Marilyn Brings Back the Blonde in ‘Yours Retro’

Marilyn is a regular favourite in UK magazine Yours Retro, having recently topped the list in a special edition, 100 Greatest Movie Icons, and scores a hat trick in the current issue (#20.) Alongside original bombshell Jean Harlow, she heads up a feature on the tragic fates of Hollywood’s classic blonde, with Peg Entwhistle, Carole Lombard, Veronica Lake, Barbara Payton, Barbara Loden, and Jayne Mansfield bringing up the rear.

Marilyn also pops up in an article about Coco Chanel, and a pictorial preview of the newly-published Hollywood Book Club.

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.”

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.”

Carol Lynley 1942-2019

Carol Lynley, 1960

Carol Ann Jones was born in Manhattan and worked as a child model, making the cover of LIFE magazine at fifteen. She made her Broadway debut as Carol Lynley in The Potting Shed (1957), which also starred Dame Sybil Thorndike (fresh from co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl.)

Carol went on to play the lead in Blue Denim (1958), a teen drama directed by Joshua Logan (who had made Bus Stop with Monroe two years previously.) The play deals with themes of unwanted pregnancy and abortion (which was then illegal in the US.) Carol would reprise her role in the 1960 movie of the same name, produced by Twentieth Century Fox, with Macdonald Carey among the cast. (Carey had worked with Marilyn in Let’s Make It Legal back in 1951.) Blue Denim earned Carol a second Golden Globe nominations as Most Promising Newcomer, having first been nominated for The Light in the Forest (1958.)

In 1960, the eighteen-year-old Carol married Michael Selsman, who was six years her senior and a publicist for the Arthur P. Jacobs Agency, who also represented Monroe. Selsman occasionally worked with Marilyn when Pat Newcomb was unavailable. In November 1961, he drove with Carol to Marilyn’s Doheny Drive apartment.

Marilyn was then 34 years old, and in the process of approving images from her photo shoot with Douglas Kirkland for Look magazine. As Selsman told biographer Michelle Morgan, she refused to let Carol come inside although she was heavily pregnant. This seems rather selfish and uncaring, but it’s possible that Marilyn distrusted the blonde starlet, sixteen years her junior and also under contract at Fox. Or perhaps she simply wanted to continue her work without interruptions. (Carol never commented on the story, so we have only Selsman’s word to go by.)

Their daughter Jill was born shortly afterwards. Carol worked both in television, and movies such as Return to Peyton Place (1961), and The Last Sunset, opposite Marilyn’s Niagara co-star, Joseph Cotten.

In 1963, Carol appeared in The Stripper (known in the UK as A Woman of Summer.) Adapted from William Inge’s play, A Loss Of Roses, it was originally pitched to Marilyn, but after her death in 1962, Joanne Woodard took her place as Lila, a former burlesque star who falls in love with a much younger man, Kenny (played by Richard Beymer, this was a role first offered to Warren Beatty.) Carol Lynley played Miriam Caswell, Kenny’s girlfriend and Lila’s unwitting rival. (Another curious coincidence: Marilyn had played Claudia Caswell in All About Eve, her breakthrough role at Fox.)

In 1963, Carol starred with one of Marilyn’s favourite leading men, Jack Lemmon, in a romantic comedy, Under the Yum Yum Tree. Also that year, Carol worked with one of Marilyn’s least favourite directors, Otto Preminger, in The Cardinal. John Huston, who had directed Marilyn twice, also acted in the movie, as did Tom Tryon, previously cast as Marilyn’s desert island companion in the shelved Something’s Got to Give.

Carol divorced Selsman in 1964, and later had a long affair with the British newscaster, David Frost. She starred alongside Lauren Bacall in the controversial Shock Treatment (1964.) This was followed by The Pleasure Seekers, pitting Carol with two other young beauties, Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin, and directed by Jean Negulesco (of How to Marry a Millionaire fame.)

Carol Lynley as Harlow (1965)

Marilyn Monroe had once considered playing Jean Harlow in a biopic. It never came to pass, but in 1965 Carol starred as the original ‘platinum blonde’ in the low-budget indie, Harlow, shot over eight days, and with Ginger Rogers playing the domineering ‘Mother Jean’. The film was overshadowed by Paramount’s rival Harlow, starring Carroll Baker and released a month later. Neither were well-received, and the bizarre saga is recounted in Tom Lisanti’s 2011 book, Duelling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen. (Carol also posed nude for Playboy that year.)

Carol’s next performance, as a young mother in Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, was one of her best. Her co-star was Sir Laurence Olivier, and she more than held her own. She then starred in The Shuttered Room and Danger Route (1967), Norwood (1970), and Cotter (1973), with Don Murray. Her greatest success was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972.)

For the rest of her career Carol worked mainly in television, making several TV movies and appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Big Valley, Mannix, Quincy M.E., Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Hart to Hart, Hotel, and Fantasy Island. Her final short film, Vic, was released in 2006. Carol Lynley died aged 77 of a heart attack at home in Pacific Palisades, California on September 3, 2019.

Marilyn: America’s Lusty Blonde

Marilyn by Eve Arnold, 1960

The Village Voice is no longer in print, but much of its illustrious archive remains online – including ‘Blond Lust‘, a piece by Teresa Podlesney from 1993, questioning whether blondness still signified the white feminine ideal, or an increasing freedom of choice.

“Like every other choice we have in the supposedly ‘color-blind’ United States, the choice to be blond should be made so as to prove that one can make it, to prove that one is American. Today’s more effective hair coloring, and the continued main­streaming of wigs, enable blondness to be achieved by those with even the most resis­tant hair. Yet the democratization of blondness is not simply the story of perfected cosmetic technology. Blondness is where our changing notions of race and gender come together.

The blondness that attracts media atten­tion today is a blondness that blatantly conjures up images of the 1950s. Madonna and Linda Evangelista, the Kikit and Guess models, are/were all one-tone bleached blonds, their attraction lying precisely in their display of the obviously artificial. This is the key: bottle blonds are not simply women with fair hair. Bleached blonds are a complete and excessively visible package of a femininity considered ‘conventional’ since the height of its expression on the movie screens of the 1950s: dramatic make­up, usually with dark lashes and red lips; large or prominently displayed breasts; highly coded fetish-sexy attire; and, just as taken for granted but ostensibly lying out­side of the realm of constructed characteris­tics, white skin.

The feminine woman was once opposed to the sexual woman, sexuality in this con­text rendered too savage, too animal-like, the realm of those nonwhite races that had yet to assimilate Christian cultural values. In the ’50s, however, fascination with fe­male sexual behavior — driven by the popu­larization of Freudian psychoanalysis, the Kinsey report, and the secularization of so­ciety — allowed a conflation of femininity with sexuality. For an increasingly image­-organized culture, femininity was defined in terms of what was visible, and visibly sexual. Blonds were assured their promi­nence in this visual reinvention of feminin­ity in 1953, when Marilyn Monroe graced the pages of the first issue of Playboy.

Marilyn Book News: From Korea to Doris Day

Montage by MM Picture Page

Michelle Morgan’s latest, The Little Book of Marilyn, is now available and has been getting rave reviews from fans. It’s packed with well-chosen photos which aren’t often seen in print, plus chapters on why Marilyn continues to inspire, hair and make-up tutorials, fashion tips, and craft ideas.

Another tempting summer read is Ji-Min Lee’s Marilyn and Me, a novel set during Marilyn’s time in Korea. It’s next on my reading list, and hope to review both books at a later date.

Of related interest is Gravité Sur Billy Wilder, Emmanuel Burdeau’s French-language study of (arguably) Marilyn’s greatest director.

Coming in September, John William Law’s Goddess & the Girl Next Door compares Marilyn and that other fifties blonde, Doris Day. It’s a timely publication, arriving so soon after Ms Day’s passing (you can read my tribute to her here.)

And finally (for now), Biographic: Marilyn retells her story in infographics, coming in October from artist and author Katy Greenwood.

Marilyn and the Not-So-Dumb Blondes

Over at Refinery 29, Daniela Morsini looks at the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype so unfairly applied to Marilyn, and still a staple of lame jokes today. While I strongly agree that it’s an outdated, sexist trope, I’d like to add that in her movies, Marilyn often parodied those assumptions. Her characters were usually wiser than the men who flocked to them, and in reality, Marilyn was sensitive and intelligent. (Unfortunately, not everyone was smart enough to get the joke – then, or now!)

“Being blonde is loaded. You can be an expensive blonde like Gwyneth Paltrow. You can be rock’n’roll blonde like Debbie Harry. You can be sexpot blonde like Marilyn Monroe. Hell, you can be any kind of blonde you want – as long as you’re a dumb one.

Of course, of all the stereotypes women face, the ‘dumb blonde’ is a mild one, especially considering how harmful and dangerous the hair stereotypes faced by women of colour can be. But it is curiously persistent … I’ve never forgotten a date in 2016, after having what I believed to be pleasant chatter with a man for an evening, him uttering the immortal words: ‘Well, you don’t look clever.’

Historians roundly agree that the notion of blondes being dumb dates back to a play performed some 250 years ago, titled Les Curiosités de la Foire, based on the misdemeanours of the legendary courtesan Rosalie Duthé, which established blondes as both stupid and sexually available. Duthé took long pauses before she spoke, leading people to believe she was literally dumb, as well as stupid. Fast forward to 1953, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hit the box office with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei, epitomised as the dumb blonde. Portrayed as absent minded, slightly scatty and interested in marrying solely for money, some of Lorelei’s most famous lines only serve to emphasise the stereotype: ‘I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.’

Over time, the dumb blonde trope has morphed into the ‘beauty and brains’ dichotomy, which at least allows a whole other crop of women to have their intelligence questioned. This is not a step forward, even if it does represent inching away from Western beauty ideals. Calling a blonde ‘dumb’ is a surprisingly effective way to curb someone’s appetite for life and confidence in their own abilities, effective enough to render them docile so they can’t unlock their powers.”

The Original Sugar Kane Dies Aged 100

Actress Kathryn Kane has died aged 100, the Telegraph reports. She was one of the inspirations behind Sugar Kane, the character played by Marilyn in Some Like It Hot. (Another was Helen Kane, the singer who first popularised ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’, which Marilyn performed in the movie.)

“Kathryn Kane, often billed as ‘Sugar Kane’, was a blonde, blue-eyed model and actress who was promoted by Warner Bros as the female answer to MGM’s Mickey Rooney, and for a few years in the 1930s her wholesome, girl-next-door appeal gave her a taste of stardom.

In 1935, while working as a model, she was spotted by a Warner Bros talent scout and put on a train to California. The studio publicity department changed her name to ‘Sugar Kane’ and cast her in a series of musical shorts to publicise her singing voice, including The Magic of Music and A Great Idea (both 1935).

She was loaned out to Paramount for her first feature, the comedy Love on Toast (1937) in which she played second fiddle to Stella Adler. She followed it the following year with the backstage burlesque crime drama, Sunset Murder Case, which was banned in some American cities due to its racy content.

That year she was also in the musical short, Swingtime in the Movies (as Katherine Kane), but was then dropped by Warner Bros. She signed to Universal and took her best role to date, playing the female lead, Snookie Saunders, in the musical comedy Swing, Sister Swing, about a dance craze, ‘The Baltimore Bubble’.

She followed it with The Spirit of Culver (1939), a drama designed to rejuvenate the flagging careers of former child stars Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew. The same year she appeared in the comedy short Quiet, Please, in which she played an actress in a relationship with a fellow movie star (played by Larry Williams); the pair are in love for the camera but at each other’s throats in real life.

After the war she appeared on stage in one of Earl Carroll’s musical variety shows and in 1947 she made a fleeting return to films with an uncredited part in That Hagen Girl, starring Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan.

By 1959 her film career was long over, but Billy Wilder used her sobriquet in Some Like it Hot, casting Marilyn Monroe as the carefree Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, singer and ukulele player in Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators.”