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American film actress Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Mortenson or Norma Jean Baker, 1926 - 1962).
Marilyn Monroe in 1954.
Photo: Baron/Getty Images

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Old Hollywood and the Myth of Blondeness

Podcast host Karina Longworth on what draws her to “Dead Blondes.”

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When Katy Perry bleached her hair, the first person I thought of was Karina Longworth.

That might seem like a long leap — connecting a pop star and a podcast host — but when Perry went platinum, I was deep into the “Dead Blondes” season of Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This. For more than three years, the show has examined "the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century,” to quote its tagline.

“Dead Blondes” focuses on, well, just that: 11 blonde actresses who died tragically, unexpectedly, or otherwise before their time. So far, Longworth has devoted episodes to Peg Entwistle, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Veronica Lake, Carole Landis, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Barbara Payton, and Grace Kelly; two more will stream before season’s end. Longworth likes to keep subjects of future episodes under wraps, although fans can find hints on the show's Twitter and Instagram feeds; Longworth posted a photo of Monaco, for instance, before the Grace Kelly episode went live.

Full-length shot of Jayne Mansfield (1933-1967), US actress, wearing a leopard print swimsuit in a studio portrait, against a red background, circa 1955.
Jayne Mansfield in 1955.
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Unless you're a true Hollywood buff, you probably don't know all these names, but you may know their legends — like that of Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the Hollywood sign, and Jayne Mansfield — who, despite popular myth, was not decapitated in the car crash that killed her.

"One of the things that blondes represent is this better-than-humanness — or, at the same time, in some cases, extreme sexuality," she says. In her episodes about these women, she looks at how that played out in their on- and off-screen lives, and how each blonde matched her era — or didn't, with often disastrous results.

Over the course of the season, Longworth weaves these stars’ stories together, exploring how hair color played a role in the lives of — for example — “hot blonde” Marilyn Monroe and “cold blonde” Grace Kelly, the two most bankable female stars of 1955. Kelly would go on to marry a prince and leave Hollywood a year later; Monroe would die at age 36 in 1962.

The Jayne Mansfield episode has been the saddest, at least for me. From the start of her Hollywood career, Mansfield always recognized her own beauty (that famous photo of Sophia Loren throwing shade at a busty blonde? That's Mansfield) and how it could boost her career. But her Monroe-like look fell out of style as the 1950s gave way to the counterculture of the 1960s; at one point, Mansfield was even mocked by the Beatles.

Longworth says that while studying these blondes’ lives, she’s thought a lot about “how unreal they are.” The host adds, “If you are 30 years old and you have white-blonde hair or something close to it, chances are you've done something artificial to get there, and so the idea that there's so many movie stars that are within this trajectory — there's something really interesting about that.”

American actors Gregory Peck (1916 - 2003) and Barbara Payton (1927 - 1967) kiss in a publicity still for 'Only the Valiant', directed by Gordon Douglas, 1951.
Barbara Payton with her Only the Valiant costar Gregory Peck in 1951.
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In the episode about Barbara Payton, who turned to prostitution near the end of her life, Longworth explains that both Payton and Carole Landis were “part of a trajectory” that had been built up since the beginning of Hollywood. “Hollywood had created in the public an appetite for beautiful blondes, and like addicts, the culture began demanding exponentially more, and each new blonde was given less time to grab a foothold,” she says in that episode. “And once your window of opportunity was over, no one was going to help you wedge another window open. Everyone had already moved on to another blonde.”

Longworth says she decided to devote a full season of her podcast to the lives of Hollywood blondes because, as she puts it, her listeners love “lurid stories about suicides and murder and people drinking themselves to death.” At the same time, delving into the lives of these women has allowed Longworth to explore “how Hollywood mythology gets constructed,” her primary interest.

Asked to name a living star who inspires the same sort of “blonde obsession” as the women spotlighted in her podcast, Longworth demurs; she’s more interested in old Hollywood than new. (You Must Remember This has done episodes on Isabella Rossellini, Bruce and Brandon Lee, and Madonna's relationships with Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, but that’s the closest Longworth has come to covering modern stardom.)

You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth.
You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth.
Photo: Courtesy of Karina Longworth

Longworth was kicking around as a freelance writer when she recorded the first episode of You Must Remember This. It was “a sample of what I really wanted to do — the kind of research and writing I would do if anything was possible," she says. “I thought that I would make this silly thing in my bedroom and then people would laugh at it, and people would think it was really silly.”

You Must Remember This has since landed on best-of lists from The Atlantic, The Guardian, Esquire, and Paste, and Longworth has authored books on Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and George Lucas; she’s currently writing one about the loves of Howard Hughes. Prior to “Dead Blondes,” Longworth spent an entire season on the life and times of Joan Crawford. (It’s a must for fans of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan — full of historical fact to counter Ryan Murphy's campiness).

And for the record: Longworth is a brunette, though she did once bleach her hair in high school — before dyeing it purple.

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