Beyond the Blonde: Debbie Harry and Marilyn

In my previous post (see here), I revealed how Blondie singer Debbie Harry was influenced by Marilyn, as described in her new memoir, Face It. Now I’m looking at some other parallels in their careers. In 1975, Debbie posed on the New York subway for her bandmate and boyfriend Chris Stein, echoing Marilyn’s photo shoot with Ed Feingersh twenty years earlier (shown above.)

Debbie Harry with Sam Shaw

In 1977, Marilyn’s photographer friend Sam Shaw filmed Blondie playing live at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles for a short documentary about the band, released a year later (more info here.) “It was an odd sort of thing, about Blondie but also about my fantasy of being Marilyn Monroe’s daughter,” Debbie recalls. This was also mentioned in a New York Times profile in 1979. (At the time, Debbie said Marilyn was adopted. This was technically incorrect, but she did spend most of her childhood in the care of family and friends.)

Debbie in LA

“In the summer of 1978, she was asked by the photographer and film maker Sam Shaw to provide biographical information for a one‐hour documentary film on Blondie. Interviewed by the screenwriter/novelist Ted Allan, Debbie mentioned liking a play, Fame, loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The conversation continued:

ALLAN: Do you have an affinity for Marilyn Monroe?

HARRY: Tremendous. I always thought she was my mother.

ALLAN: Did you ever seriously think that you’d go and meet her and say, ‘You might be my mother.’

HARRY: No! God! Well, you know, there’s that kind of admiration, I guess. They say that most adopted children now, in their adult life, look for their real parents … I sort of have my wild imaginings. Like she [Monroe] had wild imaginings about Clark Gable being her father … See, my mother did keep me for three months, and I have memories, a visual memory of when I was 3 months old when I was adopted.

Such fantasies percolated through Debbie’s adolescence. She says that she felt ‘different,’ worried about being crazy. As late as last year, Debbie reminded a reporter that ‘Marilyn was also an adopted child.'”

There is also a curious story about this photo, taken by Chris Stein at his and Debbie’s New York home in the 1970s. Debbie explains that Maria Duval, their downstairs neighbour and an aspiring actress, had bought this gown at auction and gave it to Debbie, believing it had been worn by Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch. I don’t recognise it as a costume from that movie, but nonetheless, perhaps it was connected to Marilyn in some way. While Debbie and Chris were on tour, there was a fire in their apartment, which leads us to this story…

“When we finally did get back, it was hugely upsetting. The place was strewn with debris from the fire. And because people were able to walk into our apartment and take things, they did … Fortunately, Chris had his guitar and camera with him. So he set up a photo session in the burned-out kitchen. The walls were caked in soot and the range was covered in ash. I put on Marilyn’s dress, which had been badly singed in the fire, and our latest close call (which wasn’t really close at all) became a work of art.”

UPDATE: Fraser Penney has suggested the dress could have been worn by Marilyn during her 1956 photo shoot with Cecil Beaton. The mystery deepens!

Face It: Debbie Harry and Marilyn

Of all the performers influenced by Marilyn’s style, few have paid homage with as much panache as Blondie singer Debbie Harry – albeit with a punk rock edge all her own. In the first of two extracts from her new memoir, Face It, Debbie looks back to her childhood days with her adoptive New Jersey family, when Marilyn was her idol. (UPDATE: you can read my second post here.)

“By the time I was fourteen, I was dyeing my hair. I wanted to be platinum blond. On our old black-and-white television and at the theater where they screened Technicolor movies, there was something about platinum hair that was so luminescent and exciting. In my time, Marilyn Monroe was the biggest platinum blonde on the silver screen. She was so charismatic and the aura she cast was enormous. I identified with her strongly in ways I couldn’t articulate. As I grew up, the more I stood out physically in my family, the more people that I felt I related to in some physical way. With Marilyn, I sensed a vulnerability and a particular kind of femaleness that I felt we shared. Marilyn struck me as someone who needed so much love. That was long before I discovered that Marilyn had been a foster child.”

Later on, Debbie describes how she incorporated her fascination with Marilyn’s image into her own stage performances with Blondie.

“Iggy Pop apparently described me once as ‘Barbarella on speed’ … Our band shared its name with a cartoon character, after all. And I was playing at being a cartoon fantasy onstage. But the mother of that character was really Marilyn Monroe. From the first time I set eyes on Marilyn, I thought she was just wonderful. On the silver screen, her lovely skin and platinum hair were luminescent and fantastic. I loved the fantasy of it. In the fifties, when I grew up, Marilyn was an enormous star, but there was such a double standard. The fact that she was such a hot number meant that many middle-class women looked down on her as a slut. And since the publicity machine behind her sold her as a sex idol, she wasn’t valued as a comedic actor or given credit for her talent. I never felt that way about her, obviously. I felt that Marilyn was also playing a character, the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and the big-girl body, and that there was a lot of smarts behind that act. My character in Blondie was partly a visual homage to Marilyn, and partly a statement about the good old double standard.

The ‘Blondie’ character I created was sort of androgynous. More and more lately, I’ve been thinking that I was probably portraying some sort of transsexual creature … A lot of my drag queen friends have said to me, ‘Oh, you were definitely a drag queen.’ They didn’t have problems seeing it. It was the same thing with Marilyn really. She was a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman … My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up but I was very serious.”

Marilyn and the Brother Mankiewicz

The Brothers Mankiewicz, a dual biography of screenwriters Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz, has just been published. Herman, the elder brother, boasted credits for Dinner at Eight, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane; while Joe, eleven years his junior, also worked as a producer and director, and gave a little-known actress a big break.

In 1950, Marilyn won a minor role in All About Eve. As an ambitious starlet, notes author Sydney Ladensohn Stern, she had “unusually good lines,” and given her subsequent rise, the performance has “unintended retrospective importance.” Stern then claims that she was hired “mostly as a favour to her mentor/lover, William Morris agent Johnny Hyde.” While Hyde’s influence may have helped, Joe Mankiewicz would later say he had chosen Marilyn after seeing her in The Asphalt Jungle, noting that she had “a sort of glued-on innocence” which made her ideal for the part.

Stern also claims that the story about Marilyn and Joe Mankiewicz discussing Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which she had picked up in a bookstore, is unreliable because she had actually been given the book by her acting coach, Natasha Lytess. But however Marilyn may have acquired the book (and she already had a charge account at a Los Angeles bookstore), both her telling of the story, and Joe’s, emphasise her understanding of its themes. Her personal copy was auctioned by Christie’s in 1999.

In 1954, Marilyn contacted Mankiewicz expressing her wish to play nightclub singer Miss Adelaide, the long-suffering fiancee of Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), in his upcoming musical, Guys and Dolls. Producer Sam Goldwyn also wanted Marilyn to star, but the role went to stage actress Vivian Blaine. According to Stern, Mankiewicz joked that “he couldn’t imagine [Marilyn] waiting fourteen years for a guy.” (You can read more about Guys and Dolls here.)

However, Monroe biographer Barbara Leaming believed the rejection was rather more personal, while Mankiewicz would later make disparaging remarks about her to another author, Sandra Shevey. He dismissed outright the notion that Marilyn was a victim of Hollywood, although he was no stranger to industry disputes and volatile stars.

In 1961 Mankiewicz became mired in Fox’s notoriously fraught production of Cleopatra, which took him two more years to complete, and almost bankrupted the studio. In fact, the Cleopatra debacle is thought to have indirectly caused Marilyn to be fired from her final movie, Something’s Got to Give. (During his brief, inglorious tenure as studio boss, Peter Levathes also sacked Elizabeth Taylor from Cleopatra. She was swiftly re-hired, but Marilyn would pass away before negotiations for her own reinstatement were realised.)

While The Brothers Mankiewicz contains little new information about Marilyn, it’s a valuable resource about two men who shaped Hollywood’s golden age. In her 1954 memoir, My Story, Marilyn praised Joe as “a sensitive and intelligent director”, and in 2010 she was featured on the cover of a French tome, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and His Double.

How Norma Jeane Inspired ‘Blonde’

Norma Jeane visiting her half-sister Berniece (centre) in 1944

With the Netflix adaptation of Blonde now in production, Joyce Carol Oates tells Crime Reads that it was originally conceived on a more modest scale – and while this epic novel has its admirers, others may wish it had stayed that way. (The photo above shows Norma Jeane aged 18. Oates was inspired by a picture of her at 16, but doesn’t say which one. As there aren’t many photos of Norma Jeane at 16 apart from her wedding portraits, I’ve chosen this one as it seems to capture the wholesome quality that first caught Oates’ eye.)

“I saw a very touching photograph of Norma Jeane Baker taken when she was 16—brunette, pretty but not glamorous, very sweet & hopeful—looking—not unlike my mother & girls with whom I went to school many years ago. Girls whose great hope was to be loved—married, & to have children. I felt such sympathy for her, who would be dead in twenty years, as an American ‘icon’—who made millions of dollars for others (men) but not so much for herself. The project began as a short novel, a post-Modernist ironic tragedy that would end with Norma Jeane’s new name: ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ But when I came to this ending, I saw that the great story lay ahead—& reconstituted the material as an epic, with many sub-themes that allowed me to explore obsessions of the era, particularly Cold War politics.”

House Passes Marilyn’s Post Office Bill

Norma Jeane by Bruno Bernard, 1946

Plans to name a Van Nuys Boulevard office after Marilyn, proposed by local representative Tony Cardenas, were approved by the House this week. The bill, which also requests for another post office to be named after musician Ritchie Valens, will now go to the Senate for further consideration. (The young Norma Jeane Baker lived in Van Nuys with her legal guardian, Grace Goddard. She was a student at Van Nuys High School, and later returned to the area with her first husband, Jim Dougherty.)

“Marilyn Monroe was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Van Nuys and attended Van Nuys High school. She grew up poor and bounced around orphanages as a child. Back then, the chances of a poor woman like Marilyn Monroe becoming a national success and musical legend was nearly impossible.

But she beat the odds.

Despite her turbulent childhood, Marilyn Monroe found stability and joy while living in Van Nuys. Her hard work and perseverance led her to become a timeless internationally recognized icon. In a world where many believe wealth, status, or name determines one’s destiny, Marilyn Monroe’s story defies the odds and inspires many others to believe they too can also achieve similar success.

She showed us that dreaming big and working hard means something in America. She went off to become an artistic trailblazer starring in her own movies and setting records during her singing career.”

Van Nuys News Press

‘Blondes’ Preferred On the London Stage

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Broadway musical which Marilyn brought to the big screen in 1953, is currently being revived at London’s Union Theatre, as Julia Rank reports for The Stage.

“It’s less astringent than Anita Loos’ 1925 novel and inevitably it feels dated, but mostly in a charming way (the dirty-old man character notwithstanding). The plot is lightweight in the extreme … but the tunes are catchy and the characters exude moxie.

As Lorelei, Abigayle Honeywill pleasingly doesn’t give a breathy Monroe impression. She has more in common with Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. With a speaking voice that could strip paint, Lorelei isn’t exactly endearing, but ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in context does show why such materialism is a valid survival method.”

When Marilyn Met Marlene

Founded in 1969, Andy Warhol’s Interview was the magazine to be seen in for nearly forty years. Although it ceased publication last year, Interview still has an online presence and earlier this week, a snippet from the past was discovered.

“As a notable admirer of Marilyn Monroe’s, Andy Warhol was sure to get some of the juiciest gossip in his celebrity circle. While he was still Editor-in-Chief of Interview, alongside Paul Morissey and Fred Hughes, he buried a drama bomb of information in the ‘Small Talk’ section of the June 1973 issue involving Marlene Dietrich and M.M herself. However, not one of the contributing editors took credit for the gossip; they instead chose to keep the source anonymous … According to the ‘Small Talk’ column, Dietrich attended a screening of one of Monroe’s earlier films and talked through every one of her scenes, mumbling: ‘So this is what they want now. This is what they call sexy.'”

Marlene Dietrich by Eve Arnold, 1952

Eve Arnold, who photographed Marlene at work in a recording studio for Esquire magazine in 1952, recalled that when she later met Marilyn, the subject of Dietrich came up: “Marilyn asked – with that mixture of naïveté and self-promotion that was uniquely hers – ‘If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you could do with me?'”

Mariene Dietrich by Milton Greene, 1952

Another photographer who worked with Dietrich was Milton Greene, who later became Marilyn’s business partner. In 1955, he invited Marlene to a New York press conference to announce the formation of their new company, Marilyn Monroe Productions.

Like all stars (Marilyn included), Dietrich was naturally competitive. But although she may have briefly ‘thrown shade’ in Marilyn’s direction – to use a term that didn’t exist back then – there’s no sign of any rancour between them in these photographs.

In 1957, Marilyn was offered the lead role in a remake of The Blue Angel, which had made Marlene a global star many years before. That never came to pass, but a year later, Marilyn would recreate the character in her ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ photo session with Richard Avedon, although out of respect for Dietrich, she later asked the photographer to withdraw the images and they were not made public until long after Marilyn died.

Marilyn poses as Marlene for photographer Richard Avedon, 1958

Marilyn would take a leaf out of Marlene’s playbook again in 1962, asking costumer Jean Louis to recreate the beaded ‘nude’ dress he had made for Dietrich to wear during nightclub performances. Monroe’s version became immortalised that May, when she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

Whatever Marlene’s initial thoughts on Marilyn may have been, she would remember her admiringly, writing in her 1987 memoir: “Marilyn Monroe was an authentic sex symbol, because not only was she ‘sexy’ by nature but she also liked being one – and she showed it.”

‘Yours Retro’ Names Marilyn as No. 1 Movie Icon

A special edition of Yours Retro magazine, 100 Greatest Movie Icons, is now available in the UK – and Marilyn tops the list! Her Monkey Business co-star Cary Grant takes second place, with Bette Davis (All About Eve) coming 7th, Sir Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl) 18th, Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) 19th, and Clark Gable (The Misfits) 20th. Ginger Rogers (also in Monkey Business) is at #29, Jack Lemmon (also in Some Like It Hot) at #32, Lauren Bacall (How to Marry a Millionaire) at #36, Robert Mitchum (River Of No Return) at #46, Donald O’Connor (There’s No Business Like Show Business) at #58, and Mickey Rooney (The Fireball) is 60th. Bringing up the rear are Montgomery Clift (also in The Misfits) at #73, Claudette Colbert (Let’s Make It Legal) at #87, and last but not least, the great Barbara Stanwyck (Clash By Night) is ranked 90th.

Of all Marilyn’s illustrious co-stars, her good friends Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Betty Grable (How to Marry a Millionaire) are perhaps the most notable omissions. Marilyn’s 3-page spread is only slightly marred by a couple of misattributed quotes (can you spot them?) Overall, though, it’s a great read for lovers of classic film. Interestingly, The Prince and the Showgirl – which features one of Marilyn’s best performances, but is often neglected – is named here among her top 5 movie highlights. Yours Retro: 100 Greatest Movie Icons is available now from UK newsagents, or to order online from Great Magazines.

Candles in the Wind: From Norma Jeane to England’s Rose

In his new memoir, Me, Elton John explains his decision to rework ‘Candle in the Wind’, his 1973 hit song about Marilyn, which he performed at Westminster Abbey for the state funeral of his friend Princess Diana in 1997.

“A couple of days after Diana’s death, Richard Branson called me. He told me when people signed the book of condolence at St James’s Palace, a lot of them were writing down quotations from the lyrics of ‘Candle In The Wind’. Apparently, it was being played a lot on the radio as well.

He asked if I’d be prepared to rewrite the lyrics and sing it at the funeral. I think he’d been contacted by the Spencer family, because they felt the funeral should be something that people would really connect to.

So I called Bernie [Taupin], who’d written the original lyrics. He was fantastic: he acted as if writing a song that the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to check through first was all in a day’s work and faxed the altered lyrics over the next morning.

I insisted on having a teleprompter by the piano, with Bernie’s new lyrics on it. Up until then, I’d been against their use … But this time, I relaxed the rules. It was a unique experience. There was a sense in which it was the biggest gig of my life — for four minutes, I was literally going to be the centre of the world’s attention — but equally, it wasn’t an Elton John moment, it wasn’t about me at all …  I wasn’t suffering from stage fright, more a very specific fear: What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version?

I’d performed ‘Candle In The Wind’ hundreds of times. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance, forget about the teleprompter and start singing the original lyrics. How bad would it be if I did that? Appalling. Huge chunks of the lyrics were completely inappropriate for the occasion. You’d have a hard time bluffing your way out of singing about Marilyn Monroe being found dead in the nude, or how your feelings were something more than sexual, at a state funeral.

After the funeral, I went straight to a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, where George Martin was waiting: they were going to release the new version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ as a single to raise money for a charity set up in Diana’s name. I sang it twice and went home.

That was when I finally broke down. I hadn’t felt able to show emotion all day. I’d had a job to do, and how I felt about Diana’s death might have interfered with my ability to do it.

The funeral version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ became the biggest-selling single since the charts began. There was part of me that couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it. Under what circumstances would you play it? I never did. I listened back to it once at the studio to OK the mix and that was it: never again.

In the end, I started feeling really uncomfortable with the single’s longevity … The Diana version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ has never been included on any Greatest Hits album I’ve put out, and it’s never been re-released. I’ve always tried to avoid the topic with journalists. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget it — or her. I just wanted life to get back to some semblance of normality.”

Daily Mail