A Memory of Marilyn
I came across her when I was being shepherded around the lot of some Hollywood studio or other and there were a couple of acres of thick green grass, and since I had the power incumbent in me as Movie Editor of Life Magazine, I commanded the driver to stop because I had seen, out in the middle of the green, a very pretty girl in a balloning white dress sitting and smiling very prettily while the three fattest men in all the world, laden with cameras and reflectors and whatever else they needed, circled around her, and of course the driver stopped. I have seen that girl before, I said, and the press representative who was my shepherd said, Of course, you have seen her in the movies in small parts, but now everybody is talking about her, she was in The Asphalt Jungle, she was in All About Eve, and we are going to make waves with her, I have already provided her with a line that wowed a press conference, when they asked her what she wore to bed at night she said Chanel Number Five. Her name is Norma Jean Somethingorother, but you will be hearing about her as Marilyn Monroe. .
Of course, I said, I had lunch with her a year or so ago. It was at 21, on East 53rd Street, where I was lunching almost daily on bear chops and vintage wine with press agents and whoever had been flown out from Hollywood in the hope of lighting fires in the New York press. It seemed she had had a walk-on part in a Marx Brothers movie, and very time she walked on the set the camera crew and everybody else would make prolonged whistling sounds. The peg for a story on her was that she was an orphan.
Well, I was young and naive (I didnt even see at a glance that the clothes she was wearing came off the cheapest rack in Cutrate Clothiers; my researcher had to fill me in on this later), and I was trying to get Life to do stories on De Sica and Carl Dreyer and people of that sort, and I had little interest in interviewing orphans. But I enjoyed the lunch for all that, I remembered the innocently determined look with which she opened her wide blue eyes to take in all the strange things she was coming across in this unknown land the mysterious East things like the zebra seats at El Morocco where someone had taken her the previous evening, things like people ordering salads after the main course instead of before it in the California way, things like the potbellied big shots who kept streaming through the doors of 21 slipping twenty-dollar bills to the maitre d to make sure they got a prestigious table and were not led out into the wilds of left field, which of course was perfectly Californian behavior but it was somehow less crude, more elegant and formal here. Unlike those men with the twenty-dollar bills, we had a very relaxed lunch.
And now here she was, back in Hollywood and beginning to be famous, and she was as pleasant as ever. She remembered that lunch in New York, and yes, she was perfectly willing to have lunch with me in Beverly Hills the next day.
More than half a century later, I have not the slightest idea where we had that lunch, or what we ate, but I remember it was very pleasant, and I suggested afterward that since I had a handsome rented car outside, and since this was my first visit to California and I had never seen the Pacific, why shouldnt we drive out and see the Pacific together. She was perfectly willing, And off we went, all the way down Sunset Boulevard to the sea, and we drove along in I no longer remember what direction, and admired the waves and the cliffs and the trees and the beaches and the beach-houses of the famous and the great smogfree sky. She was extraordinarily easy to talk to, though I have no idea what we talked about. And at one point we passed an amusement park and I said, weve ben driving a long time, why not take a little rest, look, theres a Ferris wheel, why dont wetake a ride on it, it will be fun seeing all this coastline from another angle.
And she smiled and said, Oh yes, and we got out of the car and trotted over to buy our tickets and get on the Ferris wheel.
I held her hand as we starting going up, and the land started dripping away below us, and I looked over at her to point out something down below to her and to see her smile again. But she kept looking straight ahead, and I was suddenly aware that her hand was turning cold, colder and colder, as we rose and rose, and she was not holding my hand, she was clutching it. Her hand was ice.
And it suddenly came to me that I was being unnecessarily naive, I was thirty-two years old but I had a lot to learn about life. Things that a movie editor of Life magazine should have taken for granted. Such as, that the girl beside me, for all her smiles and her genuine cheerfulness and bounce, had to live by the rules, had to play the game, and her role in the game was to be a Hollywood starlet, a piece of meat to be thrown to satisfy the varying tastes of whatever suitable visiting wolf came along, whether it was Walter Winchell (who, according to one of his biographers, went to bed with her and reported, afterwards, poor slob that he was, that it was nothing special); or the junior senator from Massachusetts; or me.
But she deserved better than that..
Fifty-three years later, I can not remember what dramatic gestures I used to get them to stop the machine when we slid down to our starting place. But I remember the feel of that icy hand.
We got out of our gondola as nonchalantly as we could, and got back in the car, and drove on for some more miles, and everything was just as pleasant as before.
That night I took her out to dinner at one of those places in the desert where that year they were serving fancy drinks in tall glasses with flower petals floating on top. The first ones they served us, we lifted to toast each other, and she fixed me with those wily innocent eyes and she said, As Thomas Wolfe says, a stone, a leaf, a door...
I didnt waste time speculating what other starlet, press agent or visiting wolf had taught her that this was a useful greeting for apparitions from the Mysterious East. I only gave her the broadest smile of which I was capable. And she gave me her own kind of smile. And we knew we would be friends for the rest of our lives.
Stern duty wired from New York the very next morning to call me back to write a story about Esther Williams or Billie Wilder or one of those people.
She offered to pick me up at the Time-Life office and drive me to the airport.
She was an hour late, a habit she would later trade-mark.
But the plane was an hour and half late, on account of worsening weather conditions, and so we had half an hour together in the airport parking lot, with the air all black, and raindrops the size of golf-balls kept thudding on the top of the convertible which had just been bought for her by her studio.
We would never see each other again.
No, that is not quite accurate..I had lunch with her a couple of months later in New York, where she had come on a quick vociferous publicity tour, and the editors of Life had invited her to lunch in their private dining room on the 32 floor, an honor bestowed sparingly on the most genuine celebrities prime minsters, tycoons, Ernest Hemingway. The editors were delighted to meet her because she looked so charming and because her face on the cover of their magazine had given a healthy boost to circulation, and she was delighted to meet them because they had removed what might have been a grave stumbling block to her career, a career which now included for the first time sharing a friendly meal with a whole roomful of important men..
What had happened was that, shortly after I returned from my westward voyage, the editors agreed with me that Marilyn Monroe should be on the cover of the magazine, an important rung on the ladder leading to the stars. A top photographer took top-quality pictures. A layout was made in the standard format for back-of-the-book stories a full page followed by two half pages squeezed between advertisements. A certain number of square inches was allotted to me to fill with prose that would make her sound interesting.
It was a task I had been trained to do, and I was pleased to start it, but suddenly it became a challenge. For just as the drums and trumpets of the publicity campaign for the new star were warming up all over the country, a nosy young man of the type known today as investigative reporter made the shocking discovery that Marilyn had once, to pick up a buck or two to help make ends meet, posed naked for a calendar. Everyone in the press and on the air waves was talking about that calendar, it was a major news item, so it had to go into the layout, at the bottom of the opening page.
The photograph showed her lying on her belly, with no more intimate part of her body exposed than a gorgeous left buttock. A perfectly normal sight in a magazine today, but this was 1951, when legions of decency still fought for the purity of America, when operatives of the Hays Office still peered at every frame of exposed photographic film that went into every Hollywood movie, using precision instruments to determine if the area of revealed bare flesh (cleavage) in any female bosom did not exceed the limit beyond which the youth of the land would be inflamed by criminal desires. Nudity was synonymous with scandal. And scandal trumpeted in headlines and gossip columns could cripple a stars career, as Ingrid Bergman among others had discovered, and for a star just coming to birth it might be fatal The problem for me was, how to treat the calendar as a humorous footnote to a more important story of pluck and charm combined, without rousing the wrath of the virtuous.
I realized I had solved the problem adequately when a wise old editor, an ancient who had been present when Life was born fifteen years before, looked up from reading my text and, My God, he said, you make her sound like a nice girl.
News of a Life cover coming up got around fast in Hollywood, and Marilyn was soon on the phone to the Life office Los Angeles, begging to see an advance copy of the fateful issue. Stanley Flink, who was a correspondent in that office, told me later how he had asked her to lunch and handed over to her the pages freshly arrived from the presses in Chicago. While she held them in her right hand and began reading slowly through those square inches of words, word by word, she reached out her left hand, and he held it, and it was cold. But as she read on, the hand got progressively warmer and at the end all was well and she was smiling the way she smiled on the cover of Life magazine..
As for the lunch on the 32d floor, a senior editor told me that my efforts, as I sat beside Marilyn, to shield her from potentially embarrassing questions were the funniest thing he had ever seen. In point of fact, at least in my recollection, there were no embarrassing questions, and to the ones that were asked she gave simple straightforward answers. Several editors told me afterwards that she had handled herself very well. She told me afterwards that the editors were real nice gentlemen.
The next day she was called back to Hollywood to start her first featured role in a film.
And our paths never crossed again, though, every time she had a session with a Life photographer she would ask how I was doing and send me her best regards. ©2005 Robert Wernick