Marilyn: Her Magic Lingers On

The real Marilyn Monroe was nobody you’d look at twice—unless she wanted you to

by Maurice Zolotow Updated: Jul 8, 2024 18:39:34 IST
Marilyn: Her Magic Lingers On Marilyn Monroe arriving at the Ciro’s Nighclub, for an event celebrating screenwriter Louella Parsons. Credit: Alamy

Every day, tourists swarm over the forecourt of Mann’s Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s) in Los Angeles, looking in awe at the handprints, footprints and signatures of the movie stars of the past.

In the centre, on a golden coloured block, are the imprints Marilyn Monroe made on 26 June 1953. You never have to wonder where her square is, because that’s the one with the crowds. 

Many of those peering at Marilyn’s footprints, or trying to fit their fingers into the concavities of hers, are adolescent girls. What’s eerie is that some resemble, in posture, clothes and even voice, Marilyn herself. It’s a look inspired by pop singer Madonna, whose recent video hit 'Material Girl' was modelled on Marilyn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Marilyn haunts us in a way few performers ever have. She appeared in only 28 films and starred in 16—several of them classics: The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits. Director John Huston always spoke of her as if she were some mysterious force of nature—“like a fog bank that starts building up at dusk with the turn of the tide.”

I first met Marilyn Monroe in 1953 at a dinner honouring Walter Winchell. He was flanked on the dais by 20th Century Fox production boss Darryl Zanuck and an expressionless mannequin costumed in a skin-tight, emerald-green-sequinned gown, thick makeup and false eyelashes.

Here was another studio-manufactured puppet, I thought. But then I was introduced to her. In her eyes was a look of vulnerability, of innocence, of sheer terror. The contradiction between what she looked like and who she was inside gripped my imagination. As a writer, I would follow her rising star for six long years, trying to unravel her many mysteries. 

image-34_061024060217.jpgBorn Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe lived her early years in foster homes and orphanages. Photo: Alamy

I once asked director George Cukor what he thought was the source of Marilyn Monroe’s power, and he said : “It certainly wasn’t her body, because there were many women just as beautiful. It came from her eyes and from the way she looked at you.” Another of her directors, Billy Wilde, disagreed. “No, it was her ear for dialogue,” he explained.

By the time Wilder directed her in The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe had the best comedy delivery of any actress he had ever worked with. She could impart a unique tone of sweet naiveté to the most suggestive lines and make them sound amusing, droll and tender all at once. But it was poet Delmore Schwartz who expressed better than any other observer the purity of Marilyn’s art.

“She can be understood,” he wrote, “only from one point of view, that of beauty which is its own excuse for being. Her poise and carriage have a true innocence.” She was never vulgar, never obscene.

In The Seven Year Itch, she starred with veteran actor Tom Ewell. Ewell played a New York publishing executive whose family has gone to the country for the summer. Marilyn has subleased an apartment in the same brownstone. It’s a very hot summer, but Ewell has air conditioning. He invites her in to cool off. In one scene, Ewell and Marilyn pick out a clumsy duet on the piano. Ewell has been fantasizing about playing love scenes with Marilyn, and suddenly he gets carried away and plants an awkward kiss on her lips. They lose their balance and fall on the floor together. Ewell is ashamed, contrite.

“Nothing like this ever happened to me before,” he says.

“Oh,” Marilyn replies airily, “happens to me all the time.”

She could be very witty. After she sang for 10,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, a voice called out, “Hey, Marilyn, what do you think of the sweater girls?” 

“I don’t know why you guys are so excited about sweater girls,” she replied with breathy inflection and perfect timing. “Take away their sweaters and what have they got?”

The Leathernecks screamed, they whistled, they stomped—they wouldn’t let Marilyn off the stage. 

image-36_061024060311.jpgMonroe and fellow Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actor Jane Russell set their handprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollwood Boulevard. Photo: Alamy

Many people believed that gag writers invented Marilyn’s jokes for her, but she said these things spontaneously. Some of her clever lines in films were partly hers and partly the screenwriters’, but she always made them her own.

She had such a wonderful smile, such a grin, such a joyous peal of laughter. She seemed at times to be bursting with joie de vivre. And she had a love affair with the camera like nobody before or since.

Earl Theisen, a Look magazine photographer, told me that in his viewfinder he could almost see her blossom, like the petals of a flower opening in time-lapse photography. But the power of her beauty was a consciously willed act. The real Marilyn was nobody you’d look at twice—unless she wanted you to. In private life, she liked going around without any makeup—not even lipstick—and wearing jeans and loafers. Once, we were together in Manhattan, and I started to flag a taxi. 

“Oh, c’mon,” she said. “Let’s walk.”

“Marilyn, the fans will pester you to death,” I said.

Grinning like a mischievous tomboy, she clasped my hand as if we were a couple of teenagers. She was wearing sandals, a man’s white shirt with the tail out, tennis shorts, and a scarf covering her head. No dark glasses.

“When I don’t make believe I’m a star, they don’t see me. They never know me unless I want them to.” 

We passed Sardi’s—with its usual cluster of paparazzi and autograph seekers. Nobody spotted her. At a Chock Full O’ Nuts , she snacked unnoticed on a cream cheese and raisin-bread sandwich. We sauntered past Sixth, Fifth, Madison Park, and finally went to her suite at the Waldorf Towers. The most publicized face and body in the world. Unrecognized.

One aspect of Marilyn’s genius was that she always looked more powerful on the screen than she did while playing the scene on the set. Dame Sybil Thorndike, the dowager queen in The Prince and the Showgirl, told me that she’d see Marilyn doing a scene that seemed terribly flat on the set, and then she’d see the daily rushes and, suddenly, there was power radiating from the screen. She studied prints of all Marilyn’s films and tried to figure out her secret techniques. She never did discover them. Nor has anybody else.

Then how explain the immortality of this woman who was so often ridiculed by critics and peers, a star who had to struggle for the right to play serious parts and work with sensitive directors? She succeeded against all odds, I’m convinced, because she came from a background of deprivation and sorrow, and she had nobody but herself.

image-37_061024060344.jpgMonroe embodied the American Dream: Anyone could make it, if they worked hard. Photo: Alamy

Born on 1 June 1926, Norma Jeane Baker, an illegitimate child, lived in foster homes and an orphanage most of her early years and had to work long and hard to become Marilyn Monroe. On the set, the time she needed to bloom drove her co-stars and directors crazy. Movie actors are trained to get into a scene—often shot out of sequence with a previous scene—when they hear the word “Action”. Marilyn couldn’t. Billy Wilder told me that she got better as she did more and more takes—while others playing in her scenes became wearier. It was how her machinery worked.

She sometimes seemed to take forever to perform even the simplest acts of everyday life. Bawled out by the studio head for her chronic lateness (each day of cancelled shooting cost the studio about $18,000 at that time), Marilyn pouted and replied seriously, “Why, Mr. Zanuck, it’s not me that’s late—it’s the others who are early.” Zanuck almost swallowed his cigar.

When I was around Marilyn for any length of time, her mysterious charm conquered me, and I would unconsciously move into her realm of timelessness. At such moments, she could be simultaneously a homeless waif and a femme fatale. I remember this side of her on a hot July afternoon in Manhattan. I arrived at her apartment for an interview at precisely 3:30 p.m. I buzzed. I stood outside and waited—and sweated. Two hours later, the elevator door opened and out stepped Marilyn. She fumbled for her keys and then opened the door.

Inside, she sat on the living room hassock painting her toenails, while I made notes. “It’s awful hot,” she remarked. “Why don’t we talk in the bedroom? It’s air-conditioned.”

I began to feel like Ewell in The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn sprawled across the bed. I sat on a chair. She had turned the air conditioner on too high, but as we talked, the room seemed to grow hotter, and my mind wandered. Above the bed hung a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator was Marilyn’s hero. The photograph showed a young, intense, spiritual Lincoln, with large, serious eyes. He seemed to be glaring at me. I got my wandering mind back on the interview!

The look I had seen in Marilyn’s eyes when we first met in 1953 was still there when I saw her for the last time, a few weeks before her death from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1962. What struck me most was how thin she was. There had been a lot of sadness in her life. Two marriages had failed—to baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio and Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. And, despite corrective surgery, she had been unable to bear children. Yet, when we chatted, she became her old bubbling self. She told me she was decorating a guest room in her new house, and her first guest would be Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln’s biographer. We kissed goodbye—a kiss Lincoln would have approved. I felt no foreshadowing of doom.

Sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning, 6 August 1962, we lost her. For a time, she had embodied the American dream that any man or woman—from whatever rank in society, with whatever handicaps of poverty and social dislocation—can rise to the heights if willing to work hard. Perhaps it is this to which the starry-eyed girls outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre are paying tribute. She belongs to those young girls of 1985 just as she belongs to all of us who, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, responded to her luminous presence. As long as her films can still be seen, Marilyn lives.

From Reader's Digest November 1985

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