The making of a legend

Fifty years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, a new exhibition reveals unseen pictures, her size eight dresses and her secret beauty routine. Suzanne Harrington reports

MARILYN MONROE is dead 50 years — she’d be 86 now, had she not overdosed on barbituates in 1962. We prefer her eternally 36, frozen in our cultural consciousness, forever a luminous goddess. To commemorate her death, Getty Images are showing 66 mostly unseen photos of the star, plus video footage and some of her most memorable costumes. According to Getty gallery director Louise Garczewska, Marilyn’s only serious competitor is Audrey Hepburn in Getty’s top ten female idols.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk through the door of the Getty Images Gallery off London’s Oxford Street is how petite Marilyn really was. Twelve of her dresses and costumes are in glass cases, some of them the most iconic frocks of the 20th century, yet far smaller than images of the star suggest. By today’s extreme standards — emaciated stars and an obese public — she was somewhere in the middle. Certainly not as voluptuous as she looked on camera, with her famous wiggle, the dresses are all around a UK size 8. Marilyn had a fabulous hour glass shape, perfectly proportioned, which she used to maximum effect, but she was probably closer in size to Kylie or Dita Von Teese than to a more fuller figured woman; it was how she used her shape which made us sit up and stare.

In an era before photoshopping and airbrushing, Marilyn had all kinds of creative tricks to enhance her camera image. She weighed her hemlines down for maximum smoothness, pored into dresses so figure hugging that underwear creases would have ruined the look. So she didn’t bother. Keen to avoid drooping bosoms, she kept her bra on in bed — which must have been horribly uncomfortable — and when she wanted to look extra pert in the nipple department, stuffed marbles and buttons into her bra cups. Yowch.

The costumes in the glass cases are pieces of movie history: the black basque from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the red sequinned floorlength gown from the same film, in which she co-starred with Jane Russell but was paid just a tenth of Russell’s fee. There is a black beaded cocktail dress risque even by today’s standards, and so tight on Marilyn for her appearance in 1959’s Some Like It Hot that she could not move in it. Another basque, a green one with flowers around the bustline, was worn in 1956’s Bus Stop; Marilyn posed wearing it while on a swing, in the manner of the old silent movie stars like Jean Harlow and Clara Bow (who in turn seemed to be channelling Fragonard). She is lush beyond belief, capturing the imaginations of many of the leading snappers of the day, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cecil Beaton, Milton Greene, Bert Stern and Eve Arnold.

How Marilyn created this lushness was not, however, all down to some mystical inner glow. She dyed her hair blonde and avoided suntans, saying she “liked to feel blonde all over”, but the extraordinary glow from her face in those classic old black and white stills came from a fiendishly complex combination of gunk. Yes, gunk. The light and shade effect was a result of layers of Nivea, Vaseline, hormone cream, and something called Erno Laszlo Active pHelityl Cream, all of which she slapped on underneath a top layer of make up and face powder. Her make up artist Allan Snyder helped her create this glowing look before the filming of 1953’s Niagara, ensuring that her face was shaded and lit perfectly for studio lights.

Her glow also came from the fact that her face was covered in soft white fuzz, caused by the hormone cream. Marilyn resisted the studios’ demands to have it removed, because she insisted that it made her face radiate light when she was filmed or photographed, and unlike many of her contemporaries, it was not necessary to put Vaseline on the camera lens when shooting her. As well as shading and highlighting her face, she used five different kinds of lip colour, blended to emphasise maximum fullness. Being a living goddess required much technical ingenuity.

Obviously, being beautiful is not enough to get you remembered 50 years after your death. Loads of people are beautiful, but they die and we forget them. Marilyn endures because she, as well as being beautiful and interesting, possessed an aura of both victim and survivor onto which we could project our own meaning; she was perfectly placed for her time. She was a mass of contradictions, and it could be argued that she died of her own beauty — she was brainy and enquiring, but packaged as neither. It quite literally drove her mad.

Remember this was a woman who had read Death of A Salesman long before she ever met Arthur Miller. She read Rilke and Proust between film takes, and had a library full of James Joyce, Walt Whitman, John Steinback, Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and Gustave Flaubert. One of her acting teachers was Michael Chekhov, nephew of Anton. “I want to be an artist,” she is quoted in Christopher Bigsby’s gigantic biography of Arthur Miller. “Not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.”

In the black and white stills on display at the Getty Image Gallery, we see another side of Marilyn. While there are a few posed shots of her — one colour shot in a terrible lace negligee surrounded by heaps of fan mail is a bit garish — it is the unposed black and white stills where her extraordinary luminosity and vulnerability shine through. A triptych of her getting ready to go out — three black and whites of her putting on lipstick, looking at herself in the mirror — are extraordinarily beautiful because they don’t seem posed. Marilyn in Grand Central Station in 1955 shows someone who looks not quite sure of herself, yet a reclining Marilyn in a red dress taken in the same year oozes confident sexuality. Who knows what was really going on inside her head on those occasions.

Unlike more robust studio stars, Marilyn’s vulnerabilities were fourfold: she’d had a terribly insecure childhood spent mostly in foster care because both her mother and grandmother had mental illnesses, which left her, according to Lee Strasberg, “sensitive and in fear of rejection”; she was clever, but marketed as dumb; she longed for a baby, but only had miscarriages; and she was addicted to prescription pills. The pills finished her off, because nobody seemed to realise that by prescribing them they were making her not better, but worse. According to Arthur Miller, they were the cause of her problems, not the solution — and they ultimately killed her prematurely.

But what if she had survived? Ancient Hollywood goddesses, all wonky lipstick and veiny hands, only remind us of what ageing does to beauty. By dying in her prime, she bequeathed us the most alluring woman Hollywood has perhaps ever seen. She’s stayed frozen for us for 50 years now.

Marilyn — until May 23 — Getty Image Gallery, 46 Eastcastle Street, London, free entry.

Picture: Allan “Whitey” Snyder applying Marilyn Monroe’s makeup on the set of Let’s Make Love


In August 1969, headlines were dominated by Northern Ireland and the beginnings of what was to become known as “the Troubles”.August 26, 2019: A look back at what happened on this day in years gone by

Hundreds of grey seals, the ‘people of the sea’, haul out on Great Blasket’s Trá Bán.Blasket Island seals have cousins in Namibia

More From The Irish Examiner