“Three Girls” – A short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Brushes with greatness

David Letterman used to have a segment on his show where he went into the audience and did quick interviews with “ordinary people” who had had a fleeting encounter with a celebrity. If I recall correctly, when the audience member finished relating his story, Dave would then read his show’s “writer’s embellishments” which added some more (comical, of course) flavor to the story. It was a popular segment (though not on the same level as his “stupid human tricks” -naturally!) and one of my favorites.

(Hoosier native David Letterman in 2011)


The Joyce Carol Oates short story, Three Girls, from her great collection “I Am no One You Know” documents a brush with greatness that two young, college-age girls experienced. Told in a sort of flashback format and in the second person as one girl is years later recalling the story to the other, it was a compact and thought-provoking story.

The two girls – not named in the story – are in New York City at “Strand Used Books” at Broadway and Twelfth. And who should they see in the poetry section? None other than Marilyn Monroe! The famous actress is dressed down – almost like a man in a long overcoat – an obvious attempt to avoid recognition and the accompanying harassment that is so often the price of fame. The two girls are described by the one telling the story, who says, “we were not ’conventional’ females. In fact, we shared male contempt for the merely ’conventional’ female.” Until they meet Monroe in the store, they would have assumed that she was one of those “conventional females,” but as they watch her browse and peruse several books they begin to realize that she is not unlike them. “Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a READER. One of those who READS. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul.”

(note: found the photo below at http://www.sandradanby.com/famous-people-reading-marilyn-monroe/)


The two girls clumsily watch the star while trying to look like they’re not watching her. They begin to feel protective of Monroe, who has found at least a momentary anonymity in this bookstore which is a favorite haunt of theirs. Seeing the actress in a new light, they feel pity for her burden of fame. I particularly liked the following passage: “And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe’s wish. To be like us. for it was impossible, of course. for anyone could have told Marilyn Monroe, even two young girl-poets, that it was too late for her in history. Already, at age thirty (we could calculate afterward that this was her age) “Marilyn Monroe” had entered history, and there was no escape from it. Her films, her photos. Her face, her figure, her name. To enter history is to be abducted spiritually, with no way back.”

(below: author Joyce Carol Oates)


A great short story, only about ten pages, but like almost all of Oates’ work that I’ve encountered, it did not disappoint. It had the added bonus in that this tale was missing that “dark element” that is prevalent in much of her fiction.


I have found the “I Am No One You Know” collection to be a great group of stories and have posted about several of them before. (The Mutants, Cumberland Breakdown, and In Hiding to name a few) What are your favorite works by Joyce Carol Oates? Have you had a “brush with greatness” you’d like to share with the citizens of Bibliophilopolis?

(Below: actress Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits {her final film})




  1. Dale said,

    July 19, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    The story we read for IRC has been my only experience with Joyce Carol Oates. I recall being rather disturbed by it. Usually that doesn’t keep from reading other works by an author, so it’s probably time I read something else. This one sounds really good.

    My encounter with celebrity came on my 24th birthday. I was at Indy’s Slippery Noodle Inn when Billy Joel and some of his entourage walked in. This was back when SNI was simply a little room. For several years, a picture hung on their wall of a friend of mine sitting at one table with his back to Billy Joel at another table. I didn’t get to talk to him or anything, but just got to see him enjoy live blues. He did mention his experience at his concert a few days later at Market Square Arena.


    • Jay said,

      July 20, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Hi Dale,
      Thanks for sharing your “brush with greatness” story! The most famous person I ever saw at The Slippery Noodle was a local news anchor lol.

      I saw & said hello to Larry Bird once at “The Pub” across the street from the Fieldhouse. It’s almost hard NOT to ever run into him or other Pacers when you work two blocks up the street though. 🙂

      I think the story we read was “The Girl With the Blackened Eye” which was disturbing. This collection has many other very strong stories in it, though. “The Instructor” was perhaps my favorite.


  2. HKatz said,

    July 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    “To enter history is to be abducted spiritually, with no way back.”

    That’s a beautiful line, and kind of dark too.

    I like looking up the life stories of actors and actresses whose work I enjoy, but have never really got caught up in celebrity gossip. There’s a tension between people wanting celebrities to be larger than life and more than human, but at the same time wanting them to be ordinary (to like the same clothes, books, etc.) that you like… and have the same flaws. There’s so much projection.

    My own celebrity encounters – spotting Lauren Bacall walking her dog several years ago, and spotting a jolly-looking Fyvush Finkel at a Mediterranean restaurant.


    • Jay said,

      July 30, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Yes, it is. Perhaps its darkness is because it’s true…?

      Your comments about celebrity really hit the mark, I think.

      Thanks for sharing your “brushes with greatness” too! Perhaps if Bacall was having trouble getting her dog to come when she called it you could’ve suggested that she just whistle. “You know how to whistle don’t you?” I think she said that to Bogart in some movie… 🙂



  3. steve said,

    August 24, 2013 at 3:52 am

    Thank you for sharing


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