Did Marilyn Start the Sexual Revolution?

Marilyn by Bert Stern (1962)

A rather provocative article, headlined ‘Marilyn Monroe Started Sexual Revolution’, has appeared at The Inqisitr. It’s an interesting proposal, but unfortunately the content is somewhat ill-informed.

Firstly, none of the quotes attributed to Marilyn can be substantiated. They are all quotes which have only appeared online in recent years. None of them can be traced back to an interview or reputable biography.

Here’s a better example, from her last interview in 1962:

“I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous. This is where a lot of them miss the boat. And then something I’d just like to spout off on. We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it, everything.”

Secondly, Marilyn’s much-vaunted ‘affair’ with John F. Kennedy has been wildly exaggerated. The best evidence suggests that it was at most a weekend fling. And her last phonecall was not to JFK.

In private, Marilyn was perhaps more sexually liberated than most women were generally in her lifetime. But among other Hollywood stars, she wasn’t especially promiscuous.

Where she was arguably more radical is in how she expressed her sexuality in public life. The Inquisitr rightly states the revelation of her nude calendar, and Marilyn’s refusal to disown it, as a turning point in her career.

She was America’s greatest post-war sex symbol, which is all the more remarkable since she came to prominence in an era when women’s sexual freedoms were being curtailed.

In her first true star vehicle, Niagara, Marilyn played a ‘femme fatale’ with fierce, threatening sexuality. However, her bosses at Twentieth Century Fox subsequently placed her in comedic, ‘dumb blonde’ roles, in an attempt to neutralise her allure.

Despite being forced to play a stereotype, Marilyn managed to poke fun at her image, presenting sex in a way seldom seen before. Unlike the vamps who preceded her, Marilyn’s sexuality seemed both natural and joyous.

Anatomy of a Scandal

In the wake of news that over a hundred celebrities’ private photos have been leaked by a hacker, Anne Helen Petersen looks back at Marilyn’s nude calendar scandal, and how she survived, over at Buzzfeed.

“More than 60 years ago, an ‘it’ girl not dissimilar to Jennifer Lawrence also had highly suggestive and topless photos emerge into the public sphere, just as her career was rocketing from B-player to A-list star. A 23-year-old Marilyn Monroe, desperate for work, posed nude for art photographer Tom Kelley in 1949, receiving $50 for her time.

She made rent, and continued her fledgling career. It wasn’t until 1952, when two of the images from the shoot showed up in a calendar called Golden Dreams, that the photo shoot came back to (potentially) haunt her.

At first, it was mere speculation that the anonymous girl in the pages of the calendar seemed to look strikingly similar to one of Fox’s up-and-coming starlettes. But as it became increasingly clear that it was, in fact, Monroe nude on a bed of red satin, she urged her studio to let her guide her own PR strategy, one brilliant in its simplicity.

Instead of denouncing the images, Monroe took control of the narrative. She’d been hungry and behind on rent, and besides, she had always insisted that the photographer’s wife be in the room. ‘I’m not ashamed of it,’ she told the press. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’

And her comments just kept getting better. ‘I’ve only autographed a few copies of it, mostly for sick people,’ she explained to the The Saturday Evening Post. ‘On one I wrote, this might not be my best angle.’

Unlike prior sex scandals, which had each served as a revelation of a hidden self, the photos of a naked Monroe fit with the expectations gleaned from her on-screen performances. (Just four years before, a leading Hollywood star — Ingrid Bergman — had been denounced on the Senate floor as an ‘instrument of evil’ for giving birth out of wedlock, with nary a single nude photo in sight.) Monroe’s on-screen persona, or ‘picture personality,’ was defined by sex; it was no surprise when her off-screen activities were as well.

But Monroe’s particular embodiment of sex, and the salience thereof, hinged on an understanding of sex not as prurient, or deviant, but natural — fitting with what came to be known as the “Playboy philosophy”, that sex is only dirty when suppressed. In this way, Monroe reassured the public that posing for those photos wasn’t wrong, or sinful, or something that should end her career — but a young, hungry, ambitious girl understanding her assets and sharing the pleasure of her beautiful body.

Monroe knew that she could fold the potential scandal of the Golden Dreams photos into her existing image, which managed to reconcile the intensely sexual with the overwhelmingly innocent. She giggled, she smiled, she completely neutralized the career-destroying power of those photos. All with a few lines of well-chosen response, calculated to help her audience understand that yes, nude photos might be the site of truth of the Marilyn Monroe image, but that site of truth isn’t cobwebbed and unseemly, but rather the most innocent, natural, and thus unimpeachable form of bliss.”

Julien’s 90210 Spring Auction

Marilyn makes the cover yet again, in this online catalogue for Julien’s 90210 auction, ending next Monday, March 17. Items on offer include photographs by Joseph Jasgur, George Barris, and Andre de Dienes; a screen-print by Pop Artist Steve Kaufman; and a nude calendar owned by Bob Hope – who arranged Marilyn’s USO tour of Korea – featuring this amusing typed text, accompanied by a facsimile signature…

UPDATE: View results here

Tom Kelley, Dennis Stock at Reel Art Press

Tom Kelley’s Studio, a new book from Reel Art Press (the people behind The Rat Pack) features his most famous session – with a young, unknown Marilyn – on its cover. It is a general review of his work, will be published on November 1st.

Also coming soon from Reel Art Press is Dennis Stock: American Cool, including these photos taken during filming of The Misfits. (I’m not sure yet whether his other work with Marilyn is also featured.)


Hollywood Legends at Julien’s

Marilyn graces another auction catalogue cover this week. Julien’s Hollywood Legends sale is set for April 5-6, and includes photographs, documents and a cocktail dress that belonged to MM.

Norma Jeane by David Conover, 1945


Marilyn in 1949

UPDATE: Norma Jeane’s 1941 class photo from Emerson Junior High was sold for $1,280

A black velvet belt, probably worn by Marilyn in As Young As You Feel, sold for $2,432

Marilyn-themed suitcase owned by Anna Nicole Smith, sold for $1,024

A New Wrinkle‘ 1953 calendar from Tom Kelley Studio, sold for $1.375

Marilyn’s 1954 script for the unmade film, Horns for the Devil, sold for $1,375

Hairdresser Peter Leonardi’s invitation to the premiere of The Seven Year Itch, sold for $1,408

Red cotton nightshirt owned by Marilyn, sold for $15,000

Nude foundation bra from Marilyn’s ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You‘ dress, sold for $28,800

Marilyn’s 1961 bank savings book, sold for $1,920

Amateur film shot during production of The Misfits, sold for $2,560

8mm film reel showing Marilyn working on a scene with Misfits co-star Thelma Ritter, sold for $3,840

Skull cap trimmed with cabbage rose, worn by Marilyn in There’s No Business Like Show Business, sold for $8,125

Light brown wool cocktail dress from Jax, sold for $25,000


MM: Guru of Spin

Over at Neatorama, Mike Albo considers how Marilyn turned the discovery of her nude calendar into a public relations triumph back in 1952:

“Before Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson, there was Marilyn Monroe, the woman who taught those ladies everything they need to know about getting famous. By 1952, Monroe had been credited in 15 films, but most Americans didn’t know her name. She needed some publicity, fast. Around that time, wire service reporter Aline Mosby discovered nude calendar photos that looked suspiciously like Monroe. When the rumor mill started churning, 20th Century Fox warned the actress to stay quiet.

But Monroe had other plans in mind. In March 1952, she gave an interview, admitting the photos were of her and claiming she’d only done them to pay the rent. The outpouring of sympathy made Monroe the most talked about woman Hollywood. One month later she was on the cover of Life magazine, and her next movie, Clash by Night, was a smash hit. Biographers now think that the person who originally leaked the photographs was either Jerry Wald, an executive producer of Clash by Night, or Monroe herself. And that’s how a star is born.”