Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.
“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.
The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’
Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?
Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’
In Bert Stern: Original Madman, Shannah Laumeister’s 2011 documentary about the photographer, Stern discusses his infamous ‘last sitting’ with Marilyn. He spoke to Time magazine recently, and you can watch a clip from the film at Nowness.
“After I set up the studio [at the Bel-Air] the front desk rang ‘Miss Monroe is here’ I decided to go down and meet her. I met her [for the first time] on the pathway to the suite. She was alone wearing a scarf and green slacks and a sweater. She had no make up on. I said ‘You’re beautiful,’ and she said, ‘What a nice thing to say.’
[In the suite] she looked at what was there and asked about makeup. I said I didn’t think we needed any makeup, but how about a little eyeliner? She picked up one of the scarves, which was chiffon, you could see through it. She looked [at it] and said, ‘Do you want to do nudes?’ So it was her idea.”
However, in his 1982 book, The Last Sitting, Stern detailed a more complex version of events:
“She lowered the scarf, looked at me and said, ‘You want to do nudes?’
She’d seen right through it.
‘Uh, well I – I guess so!’ Who, me? ‘It’d probably be a nice idea, wouldn’t it? But it wouldn’t be exactly nude. You’d have the scarf.’
‘Well, how much would you see through it?’
‘That depends on how I light it,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ she said. And then, ‘Just a second. George?’
George Masters [hairdresser] came in. She said, ‘George, what do you think about these scarves and doing nudes?’
I held my breath.
‘Oh…what a divine idea!’ said George.
Thank God. If he had said, ‘Oh, no, how gauche,’ the whole thing would have been off in a second. Gone.
She was that vulnerable.”
As the shoot began, Marilyn made it clear exactly how much she wanted to reveal:
“Marilyn walked onto the set in her bare feet, a glass of champagne in one hand and an orange striped scarf tied around her bare bosom. She still had her green slacks on.
‘I’m not going to take off my pants,’ she declared.
‘Just roll them down, then,’ I said.”
It was not until late in the evening that Marilyn finally stripped:
“It was late, close to dawn, when I finally got all her clothes off…’You know, for this one you’ve really got to take your pants off,’ I said.
I expected her to call for George, who by now was falling asleep in the other room. But she just said, ‘Okay.’ We’d already gone so far in the pictures; what was there to be shy about? She stepped into the archway between the rooms and, holding the scarf around her like a towel, wriggled out of her slacks. And then she walked back out onto the white paper.
I started to shoot. This was the way I’d wanted her all along. Her beautiful body shone through the harlequin scarf in a tantalising, abstract hide-and-seek.
Until she dropped it. And I shot it. Just for myself.
One glimpse, one stolen frame.
We were finished.”
The same text has been used in all subsequent editions of the book. While I don’t believe that Marilyn was duped into posing naked, it was something that came about gradually (and with a lot of coaxing from Bert.)
Marilyn later vetoed many of Stern’s photos, though after she died, he published them anyway.
By the way, in the final shot that Stern mentioned, Marilyn looks distressed – as if dropping the scarf was an accident, not something designed to titillate. Judge for yourself here.
As the countdown rolls on to the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn’s death, the rumour mill has been revived. This item, posted at CBS San Francisco, builds on last year’s story that Marilyn’s hairdresser, George Masters, told his nephew (on tape) that she died at Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe.
The photo above shows Marilyn a week before she died, at Cal-Neva with Sinatra and singer Buddy Greco. However, I don’t believe that she returned to Lake Tahoe on the day of her death. All other accounts place her at home in Los Angeles.
Tapes recorded in 1998 by Jeff Platts, nephew of George Masters, suggest that the celebrity stylist was with Marilyn the night before she died:
“About a month before he passed away, he sat down and recorded some discussions with Platts. Recently, Platts shared a portion of the tapes with me, specifically one that dealt with Monroe’s last night.
In a frail but controlled voice, here’s what Masters remembered about the last night he saw Monroe alive.
‘The night before she died, the last time I saw her, was in Lake Tahoe at the Cal-Neva Lodge. She was there with Sam Giancana, who was the head of the Mafia.'”
Masters was one of Hollywood’s top hairdressers, and he styled Marilyn’s hair for her ‘Last Sitting’ with Bert Stern in June 1962. He can also be seen with Marilyn in photos taken at a Miami airport earlier that year, en route to Mexico.
Though she admired his skills as a stylist, Marilyn never seemed to confide in Masters as much as some of her other aides, eg make-up man Whitey Snyder or masseur Ralph Roberts. According to Platts, Masters did not remember Monroe fondly:
“George and Marilyn had a love-hate relationship. He described her as the coldest person he’d ever known. He said she’d never really loved anyone but herself. She would do whatever was necessary to keep all the attention focused on her. Her public image was a complete fabrication. George stayed with Marilyn because she was his biggest client (financially as well as level of celebrity).”
Over at The Examiner, Elisa Jordan offers her opinion on these latest allegations:
“Let’s start here: Pat Newcomb (Monroe’s publicist) said she slept over at Marilyn’s house that night, but doesn’t address whether or not Marilyn was there—only that Marilyn woke up about noon.
Actually, although Newcomb has spoken very little, at least publicly, about her relationship with Marilyn, she has stated that she and Marilyn went out to dinner at a local restaurant that Friday night. Some people maintain that the women were with Peter Lawford. And even other stories report that Bobby Kennedy was there. I tend to believe it was a low-key evening at a restaurant with Marilyn and Pat, but I wasn’t there. The important thing to remember is that in all versions of the story, Marilyn and Pat were out together on the night of August 3. How could Marilyn have been in Lake Tahoe?
And let’s address Lake Tahoe. Epting does ask some important questions. Were there other people on the plane, for instance? It’s unclear. I would like to take that a step further. What about the pilots? Were there flight attendants? Airport employees?
Masters claims he drove Marilyn home from LAX, but who picked her up in Lake Tahoe? Wasn’t there a driver? Where is he? What about the employees at the Cal-Neva? Cooks? Waitresses? Maids? Bellhops? No one saw Marilyn Monroe, the world’s most famous movie star, at the lodge that night? No other guests saw her? These types of people were able to place her at the Cal-Neva a week earlier. Why not on August 3, too?”
Jordan also adds some thoughts on Master’s credibility:
“If Epting’s reporting is correct—and I believe that it is—then Masters died broken and drug addicted. And if George Masters and Marilyn Monroe had a ‘love-hate’ relationship as reported in Epting’s article, was Masters merely trying to get the last word over Marilyn? Did he merely want to involve himself in one of the most famous mysteries of the 20th century?
Sound like a credible witness to you? Not to me, but I admit that I’m cynical about stories people tell about Marilyn Monroe—especially stories concerning her death. At this point there are so many that it’s nearly impossible to keep them straight.
Now George Masters has added himself to that list. Is it any wonder why people are so fascinated with Marilyn Monroe’s death? The victim is an American icon. The suspects and coconspirators are also celebrities, including a beloved President of the United States. It is a story that instantly makes you famous if you claim to be involved in it. And everyone, it seems, wants to be involved.”
My personal view on these tapes is that though interesting, I am highly sceptical of Masters’ claims. I find it hard to believe that Marilyn really did visit Lake Tahoe the night before she died, because there are no other witnesses. I think she probably spent the evening with Pat Newcomb, and perhaps stayed at home because Pat was unwell that weekend.
Pat Newcomb is still alive and in her eighties. She has never spoken publicly about Marilyn’s death and I doubt she ever will. The truth, I suspect, is more mundane – and even more sad – than the conspiracy theories espoused by Masters et al.
I think Newcomb is the only person still living who knows the truth about Marilyn’s final days. Even if she did tell all, the rumours would carry on regardless. So while her silence may be frustrating to those of us who would like to see the record set straight for once and for all, I can understand her reluctance, and even respect it.
“Through high school, she continued to star in theatricals. As part of a group known as the ‘Suttletones’. They traveled Los Angeles and, through agent Georgia Lund, landed club dates in Newport Beach and Reno, where Ann-Margret had a chance meeting with Marilyn Monroe, who was on location for the film, The Misfits. Monroe noticed her in the crowd, then chatted privately with her, offering her encouragement.”
Ann-Margret found fame with Bye Bye Birdie in 1963, and went on to star with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, with Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, and alongside The Who and Tina Turner in Tommy (which also featured a bizarre homage to Marilyn.)
Though Ann, like Marilyn, was a celebrated pin-up, she wisely turned down several opportunities to impersonate MM on stage and screen (After the Fall, The Sex Symbol, Sugar.)
Ann-Margret spoke directly of Marilyn in an interview for Life magazine in 1971:
“She was a very healthy girl when she came on the scene, mentally and physically. Years went by, people picked on her. She was terribly abused, for no reason. She became sick – and posthumously they gave her acclaim.”
More recently, Ann co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men, and in 2010, she won an Emmy for her guest role in Law and Order: SVU. She has been married to Roger Smith since 1967.
Lindsay Lohan, another famous MM fan, has always reminded me of Ann-Margret (in looks) much more than Marilyn. Perhaps she should give her a call…