By Charlie Fish – Photo courtesy of Douglas Kirkland
Decades after her untimely death, Marilyn Monroe’s ability to captures the hearts of millions is testament to her undeniable star power and allure. She was, and remains, one of the greatest stars of all time—emulated by many, but replaced by none. The subject of countless articles, books and films, the ultimate seductress is once again enjoying mainstream attention with the likes of the recent, lauded biopic My Week With Marilyn, and TV’s latest risk, Smash.
Although she remains an archetypal American sex symbol and pop culture legend, accounts of her stage fright, difficult behavior, and mercurial nature only highlight her lifelong inner battles. Sought after for her sex appeal, she wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, but her lack of discipline drove several directors to disparage the star. Dead at the age of 36 by acute barbiturate poisoning (attributed to suicide), the conspiracy theories surrounding her death include a Presidential cover up.
The star of numerous Hollywood classics, many of which spawned oft-imitated pop culture references, Marilyn often expressed dissatisfaction with her contracts, which had her earning considerably less than several of her now nearly-forgotten counterparts. By 1961, she had already attained a reputation for being unpredictable on set—frequent tardiness, an unwillingness to perform, flubbing her lines, and her predilection for mixing booze and pills were commonplace. But during the same year, she also ramped up her publicity, sitting for interviews with renowned publications like Look.
Douglas Kirkland, a staff photographer for the stalwart publication, was assigned to shoot the beautiful Marilyn Monroe. What he describes is an intimate tale befitting her larger-than-life persona. But did he get to know the real Marilyn? Resource talked to Kirkland to find out.
The Silver Edition
In 1961, I had been at Look for a little over a year. The magazine had been around, at this point, approximately 25 years, and they were going to celebrate with a special edition. That’s what I was asked to photograph Marilyn for.
Her Humble Abode
I met Marilyn for the first time about five days before the shoot. I went to her apartment on Doheny Drive with Jack Hamilton, the journalist I was working with. It was raining out, I remember.
Marilyn’s place struck me, initially, as being surprisingly small. I would suggest it was like a large motel room, and not much bigger. I expected something much more luxurious, much more star-like than what I saw. It was pleasant and clean and very orderly, but just not expansive. Fundamentally, it was one room with a kitchenette to the side.
The reality was Marilyn had been moving around and, frankly, was afraid of people knowing where she lived. We had to take a vow that we would not tell others where she was because she was somewhat hiding out—not from the press or paparazzi, as we know them today, but more from fans.
Marilyn Monroe: Girl Next Door?
The first impression was surprise at how un-star like her surrounding was.
The next surprise was that Marilyn wasn’t the superstar I was expecting to meet. She was very pleasant; I would describe her more as being the girl next door. She was very easy to talk to, and she laughed easily. [She was] amazingly comfortable to be around and un-intimidating. I had seen her only in the cinema or in magazines, and I thought she’d have this big wonderful voice and have this power. But she didn’t. She was very comfortably simple.
She had a press agent there, introducing us and getting us started. My colleagues took the two chairs that were available. Marilyn slapped the bed with a giggle and said, “Oh, just sit here, Doug, ‘cause I don’t have that much furniture here and I just think of this as the couch.” So I sat on the bed beside Marilyn, and that gives you an idea of the momentum of the evening.
What had been suggested was that we wanted Marilyn to tell us, or show us, how she’d like to be remembered 25 years into the future. She said, “Maybe we should have a bed. And maybe if you could look straight down into it, it would be good.” And then she started inventing it in her mind and she said, “I should have a silk sheet. Nothing on but that silk sheet.” And she added, “It must be silk.” Then she said, “I find it’s usually best if I have good music, so I’d like to have Frank Sinatra records, and we’ve got to have Dom Perignon champagne.” That may have been a Tuesday evening, and the shoot was on Friday.
The Set, the Set Up
Our LA office arranged for us to use a studio, [which was] in Hollywood, just off the Strip, between Robertson and Doheny, on the south side of the street. The bed and everything else was provided. I had the good fortune that the studio happened to have a stairway that went up to a workspace they had up above, which was perfect for looking straight down on that bed.
I checked everything over and asked for certain things. I told them what type of lighting I wanted: a 2,000-watt Tungsten floodlight, which [I shone] through a large, plastic panel that was about 10-feet high and 8-feet across. That was my diffuser. It was very, very elementary. I was using a constant light as floodlight and my Norwood meter that I used with my camera.
I had my Hasselblad ready with two or three lens. (By the way, I still own that camera to this day.) I used an 80mm and a 150 mm lens and the film of that time was high speed Ektachrome, which was laughably only 125 in speed in the Tungsten version. That was what we called high speed in 1961. That’s what I shot with.
I also went and bought the records, because I had some ideas of some that would be better than others. It was all Sinatra. One of the records, I still have: Only the Lonely. I was all ready to go.
Waiting for Marilyn Monroe
The evening came; we were supposed to start at 7:00. Jack and I were sitting at the studio at 7:00, and John Springer [her press agent] was there.
It’s a very funny reality to recount to you, but I will say when you wait for somebody like this, you have a lot of different peculiar feelings go through you. You have anticipation and you want to get started in many ways, ‘cause you’re all geared up. Then after you sit a while and they don’t come, you start to say, “Is she not going to show up?”
Springer said, “Don’t worry, guys. She’s usually late, but she always shows up.” We waited and waited and she finally arrived around 9:30.
Marilyn Monroe as… Marilyn Monroe
When the door finally opened at the other end of the studio, it was almost frightening. You’re on the edge, ready to go like a racehorse at the gate. And then, suddenly, you’re on.
She came in with just one lady with her. She brought a dress and makeup, but she arrived all made-up and ready to go. I saw [then], really, for the first time, the Marilyn Monroe we all know. I hate to use this word, but I can’t think of another one: I was dazzled. My recollection is that she seemed to have a luminescence about her. This was a trick of my mind, but she almost seemed to be floating in slow motion. She didn’t seem to be like a normal human being. She seemed above this, she seemed to have an almost goddess quality—imagined, I suppose, on my part, but that’s what I saw and felt. She came in and was polite and nice, went directly to the dressing room, and disappeared in there for a while.
The Goddess Returns
She came out and was ready to do the pictures. She had a white robe on and she walked over to the bed. Everybody stayed out of the way.
She had her lady help her into the bed, take the robe off and slip in underneath the white sheet. I was down below with them, at first, as they were getting ready, and I must say I saw some pieces of Marilyn that I’d never seen before.
As a young man of 27, with a normal charge that any young gentleman would have, it was tremendously exciting. But I had to keep my mind clear because I was there for a reason. I was there to get pictures. I was trying always to be polite, and we took a sip or two of the champagne. Then I went up and the music was playing.
The Charge and the Come-on
Marilyn was very sweet. There was a very wonderful woman there. There were many women, maybe, within Marilyn. But the Marilyn Monroe I was with that night was very caring and very sensual. She was really wonderful because she moved around in that sheet, and we were talking back and forth, about how it felt to be there. We were talking, frankly, in a way that two lovers would talk before engaging in love making, and it heated up more and more as it went on.
Then she said, “I’d like everybody to leave. I want to be alone with this boy. I find it usually works better that way.” Everybody left and I was alone with Marilyn. I remember hearing the door close and thinking, “Wow, it’s really myself and Marilyn. Now, Kirkland, you’ve got it all your way.” Frankly, by then, the charge was in me. I had left uncertainty. Clearly, I was seducing her and she was sending it right back to me. The air was heavy with it.
I told her she was exciting me. We were sending this charge back and forth. I really shot quite vigorously. At one point she said, “Why don’t you come down here?” I went down and started taking more pictures. And then she asked me to get into bed with her.
“The Camera Became Our Sex.”
95% of the men in the world, if not more, would have done anything to have been in that place and to take advantage of it. Part of me was ready to. But, I had two kids in New Jersey and was the kind of guy who was sent to Sunday school as a young boy. At that eleventh hour, frankly, that stopped me. Friends have said, “You’re crazy, Kirkland. What was wrong with you?”
I was a little embarrassed to not pick up on it in some strange way. Because here’s Marilyn saying come into bed with me, and I just continued to take pictures. I acted almost like I didn’t understand. I didn’t turn her down. I just said, “You excite me so much, I’ve got to keep photographing. More, more, more,” and would talk about the camera and what we were doing.
I think that’s really what gave these pictures special charge. I often have thought years later, if I’d actually made love with her, the pictures might not be what they are. The camera became our sex. And that does happen with photography, occasionally.
We separated about one in the morning. I was very tormented. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was very agitated because of what had occurred, and [kept] asking myself if I had any inadequacies of my own not to have taken her up on her offer. I kept turning it over and over in my mind: Was I less than a man to have not done this? I can still query that till this day. I more or less concluded I did the right thing.
Another Date with Marilyn
Marilyn wanted to see the film as soon as possible, and we set up an appointment at five in the afternoon the next day.
I’m a kid originally from a small town of 7,000 people. Now here I am in Hollywood [on my way to see] Marilyn Monroe, driving down the Sunset Strip. Of course, I rented myself a Thunderbird convertible on my expense account. I think I had some Elvis Presley music on the radio, as I’m going with a great beat and excitement to show Marilyn her pictures. First, I was going to see her again. That was important to me. Second, I had the pictures, which I felt were successful. And third, I was just part of this whole world. I felt like I could never have been luckier.
The Other Marilyn
I rang the doorbell and no one came. I did this twice more. The third time, the door was cracked open a couple of inches. The room was dark in there; it hadn’t been dark when I was there the first evening. I saw Marilyn, just putting her nose out, with dark glasses on. It was a completely different Marilyn than the other two whom I met.
It was almost like it wasn’t the same person. She said, “OK, come in.” She had a scarf over her head. She excused herself and left me sitting in a corner of the room, more or less. Then she came back and she said, “OK, let’s look at them.”
Thrown for a Loop
I had a small light table with me, but I didn’t have a loop, or a magnifying glass. She said, “I can’t look at these without a loop. I want a loop and you can go and get it.” I found [one] and came back. I remember feeling upset or sad when I saw that she was upset, and wanting to try to comfort her, but lacking the ability to do that as a young man. So I was very gentle and very quiet as we started looking through those pictures.
She looked through them very quickly, put her head up and said, “Not that special,” and she left the room. She still was wearing her dark glasses. It seemed to be an endless period of time I sat there with my pictures and light table and no Marilyn, until she came back. She wasn’t wearing the dark glasses anymore, but she did look tired.
She started to look through the images slower and made a stack of ones she liked. It evolved and she narrowed that stack to another one, and showed me the ones she really cared about. She started to fall in love with some of them. This image in question was her favorite picture. She said the pillow represented holding a man. She referred to herself as “that girl”: “Now, that girl, that girl’s really got something. That’s the kind of a girl that a truck driver would like to be in that bed with.”
Some of those words are interesting. Why a truck driver? That was a real man, a man’s man. Not a superstar or a conniver or a fast-talking Hollywood guy, but a real man of the earth, from the Midwest maybe. Or the kind of people she had grown up around and felt were more reliable.
“Marilyn Monroe est morte.”
We had planned on further shooting because she felt this had worked well and we could do even more wonderful things together. [But] I had a full-time job and was very, very busy. The following summer I ended up in Paris; I went there in late July, and had been there for about 10 days when I saw “Marilyn morte” [on headlines]. I thought, that can’t be my Marilyn, the American Marilyn. I was stunned. This was Marilyn Monroe! She was meant to be around forever. Besides, I sort of had a date with her. The strange thing that went through my mind was [in a solemn voice], “I guess we just won’t take those pictures together.” It’s a very odd, small thing to think about at a time like that, but that was my Marilyn Monroe.
The Search for Marilyn
I think she was a wonderful seductress and she enjoyed it, and she did it well. She had the ability to become that person. She frequently was late for everything she did, but she was late usually because she was charging herself up to become this entity, this being. This was like a transition she would go into, a person she would become. She became that wonderfully for that evening that I had with her, in every regard.
I think she went through a lifetime of searching for this perfect place to be, but whenever she seemed to come close to it, it wasn’t as impeccable as she hoped or supposed it would be. And then she went searching even further for the dream. I think and feel that her life was a series of these searches. And if we’d made love that night, that would have been just one more lead in the search that she was always in pursuit of.
Check in with Resource Mag Online tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Douglas Kirkland about his new book, “A Life in Pictures”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Resource Magazine, which is available online here.