Goodbye Norma Jeane, Hello Jack (and Marilyn)

Goodbye Norma Jeane, a new play opening in the Studio Theatre at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, South London tomorrow, is seemingly not about Marilyn per se (despite the title – well, at least her name’s spelt correctly), but a tribute to her favourite choreographer, Jack Cole – starring Tim English, with Rachel Stanley playing Monroe and other screen goddesses.

“Jack Cole taught Hollywood to dance.

Now he’s writing a weekly column for Dance Magazine. Or trying to. Young men splash and yell in his swimming pool outside, and as the afternoon wears on a parade of his former muses arrives at his front door – Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth among them. And each is determined to have the last word.

Liam Burke’s fascinating and inventive play shines a spotlight on one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most influential gay heroes, and the actresses he helped transform into cinema’s brightest stars.”

Carol Channing 1921-2019

Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway star who originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died aged 97.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two weeks old. Her mother Adelaide was of German Jewish descent and her father George was part African-American (on his mother’s side.) A newspaper editor by profession, George was also a Christian Science practitioner and teacher.

At sixteen, Carol left home to major in drama in Bennington College in Vermont. In 1941, she won her first Broadway part as Eve Arden’s understudy in a revue, Let’s Face It! That year she was married for the first time, to writer Theodore Naidish. They divorced after five years.

In 1948, Carol won a Theatre World Award for her featured role in another revue, Lend An Ear. Stacy Eubank noted in Holding A Good Thought For Marilyn: The Hollywood Years, that on June 16, a little-known starlet, 22 year-old Marilyn Monroe, attended the opening night at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, where she was photographed with director Bill Eythe and actor Bill Callahan.

Marilyn at the ‘Lend An Ear’ LA premiere, 1948

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld published a caricature of Carol as a flapper in the show, the first of many portraits to come. She even credited his artwork with helping her win the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Al Hirschfeld’s artwork for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1949)

Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of the 1926 novel by Anita Loos opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in December 1949, running for almost two years. In her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol wrote that Loos had told Styne, ‘That’s my Lorelei!’ after seeing Lend An Ear in New York. Styne promptly wrote a new song for Carol, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.’

Carol as Lorelei Lee

In January 1950, Carol made the cover of Time magazine. She was married again that year, to footballer Axe Carson, and they had a son, Channing Carson. After her third marriage to manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, he was renamed Chan Lowe and went on to become a successful cartoonist.

Darryl F. Zanuck swiftly acquired the film rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Twentieth Century Fox. Carol was duly invited to Los Angeles for a screen test, but it was generally assumed that Betty Grable, the studio’s reigning blonde star of musical comedy, would get the part. In any case, Carol had already decided to take the show to London after the Broadway run ended.

Marilyn in New York, circa 1951

In mid-June of 1951, Marilyn Monroe flew to New York, where she spent several days.  Columnist Dorothy Manners would report that she had been given tickets by Fox to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – perhaps as a warning to Grable, who was then on suspension. ‘Physically, Marilyn fits the bill,’ Manners noted, ‘but whether she is experienced enough to take on a top comedy performance remains to be seen.’

In her autobiography, Carol claimed that Marilyn was instructed to see the play every night for a month, which is doubtless an exaggeration given Marilyn’s busy schedule. Chronically shy, Marilyn never ventured backstage. “Our orchestra never saw anyone that beautiful before,” Carol recalled. “For the first time they were all looking at Marilyn instead of our conductor…”

That November, after Blondes finally closed, the New York Post‘s Earl Wilson reported that Marilyn hoped to play Lorelei on the screen. In his 1992 biography of Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote that Fox informed Marilyn the part was hers on June 1, 1952 (her 26th birthday.) Nonetheless, the studio kept up the intrigue for several weeks before announcing it to the press, still claiming that Grable would star, with Marilyn turning brunette to play Lorelei’s friend Dorothy.

When the news broke on June 23, Hedda Hopper wrote that Carol had responded with a 200-word telegram to Fox, while Grable denied asking Zanuck for the part. Marilyn was now the studio’s rising star, but as Stacy Eubank observes, she was still on a standard contract and would cost Fox far less than either Grable or Channing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a golden opportunity for Marilyn, and a huge success when it opened in 1953. “I was heartsick over the whole thing, of course,” Carol admitted, and she also felt that Jack Cole’s flamboyant choreography “completely upstaged” the lyrics.

Carol with Yvonne Adair as Dorothy

“I do think it was one of her best movies,” Carol reflected on Marilyn’s performance. “Not funny, however. They didn’t use one word of Anita’s original book, which was hilarious and which was what constantly kept the stage musical on a higher level. Anita didn’t write the musical’s book. So where they didn’t insert the original book it was mundane. It was the stock formula for a dated Broadway musical. I followed Anita’s original Lorelei character ferociously…”

“You can cast Lorelei two ways,” Loos explained. “With the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town, or with a comedienne’s comment on the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town. I wrote her as a comedy, and Broadway is attuned to satire.” Carol’s broader interpretation was perfect for the stage, whereas Marilyn brought a softer, more innocent quality to Lorelei.

During the 1950s, Carol replaced Gracie Allen as a comedy foil to George Burns. “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen,” a 1955 cover story for LIFE read. “She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”

Her next great role was in Hello, Dolly! (1964.) She befriended Broadway newcomer Barbara Streisand, only to lose out again when the younger actress was cast in the film adaptation. A registered Democrat, Carol campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson and was a favourite of his wife, Lady Bird. In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award, and finally achieved movie stardom alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), winning a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nomination.

In 1970, Carol became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime. Three years later, she was revealed to have been on disgraced president Richard Nixon’s Master List of Political Opponents – which she quipped was the highest accolade of her career.

With Peter Palmer in ‘Lorelei’, 1974

The 53-year-old revisited her early success in Lorelei (1974), a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring songs cut from the original play, and broke box-office records by selling out for six consecutive days in just 24 hours. She also frequently appeared on television, including a 1987 Jules Styne special in which she performed ‘Little Girl From Little Rock.’

Carol Channing in 2013

In 1998, Carol separated from her husband of forty years, Charles Lowe. He passed away shortly afterwards. She would marry once more in 2003, after rekindling her romance with high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. He died in 2011. Carol maintained her faith in Christian Science, followed a strict organic diet and swore off alcohol.

Marilyn (left) and Carol (right), by Al Hirschfeld

A much-loved resident of Rancho Mirage, California, Carol had a star dedicated to her on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010. She returned two years later to honour Marilyn Monroe, praising her “brilliant and unique” performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Carol also attended a farewell party for Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, when it left Palm Springs for the East Coast in 2014.

‘Down Boy!’ Rare Marilyn Song Resurfaces

Marilyn has been making news in the music world this week, with a story that ‘Down Boy’, an unreleased song cut from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, may be sampled on a new track by hip hop producer Timbaland (who is currently working on his fourth solo album, Opera Noir.) Here’s a report from ContactMusic:

“The 43-year-old record producer is sampling the late Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actress’ only unreleased track, a swing number titled ‘Down Boy’ 53 years after she died of an overdose.

Timbaland – who produced Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album Xscape in 2014 – is now working on a modern version of the track after meeting up with the owner to the rights, Hollywood resident Jack Allen.”

Jack Allen‘s name will be familiar to fans, as he authored the 2002 book, Marilyn by Moonlight: A Remembrance in Rare Photos. Long out of print, it is now highly collectable.

Fans may also remember a similar news story from Entertainment Weekly in 2006, when Allen tried to shop ‘Down Boy’ to various female pop stars. It was briefly rumoured that Britney Spears would sample the track, but nothing came of it – so I would advise readers to treat this latest update with caution.


This unreleased song came from an 20th Century Fox playback acetate record, made for the music numbers in the movie. An acetate is a transitional stage between the master tape and the finished vinyl record. It is a metal plate covered in a layer of acetone. Very few are made and they are distributed to people directly involved with the recording in order that they can approve the sound before the record is cut.

‘Down Boy’ was intended for a scene in which Lorelei (Marilyn) dances with elderly millionaire (Charles Coburn.) Some footage can be briefly glimpsed in the film, although plans to include ‘Down Boy’ were abandoned. You can listen to a snippet from the original recording here.

The song, penned by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, was later performed by Betty Grable in a 1955 musical, Three for the Show. You can watch it here.

Kylie – With a Hint of Marilyn…

London street artist Pegasus – who has created several tributes to Marilyn – pays homage to Australian singer Kylie Minogue in a new Chelsea artwork. There’s more than a hint of MM, too – Kylie is wearing Marilyn’s ‘Blue Dragon’ costume, from that famous scene in Bus Stop (1956.) In her unforgettable role as beleaguered nightclub ‘chantoosie’ Cherie, Monroe sang ‘That Old Black Magic’ to an audience of rambunctious cowboys.

Kylie is a well-known Monroe fan, having performed ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in the past. And this isn’t the first time Pegasus has merged two icons, either – he once recreated Betty Grable’s most famous pin-up pose, using the face of Queen Elizabeth II.

Elliott Reid 1920-2013

Elliott Reid – who played private detective Ernie Malone, Jane Russell’s love interest in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – has died aged 93.

A versatile actor with a flair for comedy, Reid was born in New York in 1920, and after making his name in radio drama serials such as Orson Welles’s The Mercury Theatre on Air, joined the Actor’s Studio when it was founded in 1947.

In that same year, Reid appeared in George Cukor‘s A Double Life, which made a star of Shelley Winters. One of his most important roles was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953.)

 

Onscreen, his character was something of an adversary to Lorelei Lee. In one memorable scene, Lorelei and her best friend, Dorothy, spike Ernie’s drink and pull off his trousers, in order to retrieve some compromising photos.

On the set – Elliot Reid at left
Elliott Reid with Jane Russell. at left

Reid shared his memories with Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed:

“I thought [Monroe] was lovely-looking, beautiful and charming. She was quiet and shy but we didn’t really get to know each other during the shoot because as soon as the scene was finished Marilyn would go to her dressing room to work with her drama coach.

She was often late – sometimes ten minutes or so, but not extreme; her lateness was well known and it was just how she was. She was charming and everyone understood her lateness and no one got mad. There were no problems during the making of the film because she was so sweet; she was never aggressive – she just wanted to do her best.”

Also in 1953, Reid co-starred with Jean Peters (who had just finished shooting Niagara with Monroe) in Vicki, a remake of an early film noir, I Wake Up Screaming. (The 1943 original had starred one of Marilyn’s idols, Betty Grable, and she had used the script as an audition piece.)

Reid played a supporting role in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind, followed by The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961. He also appeared regularly on television.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Reid impersonated John F. Kennedy at a 1962 dinner. Time magazine reported that the president was ‘convulsed’ by Reid’s performance.

‘I was very sad when [Marilyn Monroe] died,’ Reid told Michelle Morgan, recalling her tragic overdose in August 1962. ‘Surprised, but more than anything I was shocked.’

In 1963, he played psychiatrist Dr Herman Schlick in Move Over Darling, a remake of Marilyn’s abandoned last film, Something’s Got to Give. Doris Day took the lead, while Reid replaced comedian Steve Allen.

Reid continued working on stage and television until his retirement in 1995. One of his final roles was in a 1992 episode of the acclaimed US sitcom, Seinfeld.

Elliott Reid died of heart failure on June 21st. His nephew told the Los Angeles Times that Reid had been residing in an assisted living facility in Studio City, California.

Marilyn at Heritage Auctions

Marilyn graces the cover of the latest Heritage Auctions catalogue (price: $50, or view as PDF), accompanying the next Entertainment & Music Memorabilia auction, to be held in Dallas (and online.) Among the MM-related items on offer are several sets of rare photographs, featuring Betty Grable, Joshua Logan and others.

Marilyn at the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Luncheon hosted by 20th Century Fox, 1951
Marilyn at home
Marilyn with Betty Grable
During filming of Bus Stop, 1956

If Marilyn Had Lived…

The Huffington Post asked John Strasberg, Sarah Churchwell and Joyce Carol Oates what direction Marilyn’s career might have taken if she had lived beyond 1962.

“Back in those days, women, after a certain age, just weren’t cast in movies. Bette Davis was the first one to fight through the prejudice about how women should look in movies and playing leading roles; she had won Academy Awards, but she couldn’t get a job, so she put out ads in Variety and the such. Whether Marilyn could have done that, I don’t know. Certainly there was the possibility of that.” – John Strasberg

“My belief about Marilyn Monroe is that if she had only resisted returning to Hollywood, to make such an egregious movie as Let’s Make Love, but had remained in NYC in association with the Actors Studio, she might well have had a stage career as a serious mature actress; she might even be alive today.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“She had seen women like Betty Grable bow out gracefully, say, ‘I’ve had my time, and now it’s time for something else.’ So I don’t think it was difficult for Marilyn to imagine that.” – Sarah Churchwell

Celeste Holm 1917-2012

Actress Celeste Holm – who played Karen Richards in All About Eve – has died aged 95, reports The Guardian.

Born in New York, Holm made her name as Ado Annie in the 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma! She won an Oscar for Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), and narrated A Letter to Three Wives (1949.)

After the success of Gentlemen’s Agreement, Holm asked Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, for a pay increase. He responded by suspending her contract, and then ‘called the head of every other studio and said he had fired me because I was too difficult to work with.’

Nonetheless, director Joe Mankiewicz cast Holm in All About Eve (1950) as Karen, best friend to temperamental stage star Margo Channing (Bette Davis.) According to Sandra Shevey, author of The Marilyn Scandal, Mankiewicz insisted that Holm be paid three times her contract salary. However, Zanuck got even ‘by having my dressing room put in the alley outside the soundstage. The others were inside.’

‘That girl will be a big star,’ said actor Gregory Ratoff, who played agent Max Fabian, during filming of All About Eve (1950). Holm rolled her eyes and retorted, ‘Why, because she keeps everyone waiting?’ To which Ratoff replied, ‘She has a quality.’

‘I confess I saw nothing special about her,’ Holm admitted. ‘My natural reaction was: “Whose girl is that?” She was scared to death, because she was playing in a pretty big league…I never thought of Marilyn as being an actress, even in the films she did later on.’

Holm was a friend of Dr Ralph Greenson, who became Marilyn’s psychoanalyst in 1960, and she would met Monroe at one of his house parties. This surprised Holm, perhaps because she considered herself to be part of Hollywood’s intellectual elite and had hitherto dismissed Marilyn as a dumb blonde.

Holm also noted that the young Marilyn idolised Betty Grable, with whom she would later co-star in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953.) This was confirmed by Grable herself, according to Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed.

Holm returned to Broadway, but later sang ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ with Frank Sinatra in High Society (1956.) In 1968, the won the Sarah Siddons award for Distinguished Achievement in Chicago Theatre. (Ironically, the Siddons award had featured in the storyline of All About Eve.)

Holm continued working in television and film until the early 1990s, and her former ambivalence towards Marilyn did not hinder her from appearing in various documentaries about her.

In recent years, Celeste Holm been treated for memory loss, and was in poor health for some time. She is survived by her sons and a fifth husband, opera singer Frank Basile.