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.”

Rudy Behlmer, Historian of Zanuck, Marilyn and Fox, Has Died

Film historian Rudy Behlmer has died aged 92, Variety reports.

“Behlmer was among the most widely respected historians of Golden Age Hollywood, in part because of his insistence upon researching ‘primary source material’ and not relying on faulty memories or exaggerated press accounts of the time.

Memo From David O. Selznick, which Behlmer edited from thousands of Selznick’s private letters, telegrams and memoranda, was a best seller in 1972. Behlmer first interviewed the Gone With the Wind producer for a 1963 article for Films in Review, one of dozens of magazine pieces he wrote over the decades.

Other books followed: Hollywood’s Hollywood: The Movies About the Movies (with co-author Tony Thomas, 1975), Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951 (1985), Behind the Scenes: The Making Of… (1989) and Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck (1993).

But essays and journalism were only part of Behlmer’s life. He enjoyed a lively and successful career in television and advertising throughout the 1950s and ’60s … He was director on ABC’s Ray Anthony Show, featuring the big-band leader and his orchestra, during the 1956-57 season, and served as executive producer and director for KCOP from 1960 to 1963, overseeing various shows including his own Movies’ Golden Age. “

In Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox, which is still in print after a quarter of a century, Behlmer offered insights into Marilyn’s prickly relationship with her studio boss, including this letter he sent to her North Crescent Drive address in December 1951, regarding her leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock and her insistence on having her dramatic coach Natasha Lytess on the set. (This was a battle Zanuck ultimately lost: Natasha continued working with Marilyn – much to the annoyance of her co-workers – until she was replaced by Paula Strasberg in 1956.)

“… I think you are capable of playing this role without the help of anyone but the director and yourself. You have built up a Svengali and if you are going to progress with your career and become as important talent-wise as you have publicity-wise then you must destroy this Svengali before it destroys you. When I cast you for the role I cast you as an individual …”

This memo from September 1952 reveals Zanuck’s vision for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn would play Lorelei to Jane Russell’s Dorothy – making clear that he recognised how crucial their friendship was to the movie. (This memo was addressed to producer Sol Siegel, director Howard Hawks and writer Charles Lederer.)

“There are two things which I consider vital to the telling of the story, and which I want to emphasise in the script. These are (1) The love story between Dorothy and Malone [Elliott Reid]; (2) Dorothy’s genuine affection for Lorelei.

This is not a satire. It is a solid and honest comedy … We must be completely sold on Dorothy’s love for Malone, or we won’t be able to accept her taking him back. And we must be sold on her real affection for Lorelei or we won’t be able to understand her sticking her neck out for her in the courtroom scene.

In order to accomplish these two things we must be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice comedy in these particular scenes …”

In March 1953, Zanuck contacted writer Nunnally Johnson, director Jean Negulesco and others involved with How to Marry a Millionaire, to express his satisfaction at how CinemaScope technology was enhancing the movie.

“… Almost in all instances the composition has been vastly improved over previous material. The full figure shot of [Lauren] Bacall on the bed and the big closeup filling the screen of Monroe were unique examples of the new medium.

I am still opposed to too much camera movement. I fully believe that while we have to occasionally move the camera we should put the emphasis on moving the actors …”

In 1954, Zanuck mooted the idea of a torrid biblical epic, The Queen of Sheba. It was never made, although United Artists would later produce Solomon and Sheba, starring Gina Lollobrigida.

“In a nutshell, this should be the story of a glamorous but evil temptress … As you know, confidentially, I have even flirted with the idea of Marilyn Monroe as Sheba. I think it might be one of the biggest box-office combinations of all time …”

And in 1955, Zanuck revealed that he had been offered I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the sensational biopic about alcoholic singer Lillian Roth, as a potential vehicle for Marilyn (then involved in a contractual dispute with Fox.) After Zanuck passed on it, the film was produced at MGM.

“This is a very interesting, solid, downbeat story and, while it has an outstanding performance by Susan Hayward, I considered it to be overrated … We turned down I’ll Cry Tomorrow, frankly because we were all afraid of the subject matter and of the fact that Lillian Roth was not a really famous personality. [Producer Julian] Blaustein wanted it but only if he could get Marilyn Monroe for the role …”

Zanuck left Fox to become an independent producer in 1956. By the time he returned in 1962, the studio was fighting bankruptcy. Reportedly, it was Zanuck who argued for Marilyn to be re-hired for Something’s Got to Give, although she would pass away before her final studio battle was concluded.

In 1960, columnist Hedda Hopper asked Zanuck why he had left Hollywood. His response makes it clear that he had anticipated the demise of the studio system…

“I just got well fed up with being an executive and no longer being a producer. That’s what the job became. Actors are now directing, writing, producing. Actors have taken over Hollywood completely with their agents. They want approval of everything … scripts, stars, still pictures. The producer hasn’t got a chance to exercise any authority! … What the hell, I’m not going to work with them!”

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.”

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 Book News: The Starlet, the Spy and the Blue Book Years

Marilyn and Me, Ji-Min Lee’s novel set in Korea, is now available in the US under a different title: The Starlet and the Spy. As any classic film buff will tell you, a starlet is an aspiring actress and by 1954, Marilyn was a global megastar. However, it’s a worthwhile read. Marilyn’s part in it is actually quite small, as the main character is her (fictitious) translator, a young woman confronting the trauma of war. I struggled to relate to her story – at times, it felt more like an outline for a movie – but it was interesting to revisit the conflict from an insider’s perspective, and Lee writes about Marilyn with care and imagination.

Also coming soon is a paperback reissue of Michelle Morgan’s excellent Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years – and you can read an extract here.

Marilyn and the Hollywood Book Club

There are so many photos of Marilyn reading, you could fill a book with them. So it’s not surprising this classic 1951 photo of Marilyn reading at home was selected to grace the cover of the newly-published The Hollywood Book Club: Reading With the Stars. This lovely hardback, measuring a compact 21 cm squared and with text by Steven Rea, also features black-and-white images of some of Marilyn’s friends and co-stars reading (including Sammy Davis Jr, Lauren Bacall, Jack Benny, Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert and many more.)

Shirley MacLaine is also pictured reading in What a Way to Go! (1964), a film originally planned for Marilyn. A selection of photos from the book was posted in the Evening Standard this week. It would make a great stocking filler for the cinephile/bibliophile in your life – or if you can’t wait, just treat yourself!