The naked actress was laughing, splashing, her flesh incandescent against the shimmer of blue, now on her back, then bottoms up, her happy sounds echoing, as if she were the only woman in the world—and wasn’t she?
She was, after all, Marilyn Monroe, and this was Fox’s Soundstage 14, where she was shooting the film Something’s Got to Give, under the supervision of legendary Hollywood director George Cukor.
Nude scenes were common overseas—Bardot had become famous flashing her fanny in And God Created Woman—but a major star like Monroe shedding for the CinemaScope camera? Just not done, even if she did have those notorious calendar shots in her past.
This was the closed set of all closed sets. A small army of security guards had been summoned by producer Henry Weinstein to cover the five entrances to the soundstage, after word of the nude scene wildfired across the lot. This was the toughest ticket in town, unless you had an in.
I had an in. Last night I’d heard from Marilyn’s personal publicist, Pat Newcomb (calling at the star’s request), that tomorrow would be the “day of days” on the Something’s Got to Give set.
“Marilyn says you wanted to visit,” Pat said, in her pleasantly professional way, “sometime during filming. And this is it.”
“Mind my asking what’s special about tomorrow?”
“She has a swimming scene and, knowing Marilyn, might just slip out of her suit.…”
I reminded Miss Newcomb that I needed two passes, and was assured they’d be waiting at the studio gate.
So how did I rate? Big-shot agent? Top Hollywood columnist? Producer sizing up MM for his next picture, maybe?
No. I was just a private detective, or anyway I used to be. Since my agency grew to three locations (LA, Manhattan, and the original Chicago office), I’d become mostly a figurehead, bouncing between them, handling publicity and sucking up to big-money clients. I couldn’t remember when I last knocked on a strange door or parked outside some motel with a camera, much less carried a gun.
But Nathan Heller, president of the A-1 Detective Agency, me, had indeed done a number of private eye jobs for Miss Monroe, starting with bodyguard duty in Chicago on her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes junket, and more recently tracking down a guy named C. Stanley Gifford, who she thought was her father, in the sense that he was the likeliest candidate for having knocked up Mom, who currently resided in the latest of many nuthouses.
Old C. Stanley missed the boat, or maybe his gravy train, when my client used the info I gathered to call her potential pop and say, “This is Norma Jeane—I’m Gladys Baker’s daughter.” Apparently thinking this was a touch, the idiot—unaware that Norma Jeane Baker had transformed herself, through no little effort, into Marilyn Monroe—hung up. On her second try, she got C. Stanley’s wife, who told the caller to contact her husband’s lawyer if she “had a complaint.”
Anyway, we were friendly, Marilyn and I, and for a while had been very friendly. In the interim I had transformed myself, through no little effort, into “the private eye to the stars.” This was a nice trick since I lived in Chicago, though the A-1’s ongoing security job with the Beverly Hills Hotel meant I had a bungalow whenever and for however long I might need one.
I also had an ex-wife out here, a former actress now married to a once successful producer, neither of whom I gave a shit about. I gave much more than a shit about my teenage son, Sam, who was actually Nathan Samuel Heller, Jr., only we had called him “Sam” when he was little, to avoid having two Nates around. Before long, my wife was happy not to have any Nate around.
So Sam it was, now a happy fourteen-year-old. Why happy? Wouldn’t you be, if you were a fourteen-year-old male whose father had got him onto the set of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swimming scene?
When you are divorced and your wife has custody of your only child, and the other “dad” is a film producer (once successful or otherwise), you have to work to stay on your kid’s good side. Sam was not impressed with celebrities, generally, having seen plenty, but this was different. I was fairly certain his first sexual experience had been with the signed-to-him nude Monroe calendar I’d given him on his thirteenth birthday (his mother still didn’t know about that).
This was his fifteenth-birthday present, even though this was May and the real date wasn’t till September. Some gifts you grab when they present themselves.
I’d kept the nature of what we’d be witnessing to myself, just promising Sam a “treat,” and he put up with that. We cut each other plenty of slack, since we often had half a continent between us, and anyway, in my mid-fifties, I was pretty old for a teen’s dad.
Sam looked a lot like me, identical except for his mother’s brown hair and not my reddish variety, and was already within two inches of my six feet. He was slender and so was I—I’d lost my paunch in an effort to regain my youth.
So I looked goddamn good in my lightweight gray glen plaid Clipper Craft suit with lighter gray shirt (Van Heusen tab collar) and thin black silk tie. Sam was in a tan striped Catalina pullover and brown beltless Jaymar slacks. We were a sporty pair.
Keep in mind that I was already in solid with the kid for getting him out of school for the day. This was a Wednesday, and he had something like a week and a half left before summer vacation. So I was cool, for a dad.
He did complain that I didn’t have a convertible, which in California was a criminal offense. My wheels, technically part of the A-1’s fleet, were merely a white 1960 Jaguar 3.8, leather seats, walnut interior, disk brakes, automatic transmission.
“Convertibles blow my business papers around,” I said at the wheel, tooling around the Fox lot. “And muss my hair.”
“Get it cut,” he said, rubbing his hand over the bristle of his crew cut.
“I don’t like the smell of butch wax.”
“Come on, Dad. Grow up.”
I didn’t share with Sam my opinion of crew cuts, which was that they were for servicemen, bodybuilders, and homosexuals, not necessarily mutually exclusive groups. Kids his age didn’t need having their sexuality undermined. In fact, my mission today was just the opposite.
Of course, in trying to impress my kid—whose “other” father was a producer (did I mention the fat prick used to be successful?)—I should have picked a lot other than Fox’s. The grand old studio was scrambling to stay afloat. Clouds of dust crowded the blue out of the sky over bulldozers making way for apartment buildings and office towers. The out-of-control Liz Taylor picture Cleopatra, currently filming in Rome, had required the selling off of such fabled backlot locations as Tyrone Power’s Zorro hacienda, Betty Grable’s Down Argentine Way ranch, and Lana Turner’s Peyton Place town square.
Marilyn’s new picture, which Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons called “troubled,” was in fact the only going project on the lot.
“Jeez,” Sam said, elbow out the rolled-down window. “It’s a lousy ghost town.”
The streets of this soundstage city had once been hopping with cowboys and Indians, pirates and dancing girls. Even the trees and lawns were brown and dying—palms and ferns, too. Had they cut off the water? Or had the water company cut off Fox?
As per Pat Newcomb’s instructions, I drove directly to Marilyn’s recently constructed bungalow, which had the look of a small prefab suburban house. I left Sam in the Jag and went up to the door, where a security guard was on watch; I showed my special pass, and he knocked for me.
I was greeted by Pat Newcomb—slim in a yellow blouse and tan slacks, thirty or so, her light brown hair cut chin-length. We knew each other only slightly. She was attractive, but not too attractive—that wouldn’t do for the woman assigned by the Arthur Jacobs PR agency to be Marilyn’s right hand.
The interior was mostly one big bustling room, as buzzing as the lot was otherwise dead. A battalion of technicians was at work on creating the fabled Marilyn Monroe “look.” Each seemed to operate off caffeine, as one hand would bear a coffee cup, the other whatever tool of the trade was required: comb, brush, makeup jar.
Wearing only a flesh-colored bikini, the object of their artistry reclined on a slant board like the bride of Frankenstein waiting to be awakened. She was more slender than I’d ever seen her, but her prominent rib cage made her handful breasts jut nicely, and her narrow waist and flaring hips suggested a voluptuousness that wasn’t really earned.
I shouldered my way in. “Afraid I’m gonna have to take you in for public nudity.”
Marilyn beamed at me but didn’t turn her head—her makeup man of many years, Whitey Snyder, a pleasant sharp-featured guy, was using a watercolor brush to highlight her cheekbones.
“Are you going to make me laugh, Nate?” she asked, with only a hint of her trademark halting screen delivery. “Because if you are, I am going to have to throw you out on your you-know-what.”
An almost naked broad using a euphemism like “you-know-what” was pretty funny.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin your face,” I said.
“Takes more and more work to make it a face,” she said, rueful but good-humored. Her mouth was on, but not as full as before, if just as lushly red. Her whole look had been adjusted to make the switch from the fifties to the sixties, more fashion model than pinup.
At a counter facing the slant board, a heavyset woman in a pale blue smock was mixing body makeup. Then she began applying the goop with a rubber-gloved hand.
“I’m going to be in that chlorinated water a long time,” Marilyn said by way of explanation, batting her mascaraed lashes at me. “This is the mixture Esther Williams used to use. Where’s your son?”
“Out in the car.”
“Leave him there. We’ll let him see the magic. But not how the trick is done.… Ooh, this is nasty stuff. Again, you know, it’s because of the water.…”
A skinny effeminate man also in a pale blue smock had begun spraying hairspray that turned her platinum locks, already put to the test by God knew how many and what chemicals, into something brittle and stiff.
“Everybody! This is my friend Nate Heller—you know that private eye on TV? Peter Gunn? He’s based on Nate.…”
Everybody gave me a fraction-of-a-second glance, and a few even pretended to be impressed. They’d have been more impressed if Peter Gunn hadn’t been canceled recently.
Having tossed me my cookie, she said, “You run along, Nate.”
I ran along.
(By the way, Peter Gunn was not based on me, though I was a paid consultant the first season.)
When I climbed into the Jag, Sam gave me a wide-eyed welcome. It was like looking into the mirror and seeing my fourteen-year-old self look back at me. Horny fourteen-year-old self.
“Was she in there?”
“Jeez, Pop. What was she wearing!”
“Quit talking like an old Charlie Chan picture.”
“All Charlie Chan pictures are old. What was she wearing?”
He leaned against the leather seat and smiled to himself. He was gazing straight ahead—into that calendar he kept hidden under his gym socks. So I started up the Jag and headed through the lot to Soundstage 14.
Funny to think that Marilyn Monroe was the last hope of this dying beast. She’d been at odds with Twentieth Century–Fox almost from the start. Back in the middle 1940s, she’d struggled to get picked out of cattle calls, just another pretty blonde looking for extra work or bit parts. Then she’d tried to get noticed in small roles. Finally she worked her way up to being the worst-paid star on this or any other lot. Something’s Got to Give signaled her exit from Fox bondage—that one last picture she owed them.
From what I’d read, it wasn’t much of a picture, and of course getting stuck with lousy scripts had been why Marilyn had walked from Fox back in the fifties and gone east to form her own company. She’d wound up in the prestigious Actors Studio, a fairly unlikely berth for a bombshell.
Not that Marilyn was your average bombshell. She’d married Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, hadn’t she? She even turned her bubbleheaded shtick into something more with her Bus Stop and Some Like It Hot performances. Who but Marilyn could have found nuances in dumb-blonde roles?
She was special, and I liked her, on-screen and off. She had a reputation for driving directors and costars and studio execs crazy, but I knew that came from a kind of cockeyed perfectionism born out of insecurity. The hard-drinking, drug-abusing Marilyn of rumor was a stranger to me. I’d always found her sweet and sexy and funny, if needy, and if she had a bad side, I’d been privileged not to see it.
Anyway, this Something’s Got to Give should have been an easy payday for her. She had a copasetic costar in Dean Martin—she hung around with the Rat Pack boys, having been Sinatra’s sweetheart off and on—and the director was on her very short approved list with the likes of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.
Trifle though it might be, the picture was a remake of a comedy classic, My Favorite Wife, where remarried hubby Cary Grant is confronted by his suddenly-not-dead first wife, Irene Dunne, who’s been on a desert island with hunk Randolph Scott. Similar shenanigans should ensue second time around, with the current loosening of the Production Code meaning the sex stuff could be sexier stuff.
So the gig should have been painless for Marilyn, but the papers said she’d been out sick for half the production days. On the phone last night, I’d asked Pat Newcomb about it.
“So what’s up? Is Marilyn really sick?”
“She has been, yes. Sinusitis, flu, running a high temperature. The studio’s own physician has found her unfit for work.”
“So the columns saying she’s being a prima donna, that’s crap?”
A pause. “Mr. Heller, Marilyn is a star and has certain … eccentricities, and expectations. But no, she’s really sick.”
“Not so sick that she didn’t show up to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the president at Madison Square Garden the other night.”
It had been a big, gaudy televised event. Marilyn had done her dumb-blonde bit, not this new sixties model, and Jack Kennedy had damn near drooled over the attention. No wonder Jackie Kennedy had stayed away.
“That had been agreed to months ago,” the publicist said, defensively. “The studio tried to renege at the last moment, but how does a star like Marilyn turn down a command performance for the president?”
“She doesn’t,” I said. “But what kind of studio doesn’t see the PR value in that?”
“This one,” the publicist said bitterly. “They let Elizabeth Taylor run wild and stick adultery in their faces and rack up cost overruns that would bankrupt a European nation, and then punish Marilyn for it.”
“Is this a happy set I’m visiting tomorrow?”
Her tone lightened. “Oh, yes. And you have to love it—Marilyn knows just how to play these kind of people.”
These kind of people were mostly men, of course. And Marilyn had known all she had to do to get them eating out of her hand was take off her clothes.
When Sam and I stepped onto Soundstage 14, the world turned a bilious shade of pink. The elaborate, expansive set would have filled Soldier Field: spread out before us was the ass end of a stone-and-stucco Mediterranean mansion with a vast, angular pool surrounded by rococo lawn furniture and bushes and trees, one bearing a tree house.
Catwalks and lighting platforms made a spiderweb sky. A dapper little old gnome of a man was strutting around up there barking commands, and spotlights took various angles, as if searching for an escaped prisoner. This, I later learned, was Cukor, who—other than issuing very general orders, including the obligatory “Action!” and “Cut!”—gave Marilyn scant direction that afternoon.
On the fringes of the brightly lit set, an inky darkness prevailed. In one such pocket Sam and I positioned ourselves.
When a blue-robed Marilyn arrived with Pat Newcomb, a phalanx of attendees formed around her like Secret Service agents guarding the president. This group included Snyder and other hair and makeup techs, as well as Marilyn’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, a fat witchy-looking figure in a black muumuu. Another slant board was waiting for Marilyn between takes, but the truth is—except for a lunch break, which for her was coffee—she never got completely out of the pool, once she got in.
She just swam happily, the center of attention in the elaborate set in the cavernous soundstage, queen of her domain. At first—when she slipped out of the blue terry-cloth robe, and into the pool—she wore a flesh-colored swimsuit. But after only a few minutes, a voice called down from a catwalk.
Not Cukor’s, rather that of one of the two cinematographers (one camera was going poolside, this other up top) yelling down, echoingly, “I’m sorry, darling—but the lines in the swimsuit are showing up!”
This was a stilted reading, obviously planned, but Marilyn quickly, and deftly, slipped off the suit. That left only the very sheer bra and panties beneath, and those soon followed, deposited at the edge of the pool as if put out to dry.
Sam’s mouth was hanging open. I started to laugh, then realized mine was yawning, too.
She was a vision, a nymph, if a nymph was as womanly as that, a pink ghost flickering beneath the turquoise glimmer, occasionally exposing more than just a limb, a delicious rump, a pert breast—even the amber pubic triangle made its presence known, if fleetingly.
Pat Newcomb, at my side, said softly, “Having fun?”
“I guess she’s showing the Fox boys she isn’t over the hill.”
The publicist grunted a little laugh. “She had to get Black Bart’s blessing, you know.”
She nodded toward the stout woman in the black muumuu, just beyond the big camera. “Had to have Paula’s blessing. Had to be approved ‘Method’ technique for Marilyn to swim in the nude.”
“Yeah? What’s the scene about?”
“Tempting her husband out of Cyd Charisse’s bed.”
“This is the method that would do that.”
Cukor would occasionally call “Cut,” mostly for a camera reload, and during one such break, Pat called an assistant director over and said, “Now.”
Soon a couple of photographers came in, and the publicist walked them to their respective spots and said, “You have half an hour, fellas. Don’t waste it.”
They didn’t. They had those new motor-driven Nikons that could snap half a dozen frames per second.
They caught her bobbing in the turquoise water. Got her poolside getting in and out of the nappy blue robe, even providing a few glimpses of dimpled behind. Captured incredible shots of her gripping the pool’s rim while a shapely leg slid up onto the Spanish tiles. All that, and one dazzling, knowing smile after another.…
Then when she sat on the steps and let the robe disappear and showed the fantastic sweep of her back into her narrow waist and out into the full hips, water beading, sparkling on that gorgeous flesh, audible gasps (including from Heller Father and Son) could be heard.
She just looked over her shoulder at everybody, with that old Betty Boop innocence, as if to say, “Whatever are you boys so excited about?”
And my son said, “Best birthday ever, Dad. Hell. Best dad ever.”
And father and son just stood there in the dark, bonding, ignoring each other’s erection.
Copyright © 2011 by Max Allan Collins