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Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist
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When Marilyn Monroe stepped over a subway grating as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch and let a gust of wind catch the skirt of her pleated white dress, an icon was born. Before that, the actress was mainly known for a nude calendar and one-dimensional, albeit memorable, characters on the screen. Though she again played a “dumb blonde” in this film and was making headlines by revealing her enviable anatomy, the star was now every bit in control of her image, and ready for a personal revolution.
Emboldened by her winning fight to land the role of The Girl, the making of The Seven Year Itch and the eighteen months that followed was the period of greatest confidence, liberation, and career success that Monroe lived in her tumultuous life. It was a time in which, among other things, she:
- Ended her marriage to Joe DiMaggio and later began a relationship with Arthur Miller;
- Legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, divorcing herself from the troubled past of Norma Jeane;
- Started her own production company;
- Studied in private lessons with Lee and Paula Strasberg of the Actors Studio and became a part of the acting revolution of the day
The ripple effects her personal rebellion had on Hollywood, and in trailblazing the way for women that followed, will both surprise and inspire readers to see the Marilyn Monroe in an entirely new light.
WHEN I FIRST DISCOVERED Marilyn Monroe, it was 1985 and I was a teenager. I was at first attracted to her beautiful, glamorous image, but the moment I began reading about her, my feelings went far deeper. I soon realized that Marilyn had become a highly successful woman despite having many odds stacked against her. While her ultimate story was one of tragedy, the woman herself was a fighter, someone who began life as Norma Jeane—a little girl who lived in a series of foster homes—and yet fought her way to become not only an actress, but one of the most famous women in the entire world.
Yet while I could quite clearly see that Marilyn was an intelligent person, I found myself forever bombarded with comments such as “Oh, she was just a dumb blonde” or “You can tell she’s just playing herself on-screen.” These statements baffled me and always came from people who knew nothing at all about her (nor wanted to learn). More than thirty years later, I have covered aspects of Marilyn Monroe’s life in five books and find myself still dispelling myths, correcting untruths, and trying to educate people on one of the most universally intriguing stars of the cinematic pantheon. Happily, now many want to learn what Marilyn was really like. But it cannot be denied that history has been rewritten in the decades since her death, and the woman who achieved so much in the 1950s is often lost in a haze of modern-day Internet memes and rumors. I regard this book, therefore, as a means of redeeming her reputation.
The Girl, titled after her character in the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch, tells the story of how that film transformed Marilyn Monroe from another Hollywood star into “The Girl” of modern times—a true icon—and sent her on an unparalleled adventure of self-discovery and reflection. The years 1954 to 1956 were Marilyn’s most powerful and inspirational, and it was during this time that her most substantial decisions were made. Before Itch, she had been known for her mostly fluffy, dumb-blonde roles, and she was unhappily married to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. But by the time the film opened, Marilyn was the president of her own film company, a student at New York’s Actors Studio, and embroiled in a battle with Twentieth Century Fox that would eventually gain independence not only for herself, but others working under the constraints of the studio system too. Shortly after the release, she legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, thereby divorcing herself from the troubled past of Norma Jeane once and for all. Her rebellion was remarkable and exceptionally rare during a time when women were expected to strive to be fantastic homemakers and actresses had to accept every kind of behavior imposed upon them by their male bosses.
While The Seven Year Itch played a pivotal part in Marilyn’s life, so it did in mine too. I can remember the exact date when I first watched the movie: it was December 24, 1986, and I was sixteen years old. I had been a fan for just over a year and had seen only a few of Marilyn’s movies at that point. I desperately wanted to see The Seven Year Itch because of the famous skirt-blowing scene, but what I remember most of all is just how luminous Marilyn Monroe looked in the film. Her hair, her skin, her costumes—everything glowed, and the magic of her personality shone straight out of the screen.
At some point during the evening, my grandparents came to visit. They sat down and watched the film with me, laughing when Marilyn made quips about keeping her undies in the icebox, and making comments about her strange habit of dunking potato chips in champagne. My grandparents were born just three years before Marilyn, which made her a star of their generation, not mine. However, I don’t ever remember them querying why their granddaughter was suddenly so obsessed with her. It was merely accepted that Marilyn—and The Seven Year Itch—could transcend generations and entertain in the same way they had during the 1950s.
Thirty years later, my thirteen-year-old daughter sat down to watch the same film and declared Marilyn to be “so pure.” This made me smile. The magic of The Girl, The Seven Year Itch, and, of course, the actress captured the imagination of a teenager once again. And so it is that Marilyn’s influence continues to inspire each new generation.
Marilyn always searched for ways to make her life more meaningful and profound. She was an exceptionally modern woman and fought the studio and her male bosses as if it were the most natural process in the world. She was glamorous but not scared to be seen without makeup. She could be flirtatious but demanded respect. She posed nude and totally owned the fact that she had done so. In an era of female restraint, Marilyn was an unlikely feminist and a person of such determination that she never ceased to amaze anyone lucky enough to meet her. In turn, her life, work, and rebellion have impacted the lives of people around the world.
This book presents Marilyn Monroe in a fresh light: strong, independent, brave, and authentically unique; a woman of Yeats, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Tolstoy; a real-life human being who strived to better herself through education and action. Marilyn Monroe continues to inspire women well over half a century since her death. The Girl explores the many different ways this has come to pass.
—Michelle Morgan, October 2017
NORMA JEANE BAKER ALWAYS had a rebellious streak. As a child in the 1930s, she had sneaked out of her strict foster parents’ home to see a movie. Being told she’d go to hell for it did little to curb her desire to go again. Then, while living in an orphanage, she and a group of friends were dared to scale the hedge and run away. Norma Jeane was only too happy to get involved, but was soon caught and severely reprimanded for her trouble.
In 1942, the sixteen-year-old was actively encouraged to marry the boy next door, James Dougherty, which would allow her foster parents to make a guilt-free move out of state. She went through with the marriage, though never became a contented housewife. When her husband was sent abroad during the war, the teenager moved in with the Doughertys and started work in a local factory. However, this soon turned into a period of rebellion after she was spotted by a photographer who recommended she start a modeling career. Norma Jeane grabbed the opportunity with both hands and signed with the Blue Book Modeling Agency in Hollywood. There, she was coached by agency boss Emmeline Snively and told that she would go far if she dyed and straightened her brunette hair. When her in-laws started complaining about her interest in this newfound career, Norma Jeane moved out of their house, and in 1946, she traveled to Las Vegas to obtain a divorce from her husband. Shortly afterward, the model landed a contract with one of the top movie studios, Twentieth Century Fox, and assumed the identity of Marilyn Monroe.
After a few false starts, Marilyn’s star began to rise, but for the most part, she found herself playing the role of dumb blonde in film after film at Fox. For a while she was content to work this way because she was simply happy to have a job. When asked if she felt so-called cheesecake/glamour roles would interfere with any dramatic plans she might have, Marilyn was steadfast in her opinion. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I think cheesecake helps call attention to you. Then you can follow through and prove yourself.”
In March 1952, Marilyn’s burgeoning career threatened to implode when it was discovered that she had posed for nude photographs during her modeling days. Three years earlier, the unemployed starlet had been living at the Hollywood Studio Club and was behind on her rent and car payments. Faced with being homeless and remembering that a photographer by the name of Tom Kelley had once asked her to pose nude, she phoned him in the hope that he could help. A short while later she reclined on a red velvet sheet while Kelley took a handful of photographs of her au naturel. Today the snaps are considered artistic, but in the late 1940s they were scandalous, so to protect herself, the actress signed the model release form as Mona Monroe. Since Marilyn had already posed seminude for artist Earl Moran earlier and never been recognized, she convinced herself that the Kelley pictures would never be seen, picked up her $50 check, and paid her bills.
Eventually Tom Kelley sold the photographs to a calendar company and they caused a sensation. Because of the calendar’s popularity, it did not take long for word to reach the offices of Twentieth Century Fox. Vice president of production Darryl F. Zanuck was outraged and instructed the actress to categorically deny that she was the model in the photographs. Once again, however, Marilyn’s defiant nature shone through. She absolutely refused to say the girl was not her, and instead admitted the story was true and released a statement with her version of events: “I was broke and needed the money. Oh, the calendar’s hanging in garages all over town. Why deny it? You can get one any place. Besides I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
While Twentieth Century Fox thought the starlet had completely sabotaged her own career, Marilyn contacted several columnists to tell them how worried and nervous she was to hear the reaction of press and public. This was a genius move on her part, because it encouraged the reporters to write sympathetic articles about her predicament. “If anything, the busty, blond bombshell probably has just struck a gold mine,” wrote Gerry Fitz-Gerald. “She is the favorite movie actress of practically every garage mechanic and barber in Hollywood.”
Fitz-Gerald was correct. The honesty with which Marilyn owned the drama, coupled with the story of her penniless situation, touched the hearts of the public. Instead of vilifying her, fans sympathized with her plight and admired the fact that she had finally been able to achieve success. When it was discovered that she was dating baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, it became the ultimate Cinderella story: the girl who once had no pennies to rub together had now met her Prince Charming. Newspaper columnists and the public were ecstatic, and Marilyn had won her first battle as a star.
At the same time Marilyn was admitting to the nude calendar, German actress Hildegarde Neff was causing outrage after performing a nude scene in the film The Sinner. When she arrived in New York City to promote the US release, columnist Earl Wilson asked if she condemned Marilyn for posing for the nude calendar. “No!” Neff snapped. “I’m for her. She won. The public accepted her. She needed a job. Nobody’s attacked her for it.” Wilson asked if the actress thought it paid to go nude. “No, it doesn’t pay to go nude,” Neff replied. “It pays to be honest.”
Marilyn survived the scandal with dignity intact, but someone not so lucky was Phil Max, a fifty-year-old camera shop owner in Hollywood. He had watched the story carefully and in 1953 bought a supply of the calendar for his store on Wilshire Boulevard. Displaying one of the items in the window, Max enjoyed brisk sales for the next two weeks. Unfortunately for him, this success ended when passersby noticed a group of junior high school students giggling and pointing outside the shop. The police were called and Max found himself arrested for violating an ordinance forbidding the display of nude photos that could be seen from the street. Several days later, the man appeared in court, where he pleaded guilty and was fined $50. Just like Marilyn, he was not apologetic. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with putting the calendar in the window,” he said. “And I still don’t. I’ve seen pictures like that displayed in lots of places.” Someone else who didn’t see anything wrong was entrepreneur Hugh Hefner. In late 1953, he licensed the calendar photograph for the first issue of his magazine, Playboy. The resulting sales helped create a multimillion-dollar enterprise and made Hefner into a legendary—if controversial—figure.
Another upheaval surfaced a short time after the initial calendar scandal when it was discovered that Marilyn had been withholding information about her estranged mother, Gladys Baker. Baker had been in and out of mental hospitals for much of her adult life, and Marilyn had never enjoyed a positive relationship with her. In fact, as a child she’d only lived in her care on one occasion, and that ended when Gladys was taken away after suffering a complete mental breakdown. Since then, Marilyn had only seen her for short periods of time, and as soon as fame beckoned, the actress claimed that Gladys Baker had passed away. However, enterprising reporters went searching for the truth and discovered that the woman was actually alive. The story broke and once again Zanuck despaired.
While Marilyn was sickened that her ill mother was now subject to rabid media scrutiny, she owned up to her lie about being an orphan and explained that she had never wanted the public to find out about Gladys, due to her illness. The honesty worked yet again, and the public sympathized and understood.
AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF working in films that required little more than smiles and wiggles, Marilyn grew bored and anxious to take on more significant parts. Thankfully, her spirits were buoyed when she was asked to work in dramatic films, including Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953). Henry Hathaway, director of the latter, thought the actress magnificent, bright, and easy to work with, but the public preferred their Marilyn funny.
The actress had become a major star in lightweight comedy roles and musicals, as well as sultry publicity photographs angled to emphasize the blonde-bombshell look. Recognizing that these films and photos were a winning formula for Marilyn, Zanuck was happy to cast the actress in cheesecake roles forevermore. What he and others didn’t count on, however, was that Marilyn was not. In fact, she was growing more frustrated with every script that came her way.
Jane Russell, Marilyn’s costar in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), predicted in March 1953 that the actress would not remain quiet about her discontentment for long. Speaking to Erskine Johnson, she said, “[Marilyn’s] going through the same thing I went through. She doesn’t like what the studio is doing to her and she doesn’t know how to say no. One of these days she will learn as I did. She’ll start swinging axes.”
Unfortunately, in an era and industry filled with male dominance, this was easier said than done. The cheesecake image was stifling, as was the fact that Fox insisted on putting Marilyn into film after film with scarcely any break in between. This gave her no time to really engage with the character, and it was literally a case of taking off one costume and putting on another, while still trying to remember all the dialogue and cues. Eventually, the twenty-seven-year-old actress came to realize that she would have to do something to rectify this situation. And as Jane Russell predicted, she did indeed.
In late 1953, Fox announced that Marilyn’s next picture would be the frothy musical The Girl in Pink Tights. Described by the publicity department as “a spectacular musical romance of little old New York,” the film was to be set in 1900 and feature Marilyn as a small-town schoolteacher who wants to sing opera. She moves to the city, only to find that her dreams aren’t so easy to fulfill, and ends up working as a saloon singer and dancer. Along with Marilyn, the cast was to include Frank Sinatra, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, and Van Johnson.
Marilyn contractually had no right to question any role the studio wanted her to do, nor did she even have to read the script. Instead, the studio would merely give her a date to show up on set and expect her to get straight to work. However, Marilyn had just finished the role of Kay in the western River of No Return (1954) and had no interest in playing another showgirl. She would be happy to read the script, she told casting director Billy Gordon, but without access to it, there was no way she would appear on set.
Darryl F. Zanuck always saw Marilyn as something of a hindrance to production—a woman who had the nerve to ask for a dressing room when she was making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and who wondered aloud why Jane Russell was being paid more than she was on the same film. He decided to ignore her demands, but could only do that for so long. When no amount of coaxing got her to the studio, it was decided that Marilyn would be sent the script, if only to shut her up. As soon as the actress received the document, she read it, disliked it immensely, and sent it straight back.
Zanuck was absolutely furious. He instructed Marilyn’s drama teacher, Natasha Lytess, and a member of the Fox publicity department to tell her to get back to work. They were both prohibited from seeing Marilyn by her boyfriend, Joe DiMaggio. Her agent, Charles Feldman, then got involved, but with no clause for script approval in her contract, there was really nothing he could do to help. He told the rebellious star that she must be on set for Pink Tights on January 4, 1954, and hoped for the best.
Marilyn traveled to San Francisco to spend the holidays with DiMaggio and his family. The New Year came and went, and the studio got everything in place to begin the new picture. Everything, that is, except the star. Marilyn stood her ground; she stayed in San Francisco and gave the studio the silent treatment. The executives responded by suspending her immediately, and announced that they would groom starlet Sheree North to take over all of Marilyn’s future parts. Marilyn retaliated by releasing her own statement, this time explaining that if she continued to play the same kind of roles over and over, the public would soon grow tired of her. She would not play in Pink Tights, she insisted. Instead, she decided to marry Joe DiMaggio.
The marriage may have come as a surprise, but actually Marilyn and Joe had been dating since 1952, and rumors of a wedding had long since filled newspaper columns. As the couple kissed outside San Francisco City Hall on January 14, 1954, dozens of reporters were ecstatic. It was a match made in media heaven: the retired baseball player and the beautiful actress, who had met on a blind date set up by friends. “I liked his seriousness,” Marilyn said in January 1954. “I can spot a phony, and this man was real. We came separately to the date but we left together—ahead of everybody else.”
Zanuck was left with a predicament. He still believed that Marilyn was being unnecessarily disruptive and did not wish to pander to her whims. However, at the same time he knew that the marriage to Joe DiMaggio had captured the public’s imagination, and any further prodding by the studio could be seen as bullying. After meetings with lawyer Frank Ferguson and general manager Lew Schreiber, Zanuck decided to lift the suspension and told Marilyn to report to Fox by January 25.
The studio bosses may have thought they were doing her a favor, but they did not consider Marilyn’s strong backbone. If she did not want Pink Tights before her marriage, she most certainly did not want it now. She refused to show up on set, and the humiliated studio told her that the suspension was well and truly back on. Marilyn retorted by asking her lawyer, Lloyd Wright, to speak on her behalf. “Miss Monroe has authorized me to make this statement,” he said. “She has read the script and does not care to do the picture.”
When reporters pounced on the actress at the San Francisco airport, she had little to say except to repeat that she had no interest in the Pink Tights script. “My only interest is Joe,” she said. “My only desire—to continue our honeymoon.”
Instead of fretting that her rebellion might signal the possible end of her career, Marilyn and Joe traveled to Japan, where he attended baseball training and she went to Korea to entertain the troops. This not only kept her name firmly in the public eye, but also gave her a chance to give back to those soldiers who had continually supported her since the early pinup days. Marilyn adored doing the shows, and if anything, the sight of thousands of marines chanting her name only reinforced her idea that she now had the clout to take charge of her career.
Back home, the DiMaggios moved from San Francisco and eventually settled into a house at 508 North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. The home was just yards away from actress Jean Harlow’s last residence at 512, and just down the road from number 718, the house Marilyn had once shared with Hollywood agent and former lover Johnny Hyde. Returning to the street where she had lived during the early days of her career must surely have affected Marilyn. It would not be far-fetched to imagine that she thought about her former mentor when passing number 718. Neighbors revealed that they often observed the actress walking up and down the street at dusk. Was she remembering those heady days when her dreams for her career seemed so bright and within her grasp?
Whatever Marilyn’s thoughts about North Palm, Joe DiMaggio disliked the location intensely. “Too many kids know where we live, because the picture of the house we’re renting was published in a magazine,” he said. “They ride up and down the street and even ring the front door bell.” He vowed to find another property as soon as the lease expired.
While Marilyn stuck fast to her aversion to Pink Tights, Twentieth Century Fox finally realized she was actually needed on the lot. Not being a fan himself, Zanuck could not understand the public’s fascination with the blonde star, but the fan mail continued to roll in to the studio regardless. By April 1954, it was clear that something had to be done. Agent Charles Feldman had meetings with Fox president Spyros Skouras to try to sort the problems out. Luckily, the mogul seemed sympathetic to Marilyn and advised Feldman on the best way to handle the stubborn Zanuck.
Many urgent meetings were held because Zanuck, Schreiber, and lawyer Frank Ferguson were all painfully aware that after the release of River of No Return, they would have no more Monroe vehicles to present. Marilyn was demanding more creative control over her projects, and while a new contract negotiation began, no one could come to any kind of agreement as to what clauses should be included. Even Feldman told Marilyn to scale down her list of demands, which only resulted in the actress becoming angrier and more determined.
Eventually, after Marilyn threatened to strike until her contract ran out, it finally occurred to the studio chiefs that she had won this particular battle. Zanuck reluctantly took her off suspension, told her that she would not be required to make Pink Tights after all, and instead offered her a part in There’s No Business Like Show Business, with Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor. In the meantime, the new contract negotiation was conveniently forgotten.
In addition to being an agent, Feldman produced movies, his most notable being A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which won four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh. His latest plan was to make the Broadway smash hit The Seven Year Itch into a movie, and he was convinced that Billy Wilder would direct the film for release by Twentieth Century Fox. Feldman believed that the role of The Girl was perfect for Marilyn and could totally change her career. After immersing herself in the story and sitting through a successful meeting with Wilder, the actress felt the same way. Feldman told Monroe that Zanuck was sure to give her the part in The Seven Year Itch as a reward if she accepted There’s No Business Like Show Business, so she decided to take Feldman’s advice. Show Business was once again a lightweight musical, but if taking it meant there was a chance of claiming her coveted role in The Seven Year Itch, she was willing to stay quiet about her concerns.
It was a gamble that almost didn’t pay off, however. Soon after Marilyn agreed to do Show Business, Feldman told her he had been unable to strike a deal with Fox’s Skouras to have Itch released by the studio. He would have to forget about Marilyn playing the role and instead take the film to another studio. The actress was justifiably furious and reminded her agent that the only reason she had agreed to return to work was because of his promises regarding Itch. Her strong reaction sent Feldman running back to Skouras once again, and eventually it was settled that Itch would be a Fox movie after all. Marilyn was then cast as The Girl. She was pleased with the outcome, but her relationship with Feldman eventually soured. No longer did she trust that he was completely on her side, and it was only a matter of time before she would move on.
For anyone who believes that Marilyn was a dumb blonde or victim, the Pink Tights episode confirms that she was, in fact, the complete opposite. Bob Cornthwaite, who acted with her in Monkey Business (1952), saw firsthand just how brave she could be: “Marilyn was very likeable and also stubborn, which is what saw her through. She was persistent and that stood her in good stead. Marilyn was ambitious and didn’t want to spoil her chances of success but knew if she stuck to her guns and made demands, she might get away with it.”
Marilyn had won an important battle, not only for herself, but for other actresses coming up behind her. Refusing a role she was contracted to play was an astonishingly brave position for an actress of the studio era to take. However, the media downplayed the move in spectacular fashion, and some were downright patronizing, such as reporter Mike Connolly: “Marilyn Monroe told me, in all seriousness, that she’s sick of playing empty-headed blonde chorus girls and musical comedy dolls. That’s why she turned down the first script of Pink Tights and walked out of Twentieth Century Fox. ‘My ambition,’ said Marilyn, ‘is to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.’ Very serious. Hey, how about that gal!”
Whether they liked it or not, that “gal” was indeed extremely serious. However, that still didn’t stop some from claiming that Marilyn’s strength came from the knowledge that she now had a husband behind her. “This was her first triumph in studio negotiations,” wrote reporter Jack Wade, “and Marilyn realizes that she won largely because she had a husband to back her up.”
It is true that, in private, Joe tried to help Marilyn by reading through terms for a new contract. However, the fight itself was definitely made via the actress’s own thoughts and representation. The notion that a woman must surely need a husband to make strong decisions would be proven wrong just eight months later. For now, though, Marilyn got on with making There’s No Business Like Show Business so that she could then prepare for the most iconic film of her life.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH
- On Sale
- May 8, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Running Press