her baby daughter, the twists and turns of Anna Nicole’s life were already like something out of a movie. And always present on her reality show was the fun loving, bombastic personality that was Anna Nicole herself.

In this way, while Anna Nicole may have moulded herself on Marilyn, Smith’s massive personality tabloid heavy life perhaps made her a more appropriate successor to the woman on this tree who died the year Smith was born, one Jayne Mansfield. While Smith modelled herself  on Monroe, those working with her on the Guess campaign noticed Smith’s resemblance to Mansfield, and photographed her in several Jayne inspired shots – including a recreation of Mansfield’s iconic (and much parodied/recreated) side-eye Sophia Loren snap. Further, just as Smith created a Marilyn-like career out of celebrity rather than acting, although Jayne was an actress, really the same could be said of her. Jayne was the original stunt queen, harnessing the power of the tabloids through her crazy publicity stunts, which included numerous wardrobe malfunctions (one of which led to that now iconic photo of Sophia Loren side-eyeing Jayne’s full to bursting dress at a party, with another occasion seeing Jayne just outright strip off of her dress while at a Roman nightclub) and even faking her own shipwreck. In turn, while Mansfield was moulded by the studio machine in Marilyn’s image, like Monroe herself, Jayne actually wanted to be a Jean. In 1956, Jayne was quoted as saying that “People say I have the propensities of Marilyn Monroe, but I wouldn’t want to be a second anything. If I could be as successful as Jean [Harlow], I’d be so happy. No one has touched her.” Mamie Van Doren, another Monroe imitator, felt similarly, stating that “I came to Hollywood determined to follow in Jean Harlow’s footsteps, but I was determined not to die young. My hope was to endure. And endure I have.”

On that note, this family tree charts society’s not just perennial interest in this particular female archetype, but also how our obsession is particularly strong when these seemingly untouchable goddesses meet a tragic end. This is true for 4 out of 5 of the women in this “family tree”. Only one (Van Doren) ever made it past their 30s, the others dying from a fatal car crash (Mansfield, aged 34), kidney failure (Harlow, aged 26) and overdoses (Monroe, aged 36 and Smith, aged 39). Only Van Doren is still alive – she has lived long enough to create a Twitter account, the bio of which reads “Actress, Author, Blonde Bombshell”. The early deaths of these other Bombshells remind us that, for all our idealisation, they are as mortal as we are. Yet, conversely, it also serves to further mythologise them – they can never age, they will remain forever in looks and persona, these idealised figures, as if crystallised in amber. As Mamie has been quoted as saying: “Talking about Marilyn Monroe is strange. To me she’s a person, to most people — she’s an idea”.


Words and Illustration by Chloe Esslemont