|Marilyn Monroe: The City at Her Feet|
The camera was held by New York-based photographer Ed Feingersh (1924-1961).
The neo-classical hotel, built in 1921, is no longer there. The classic beauty Marilyn Monroe, gone also.
|Behind the Scenes: Feingersh at a Fitting with Monroe|
Feingersh's style was very much in keeping with Monroe's at the time. Realistic. Down to earth. No artifice. He worked in the Henri Cartier-Bresson school, photographing Monroe with a clear, documentary approach. She, in turn, presented to the camera a woman who appeared real and accessible.
|Coming Up for Air: Monroe in NYC|
Monroe was committed to steering her career toward more serious roles. California was the setting for the old Monroe-the "star," the bombshell, the sexpot. New York City was the place to work and grow.
Her goal in coming to New York was to advance her career through the work of her newly launched production company, "Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc.," which she formed with Milton Greene in December 1954.
|California Dreaming: Marilyn Monroe early in her career|
"I feel wonderful, " Monroe said upon the launch of her company, "I'm incorporated."
Monroe thus became the only woman to create her own production company since Mary Pickford founded United Artists, along with partners Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffiths, and Charlie Chaplin.
This step toward exercising control over her career and image was a move away from the difficulty she had faced in Hollywood and the stereotyping which found her cast in role after role as the "dumb blonde."
In April 1955, from a farmhouse in Weston, Connecticut, Monroe appeared on Person-to-Person, the live television interview program hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Appearing alongside her was her friend and partner, Milton Greene and Greene's wife, Amy.
Monroe and Greene had met with Murrow at the Ambassador Hotel the week prior to the live interview. Still, the interview is a tad stilted; Monroe looks a little ill-at-ease; but that was understandable, given that it was one of the first instances that Monroe and Greene would talk publicly about their new production company; ultimately they would produce two films together: Bus Stop (1956), directed by Joshua Logan, and The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), directed by Lawrence Olivier.
A polite Monroe answers Murrow's questions as she sits on the couch. She presents an image of a soft spoken woman; but she was on the verge of changing her life. In New York, she tells Murrow, she is able to go out and about and remain unnoticed.
Far from Hollywood now, she was removed from the chatty gossip columnists, aggressive reporters and punishing studio executives (who were trying to damage her reputation after she refused to act in films she felt were beneath her).
|A Happy Couple? Monroe and DiMaggio|
In 1954, she came to the city to film scenes for what would become one her biggest hits: The Seven Year Itch. She and her husband Joe DiMaggio stayed at the St. Regis Hotel at 55th Street at Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks away from the site that would change her life and career.
Director Billy Wilder had the cameras rolling one hot September night as Monroe stood over a subway grate on Lexington at 52nd Street while a fan blew up from below to create an unforgettable image: Monroe the "bombshell," skirts blowing, eyes closed, as the subway rumbles beneath. (See more locations for the film.)
The film's publicity department made sure to make the most of this shoot. It hosted an open call for witnesses to this very private moment. More than 2,000 (mostly male) spectators showed up.
|Alone Together at 52nd and Lexington|
After take after take after take, Monroe (according to an interview with George Barris, a photographer on the scene), turned to Wilder and said, "Isn't that enough? I hope you're not doing this so you can show it to your friends at a private screening."
The calls and whistles from the spectators enraged husband DiMaggio, who was present.
|Some Like it Cool: Monroe, NYC, 1954. Sam Shaw, photo|
There was another still photographer on hand that night: Sam Shaw, Monroe's friend whom she had met years before in Hollywood.
Shaw had spent years working in the film industry. (He also later directed his own films and worked on the films of independent maverick John Cassevettes.)
|Leaving the Girl Behind|
The whole skirt-blowing scene was Shaw's idea. He had been hired as a photographer on the film and also served as an "idea man" on the set.
The images Shaw took that night would be remembered and reproduced forever.
Ironically, those were the very images that she would later try to leave behind.
|1955, Going Underground: Hmmm, don't I know you?|
From 1955 on, Monroe would live in several locations in New York: first, she took a suite at the Gladstone Hotel at E. 55th St.; next it was the 27th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria, and then she moved to 2 Sutton Place.
That first year in the city brought about many of the changes she sought. Just a few months into her stay in the city in 1955, she was in the throes of new romance with playwright Arthur Miller (who lived in Brooklyn). They had met in Hollywood four years earlier. He, married at the time, was captivated by Monroe. And she, in turn, fell head over heels for him. She dreamed, she said at the time, of having a little house in Brooklyn.
In June 1956, they married. They moved into an apartment at 444 East 57th Street. (Not exactly the little house in Brooklyn, but still...)
That same year, Monroe ended her self-imposed exile and returned to the West Coast to film Bus Stop. "I'm much happier now," she told the press in an interview. Although she maintained a house in Brentwood, she would never really leave New York entirely. She would maintain a home in the city for the rest of her life.
|Pictured in Color: Miller and Monroe|
|Woman in White, Outside of the Plaza Hotel, Sam Shaw photo|
|No More Subway Grate|
The Seven Year Itch images showed a woman who appeared as an object through the lens, any backdrop or context for her life, her personality, were removed.
Shaw's 1957 images restored that missing backdrop. The lens widens not only to reveal, but also to orient. Here is Monroe in the world, they suggest. And of course, it was Monroe who was, in essence, the metaphorical viewer behind the lens now.
She was now the one in charge of the image her image produced.
|The City as Context, Sam Shaw photo|
Her unique relationship to the camera had been something friends and colleagues had noted when she first started modelling as a teenager in Los Angeles. She innately possessed that mysterious aspect--star quality, charisma--that made her the star she became. But her relationship to the camera would mature as she came to understand more about the source of the power of the image.
|The Audience as Backdrop, Sam Shaw photo|
While the time Monroe spent in New York was certainly not without its challenges and disappointments, there is something quite revealing and fascinating about the images created of (and in many ways by) Marilyn Monroe during this period.
|Eye on the Camera|
The many books, analyses, theories, gossip, and rumors surrounding Monroe's life and tragic death can be set aside when peering at the woman she presented to the camera during the time she struggled to renew and reinvigorate herself.
New York City provided her with a place to breathe and to experiment with change.
Monroe's final (formal) appearance in New York took place in May 1962 when she sang "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. (See photos from the party here.)
Friends recalled that Monroe was nearly beside herself with nerves, not wanting to put on the old act of the sexpot in what would become the second of her most memorable performances.
For me, it is a far more satisfying image-memory of Monroe to picture her standing on the balcony of the Ambassador Hotel, looking forward to her future, and smiling with that special something that she possessed all of her too short life.
Postscript: April 3, 2017: curious to note Elizabeth Winder's recent book, Marilyn in Manhattan. We were excited to see it, particularly because she cites everlasting-star.net, a website that wonderfully drove more than 10,000 readers to this blog post after it was published in 2014. We were sorry to see that it did not get a citation in Winder's book. Just thought we might get a mention!
|A Decisive Marilyn Monroe|