Robert Wagner: ‘The Marilyn I Knew’

Marilyn films a screen test with Robert Wagner, 1951

One of the last survivors of Hollywood’s golden age, Robert Wagner has written about Marilyn in his memoir, You Must Remember This, as well as providing the introduction to David Wills’ Marilyn – In the Flash. In his latest book, I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses, Wagner writes about her again, and an excerpt is published on the Town and Country website.

“I have no horror stories to tell. I thought she was a terrific woman and I liked her very much. When I knew her, she was a warm, fun girl. She was obviously nervous about the test we did together, but so was I. In any case, her nervousness didn’t disable her in any way; she performed in a thoroughly professional manner. She behaved the same way in Let’s Make It Legal, the film we later made—nervous, but eager and up to the task.

Years later, Marilyn began dropping by the house where Natalie [Wood] and I lived. Our connection was through Pat Newcomb, her publicist. I had known Pat since our childhood. She had also worked for me and often accompanied Marilyn to our house. I bought a car from Marilyn—a black Cadillac with black leather interior.

Marilyn (at right) with Wagner’s second wife, Marion Marshall (second left) in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950)

Marilyn had an innately luminous quality that she was quite conscious of—she could turn it on or off at will. The problem was that she didn’t really believe that it was enough. My second wife, Marion [Marshall] knew her quite well; she and Marilyn had modeled together for several years, and were signed by Fox at the same time, where they were known as ‘The Two M’s.’ Marion told stories about how the leading cover girls of that time would show up to audition for modeling jobs. If Marilyn came in to audition, they would all look at each other and shrug. Marilyn was going to get the job, and they all knew it. She had that much connection to the camera.

When Marilyn died, Pat Newcomb was utterly devastated; Marilyn had been like a sister to her, a very close sister, and she took her death as a personal failure. Marilyn’s death has to be considered one of show business’s great tragedies. That sweet, nervous girl I knew when we were both starting out became a legend who has transcended the passing of time, transcended her own premature death.”

David Wills: ‘Marilyn – In the Flash’

David Wills’ 2011 book, Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis, is one of the best pictorial studies of MM ever published, and a firm fan favourite. So I was delighted to hear this morning that Mr Wills will soon publish a sequel, Marilyn: In the Flash. With an introduction by legendary actor Robert Wagner, it’s already listed on major online bookstores with a December release date, although publisher Dey Street Books (formerly IT Books, an imprint of Harper Collins) sets an earlier release date of October 27. Here’s the synopsis:

“A stunning collection of hundreds of rare and unseen photographs, behind-the-scenes notes, and interviews chronicling the media’s lifelong love affair with Marilyn, created by the acclaimed curator and author of Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis.

Though Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe was married three times, her longest lasting relationship was with the press—the photographers, reporters, and press agents who followed her every move for nearly two decades, and made her into the greatest icon in Hollywood history. One of the most publicized actresses of her time, Marilyn actively sought out the press, carefully crafting her public image and using events from her private life to further her career. Her romances with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, playwright Arthur Miller, and others made her a daily feature for newspapers, magazines, and wire services; new images of the star were guaranteed to boost sales.

Drawing on unseen troves from dozens of photographers, archives, and collectors, acclaimed photography expert David Wills brings together an unprecedented array of press photos from throughout Marilyn’s career—including hundreds of unpublished and rare photographs that have been beautifully restored; uncropped and unretouched outtakes; handwritten notations; period captions; clippings; and more. With a foreword by Robert J. Wagner and interviews from key press agents and others, this portfolio of images offers a fresh, indelible portrait of one of the most enduring icons in history and illuminates the special alliance she shared with the press as never before.”

Robert Wagner Remembers Marilyn

Marilyn with Robert Wagner, 1954

Actor Robert Wagner is now 84, and still busy – both onscreen, and in print. He began his career at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1950.

On June 14, 1951, Wagner made a screen test alongside one of the studio’s most promising starlets. “I was the guy they always used when the studio was making screen tests of new actresses,” he told author Warren G. Harris in 1988. “And believe me, no job is more dead-end than that. The only interesting thing that came out of it was when they were testing a new kid and asked me to do a couple of scenes with her. Her name was Marilyn Monroe.”

Screen test for ‘Let’s Make It Legal’, 1951

On the strength of this test – a love scene – Wagner was cast alongside Marilyn in a romantic comedy, Let’s Make It Legal, starring Claudette Colbert. The pair never acted together, but became friends and were often pictured together at Hollywood parties. Wagner, who had affairs with many beautiful actresses, was never romantically involved with MM.

“Nothing happened easily for Marilyn,” he said later. “It took a lot of time and effort to create the image that became so famous.”

In recent years, Wagner has published two books: Pieces of My Heart (2008), an autobiography; and the just-published You Must Remember This, a memoir of Hollywood’s golden age, in which he recalls Marilyn’s tragic death.

“It’s odd how your mind associates certain people with certain events. In August 1962 I was in Montecatini, Italy, the same time as Sheilah Graham [the Hollywood gossip columnist.] I was on the terrace of my hotel when she leaned out a window and yelled, ‘Marilyn Monroe died! Marilyn Monroe died!,’ to the world at large, in exactly the same way she would have announced that her building was on fire. That was how I found out that the girl I had worked with twelve years earlier, and who had since become a legend in a way nobody could have foretold, was gone.”

Marilyn with Sheilah Graham, 1953

Wagner is no stranger to tragedy. His wife, Natalie Wood, drowned in 1981 during a yachting trip. Her death, like Marilyn’s, is the subject of endless speculation.

Natalie was the child star of Marilyn’s first film, Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay! She admired Marilyn, and spoke with her at a party weeks before her death.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, 1959

Natalie married Robert in 1957 and they divorced five years later, but were remarried in 1972. There are shades here of Marilyn’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio, who had grown close to her again in the years before her death.

Dr Thomas Noguchi, so-called ‘Coroner to the Stars’, performed autopsies on both women. He was demoted in 1982, after speaking too freely in the media about the case, and in that year’s reopened investigation of Monroe’s death. His career has since recovered, however.

Wagner featured on Photoplay cover with MM, 1954

In Pieces of My Heart, Wagner criticised Noguchi:

“Noguchi was a camera-hog who felt he had to stoke the publicity fire in order to maintain the level of attention he’d gotten used to. Noguchi particularly enraged Frank Sinatra, who knew the truth and, in any case, would never have allowed anyone who harmed Natalie to survive.”

Natalie’s case would also be reopened in 2011, when the captain of the boat claimed that a fight with Wagner had led to her drowning. The official cause of death was later amended from accidental drowning to ‘drowning and other undetermined factors.’ Wagner was ruled out as a suspect.

In You Must Remember This, he speculates on the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the internet age:

“Intellectually, I understand the perception that the rich and privileged are invincible. That’s why some people need to believe, for example, that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the Kennedys…The randomness of life and death can be terrifying, so a certain kind of person seizes on minor discrepancies of memory or the garbled recollections of marginal personalities to cast doubt on a reality they don’t want to acknowledge.”