Beloved Collaborators: Capote, Avedon and Marilyn

Richard Avedon and Marilyn had a dear mutual friend – the novelist Truman Capote, who provided the text for Avedon’s 1959 book, Observations.

“Truman leapt at Dick’s invitation to collaborate on a book project. He sent his text to Dick in stages, written in his fussy little hand on yellow legal pads and always accompanied by a note that endearingly began ‘Beloved Collaborator.’ Dick was dazzled by Truman’s lapidiary descriptions of his portraits … Marilyn Monroe – ‘a waif-figure of saucy pathos … an untidy divinity – in the sense that a banana split or cherry jubilee is untidy but divine’ … Though Truman’s contributions would be labelled as ‘comments’, they added up to a composite portrait of their own and succeeded in making Observations as much a book with pictures as a picture book with text.”

From Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens & Steven M. L. Aronson

The Millers in Avedon’s ‘Observations’, 1959

Avedon’s Marilyn: A Persistent Memory

A note from Paula Strasberg, overlaying Avedon’s ‘Sad Marilyn’

Taken at the end of a long sitting in 1957, the portrait now known as ‘Sad Marilyn’ has become one of her most iconic images, and a stand-out in her collaborations with Richard Avedon. Mark McClish, who worked with Avedon during the 1990s, names it as a favourite in Avedon: Something Personal.

“He let me choose a print when I left, and I picked the sad Marilyn. I had fallen in love with that picture when I was emptying wastebaskets every night as fourth assistant – I was all alone in the building, and so was she, somehow, and, I don’t know, she spoke to me. Dick did one of his smiley faces in the archival paper he wrapped her in for me – except he gave the face a frown and put tears in the eyes, which I’m not embarrassed to admit brought tears to mine. I still have my Marilyn – I haven’t had to sell it, my kids aren’t in college yet …”

Avedon was fiercely protective of Marilyn’s memory, as revealed in a chapter concerning a 2002 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The two photographs he had designated for promotional purposes were the cross-dressing dancer John Martin and the Bee Man, but now the Met wanted to replace them with the sad Marilyn (a photograph that her own husband, Arthur Miller, had described as ‘succeeding as much as any single picture can in its attempt to portray her as herself’ and that Time magazine characterised as ‘the most psychologically inward picture ever taken of her’). The museum argued that Marilyn enjoyed a ‘Q Score’ of twenty-five (high for a ‘deleb’, or dead celebrity) and that using her to advertise the exhibition could make a disproportionate difference in the number of attendees. Dick protested that this would be exploiting her as a sex celebrity and proposed using June Leaf instead. In the end the Met got their Marilyn, and Dick got his June on the cover of the catalogue.”

Avedon shared another memory of Marilyn in conversation with model turned psychiatrist Lauren Helm, whom he photographed and interviewed for Vogue in 1983. “I remember saying something to the effect that I could never see myself the way other people said they saw me,” she recalls, “and he said that Marilyn Monroe had said practically the exact same thing to him.”

Avedon’s Marilyn: Fabled Enchantments

Penny Cobbs, who worked for Richard Avedon during the 1980s, has described their collaboration on a series of posters based on his ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ sessions with Marilyn. “We did four Marilyns – her impersonating the old-time sex symbols Jean Harlow, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, and Lillian Russell – he’d done those pictures for Life in 1958,” Cobbs recalled in an interview for Avedon: Something Personal. “But since nobody could recognise Marilyn, they didn’t go over well.” Ironically, these posters are now highly collectible and because of their rarity, they sell well at auctions.

Richard Avedon’s Marilyn in Motion

In his early years as a fashion photographer, Richard Avedon was known for his use of movement, as opposed to the rather stiff poses of the day. He carried this through to his work with Marilyn, as Tim Walker – who worked with Avedon in the mid 1990s – recalls in Avedon: Something Personal.

“Dick had put up this huge bubble-jet poster of a sequence of pictures he’d taken of Marilyn in a tight sequinned dress: she was laughing in one of them, she had her hands on her hips in another one, in another her head was down, then up … One morning the first thing, when I was making the coffee, I observed him standing in front of the poster mimicking  all her poses, reliving the shoot in a way – almost asking, with his own body, ‘Did I get all I could?’ And of course he had!”

Richard Avedon: Waiting for Sugar

Frederick Eberstadt, who was Richard Avedon’s studio manager from 1958-60, shared his memories of the Some Like It Hot photo shoot in Avedon: Something Personal.

“When Dick was doing the publicity photographs for Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis came in carrying the most elaborate camera you ever saw. He said to Dick, ‘You’re the perfect person to show me how to use this thing.’ Dick took one panicked look and said, ‘My studio manager Frank [Eberstadt] will be happy to help you out.’ One of the first things he said to me when I went to work for him was, ‘Don’t bother to learn any technique – you can always hire some guy for a few bucks a week.’ Dick simply did not know how he did what he did. Learning to photograph from him would have been like trying to learn to sing from somebody who has perfect pitch and just can’t help hitting the right note.

At noon on the day he was to shoot Marilyn, a woman with a doughy face and a babushka, who I presumed to be her maid, dropped off some clothes for her at the studio. It turned out to be the star herself – that was what she looked like when she was not in full drag. She was supposed to come back at three, but Dick had booked somebody else in that slot, knowing she most likely wouldn’t show up until six and wouldn’t be ready to work until nine. He told me to stick around, that my job would be to make sure her vodka was diluted enough so she didn’t get too drunk but not so much that she realised it was mostly water.”

 

Avedon, the Greenes and Marilyn

Amy and Joshua Greene with Paula Strasberg and Marilyn during filming of ‘Bus Stop’, 1956

Amy Greene is one of many luminaries interviewed by authors Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson for Avedon: Something Personal, in which she reveals the ties between Milton and Avedon, and later, Marilyn.

“One night in 1950, the photographer Milton Greene was having one of his Friday night open-houses in his penthouse studio, in the old Grand Central Palace building on Lexington Avenue. The room was packed with art directors, admen, models, photographers, actors, and dancers. Dick [Avedon] introduced himself to a fragile-looking blonde with almond-shaped eyes who was standing alone against the wall of the loggia – a wallflower. He broke the ice with, ‘How do you know Milton?’ She said, ‘I was married to him,’ and she filled Dick in: They were high-school sweethearts who had tied the knot in 1942 when she, Evelyn Franklin, was eighteen.

Dick said he was instantly taken by Evie’s feyness and elusiveness … He invited her to dinner that night at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal. From there the relationship took off like a choo-choo train, and the couple got hitched at the end of January 1951.

Avedon with his wife Evelyn in 1955

Milton Greene had meanwhile taken up with a cute Cuban-born model whom Dick had ‘discovered’, Edilia Franco (Conover, the modeling agency he sent her to, changed her first name to Amy and her last name to – in a nod to Dick – Richards.) In the spring of 1952, the year before he married Amy, Milton invited Dick and Evie to Sunday lunch in the country. ‘I wasn’t feeling so hot,’ Amy recalls. ‘I told Milton I wasn’t up to coming down. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I went through this shit for seven years with Evelyn, and I’m not going to put up with it from you. So get the hell up, put something decent on, and make an effort!’ He told me that one of the reasons he divorced Evelyn was she would stay in bed for days on end.

‘When Dick was in Hollywood for three months in 1956 consulting with Paramount on Funny Face, Milton was there producing Bus Stop with Marilyn, and Evelyn and I met for lunch,’ Amy recalls. ‘She and Dick were renting Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio’s old ‘honeymoon house’ on North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, and she complained that the tour buses would drive by several times a day and the guide would make a big thing over the megaphone about the master bedroom – she said it was sexually inhibiting. The minute Evie discovered that I detested Milton’s mother as much as she did, she started giggling, and we became sort of friends. I remember her grousing that all Dick ever did was work. So I guess there wasn’t much reason for her to get out of bed.’

The former DiMaggio home on North Palm Drive, occupied by the Avedons in 1956

Five years into his marriage to Evie, a movie inspired by Dick’s [first] marriage … lit up screens across the country. ‘Funny Face, by the way, wasn’t really about me. They just used my early fashion escapades as a pretext to make a glamorous musical extravaganza …’ (Avedon)

Amazingly, Dick’s boyhood idol, Fred Astaire, now an old boy of 57, played the 25 year-old lead, named Dick; Audrey Hepburn played Doe, renamed Jo … The day Fred Astaire made his leap into death, some thirty years after Funny Face, Dick appeared in the doorway to [Norma Stevens’] office with tears running down his cheeks. ‘I didn’t cry when Marilyn died, I didn’t cry when [Alexey] Brodovitch (Avedon’s art director at Harper’s Bazaar) died, he told [Stevens.}”

When Avedon Met Marilyn…

Richard Avedon’s first collaboration with Marilyn was in September 1954, when she visited New York to film The Seven Year Itch with director Billy Wilder. It may also have been their first meeting, and their warm camaraderie is evident in the resulting photos, taken by Sam Shaw. Earl Steinbicker, who was Avedon’s studio assistant at the time, remembers the shoot in Avedon: Something Personal.

“I met a helluva lot of famous people with Dick … I was there for the first sitting Dick ever did with Marilyn Monroe. The Daily News had sent a photographer to photograph him photographing her. I worked the fan blowing her hair, and at the end of the sitting she came over and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like a picture of me?'”

Mike Nichols On Marilyn, Miller and Avedon

The film and theatre director Mike Nichols, who died in 2014, is one of many whose memories are shared in Avedon: Something Personal.  He studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in 1953, before developing a comedy act with Elaine May. After directing Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple on Broadway, he went on to make two of the best movies of the 1960s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, establishing himself as one of America’s leading directors.

“I met Dick [Avedon] early in 1960. He came to the Blue Angel, on East 55th Street, to see me and Elaine May in our nightclub act … Then one day he called me out of the blue, wanting to know if Elaine and I would be interested in writing a skit for Marilyn Monroe. Leland Hayward was producing a two-hour CBS special called The Fabulous Fifties and had promised Dick that if he could get Marilyn to do it he would direct it himself.

Our first meeting was at Dick’s apartment at 625 Park … that’s where we sat trying to come up with a Marilyn idea. At the end of the visit he put his arm around me and walked me to the elevator. He said, ‘I have the feeling we’re going to be friends for life.’

The next week he took us to Marilyn’s apartment, around the corner from Sutton Place, so we could present what we’d worked out to her and Arthur Miller. She had been in my acting class with Strasberg, so I knew the way she was,  which was sweet and not saying much. She just sat on the floor at Arthur’s feet – he had his hand on her shoulder. Dick and Elaine and I took turns acting out our rough little idea, whatever it was – after which Arthur said, ‘I don’t think it’s for Marilyn.’ So he nixed it, the jerk, although he and I became friends many years later when we were neighbours in Connecticut…”

Richard Avedon Biography Hit By Controversy

Richard Avedon with Marilyn in 1954 (photo by Sam Shaw)

Avedon: Something Personal, the new biography by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson, is under fire from the Avedon Foundation, as the New York Post reported in December. Speaking on behalf of the Foundation, James Martin said that the book contains many inaccuracies, and that co-author Norma Stevens – Avedon’s former business partner – was not, as she claimed, with the photographer when he died in 2004, or at his funeral, which was for immediate family only. “Stevens tries to convince us that Avedon trusted her alone with his deepest secrets [which is untrue],” Martin added, “and directed her to ‘out’ him at her own convenience” (seemingly a reference to his alleged bisexuality.)

In a follow-up article for the Post, Richard Johnson commented that “the foundation ignores that bombshell and lists 10 factual mistakes, some quite trivial, such as whether a house was bought in 1970 or two years later.” The book’s publisher, Spiegel & Grau, fully support the authors and have rejected calls for the book to be withdrawn from sale, pointing out that Norma Stevens was appointed director of the Avedon Foundation in the photographer’s last will and testament. “The story she tells is the accurate rendition of the tales he told her and many others in the almost 30 years she worked alongside him,” a spokeswoman said.

Richard Avedon: Something Personal takes the format of an oral history, with various friends and associates relating memories in their own words. Norma Stevens began working for Avedon in the 1960s: one of the first confidences they shared, as reported by ES Updates in December, was of his friendship with Marilyn. Many of the book’s references to Marilyn relate to the exhibits and publications in which she was featured during Avedon’s later career, but there are also some interesting reminiscences dating from her own lifetime. I will review the book, and Marilyn’s part in it, in another post to follow.

Marilyn and Avedon: Something Personal

This photo of Marilyn chatting with photographer Richard Avedon at a 1961 Actors Studio benefit at New York’s Roseland Ballroom is published in Avedon: Something Personal, a new biography by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson. Marilyn is mentioned in the introduction, where Norma Stevens describes her first meeting with Avedon. A photo of Marilyn and Avedon, taken by Sam Shaw in 1954, is also featured. It’s unclear whether the book includes any further material on their iconic collaborations, but this preview looks very promising.

And as a bonus, here’s the Roseland photo in colour…