Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Decisive Moment: Marilyn Monroe in New York


Marilyn Monroe: The City at Her Feet
New York City, 1955. Gazing down at Park Avenue, Marilyn Monroe stands on the balcony of the Ambassador Hotel, at Park between East 50th and 51st Streets. She was in New York in self-imposed exile from Hollywood. She had come back to the city she knew and loved in order to change her life.
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
There is something haunting about the clear-eyed black and white photographs that Feingersh shot during the two weeks in 1955 that he followed Monroe through New York City. He had been hired by Milton Greene (Monroe's friend and business partner) to photograph her, creating images that would ultimately be published alongside a Redbook article titled, "The Marilyn Monroe You've Never Seen" (July 1955).

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
In 1955, Monroe had returned to New York City to capture something of herself, for herself. She roamed the city, taking classes at the Actors Studio (from teacher and friend Lee Strasberg, who lived with his wife Paula at 255 W. 86th Street), relaxing, changing. . . It was, to use Cartier-Bresson's famous phrase about image-making, a "decisive moment" in her life.

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
Ironically, though, it was in New York, the year before, where she had undergone a life-changing experience.

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
The hoots and hollers, whistles and cat calls gained momentum through each take. Monroe felt that the camera was too close to her and that the cameraman was doing everything to aim the camera directly underneath her skirt.

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
Not only did DiMaggio end his marriage to Monroe three weeks afterwards, but the footage shot that night was never used. The whole affair was just a publicity stunt; Wilder later re-shot the scene on a sound stage in California. (That time, Monroe said, the cameraman took a much more respectful position in relation to her skirt.)

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?
A year later, in 1955, Monroe was back in New York City. Her relationship to the subway, among other things, had changed decidedly.

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
After so many changes had taken place, she would be pictured again in the city. In 1957, when Sam Shaw next pointed his camera at Monroe in New York City, he pictured a very different woman.
Woman in White, Outside of the Plaza Hotel, Sam Shaw photo
Pictured around the city at various locations, Monroe was dressed again in white (reportedly her signature color) just as she had been when Shaw had taken his iconic image of her that night in 1954.

No More Subway Grate
Shaw's 1957 images of Monroe in New York are similar to those Feingersh shot that first year of Monroe's stay in New York. The documentary feel of the images, along with their more expansive settings (and warmer weather), provide a larger context within which Monroe was allowed to exist.

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
Monroe had long been familiar with the power of the press and camera to shape her image for the public. All those sessions in front of the cameras had taught her a thing or two about the image making business.

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
Concurrent with her New York City exile, she launched a more collaborative relationship with the photographers for whom she chose to pose: Ed Feingersh, Sam Shaw, and, in California, George Barris. (She also occasionally sat for others. See, for example, some images of Monroe made by Cecil Beaton in New York in February 1956 here.)

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
It was in New York that Monroe had first come to re-shape her career, to redefine herself, to take decisive control of her life and image.

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.

~Jenny Thompson

A Decisive Marilyn Monroe




4 comments:

Tara said...

Lovely article. I like the way you contrast Marilyn's private world with her public image. I wrote the Ed Feingersh piece you linked to, so thanks for the mention!

Jenny Thompson said...

Thank you, Tara! I thought your piece was fascinating. I loved it. I had such a hard time finding info about Feingersh before I found your article. Thanks, again.

LilKittie said...

I just love your article! Marilyn is such a mythical figure and what even happened to the New York hotel, Park Avenue, I believe?
I really adore her and it hurts me to see how people use her image for such bullshit today. Quotes about weight, diamonds, what else? That makes her look like a cheap woman instead of a classy lady, who she was.

Jenny Thompson said...

Thank you, LilKittie!

That hotel, the Ambassador Hotel, New York, has an interesting history itself. It was one of a chain (begun in 1921), and had a direct connection to a famous Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (the site of a couple of Academy Awards ceremonies, and sadly, the assassination of Robert Kennedy). So interestingly, the hotels (east and west coast) had connections that mirrored some aspects of Monroe's life. The New York hotel was demolished in 1966. The LA hotel was demolished in 2006. Thanks again, LilKittie!