Marilyn’s Misfits at the Christmas Tree Inn

Photo by Eve Arnold

The former Christmas Tree Inn & Casino in Nevada, where Marilyn and the Misfits crew partied on October 17, 1960 – will reopen under new management and a new name, as Jonathan L. Wright reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“Chef Colin and MaryBeth Smith are heading for the hills. The couple, owners of Roundabout Catering … just purchased Tannenbaum Event Center, tucked in the pines halfway up Mount Rose Highway.

The business, to be called Tannenbaum by Roundabout, occupies a landmark property where the Christmas Tree restaurant sat for nearly 60 years before being reborn as Tannenbaum in 2005 after extensive renovations.

The Christmas Tree opened as a bar in 1946; it became a restaurant in 1947. The place became known for its panoramic views of Washoe Valley, its warm fire and its steaks grilled over mahogany. In the 1950s and early 1960s, celebrities visiting or performing in Reno and at Lake Tahoe frequently stopped by the Christmas Tree.

From the mid-1960s on, the Christmas Tree experienced a fire and rebuilding, a foreclosure, a reopening after sitting empty for a bit, and several changes of ownership. The restaurant closed for good in 2003. The next year, the Nobis family purchased the property and remade it into Tannenbaum Event Center.

MaryBeth Smith recalled eating at the Christmas Tree in the late 1990s when she first moved to the area. ‘They had the mahogany steak on the menu, so we might do some pop-up restaurants here that serve the mahogany steaks. It will be our remembrance of the Christmas Tree.'”

As Gary Vitacco-Robles writes in Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, this was the Millers’ last public outing as a married couple, and so the memories were bittersweet.

“The company hosted a surprise birthday party for Miller, turning forty-five, and Monty Clift, five years younger, on the following Monday evening at the Christmas Tree Inn & Casino. The event also served as a wrap party. Clift told [Ralph] Roberts that the evening was a highlight of his life, and sadly, this was a true statement. Within two years, Clift experienced a major depressive episode and lived virtually as a hermit …

Marilyn, in a pearl dress from the party she hosted for Yves Montand before the start of Let’s Make Love, sat beside Clift and expertly twirled fettuccini alfredo on a spoon as only the former wife of an Italian-American could. Russell Metty made the toast: ‘… Why don’t you wish [Arthur] a happy birthday, Marilyn? This truly is the biggest bunch of misfits I ever saw.’ Marilyn smiled but shook her head in negation. After dinner, the party gambled in the casino. At the roulette table, Marilyn teamed with Eve Arnold. [John] Huston handed Marilyn a pair of green dice.

‘What should I ask the dice for, John?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think, honey, just throw,’ Huston replied. ‘That’s the story of your life. Don’t think, do it.'”

Spanish Novelist Retraces Marilyn’s ‘Nevada Days’

Bernardo Axtaga is a Spanish author whose 2014 novel, Nevada Days – a fictionalised account of his nine-month stay as writer-in-residence at the Centre for Basque Studies – is now available in English, and the early chapters include several references to Marilyn and The Misfits.

She is first mentioned when Axtaga flips through a copy of The Misfits: Story of a Shoot, Sergio Toubania’s monograph of the Magnum photographers who documented the production. “Individually, the photographs were really good,” Axtaga comments, “… but perhaps because the photographs were the work of different photographers, seeing them all together jarred somehow.”

He later visits Pyramid Lake, and is surprised to find no postcards from The Misfits in the gift shop.”There was one, I seemed to remember, that would have been perfect: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable lying next to each other on the shores of Pyramid Lake. I asked the waitress, but she had never heard of the film. Nor was she interested in Marilyn Monroe.”

The final, extended passage about Marilyn occurs during a long drive, while Axtaga is talking to his wife Angela about Arthur Miller’s stay at Pyramid Lake in 1956, where he wrote the short story that would become The Misfits while waiting out his first divorce, and conducted a long-distance relationship with Marilyn, who was filming Bus Stop. Axtaga imagines Marilyn’s anguished telephone call to Miller from the set, as described in Miller’s autobiography, Timebends.

Axtaga then recalls the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), where Marilyn’s character, ‘The Girl’, sympathises with the monster in yet another movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon. (This was foreshadowed in an earlier episode, when Axtaga’s young daughter cries at the end of King Kong.)

As the author forms his own impressions of Nevada, Marilyn disappears from the novel. But her ghostly presence reflects how an outsider’s preconceptions about American life  can be shaped by literary and cinematic mythology.

Nevada Neighbours: Marilyn and ‘The Misfits’

Film historian Robin Holabird will be giving a talk about her 2017 book,  Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens: Nevada Screen Icons (which includes a full chapter on The Misfits) at 6pm on February 13, as part of a ‘Nevada Neighbours‘ series presented by the Capital City Arts Initiative at the Community Development Building, 108 E. Proctor St in Carson City.

“In her Nevada Neighbors talk, Holabird will explore the blending of icons and Nevada, along with her personal experiences of watching movies, talking with famous people, and showing off a diverse range of stunning and iconic locations like Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Area 51. She will discuss how Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and space aliens, like the Transformers, share a surprising connection along with James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Rocky Balboa — all beloved icons who have played active roles in movie and television projects set in Nevada.

In her new book, Elvis, Marilyn, and Space Aliens, Holabird shows how Nevada’s flash, flair, and fostering of the forbidden provided magic for singers, sexpots, and strange creatures from other worlds. She also gives readers an insider’s look into movie-making in Nevada by drawing on her extensive experience as a film commissioner. Holabird will share her personal take on film history and culture in her Nevada Neighbors talk.”

Marilyn, ‘The Misfits’ and Nevada Magazine

The tumultuous filming of The Misfits has become part of the Desert State’s history, as Janet Geary, publisher of Nevada magazine, observed in a talk for the Fallon lecture series, ‘Pictures of the West’, this week at the Churchill County Museum, as Steve Ranson reports for Nevada Appeal.

“The 1980s began to offer more in-depth articles such as on the native Indians of Nevada; Nevada’s buckaroos, a black and white collection, and the state’s ranches; the golden anniversary of Hoover Dam with a spectacular night-time photo of the dam; the magazine’s 50th anniversary; the 25th anniversary of the filming of the movie, The Misfits, starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; and the state’s 125th birthday in 1989. She said The Misfits from December 1986 was the most popular cover.”

Marilyn Book News: Greene, Beaton and More

This autumn will see the release of what could be the most comprehensive Greene retrospective to date, The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton H. Greene: 50 Sessions. Coming from ACC Art Books on September 27,  it spans 324 pages and 400 photos.

Marilyn also graces the cover of Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles, one of many celebrities featured, out in paperback on October 5. This book was originally released in hardback (with Beaton on the cover) back in 2014.

And for something completely different, Robin Holabird’s Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens: Icons on Screen in Nevada is out now. Don’t be put off by the wacky cover: it includes a chapter on The Misfits.

When Marilyn Came to Boulder City

Boulder+City+Downtown+cropped

In an article for Boulder City Review, Tanya Vece traces Marilyn’s fleeting visit to the Nevada town in 1946.

“Before she was the blonde bombshell known as Marilyn Monroe, a dark-haired Norma Jeane Mortenson came through Boulder City with a man named Bill Pursel.

Bill Pursel
Bill Pursel

Mortenson was living on Third Street in Las Vegas in 1946 while seeking a quick Nevada divorce from her first husband, James Dougherty. Norma was on the brink of becoming a global icon as Fox Studios promised her a movie contract…

Photo of Marilyn, given to Bill Pursel in 1947
Photo of Marilyn, given to Bill Pursel in 1947

Boulder City played a small yet pivotal role when Norma Jeane came through to visit Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam because it was right around the time that she was starting to morph into Marilyn. In the book Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, author Michelle Morgan highlights what seemed to be Mortenson’s struggle to fit into the mold of what was expected from women at the time …

Boulder City

Most people stop here on their way to somewhere else — be it for sightseeing or to grab a bite to eat. While Mortenson was passing through our city she knew that she was on her way to somewhere else and as someone else.”

Marilyn’s ‘Misfit’ Interlude

Photo by Eve Arnold, 1960
Photo by Eve Arnold, 1960

Marilyn famously made denim stylish for women in The Misfits. Writing for the Levi Strauss blog, Tracey Panek revisits the Nevada locations where the movie was shot.

It is a very interesting article. However, it should be noted that Marilyn stayed with the cast and crew at the Mapes Hotel in Reno for most of the shoot, although she did move into another suite after her marriage to Arthur Miller hit the rocks.

As Panek notes, she also briefly stayed at a country inn, which offered her a brief respite – but this was only while filming scenes on location in nearby Dayton.

“I started my journey in the Comstock at Virginia City’s Edith Palmer’s Country Inn, the place where Marilyn stayed while filming The Misfits.

‘She didn’t want to stay with the rest of the crew,’ said inn owner Leisa Findley. ‘Marilyn’s chauffeur picked her up and dropped her off here every day.’ Theorizing about Monroe’s motivation for separate living quarters (her room pictured below) Leisa explained, ‘It was during the time that she was leaving her husband.’

I interviewed the inn owner about her memories of The Misfits. Leisa was only ten years old during the filming and recalled the memorable scene when Monroe makes a ruckus beating a paddle ball in a cowboy bar. ‘I could hear them,’ Leisa said, ‘The entire crew would count aloud.’ During the scene, Monroe hits the paddle ball repeatedly and the entire bar erupts into counting. While the film makes it looks seamless, it took Monroe multiple takes to capture the continuous paddling.

Although Monroe wore a dress for the bar scene, she donned Lady Levi’s® jeans in other key scenes in the film, a flattering fit for her signature curves. In one scene Monroe wears jeans while gardening, her sexy silhouette prompting admirers to purchase their own Levi’s® jeans.

After Virginia City, I drove to Dayton, the place where The Misfits was filmed. Monroe’s Levi’s® jeans may have been purchased at Braun & Loftus General Merchandise in Dayton. The town remains much the same is it did during the filming. I spotted the Braun & Loftus building, today a restaurant, by its colorful exterior sign.

I finished my journey viewing the flat lakebed near Dayton where one of the final film scenes was shot. Wild horses still roam the area and I was fortunate to spot a few in the distance. In the climactic scene, Monroe is distraught as she watches Gable breaking a wild horse. She is dressed in Levi’s® jeans as she runs across the open lakebed and pleads with Gable to stop. Monroe looks at once rugged and practical, cowgirl Western yet stylish and cool.

Despite her death from an overdose one year later, Monroe left an imprint on the places and people she touched in The Misfits. ‘To Edith Palmer and her oasis in the desert and warm hospitality,’ Monroe wrote to the inn owner who made her feel at home during the filming. ‘May I always be a welcome guest. Marilyn Monroe.’ Despite its lack of popular appeal, the film received critical acclaim. More importantly, Monroe’s appearance in Levi’s® jeans helped popularize the denim pants — women wanting to dress as Marilyn bought their own blue jeans.”

Marilyn and the Truckee River Ring Myth

ScreenShot660Did the newly divorced Roslyn Tabor (as played by MM) throw her wedding ring off Reno’s Virginia Street Bridge, and into the Truckee River in The Misfits? The answer is no – while her friend Isabel (Thelma Ritter) mischievously suggests it, Roslyn laughs and proposes to ‘get a drink’ instead.

As recently reported, the bridge is now being replaced. Lindsay of the IAmNotAStalker blog visited the location of Marilyn’s Misfits scene in 2011.

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And as Mark Robison reports in today’s Reno Gazette-Journal, the long-held belief that divorcees commonly toss their rings in the river is somewhat exaggerated – but not without precedent. (In fact, Hollywood had burnished the myth for decades before Marilyn set foot on that bridge.)

“Some have speculated it started with the 1961 film The Misfits where Marilyn Monroe’s character thinks about throwing her ring into the Truckee.

Nevada historian Guy Rocha goes back further. In a Reno Gazette-Journal column published in 2008, he writes, ‘The first-known account of throwing wedding rings into the Truckee River (is) in the pamphlet titled: Reno! It Won’t Be Long Now’ NINETY DAYS AND FREEDOM from 1927.

This topic of freedom in Reno refers to the city’s liberal divorce laws, which allowed couples to get divorced after a short residency of three months, often spent in a hotel casino. (The time was shortened even more later.) Other locations in the first half of the 20th century made divorce much harder and required much longer waits before finalizing the decision. This made Reno especially popular among people who needed a divorce before they could marry someone else.

Rocha wrote that an early pop culture reference to tossing wedding rings into the Truckee River occurs in Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.’s 1929 book Reno. A movie of the book released in 1930 ‘first introduced movie-goers to Truckee River ring-flinging, Rocha said.

A 1931 book called The Reno Divorce Racket has a photograph of Marjorie MacArthur and Dorothy Foltz throwing their wedding rings into the river, Rocha reported.

Many stories in magazines and newspapers followed, some debunking the trend, others celebrating it.

Rocha mentions a 1950 United Press news story about 50 Junior Chamber of Commerce volunteers cleaning the river and finding one — but only one — wedding ring.

Rocha concluded, ‘The tradition might have been fakelore originating in promotional literature, then reinforced many times by publicity gimmicks. While not common practice, real wedding rings found their way into the Truckee because some divorcées acted on what they believed to be a tradition.'”

Marilyn’s ‘Misfit’ Bridge Will Be Replaced

Marilyn and Thelma Ritter filming 'The Misfits' on Virginia Street Bridge, Reno
Marilyn and Thelma Ritter filming ‘The Misfits’ on Virginia Street Bridge, Reno

The Virginia Street Bridge, which stands over the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada – where Marilyn filmed a scene for The Misfits with co-star Thelma Ritter – is set to be replaced, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“Built in 1905, the reinforced concrete bridge has succumbed to years of wear and tear and is being replaced with a new structure. As portrayed in the 1961 film, the bridge was known as the place where newly divorced women who came to Nevada because of the state’s short residency requirement would throw their wedding bands into the Truckee River.

History and preservation buffs are disappointed that the bridge will soon be just a memory. Memories are still fresh of the loss of the historic Mapes Hotel, which sat on the north side of the bridge, imploded in 2000.

But residents are also excited about the new span, which will have a single arch and become a new gateway into the resurging downtown district.

Kerrie Koski, street program manager for the city Public Works Department, said the bridge is not only unsafe but also causes problems during flooding. It is the most unsafe bridge in the state, she said.

The new $18 million span will incorporate elements of the original bridge — to honor the history of the bridge — when it opens next May, including the lights. The historic railing has been salvaged and will be used in an area adjacent to the bridge.

According to an article in Reno Historical, a special project by the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, the bridge was known as the ‘Wedding Ring Bridge’ and the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ and became the subject of national folklore.

According to the article by Mella Harmon, the legend, dating to at least the 1920s, held that divorcees, upon receiving their final decree from a judge, exited the Washoe County Courthouse, kissed the columns supporting the courthouse portico and proceeded past the Riverside Hotel to the bridge to throw their wedding rings into the river.

In The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe’s character, Roslyn, is told the tale while standing on the bridge, considers it for a moment, then places her ring back in her purse and heads to Harrah’s for a drink, Harmon wrote.

[Hillary] Schieve said the city is looking at the potential of making pieces of the bridge available to the public, but details are still being worked out.”

Misfit Memories: Arthur Miller in Reno

American giants: Arthur Miller with Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck in New York, 1966. (Photo by Inge Morath)
American giants: Arthur Miller with Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck in New York, 1966. (Photo by Inge Morath)

Novelist Saul Bellow befriended Arthur Miller in 1956, when both were waiting out their first divorces in Reno, Nevada. During this period, Miller wrote a short story which he would later develop into The Misfits, a ‘valentine’ for Marilyn Monroe. Bellow’s next marriage would end in 1959, a year before Miller’s; and Bellow died in 2005, just a few months after Miller. Reviewing The Life of Saul Bellow, Zachary Leader’s recently-published, authorised biography, for the New Statesman, Leo Robson takes a closer look at this brief period which would come to define Miller’s future – and Marilyn’s.

“When he gets to the period in 1956 when Bellow and Arthur Miller were neighbours in Reno, Nevada, sitting out the six-week residency required to gain a divorce, Leader shuns the opportunity to define Bellow in relation to an exact contemporary, also at odds with his background (Bellow read Lenin in a coal delivery office; Miller read Tolstoy between fixing cars), also involved in Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, also rejected for military service, also reared on Marxist theory and concerned with the fragile status of the individual man in a city, a century, a mass, and so on. In a book bursting with allusions to forgotten book reviews, he doesn’t mention that Bellow had written about Miller’s novel Focus. (He complained that the heroism of Miller’s central character was ‘clipped to his lapel like a delegate’s badge at a liberal convention’.)

Life in Reno was quiet. The ‘biggest event’ of a typical day, Miller recalled, came when Bellow spent ‘half an hour up behind a hill a half-mile from the cottages empty­ing his lungs roaring at the stillness, an exercise in self-contact, I supposed’. Once a week, Bellow drove him to town in his Chevrolet to do shopping and laundry.

The writers, two decades after starting out, a decade after making their first mark, were at the pinnacle of their professions, Miller a Pulitzer winner, Bellow a National Book Award-winner. But Bellow’s second wife, Sondra, in a letter that Leader doesn’t quote, recalled that she ‘never heard a single literary exchange’ between the two writers, not least because Miller ‘talked non-stop’ about Marilyn Monroe – ‘her career, her beauty, her talent, even her perfect feet… all quite enlightening since neither Mr Bellow nor I had ever even heard of her before this’. Back in New York, the couples became friends. One night, at dinner in Little Italy, an area where Monroe, having recently left Joe DiMaggio, was unpopular, they had to make a quick escape to avoid potential mob violence. (Bellow and Monroe later dined alone: ‘I have yet to see anything in Marilyn that isn’t genuine,’ he wrote. ‘Surrounded by thousands she conducts herself like a philosopher.’)

Sondra Bellow said that if there was a ‘bond’ – her quotation marks – between Bellow and Miller, it had less to do ‘with their being writers, and more to do with their being in somewhat the same place’. She also recalled that Bellow didn’t consider Miller ‘a real intellectual (like the Partisan Review crowd)’. Miller would have agreed. In Timebends, he wrote that Bellow, who spent most of his life teaching in universities – Bard, Princeton and, for more than 30 years, Chicago – had brought with him a library of books ‘large enough for a small college’. (When Miller packed up his things, all his possessions – apart from his typewriter – could be carried in a single valise.) On the whole, Miller was more practical-minded. He saw no benefit in ideas as an end in themselves and thought hard about art’s importance in a changing society.”