Twice a day the road where I live resembles the opening sequence of 101 Dalmations, in which the canine narrator Pongo scans the local dogs taking their human pets for a walk – a pert, snub-nosed old lady with her pert, sub-nosed pug; a languid, artistic woman with an equally louche Afghan hound; a primped and coiffed model in high heels with her fussily topiaried poodle. There ought to be a term for this mysterious interspecies family resemblance – but I’ve no idea what it is.
A neighbour of mine with a scribbly mass of black curls on her head walks briskly past with her two dogs, Buttons and Bobby, scruffy, fluffy little bundles of cuteness. They look like they’ve all come from the same stylist.
Look at a photograph of Sigmund Freud with his beloved chow, Jo-Fi, and their jowly, whiskered faces do look rather perfectly matched. In fact, in one 1936 study of the great man and his dog in Freud’s study in Vienna, they appear to have swapped roles: the dog looks out with a fiercely intelligent and penetrating stare as though prompting you to examine to your hidden motivations, while Freud himself regards her with puppy-eyed tenderness.
Few human-animal pairs can rival the sheer heart-breaking dazzle of Marilyn Monroe and her Maltese terrier, Maf. In an iconic black and white portrait of the star and her mutt, Marilyn holds the little dog to her face, her lips in a characteristic moue, cheeks flushed with pleasure, her eyes half-closed, the wingtips of her elegant eyebrows disappearing into a silky curl of blond hair. The dog looks utterly besotted, and you can’t blame him, nestled against the most coveted bosom in history.
Maf was a present to Marilyn from Frank Sinatra in 1961. She christened him ‘Mafia Honey’, a coy nod to Sinatra’s well-known connections to the Mob. The dog had a pretty starry pedigree even before he got to Monroe: he belonged to Natalie Wood’s mother, the Russian émigré Maria Stepanovna, by all accounts quite a prima donna herself.
What that dog must have seen. Hollywood at its height. Onassis and Kennedy, the Cold War and Cuba, with a soundtrack courtesy of Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. Elvis and Buddy Holly. It was Lee Strasberg and Marlon Brando and baby boomers cruising along Hollywood boulevard in their convertibles. Gertrude Stein and Bugs Bunny. Carson McCullers and Lionel Trilling.
Fifty years later, Maf finally found his voice (as it were) in the pages of a fabulously snappy novel by Andrew O’Hagan, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe. Like it says on the tin, the story is narrated by the self-same pooch who cleaved to those delicious curves. O’Hagan’s Maf is a cultured, insightful and well-read dog who cites Chekhov, Gogol and Tolstoy as easily as Swift, Cervantes, Plutarch and Virginia Woolf. He also a staunch defender of Marilyn, and takes a bite out of Lillian Hellman at an LA cocktail party for being such a – sorry, but there really isn’t any other word for it – bitch.
“Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies,” Freud once wrote, “quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object-relations.” As Marilyn lies in bed reading Freud’s letters, Maf absorbs his ideas via osmosis – but not slavishly: this mutt knows his own mind. “The things that intrigued me most were not to do with the death drive, whatever that is, or the early tendency towards bum-worship, which canines know well enough, but chiefly to do with Freud’s deeply affectionate silliness when it came to the comings and goings of his pet chow Jo-Fi.” He relates (the incidentally true stories of) how Freud’s dog would be present during psychoanalytic sessions, yawning and stretching at exactly the time when the time was up. Her reactions and moods, Freud said, gave him vital clues as to his patients’ mental state. “What a story Jo-Fi would have told,” sighs Maf, “if her mind had given itself to the manufacture of personal history” – a peachy sentence for a story by a dog intent on manufacturing his own.