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“Who can think about art in this miserable city?”
Of course, the surface looked sexy enough—parties on Doheny Drive, martini (no olives) in hand, wet red lips, hair like a platinum cloud, white halter top, skintight toreador pants, red peep-toe Ferragamos, and matching cherry polish. Always pale, a milkmaid among Malibu tans.
At twenty-seven, Marilyn Monroe was at the peak of her stardom. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—her highest-grossing film to date—had launched her into the stratosphere of absolute icon. In less than five years, she’d gone from orphanage waif to child bride to factory girl to car model to GI pinup to studio underling to down-and-out extra to mogul’s mistress to Playboy centerfold to BAFTA nominee. She’d been Sweetheart of the Month, Artichoke Queen, Miss Cheesecake of the Year, Girl Most Likely to Thaw Alaska, Photoplay’s Fastest Rising Star, Redbook’s Best Young Box Office Personality, Look’s Most Promising Female Newcomer, and The Best Friend a Diamond Ever Had. She’d done twenty-one films, three hundred magazine covers, and won three Golden Globes. Marilyn was now Hollywood’s most bankable actress. Not bad for a dirt-poor orphan who’d grown up in foster care and dropped out of high school at sixteen.
But grueling schedules, dawn call times, and constant travel were taking a toll on her. Breakfast of raw eggs whipped in hot milk with lashings of sherry, carrot-juice breaks at Stan’s Drive-In. Giuseppa, her Chihuahua, soiling the carpet. Lonely lunches of raw hamburger and crackers, fights with her agent at Schwab’s. Blowups with boyfriends at La Scala and Romanoff’s. Nightly battles with insomnia, relieved only occasionally by Seconals and Nembutals.
After awards shows she’d flee like Cinderella, skipping the after-party and vanishing by midnight. Alone in her studio dressing room, she’d kick off her heels, strip off her gloves, and unzip a gown that wasn’t hers to begin with. She’d peel off her false lashes, wipe off her makeup with tissues dipped in Pond’s cold cream. Barefoot in jeans and a polo shirt, she’d throw her Ferragamos in the back of her car and drive west on an empty Wilshire Boulevard, speeding at up to 80 miles per hour. Safe at home, she’d drink a glass of sherry, pop a few pills, and sink into blurry sleep.
On set she was known as ditsy and distant, always darting away with a book between takes. Whenever someone would make a friendly overture, Marilyn would clam up. She was too earnest for idle chitchat and considered it a waste of time. As for gossip, she knew too well the havoc it wreaked. While sitting in hair and wardrobe, she’d tune out the whispers and jabs about who had bad skin and who was sleeping with whom and who had just had an abortion. Attempts to squeeze out juicy tidbits were shut down. “I don’t know any,” she’d say with a sigh, “because I don’t get out.”
Studio gossip and cocktail chatter were the pillars of Hollywood friendships, which were often forged at clannish house parties. Marilyn hated these—what would she even talk about?—it wasn’t as if anyone was dying to know which Turgenev novel she was reading. “I didn’t go out because I couldn’t do polite conversation,” Marilyn remarked. “I couldn’t make table talk, small talk, so I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll just stay home.’” Whenever she did feel like socializing, Marilyn preferred nightclubs such as Crescendo and Mocambo, where she could slink in and out at will and avoid catty banter and boisterous parlor games.
This made for an especially lonely life in Hollywood—which was about cliques, connections, and friends of friends. In Manhattan it was fine to bar-hop on your own, check out your usual spots and see who’s there. In LA, everyone went to people’s houses: Charlie Chaplin’s in Calabasas or Jack Warner’s on Doheny Drive. They all seemed to have their own group—except Marilyn, who found herself alone even one New Year’s Eve: “Everybody has a date tonight except me. If you’re not doing anything, could we have dinner together?”
“Fundamentally unsure of herself, inclined to be suspicious of people because of past hurts she’s suffered, Marilyn isn’t easy to know,” wrote Rita Malloy in Motion Picture magazine. And she wasn’t. Hollywood would always be a bit baffled by her—skipping studio parties to ride roller coasters at Ocean Park or dreamily reading aloud from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet whenever she broke for lunch. Who was this warm-blooded space creature who lugged around dictionaries, spoke like a drugged-up puppy, and looked like a French pastry? And how could they make sense of a girl who got lost on her way to the bathroom, took sixty takes to learn a line, then went home alone to read Heinrich Heine?
* * *
Like most other shy, imaginative misfits, Marilyn retreated into books. Back in ’49 she opened her first charge account, at Martindale’s bookshop, an odd choice for a starving starlet. Books kept her company during those long afternoons at Schwab’s, spending her last nickel on a malted and eating it with a spoon to make it last. She’d leaf through Walden or Camille, waiting to be picked up by some modeling scout, then cab back to her dingy little room, switch on a lamp, and console herself with Look Homeward, Angel.
As her star power rose, Marilyn nourished her mind as best she could. She took yoga with Indra Devi, audited classes at UCLA—Backgrounds in Literature and Renaissance Art. Desperate to find her niche, she attended the Actor’s Lab on Crescent Heights Boulevard. Even then she’d been an outsider—plopped in the back absorbed in a book, hungry, shoulder-length hair box-bleached and uncombed. Her classmates rarely invited her for coffee at Barney’s Beanery or drinks at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard. Perhaps the writer William Saroyan was right when he had prophesied, Grim Reaper–like, “You’re a loner, Marilyn, and you’ll always be alone.”
Only one or two friends sensed Marilyn’s depth, including the actress Shelley Winters, who shared an apartment with her in 1951. One late spring evening Dylan Thomas was in town, and Shelley volunteered to cook him dinner. She roasted a crispy pork loin with wedges of garlic, mashed some potatoes with green onions and sour cream, and tossed a salad with Roquefort dressing. She didn’t expect much help from her roommate: “If you gave her a rack of lamb, she just stared at it.” Shelley had assigned her the applesauce—open jar, pour in saucepan, heat, add dash of Cointreau—but Marilyn got mixed up and poured in the whole bottle.
While Shelley cooked, Marilyn gathered white wildflowers from the empty lot next door, stuffed them in drinking glasses, and arranged them on the card tables she’d placed on their tiny balcony. She strung Japanese lanterns along the awning, lit candles, mixed gin martinis in milk bottles, and set out juice glasses to pour them in.
Marilyn and Shelley had one martini each—Dylan Thomas drank the rest straight out of the milk bottle. He downed a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white, and six bottles of beer he’d bought at a grocer’s. (Back in Wales, grocers didn’t sell cigarettes or alcohol—for this alone he might move to Los Angeles.) Naturally, Dylan didn’t mind when they served the liquored-up applesauce as if it were a cocktail.
“Although Mr. Thomas teased and kidded me with his risqué Welsh wit,” Shelley wrote, “he was quiet and respectful to Marilyn. Dylan Thomas seemed aware that behind the platinum hair and terrific body, there was a fragile and sensitive girl.… He was obviously a horny Welshman, but he never once made any kind of pass at Marilyn. Not even a verbal one.… I think this poet sensed that she very badly needed not to be thought of as just a tits-and-ass cutie.” By the end of the meal Marilyn was smitten, though refused to jump into Dylan’s green Hornet and join him at Chaplin’s home in Calabasas. Before Dylan left that candlelit balcony, with its view of glittering Hollywood night, he sang a Welsh melody in minor key, which moved Marilyn to tears: “Come all ye fair and tender maids, who flourish in your prime/ Beware, beware, keep your garden fair, let no man steal your time/ A woman is a branch, a tree—a man a clinging vine/ And from her branches carelessly he takes what he can find, find, he takes what he can find.”
* * *
If 1953 was Marilyn’s breakout year, it was also the year she began to rebel. She had to beg for her own dressing room on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she was making far less than her costar, Jane Russell. The rigors of studio production were making her physically and psychically ill. She’d just finished filming How to Marry a Millionaire, her third major role in nine months. Battered by migraines, insomnia, viral infections, and bronchitis, Marilyn was visibly weakening. She’d wake up shaking, nerves already shot, gulp down a painkiller before rolling out of bed. Nausea was inevitable, and she was often vomiting, unable to keep down anything but orange juice mixed with gelatin. Like everyone else in Hollywood, she’d been diagnosed with anemia, which meant massive vitamin B injections and gagging down concoctions like tomato juice spiked with ground-up liver (“Even lime and Worcestershire sauce hardly mask the taste”). “I had no sense of satisfaction at all,” Marilyn told Modern Screen. “And I was scared.”
But Marilyn—the most popular actress in the world—was oddly powerless. America’s sexy sweetheart was still the property of Twentieth Century Fox, and back in the early fifties, the studio controlled everything: from the roles you took on, to the directors you worked with, to how often you went to the bathroom, and sometimes even who you married. Studio heads had little respect for their actors—especially the women—and often tried to coax out publicity-boosting catfights. Directors often felt irrelevant and lashed out in frustration against their cast. On-set bullying was common, and Marilyn was an especially easy target. “They tell you to cry one tear,” she complained, “and if you feel two and cry two, it’s no good. If you change ‘the’ to ‘a’ in your lines, they correct you. An actress isn’t a machine, but they treat you like one.”
Marilyn knew she deserved better from Fox. This year alone she’d raked in heaps of glammed-up money. She was their sun, their power earner, yet they treated her like a dumb-blonde cash cow. Executive Darryl Zanuck claimed she had “emotions of a child” and was “ill-equipped” to determine the course of her career. (Not too ill-equipped to earn half their revenue.)
Fox had her lined up for River of No Return, a goofy Western with a slapdash script that was below even Zanuck’s standards. Marilyn would play Kay, a honky-tonk floozy and saloon chanteuse. Roles like these made her sick—stumbling around in spiked shoes, slipping on sweat-slick floors, enduring snide cameramen’s sneering and leers. She hated being bulldozed into the bimbo act. Most of all she hated Zanuck, who called her “Strawhead” behind her back, then cashed in fast to keep Fox afloat. But Marilyn was contractually stuck. Through gritted teeth, she accepted yet another role she knew was beneath her.
She longed for meaty roles such as Hedda Gabler or Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov. She’d recently read Émile Zola’s Nana and had fallen in love with the voluptuous French courtesan. Excited, she called George Cukor to see if he’d direct her in a film adaptation. Yet Cukor, a noted “women’s director,” declined. It was too risky, he said, and was there really an audience for decadent French novels from the nineteenth century?
Marilyn needed someone who believed in her. Her lawyers and agents would flatter her over salad and Dom Pérignon, then glaze over when she brought up her studio battles. She was beginning to lose hope. No one would take chances; no one would trust her talent. Fox, Paramount, MGM—even LA itself seemed to close in on her. She’d suffocate under its tawdry glare of misogyny, canned art, and smoggy money.
It would take a fellow outsider and artist, a soft-spoken photographer with a red-checked scarf and Brooklyn accent, to ignite Marilyn’s rebel flame and give her the strength to defy Darryl Zanuck and change the studio system forever.
* * *
Marilyn had always known the power of image—starting from her first modeling shots in the late 1940s. She’d been a visual learner since childhood. At the orphanage she’d spend hours on her bed, lying on her stomach, leafing through the film magazines of the late thirties and forties: Movie Mirror, Photoplay, and Screen Gems. She’d been studying these images for years—the lowered lash, the parted lip, the plucked brow, and the dewy eye. By the time the cameras pointed at her, she was ready.
Unlike most other models and actresses, Marilyn worked closely with her photographers, makeup artists, and costume designers—and more often than not, they learned from her. She knew her chin looked weak in profile, her left side was prettier than her right, and that the halo of down on her face gave her a soft-focus Garbo glow. She practiced dropping her lip to make her smile less gummy. When she didn’t like a picture, she gouged it with a hairpin. By 1953 she was dying to break loose from bloodless glamour shots, but she needed the right photographer. While she was browsing through stacks of picture portfolios, one in particular caught her eye. It belonged to a young fashion photographer named Milton Greene. His pictures were sensitive, spontaneous—especially the ones of Marlene Dietrich. She looked like a swan, with her arched back and snowy neck. “They’re so beautiful,” Marilyn breathed. “I want him to photograph me.” She made a few phone calls, and soon enough Milton was boarding a plane to Los Angeles.
Jaded and skeptical, Milton was far from starstruck. At thirty-one, he’d photographed Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, both Hepburns; his pictures were featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He liked elegant women with a European flair, and he wasn’t impressed by flashy screen queens: “Marilyn was not really what I would turn around for or call a whistle at, even though she turned on a lot of guys. I’d seen some of her movies, she looked interesting, but she didn’t throw me. My style is more Dietrich, Garbo, Audrey and Katharine Hepburn, even Judy Garland in a different way.” But when he met Marilyn, all that changed: “From the very beginning it was completely comfortable, like ‘Let’s make a date’ or whatever. She put out her hand and said, ‘You’re just a boy’ and I said, ‘You’re just a girl.’ And from that moment on we sort of hit it off.”
Milton Greene burst into Marilyn’s life at just the right time, bringing with him a blast of icy East Coast air. Everything about him—his catlike way of moving, the blazers he had made in Rome, even his staccato Brooklynese—promised a fresh alternative to LA’s ostentation. Unlike the big, blowsy Darryl Zanucks, Milton was unobtrusive, a beatnik among peacocks in his black turtlenecks, black linen jackets, black jeans, and black sneakers. A native New Yorker, Milton managed to live an almost European existence. His Midtown studio, at 480 Lexington Avenue, was pure Fellini, where writers, actors, and makeup artists played, drank sherry, and put on lipstick. He partied with jazz musicians, not models, and at night Max Roach and Gene Krupa would “come to the studio and jam.” He wasn’t sleazy (an anomaly among fashion photographers), nor was he formulaic. He didn’t fuss around with lighting (“If you can’t light it with one light, you can’t light it.”). Instead of overshooting or bossing around the models, he’d switch off the phones and break out the sherry, taking time to select the perfect record for the person and occasion (for Marlene Dietrich, it was always Stravinsky).
For their first shoot, Milton stripped off all that Hollywood pancake and shellacked hair to reveal a new Marilyn. “I took off lots of makeup, because it was caked,” he said. “I made it much smoother for a fresh-scrubbed look. She wasn’t used to that; she was used to a lot of makeup. Fellini maybe did films where he used a bit of pancake or powder, but most actors were used to lots of makeup out of habit.” They shot in Laurel Canyon, but she could have been an Ivory Soap Vassar girl in her Peter Pan collar, flower-flocked cotton and almost-pageboy hair. She looked bright and bookishly sexy, not like some dial-a-goddess from a cheesecake mag. Marilyn loved the photos and immediately sent him two dozen roses.
By the time they met for their second shoot, Marilyn and Milton had bonded like school chums. They set up shop on a Fox back lot, ransacked the wardrobe rooms, and found the burlap skirt and wooden clogs Jennifer Jones had worn in The Song of Bernadette. (“It was the ultimate in joke,” Amy Greene would later say with a laugh, “to put the world’s leading sex symbol in Saint Bernadette’s clothes.”) The French village from What Price Glory provided the perfect backdrop—they’d later refer to it as The French Peasant Sitting. In scratchy black convent stockings and heavy nun’s shoes, Marilyn seemed lit from within, blonde Hollywood saint, gorgeous and tired and not unlike Bernadette herself. Like a Cinderella in reverse, Marilyn went from Van Cleef to sackcloth—with Milton as her fairy godmother.
Somehow, Milton had done what no other photographer had: tease out the deepest underpinnings of Marilyn’s personality. His photos were playful, puckish, and poles apart from the glossy brutality of her Hollywood images. “I wish he could photograph me always,” Marilyn gushed. “I’ve had my pictures taken a lot, but with Milton Greene, it gave me new hope and a new outlook. I’ve never really liked the way I was photographed until I saw Milton’s pictures. He has a way … he’s not just a photographer, he’s an artist, really. Even when he does fashions which are usually boring, he can make something so beautiful.”
She was equally impressed with Milton’s work methods: “It was the first time I didn’t have to pose. He just let me think, but he always kept the camera going … I wasn’t aware of it.” He spoke in soothing murmurs, listening to his subjects and subtly adjusting to their needs. He radiated calm—even Judy Garland mellowed out around him. “Some photographers either went overboard with ‘lovey … honey,’” wrote one of Marilyn’s press agents years later. “Or they maintained an aloofness. Milton had a way of making a star feel very comfortable, very relaxed, and someone like Marilyn had to feel cared for, had to feel relaxed.”
She also had to feel safe, which was hard in a town where batches of girls were hauled in by the busload. For years she’d kept mute, emptying ashtrays and pimping herself out at parties on Doheny Drive. Before it was the talent scouts, now it was producers, but there was always some man gawking, eyeing her up and down like a prized hock of ham. “They treat me like a thing,” she confided to Milton. “I hate being treated like a thing.”
Milton didn’t treat her like a thing. In fact, when she’d strip to change looks he’d turn politely around. (“I was surprised when they told me that everyone used to ball her on the set,” he said. “I didn’t believe it. I still don’t.”) He respected her as an equal—they worked together not just as photographer and model but as collaborators. Milton thought more like a filmmaker or director. Each shoot had a story behind it, a dynamic narrative he made up as he went along. His dress-up-box attitude gave Marilyn a safe space to get creative and play. And play she did, pulling peasant blouses and clangy bangles from wardrobe rooms, costume shops, and sometimes her own closet. For one shoot: a loose taupe sweater thrown over a shimmery peach negligee—worn barefoot as she strummed a balalaika against a black velvet background strewn with poppies and ostrich plumes dyed white, plum, and green. For another: a fox fur wrap and fisherman’s hat. Or another: tumbled into a friend’s unmade bed, drinking a glassful of juice. The Dutch Girl Sitting, The Pekingese Dog Sitting, The Gypsy in the Window Sitting: Each picture is infused with glowing vulnerability, a candor and gentle humor specific to a rare kind of friendship—the friendship between two artists.
That summer, Milton and Marilyn forged an alliance that would change their lives. They met intermittently in Fox’s back lots, romping among fabric scraps and Hollywood frocks, speaking the same private language, communicating in electrical little gestures like twins. Both battled childhood wounds (and childhood stutters); both shrank from crowds yet longed for companionship; both were moody but laughed easily and smiled even more. Both were otherworldly—more absorbed in their imaginations than in the concrete moment. Friends of Milton’s said that chatting with him was like looking at an abstract painting. He’d get you talking about Greta Garbo’s hair or the color of snow in Russia only to steal off to his studio and write. Beguiled by Milton’s artistry and flair, Marilyn knew she’d found a kindred spirit: “He’s so sensitive and introspective,” she raved. “I work with other photographers, but this man is a great artist.”
Throughout her life, Marilyn would be drawn to two types of men: the creative, emotive types she befriended, and the resolute, dignified hunks she married. Milton Greene belonged to the former category. But with his alley-cat hipness and soft-coal eyes, Milton had his own subtle lure over women—and Marilyn’s lines between friendship and romance were always fuzzy. They may not have been each other’s type, but the sparks were mutual. “I think,” Milton mused after Marilyn’s death, “I had the feeling that we were going to make it. It’s easy to say this now, but between exchanged looks and handshakes, there was a feeling that we were going to get together. It was just a feeling.”
Milton’s hunch was confirmed one midsummer photo shoot in 1953 on assignment for Look. First he rubbed her with body makeup, coaxing her vanilla-matte pallor into warm, wet honey. Marilyn posed naked under a borrowed black cardigan, gently parted to reveal an unzipped slice of silky bare skin. The sweater belonged to Amy Franco, Milton’s Cuban-model fiancée, who was back in New York planning the perfect September wedding.
Still flushed from the intimacy of the afternoon’s shoot, they dined at a quiet little bistro on Sunset with private rooms and candlelit tables. They talked about art, New York City, Marlene Dietrich—all their usual subjects—but this time the conversation was charged with urgency. Milton was flying back east that night, and Marilyn offered to drive him to LAX. “When I was ready to leave she gave me a kiss,” Milton admitted. “And then she pulled back and gave me another kiss. Then I said, ‘Wait a moment, now it’s my turn,’ and gave her a kiss and said, ‘Gee, I don’t really feel like leaving.’ And she said—you know, the way she talks—‘I really wish you wouldn’t,’ and I said, ‘I wish I didn’t have to either, but I’ll be back.’ I left, and I kept thinking of her on the way back to New York.”
Two weeks later, Milton went back to LA on an unrelated assignment for Look. This time he spent every free moment with Marilyn, holed up in her duplex below the Sunset Strip, drinking scotch, listening to records, and lounging around in bed with her neurotic black cat. “I really got to know her, and that was different,” he explained. “The feeling was different; the movement was different; we liked each other; I couldn’t help it.”
On Milton’s last weekend in LA, they drove to Palm Springs, taking photos along the way. “We slept together in Palm Springs,” he remembered, “then drove back to her house and went to bed again. Then we got dressed and went to a party. Everyone was there, including Frank Sinatra. Everyone heard Marilyn was taking singing lessons, and everyone wanted to hear her sing, so she sang a song from River of No Return. She was fantastic, because she was so sexy. She never sang like Judy Garland, she never turned it out like Frank Sinatra, but she had this voice like ‘I wanna eat you.…’ Her voice would go high, and then glow, and it was really sexy. It wasn’t the greatest voice in the world, but it was sexy.”
Sexy or not, Milton was due back in New York to marry Amy, who was already two months pregnant. Marilyn was devastated: “She was sad; she was very upset. I said, ‘Look, we’ll always be friends; we’ll always love each other.’” Marilyn doubted that, but there wasn’t much she could do. She wondered if she’d ever see her new friend again.
Milton had given her hope when she’d needed it most. She was closing in on that dreaded age: thirty. As an actress you went from kitten to crone, begging for fringe roles as lunatic spinsters and murderous aunts. Marilyn lost faith in Hollywood—but not in herself. All along she’d been smiling for the camera with Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man hidden behind her script, lolling around pools in Beverly Hills, actually reading the books everyone thought were just dopey props. For years she’d kept Leaves of Grass on her night tables, dreaming of change. Like Whitman, she knew she contained multitudes.
* * *
When she met Milton, in 1953, Marilyn was heavily involved with her boyfriend, Joe DiMaggio. For eighteen months he’d been courting her, visiting her on set, taking her for drinks at Villa Capri or Chinese at Bruce Wong’s. He spent weekends sprawled out in her duplex, commandeering the TV until her gargantuan crystal ashtrays overflowed with Camel stubs. Their chemistry was fierce, buttressed by tenderness and respect. With his Old World manners and quiet devotion, Joe shielded her from the vulgarities of Hollywood—its ugly narcissism and cheap fame.
Marilyn knew Joe wanted to marry her, but something was holding her back. She worried they didn’t have enough in common, didn’t have enough to talk about. His silences bored her—and even frightened her. Addicted to television with no interest in art, Joe rarely cracked open the many books she kept giving him—Saint-Exupéry, Jules Verne. Ambivalent at best toward her acting career, Joe brushed off her creative struggles as Hollywood nonsense. “I don’t know if I can take all your crazy publicity,” Joe said to her early on in their courtship. Marilyn told him he didn’t have to be part of it. “I am,” he snapped back, “and it bothers me.”
On August 8, 1953, Marilyn flew to Canada to film River of No Return. From the very beginning, she was out of her element. In addition to singing and playing guitar, Marilyn was forced to do her own stunts—horse riding, gunfights, and whitewater rafting. The director, Otto Preminger, bullied her, slapping her ass, teasing her as she struggled with the harrowing stuntwork. During an action-packed scene in the Athabasca River, Marilyn’s raft tipped over, filling her boots with icy water. She sprained her leg, nearly drowned, and spent the rest of the summer in a cast and crutches. When DiMaggio heard of her accident, he flew to Canada immediately and kept watch over her for the rest of production. After the film wrapped, Joe whisked her away to San Francisco, where she met his mother, cooked pasta with his sister, and watched him fish for perch from the Fisherman’s Wharf pier. Reluctant to race back to LA, Marilyn stayed on in San Francisco, a decision that pleased Joe endlessly. When she did return to Hollywood, Joe came with her, and they rented a home together on North Palm Drive.
On November 4, 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire premiered at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. A hit with the critics and box office alike, the film earned $8 million worldwide—Fox’s second-highest-grossing film of the year. More important, it cemented Marilyn’s status as a gifted comedienne. Now, she hoped, Fox would finally give her the respect she deserved.
But Zanuck already had her next film picked out—The Girl in Pink Tights—another bimbo role with an idiotic storyline. When he sent her the script, Marilyn promptly returned it—with TRASH scrawled in marker on the title page. Zanuck reminded her that she was under contract and advised her to be a good girl and learn her lines.
With DiMaggio’s support, Marilyn flatly refused to consider the script. On December 15, she failed to show up for her first day of filming. True to his word, Zanuck suspended Marilyn for having violated her contract. Jobless and directionless, Marilyn braced herself for another lonely holiday at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
On Christmas Day, Joe surprised her with a blazing fire and decorated tree, flank steaks and buckets of ice and Dom Pérignon. He flung a black mink round her shoulders and gave her a thirty-five-baguette eternity ring. This time when he asked her to marry him, she said yes.
* * *
In the spring of 1954, Marilyn warily renewed her contract with Fox. Her agent, Charlie Feldman, had negotiated a substantial salary spike and secured her the lead in Billy Wilder’s exciting new comedy, The Seven Year Itch. But first she had to do one last musical: There’s No Business Like Show Business. Marilyn winced at the thought of more lip-synching and shimmying, but she was under contract again and was forced to accept.
Within weeks, Marilyn was seriously regretting her choice to return to Fox. Once more, it was working her like a dog—fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, on another throwaway musical Zanuck thought would make him rich. She’d wake at dawn, stuff herself into sequins and plastic paste flowers, and prance around in huge hoops and high-plumed headgear like some deranged cockatiel. She flubbed her way through campy dances under the Fox lot’s Technicolor glare, sweating under the hot klieg lights, dripping body makeup. Inwardly she seethed at Feldman for having pushed her into accepting Zanuck’s terms.
Joe wasn’t much help. He’d gone from supportive to outright surly, spending his evenings glued to TV Westerns or out all night at poker games. He made no effort with her Hollywood crowd—glowering in the dark when she brought back friends, hissing to himself about “that bunch of phonies.” When he did deign to visit the Show Business set, Joe seemed to prefer the jaunty vigor of Ethel Merman to Marilyn’s exasperating drama. Off set she was spotted wandering down Sunset Boulevard, wrapped in minks in ninety-degree heat, weeping softly. Five months in, their marriage was foundering. She thought he’d never tire of taking care of her—all those midnight flights and financial advice and pretending to like her attempts at cooking lasagna. Here was a man who’d fly across the country when she’d twisted her foot yet wouldn’t talk to her at dinner.
Twenty-four hours after wrapping up Show Business, Marilyn flew to New York to begin The Seven Year Itch. She begged Joe to explore the city with her: the Met, the jazz spots, even Central Park. Joe blew her off and spent his days at Toots Shor’s gabbing with friends about the 1952 pennant races. By now, the cracks in their marriage were obvious. The hacks hovered, ready to pounce, steno pads poised for the next slammed door, the next dressing room shouting match.
The final blow came at two in the morning on September 15. A crowd of 4,000 had gathered at Lexington and 52nd to watch Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blow up. The vanilla halter, electric fans, flashing cameras, and screaming men made for a frenzied publicity stunt, and an explosive scene between Marilyn and Joe. With each whoosh of the subway DiMaggio’s blood boiled hotter. Smirky gossip hound Walter Winchell poked him in the ribs and said, “What’re you gonna do about it, Joe?” Fuming, Joe stormed off to get drunk at Toots Shor’s. He caught the earliest flight to San Francisco, and Marilyn returned to LA alone.
Distraught, she sought advice from “Old Jane” Russell. Must she give up her own identity in marriage? How did she manage an acting career along with a husband and children? Jane advised her to leave studio worries at work and concentrate on Joe when she was at home. But Marilyn couldn’t switch off like that nor would she want to. Even if she did, she would have had to numb out with Nembutals and Sinatra records to clear her head. Marilyn was beginning to see irreconcilable differences—not just between herself and Joe but between family and career.
Some actresses mean it when they say they want to focus on family, that all they want to do now is cook, nurse babies, and change nappies. Marilyn didn’t. She meant that she was deeply invested in her relationship, and that she wanted to make her husband happy. For Joe—and for most mid-century American men—that wasn’t enough. As one studio insider predicted, “If it’s ever a question with Marilyn of marriage or career, the marriage may go.”
The marriage did go. On October 22, 1954, dressed in a LeMaire suit of black gabardine and a strand of Mikimoto pearls from Emperor Hirohito, a puffy-eyed Marilyn stood on the steps of Santa Monica Municipal Court and announced her split from the Yankee Clipper.
* * *
Marilyn’s career had already been teetering, and now divorce flung her into the media hailstorm. Dogged by photographers, hounded by journalists, and emotionally shattered by the breakup of the century, Marilyn needed another champion.
Days after the breakup, Marilyn got a phone call from Milton Greene. He was back in town with Amy; would she meet them at a party at Gene Kelly’s? Marilyn paused. The last thing she needed was another trade party, all the puffed-up banter and inside gibes. Charades was an institution at Gene’s, and the very thought paralyzed her. Sensing her hesitations, Milton offered a solution: He’d take her to dinner first, then they’d slink into the party late and undetected. (He’d never got the hang of charades, either—the game was too literal for them both.)
Charades was in full swing by the time they arrived. Amy waved Marilyn over and greeted her warmly. Makeup-free, camel coat thrown over a black Capezio leotard, hair still wet from her bath, Marilyn was hardly the siren Amy had expected: “I’ve never seen anyone so bedraggled. She looked like a wet chicken.”
Marilyn shrank into a corner with Milton. After nearly a year apart, they clicked right back into high gear, heads bent together in catlike conspiracy. This bright-kerchiefed boy and shy little chicken were planning something big.
* * *
With her professional and personal life in upheaval, Marilyn needed a plan. She’d been battling Fox for more than a year and still didn’t have the one thing she wanted: creative control. Even a powerhouse such as Feldman couldn’t deliver her that. He managed to squeeze more money from Fox, but failed to grasp Marilyn’s ultimate goal. Milton understood the importance of script, director, and cinematographer approval. Why not strike out on her own, he suggested, move to New York and start her own production company? It was a concept they’d been bouncing around for months. Now those vague conversations took a serious turn. Within days, Marilyn moved into the Voltaire Apartments on Sunset Boulevard, where she and Milton smoked and snacked and schemed about their secret coup. “The idea was to create an independent production company for Marilyn so that she could break out of her typecasting and make films that she wanted to make,” recalled Amy, who was part of the plan from the start. “She loved it. She preened. She said, ‘I’m gonna be the head?!’”
From the very beginning, part of the appeal was New York itself. “Los Angeles is without the cultural and intellectual ferment which is to be found in any other large city in the world,” wrote Marilyn’s friend Maurice Zolotow, who hated LA as much as she did and claimed that the city’s major cultural achievements were “the square-block supermarket, the one level and multi-level ranch house, the backyard barbeque, laundromats, and drive-in hamburger joints.” (Marilyn did like the drive-in hamburger joints.) LA’s chlorinated grottoes and fake Florentine fountains were all she knew.
So far, her trips to New York had been disappointingly flat: overnight rides on the 20th Century Limited, huddled in her bunk reading Swann’s Way while she was supposed to be learning the script for Love Happy. Toothbrush, powders, and lipsticks crammed into her cheap plastic travel case, blouses and bras stuffed in the trunk of white rawhide she’d bought on credit to look luxe and city-chic. For years she’d glimpsed Manhattan in frustrating little fragments. Now it was about to become her home.
Milton sprang into action immediately. “The plan was to speak to the lawyers,” he explained decades later, “find out what was what, create a new deal and fight Fox.” He mailed Marilyn’s contract to his lawyer, Frank Delaney, who denounced it as a “slave labor agreement.” Even better, Delaney spotted a few loopholes that might give them an out. Milton was thrilled, but Marilyn still fretted over possible consequences. “Eventually, they’re gonna give in,” he assured her. “That’s how it works.”
Within days, Marilyn’s Hollywood team was replaced by a crew of New Yorkers. Frank Delaney signed on as her lawyer. Superagent Charlie Feldman was jettisoned in favor of Milton’s friend Jay Kanter. As for housing, she would stay with the Greenes in their Connecticut country home, beyond the reach of Zanuck’s henchmen. Milton would take care of everything; she could leave all the business dealings to him. Milton’s lack of experience didn’t seem to bother her. He had boundless enthusiasm, impeccable taste, and a quiet, street-smart confidence in his creativity and wit. “She was lost and alone,” he said. “Who’s she gonna trust—not Zanuck, not Charlie Feldman, not DiMaggio. She had no one she could trust except me. Because I’m gonna give her a straight answer. I’m not gonna fuck around.” He believed in Marilyn: “She wasn’t dumb—she was intelligent, and she had a good head. I always thought she was quick. There were times when something was way over my head, I just couldn’t believe it, and she’d come up with a suggestion or make a remark about something and I thought, ‘Well shit, why didn’t I think of that?’”
In late November Milton resigned from his position at Look and committed to Marilyn exclusively. Both had faith in their art, and were ready to risk it all to realize their vision. “All any of us have,” Marilyn reflected months later, “is what we carry with us, the satisfaction we get from doing what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it.” She trusted Milton and his talents entirely. “I didn’t have much experience,” Milton admitted later, “but if I had to do it all over again, I don’t think I could do better.”
* * *
By December the whole town was buzzing with rumors of these enfants terribles and their haphazard plan. Friends called frantically, desperate to talk some sense into Marilyn, begging her not to risk her future on an inexperienced kid. How could she be so impulsive, so reckless? But Marilyn didn’t leave impulsively. Her LA friends didn’t realize she’d been planning her escape for years.
In her personal life she flitted about capriciously—she was notoriously myopic in matters of the heart. But when it came to her career—the thing that mattered most—Marilyn never lost sight of the larger picture. Pink Tights and There’s No Business Like Show Business weren’t the first jobs that bored her. Instead of diva tantrums and tears, she rebelled on the stealth, stashing Lincoln Steffens’ books in her red Gucci bag, hidden under peanut brittle and plastic curlers. She quietly made choices that advanced and empowered her, such as firing her drama coach and signing on with Michael Chekhov. He affirmed what she had always intuitively sensed—the value of looking inward. Rather than battle her “weaknesses,” Chekhov showed her how to work with her gifts. Under his guidance, Marilyn channeled her own intelligence rather than acting like a trained monkey. “You can do anything,” Chekhov told her. “Don’t let them trap you into what they want.”
As much as she wanted to bolt, Marilyn was savvy enough to wait for her moment. The Seven Year Itch wrapped that fall, and she sensed it was going to be big. This would be the fourteenth film she’d cranked out for Fox, and if she had it her way, the last.
Zanuck and his cronies were oblivious. For years Marilyn had been playing the ditz, churning out money, all the while burning her dumb blonde effigy in secret.
* * *
Knowing she’d be free from the pressures of Hollywood, Marilyn relaxed into her final weeks in LA. An atmosphere of unusual warmth and merriment lit up the city. Sammy Davis Jr. was back at Ciro’s after the car wreck that nearly blinded him, and everyone was out toasting him at the Mocambo and the Crescendo, wearing jeweled eye patches in support, brandishing highballs like pirates. For the first time in years, Marilyn let loose, carousing the clubs with Sammy D. and his crew. You’d find her draped on a striped banquette feeding petits fours to Tony Curtis, or on the floor with Milton petting someone’s bichon frise, a rhinestone barrette clipped to its fur. At parties they hung on each other like two teenage beatniks—Milton in Roman black and Marilyn in those dark slip dresses she wore all the time. “The two of them were just giggly,” a friend remembers. “It was almost like a sister and brother between them. I don’t know if there was a romance there.”
On her last day in LA, Marilyn threw open two Louis Vuitton trunks and gathered the scraps of her life that still mattered to her: a framed picture of Abraham Lincoln, a triptych of Eleonora Duse, a Vassarette bra, The Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Dirt to diamonds, LA was all Marilyn had ever known, dating from the orphanage that looked out over RKO. From her window she could see Mount Lee, with HOLLYWOOD spelled in those boxy wooden letters. Her bleached-out childhood was California through and through—all smudge pots and shantytowns, shacks of tin clapboard and chain-linked yards littered with crosses of white plastic. Backyard preachers kicked up fire and brimstone under sad little orange groves. They terrified her—the doomsayers and soothsayers with their larders full of wheatgrass, their aversion to Tylenol and long conversations about God and what it really meant to eat grapes as a Christian Scientist.
Still, there was something raw and lovely about Los Angeles—the lights twinkling over Catalina Island, West Hollywood’s scent of overripe flower pulp, amphetamine, and exhaust fuel. Departures crash into you with spiky intensity, throwing daily mundanities into high relief. Suddenly the ding of an elevator, the glint of a teaspoon on a room service tray, or the last snack you buy at your favorite bodega moves you to tears and you’re flung into nostalgia for a place you haven’t left yet and didn’t even think you could miss.
What was she thinking on that last day, when she snapped shut her trunks, hailed a taxi, and rode down Sunset Strip for the last time? There was the Villa Nova, all stained glass windows and hacienda wood beams, where she’d met Joe DiMaggio for their first date. There was the Polo Lounge, where you could order a palm reading along with your Tom Collins, and the Garden of Allah, where she’d languished waiting for Joe Schenck or Sydney Chaplin to buy her a drink. And of course, there was Schwab’s, where she’d suck down pills and iced coffee with Sidney Skolsky, gawking at “the real beautiful call girls,” the air thick with nicotine, watered-down ice cream, and perfume.
“It must have taken great courage to quit Hollywood as you did, to give up all the luxury, the money, the importance—after being so very poor,” said Elsa Maxwell, who spoke to her months later.
“No,” she said softly. “No, Elsa, it didn’t take any courage at all. To have stayed took more courage than I had.”
Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Winder