‘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.”

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.”

Marilyn at the May Fair Hotel

As reported here recently, three of Marilyn’s movie costumes (including this Travilla gown she wore to sing ‘River of No Return’). plus her black cocktail dress worn at a 1958 press conference to announce filming of Some Like It Hot, will be on display at London’s May Fair Hotel from September 24 – October 21, before going under the hammer at Julien’s on November 1. More details on the exhibit (including a series of film screenings) have now been revealed by Forbes. (You can read all my posts on the sale here.)

“The four movies these outfits feature in are also to be screened at the hotel’s own cinema, May Fair Theatre. See a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on the evening of September 27th; catch There’s No Business Like Show Business on October 11th; book a ticket for River of No Return on October 15th; and finally, take a seat for Some Like It Hot on October 18th.  

Tickets to these screenings are available as a part of dinner and drinks packages, following the movie with limited-edition cocktails in May Fair Bar and perhaps including dinner at the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant May Fair Kitchen before you find your way to the theatre.”

Julien’s Announce Marilyn Auction for November

Costumes from River Of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Julien’s Auctions are holding a one-day sale featuring 115 Marilyn-related lots (including several movie costumes) on November 1st, as part of their Legendary Women of Hollywood event. These items will be also be showcased in the lobby of London’s May Fair Hotel from September 24 until October 21. A catalogue for this auction, Property From the Life and Career of Marilyn Monroe, is now available to order here, for $75 plus shipping. (You can read all my posts on the sale here.)

Black cocktail dress worn by Marilyn during a 1958 press conference for Some Like It Hot

Marilyn ‘Pops Up’ in London, Lewes

Marilyn will star in two ‘pop-up cinema’ screenings at the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley, South London this summer. (The Rivoli Ballroom is one of the last remaining intact 1950s-style ballrooms left in London.) First up is Some Like It Hot on  May 17; followed by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on July 18. Screenings start at 8 pm, with admission from £10; check out the full schedule here.

Meanwhile in Sussex, There’s No Business Like Show Business will be screened at Lewes Depot on June 4 at 2 pm. (Tickets cost £4.) Lewes has a personal connection to Marilyn, as according to biographer Michelle Morgan, she visited the historic town in 1956, dining at The Shelleys Hotel with husband Arthur Miller. “She wore no makeup but looked really beautiful,” receptionist Peggy Heriot recalled. “They ate in the drawing room and when they left they thanked the chef and me profusely …”

Donald Zec Turns 100 (And Remembers Marilyn)

As entertainment writer for the Daily Mirror, Donald Zec was the British equivalent of US columnists Sidney Skolsky and Earl Wilson, and he is seen here sharing a joke with Marilyn at Parkside House in Egham, Surrey after she flew into London on July 13, 1956 to begin filming The Prince and the Showgirl.  They had met a few months before, on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona where Marilyn would film the rodeo scene in Bus Stop. (You can read about their airborne chat here.)

By the time Marilyn came to England, Marilyn had married Arthur Miller and with an independent production deal for The Prince and the Showgirl, she was about to lock horns with her esteemed director and co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier. Finding her standoffish, the British press soon took his side and she would doubtless have been glad to see a friendly face.

After recently attending Donald Zec’s 100th birthday party, author Howard Jacobson has paid tribute in an essay for the Jewish magazine, Tablet – recounting his boyhood idol’s show-business exploits, including the story behind his photo opportunity with Marilyn.

“For a while I had a page from the Daily Mirror pinned above my bed. It showed Donald Zec and Marilyn Monroe standing so close they could have been secretly holding hands. She was throwing her head back in appreciation of something he’d told her. A Jewish joke was my guess. Rabbi walks into a bar. But nothing suggestive. Jews didn’t do suggestive. Not English Jews, anyway. And Marilyn’s mirth had a clear innocence about it. As did my passion for Donald Zec. But it alarmed my father. Why him? ‘He knows how to make Marilyn Monroe laugh,’ I explained. ‘Joe DiMaggio made her go hot all over; Arthur Miller made her read the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover; only Donald Zec makes her laugh.’

I have said that he had just become a widower when we met. Dancing cheek to cheek with Hollywood beauties notwithstanding, his marriage had been by all accounts spectacularly successful. So he was suffering the cruel heartbreak that a happy marriage has in store for us. I never heard a man speak more reverently of his wife. And yet he could make sublime comedy out of his grief. This was the opposite of disrespect. He knew that if you are to bring the whole range of your emotions to remembering and describing love, then laughter is as important as sorrow.

‘So anyway, Marilyn …’ I said to him once. He shook his head. Nothing doing. ‘It touches me to think you remained such a good Jewish boy all those years,’ I said. This time he put a hand on mine. ‘Let’s not make a nebbish of me altogether,’ he said. Make what you will of that. Every heart, as D.H. Lawrence wrote, has its secrets.

He did not intend to give speeches at his 100th birthday, then ended up giving three. He has the fluency a man a quarter of his age would kill for. His comic timing is still perfect. But there is a weight in his words that wasn’t there in 1955. The weight of grief; of experience touched by love. If you didn’t know how he’d earned his living you’d guess teaching philosophy at Oxford, not making Marilyn laugh in Beverly Hills.

To Marilyn, the last word. Never really grasping that London and Hollywood were in different time zones, she would ring up at some crazy hour. Donald told me of his phone going off in his London apartment in the middle of the night. His wife would take the phone and in the sweetest tone of understanding pass the receiver over to Donald. ‘It’s Marilyn for you,’ she’d say.

I hear that and all my old envious idolatry returns. I can’t decide which I covet most, the age he has reached while still accumulating accomplishments, or the fact that Marilyn Monroe rang him in his bed.”

‘All About Eve’: From Screen to Stage

The new stage adaptation of All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, has now opened at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, to mixed reviews. In today’s Guardian, Jenny Stevens goes back to the source, describing Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic  as “a perfect feminist film.”

“‘All the wittiest lines in the film belong to the women,’ says film critic Molly Haskell. ‘These women are never just pathetic. Mankiewicz is so fascinated by women and sympathetic towards them: he gives them importance, he gives them idiosyncrasy, he gives them their personalities.’

So many films from that era don’t hold up, but All About Eve still feels radical. It takes the theme of women being silenced, forced to listen to men and learn from them regardless of their own talents, and turns men into the butt of the joke. When Margo throws a birthday party for her partner, the director Bill Sampson, the poison-penned theatre critic Addison DeWitt turns up with a young blonde on his arm, a Miss Caswell (played by the then little-known Marilyn Monroe). Channing suggests Eve and DeWitt should talk about their shared love of the theatre. ‘I’m afraid Mr DeWitt might find me boring after too long,’ says Eve, saccharinely coy. ‘Oh you won’t bore him, honey,’ says Miss Caswell. ‘You won’t even get the chance to talk.’

It is an extraordinary scene, says Haskell, ‘especially when you consider that Monroe’s character is not meant to have lines. She’s meant to be just a bimbo. Yet out of this bimbo come these words of wisdom. Everyone has dignity and authority in their own way in the movie.'”

In the new play, Miss Caswell is played by Jessie Mei Li. As you can see below, she looks lovely in the role, but wisely avoids doing a Monroe impersonation. Tickets are selling out fast, but in association with the National Theatre and Fox Stage Productions, a live performance will be broadcast at selected cinemas across the UK and USA from April 11 onwards – pick your nearest venue here.

Thanks to Fraser Penney

Marilyn’s Little Black Dress, and the ‘Master of Chiffon’

This elegant black shift dress with a chiffon midriff launched a fashion craze when Marilyn wore it at London’s Savoy Hotel, quipping that while the dress was not her idea, her midriff was. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Vince Boucher notes that the couturier – the subject of a new exhibition at Drexel University in Philadelphia – was James Galanos, who went on to dress First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980s.

“Hollywood is represented in a brown-tweed suit from the fifties from Rosalind Russell with a portrait collar and empire-effect belt with trapunto stitching and in a violet jacketed gown similar to one that Diana Ross wore to the Academy Awards. And in a group of black dresses, there is a 1993 mini with a sheer midriff, a motif the designer returned to again and again, all the way back to a black sheath with chiffon inset worn by Marilyn Monroe at her 1956 press conference for The Prince and the Showgirl, as shown in the exhibition catalog.”

In the late 1940s, Galanos was hired as a sketch assistant by Columbia Pictures’ costumier, Jean Louis (who would also design for Marilyn.) By the 1950s, Galanos was designing collections for Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, and Neiman Marcus in New York. He later settle in Los Angeles, and was known as the ‘master of chiffon.’

Marilyn’s wool crepe cocktail dress was purchased at Bergdof Goodman department store in Manhattan, and was sold at Christie’s in 1999. It was also featured in ‘A Short History of the Little Black Dress’, an article posted on the Real Simple website in 2011.