New Zealand Nurse Recalls Mystery Blonde in London

Marilyn in London, 1956

Over at The Spinoff today, there’s an extract from the New Zealand painter and poet Gregory O’Brien’s latest book, A Song in the Water. The chapter, entitled ‘A Kindness’, details his mother’s memory of attending Marilyn as a young nurse, while she recovered from foot surgery in a London hospital. It’s a touching piece, but there is no record of Marilyn having any surgery during her only visit to England in 1956, when the British press were documenting her every move. (She had injured her foot three years earlier, while filming River of No Return in Canada, but no surgery was necessary.) If Marilyn did have the operation in London, it would surely have impacted the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Could this be a case of mistaken identity?

“Shortly after returning from a trip to England in March 2012, I was talking with my mother over the telephone, describing an in-flight movie I had watched, My Week with Marilyn – the true story of a young film-maker who had been assigned the task of looking after Marilyn Monroe on location in England sometime during the mid-1950s. My mother took a surprising interest in hearing about the film and then told me about two nights of her life in England presumably around the same time.

Signed up with a reputable nursing agency, my mother had found herself eminently employable in post-war London …
She had made the most of the twelve months she had already spent in Britain and even managed to get herself invited to a Royal Garden Party – at that time the Holy Grail of stories-to-send-the-family-back-home. 

Until I mentioned the Marilyn Monroe movie, my mother had never before spoken of her employment at a central London hospital – ‘the one where all the Royal Babies were born’, by her recollection. As a contract nurse, she was always being bounced around from hospital to hospital, all over the city, with the same frequency, although for a different set of reasons, that Marilyn Monroe bounded in and out of an assortment of hospital rooms throughout her adult life.

Before being admitted to the patient’s room, my mother was taken to an adjacent office, where the nature of the night’s care was outlined. Her employment had not been arranged through the hospital – this was a separate, private contract. My mother was told that the patient was an American actress, who had earlier in the day received surgery to her feet. She was asked to sign a document or two concerning the assignment, specifically regarding the identity of the young woman in the hospital bed, who had been admitted under an assumed name.

The nature of the surgery, she was told, meant that a considerable amount of pain relief had been prescribed … With the actress as her sole charge for the night, my mother was to ensure the patient was kept warm and as comfortable as possible. If the pain became too much, a duty doctor was to be summoned. She was to remain awake, bedside, to keep an eye on things generally and also to ensure no unauthorised persons entered the room.

… Soon enough she was seated in a comfortable chair close by the bed, staring into the blonde hair of her sleeping charge and surveying, in the half-light, the well-appointed room. It was one of the best in the hospital, with large south-facing windows and good furniture.

When I asked my mother if the woman struck her as beautiful, she said that the actress was, at the time, very famous – although not quite as famous as she would be a few years later. Even my mother, not a frequent movie-goer, had recognised her instantly. She added that the actress’s appearance was perhaps a little ‘artificial’ – a word I had never heard her use before, in any context. My mother could not recall in detail any conversation that passed between them, although she could recall the woman’s sleeping head, her deep, narcotic breathing. To which she added, after further thought: ‘Oh, she was striking, yes, you could say that.’ A slight but significant revision of her earlier appraisal.

At a certain point in the night, with her charge drifting in and out of sleep, my mother herself fell into a deep slumber, from which she did not awaken until the following morning. It must have been 6am. The first thing she noticed was that one of the blankets had been removed from the bed and wrapped neatly around her. During the night, the actress had, with some considerable effort – of this my mother was certain – leaned across and, with great care, tucked her in.

About the second night, my mother had less to say …
Early in the shift, my mother diligently handed over the painkillers – a formidable array, she observed, silently – and the requisite glass of water. She remained awake throughout the night, staring with girlish fascination at the face of the actress … With dawn breaking in the trees outside the brick building, a doctor knocked on the door. He told my mother that later in the day the actress was being transferred, as planned, to a private country house.”

Gene London Brings Marilyn to Allentown, PA

This green lace blouse and black pencil skirt ensemble, created by Travilla for Marilyn’s role as down-at-heel showgirl Cherie in Bus Stop (and topped with a black fedora she wore in the Arizona sun), is among many iconic movie costumes on display in Designing Hollywood, an exhibit showcasing the extensive collection of Gene London, opening on September 29 until December 22 at the Allentown Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, as WFMZ reports. Previous exhibits from London’s archive have also included costumes from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and The Prince and the Showgirl.

Conversations With Marilyn’s Leading Men

Marilyn with Joseph Cotten during filming of Niagara

Among the many luminaries featured in James Bawden and Ron Miller’s book, Conversations With Classic Film Stars, are Joseph Cotten, who played Marilyn’s murderous spouse in Niagara; and Rory Calhoun, her roguish husband in River Of No Return; and Cary Grant, the unwitting object of her desire in Monkey Business.

Thanks to Gia at Immortal Marilyn

“I never met a girl as introverted as Marilyn. The whole fame explosion had just set in and whenever we filmed on location at Niagara Falls, great crowds gathered to see her. She couldn’t cope, retreated into her shell.

Director Henry Hathaway was a tough taskmaster at the best of times. He got so exasperated with Marilyn and her Russian acting coach [Natasha Lytess], he finally banned the woman from the set. I tried to keep her distracted. At night there’d always a party in my hotel suite, but she’d look in, say hi, and then go off with her instructress. We’d wait hours for her to show up. Hathaway started shooting rehearsals as backup and found she was less mannered there and actually used some of the footage.

I asked her about the nude photograph and she said, dead serious, ‘But I had the radio on.’ I’m glad I knew her before the troubles enveloped and destroyed her. I want to remember that superb girlish laughter when I told her an off-colour joke. One day Hathaway shouts at her and she yelled back, ‘After paying for my own wardrobe, my coach, my assistant, and God knows who else I barely have enough left over to pay my shrink!’ And the crowd watching applauded her!”

Joseph Cotten

“She was a phenomenon that I doubt like hell this town will see the likes of ever again. There have been a lot of people trying to copy her one way or another – and to me, they’re third-stringers.”

Rory Calhoun

“Howard Hawks says it’s wonderful we knew and worked with Marilyn before she got difficult. Because she was so winning and adorable in Monkey Business. When I drink that youth serum and am acting like a teenager, Marilyn really got into it. I’m diving off the high board and she’s giggling and waving me on. Years later she asked me to co-star in something called The Billionaire. It was a comedy and she said her husband Arthur Miller was reworking it. Arthur Miller a comedy writer? I ran away and so did Greg Peck, and the completed film, Let’s Make Love, showed she’d become all blurry and distant. It was sad.”

Cary Grant

Marilyn, Joan Crawford and a Catty ‘Letter From Hollywood’

Letters From Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Film-Making – compiled and edited by Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall, with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich – is the latest coffee table book from Abrams, the publisher who brought us MM – Personal and more recently, Hollywood Book Club. Marilyn’s own correspondence isn’t included (although she was featured in another anthology, Dear Los Angeles.)

However, Letters From Hollywood does include a reference to the night in 1956 when Marilyn met Queen Elizabeth II in a letter from Joan Crawford, also present at the London gala. Clearly Joan hadn’t changed her opinion of Marilyn’s revealing attire since publicly slating her in 1953 (see here.) And once again, her censorious tone does seem rather hypocritical – maybe she was triggered by Marilyn’s gold lamé…

“The book includes her handwritten 1956 note to Hollywood biographer and novelist Jane Kesner Ardmore about a royal premiere in London. After gushing about meeting Queen Elizabeth, Crawford included a few jabs at sex symbols Marilyn Monroe and Anita Ekberg.

‘I was presented to the Queen last night — nearly died of excitement and fear,’ Crawford wrote. ‘Of course, I was not too happy about being presented with that group of people representing the Motion Picture Industry, such as Marilyn you-know-who, and Anita Ekberg. Incidentally, Marilyn and Anita were howled at because of their tight dresses — they could not walk off the stage. It was most embarrassing.'”

Los Angeles Times

The Queen meets Joan Crawford (top) and Marilyn (above)

Marilyn: A Lady of Fashion

Ahead of the exhibit at London’s May Fair Hotel, opening next week (details here), the four iconic garments worn by Marilyn up for sale at Julien’s Auctions in November – including three movie costumes designed by Travilla, and the black cocktail dress she wore to the press conference for Some Like It Hot, shown above – are the subject of a four-page article, followed a double-page spread featuring Marilyn-inspired fashions, in the current issue of The Lady (dated September 20.)

Thanks to Fraser Penney, and Lorenzo at Marilyn Remembered

Douglas Kirkland’s Marilyn at Christie’s

Archival prints from Douglas Kirkland’s 1961 session with Marilyn – plus the camera he used – will go under the hammer at Christie’s in New York on October 27.

“The fresh-faced photographer, who had made his name photographing Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich, had been commissioned to capture a ‘sizzling’ picture of the screen siren for Look magazine’s 25th anniversary issue.

On 29 October at Christie’s in New York, the 1959 Hasselblad (No. 36980) that Kirkland used to take those pictures of Marilyn Monroe (as well as many others) — together with two magazine backs, two Carl Zeiss lenses and two limited-edition archival pigment prints — will be offered in The Exceptional Sale

A few days before the shoot in November 1961, Douglas Kirkland and two of his magazine colleagues met with Marilyn Monroe and her agent in the star’s Beverly Hills apartment. ‘My greatest difficulty as a very young photographer,’ recalls Kirkland, who is now 85, ‘was telling Marilyn exactly how I wanted to photograph her.’

He needn’t have worried. Monroe took charge … ‘She understood my ideas and articulated them better than I had been able to do,’ says Kirkland.

‘I learned an important lesson from her: if you are to elicit her most outstanding performance, treat a star like the princess you want her to be in front of your lens.’

The first set-up saw Marilyn in a dress, but she clearly was not at ease. Returning to the dressing room, she took off her clothes before slipping unannounced into the unmade bed, wrapping herself seductively in the white silk sheet. ‘It was extremely intimate,’ he remembers. ‘It was just myself, the camera and Marilyn.’

‘I didn’t even use a strobe light; just a flood light, a constant light, so that there was no interruption of flash,’ he explains. ‘Marilyn showed me how she felt, slithering erotically between the sheets. I kept shooting.’

This unforgettable, one-on-one encounter had a lasting impact on Kirkland. ‘The Marilyn Monroe I had been with on that night of the shoot unquestionably took a firm hold on me,’ he admits. ‘She arrived in a misty vision and when she left it was as if she had evaporated. I admitted to myself with some embarrassment that I missed her.’

But there was never just one Marilyn. ‘There was the sunny girl next door of our first meeting,’ Kirkland recalls. ‘Then there was the “true” Marilyn of the night of our shoot: the breathy, sexy beauty that every red-blooded man was in love with. And lastly there was the darker, sadder woman I sat with reviewing my pictures a week later. I was never with the same individual twice.’”

All About Marilyn (and Eve) in Italy

Marilyn is featured in Eve Arnold: Tutto Sulle Donne (All About Women), the photographer’s first Italian retrospective, on display at the Casa-Museo Villa Bassi in Abano Terme, Padua until December 8, as Caterina Bellinetti reports for Art & Object magazine.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, Arnold photographed many celebrities—Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Andy Warhol—and brought attention to social and political events and personalities, such as the Civil Rights Movement and Malcolm X, and the rise of political figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet, the focus of Arnold’s work was on women; their struggles, their strengths, and the expectations that society was placing upon them. Over the years, Arnold not only portrayed the conditions of women in America and Britain but also around the world …

Eve Arnold was a woman in a profession dominated by men. She strongly opposed the label of ‘woman photographer’ because she simply wanted to be recognized as a photographer who happened to be a woman. And she was a great photographer. Without her unique way of looking at the world, there would be no record of Marilyn Monroe’s timeless and familiar beauty, of a baby’s first touch with their mothers, the fearless Mongolian girls training horses for the militia, or the exuberant fashion shows in Harlem.”

Chris Lemmon Joins Cast of ‘Blonde’

Chris Lemmon, son of Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon, is among the latest batch of actors cast in Netflix’s Blonde – although his role is not yet confirmed, as Deadline reports. Chris, who is 65, may be too old to play Jack (who was 33 when he co-starred with Marilyn in Some Like It Hot.) However, Chris recently toured theatres with his one-man show, A Twist of Lemmon, about his relationship with his famous father.

Richard C. Miller and the Story of Marilyn’s Audition

Richard C. Miller first photographed Norma Jeane Dougherty as a young model in 1946. By 1950, she was an aspiring actress and he photographed her again at an audition for Street Scene, an upcoming production at the Players Ring Theatre in Los Angeles. She didn’t get the part, and the photos remained obscure until just a few years ago.

The series was recently posted on the Considerable blog, a timely reminder that Marilyn Monroe worked long and hard for fame, with disappointments along the way. When she and Miller next met in 1958, she was at the peak of her success, filming Some Like It Hot.

This photo of Marilyn talking with an unnamed man (most likely involved with the production) has led to speculation among fans that he may have been making unwanted advances on her, from the way he was tugging at her collar and the solemnity of her expression in contrast to his.

But while sexual harassment was certainly a widespread problem in Hollywood – and is still making headlines today – it’s all too easy to pass judgement on images without knowing their full context. They were not alone at the time, and the relaxed demeanour of others in the frame doesn’t indicate any cause for concern. (This poster from the 1931 movie adaptation of Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer-winning play, in fact, suggests Marilyn may simply have been rehearsing with another hopeful actor.)

Thanks to Fraser Penney