Marilyn Monroe is a star cast to earth, a spirit in the flesh, and on camera, that’s ethereal. Eternal. Forever a star glowing bright in the sky and we watch as it burns, burns everything in its wake until one day, it’ vanishes. Explosions of sorts, and things leading in that direction, and stories and legends and myths. And Marilyn was the greatest star of them all.
August 5 marks the 52 anniversary of her death, a death that has become as iconic as the legend herself. Less than one year before she died, Monroe posed for Douglas Kirkland, who was then a young photographer on assignment for the 25 anniversary of Look magazine.
The date was November 17 and as Kirkland recounts in his book, With Marilyn, An Evening/1961 (Glitterati Incorporated), “My greatest difficulty during that meeting was telling Marilyn exactly how I wanted to photographer her. As I’d looked into her eyes, which seemed especially warm and virginal to me that evening, I felt as though my two older colleagues were sitting there in judgment, like two ancient schoolmasters, as I tried to gently seduce her into doing the picture I had envisioned, I felt conflicted: one part, the masculine, photographer side, just wanted to say, ‘You’ll get into this bed we’ll have, with nothing on, and we’ll figure it out from there. Period!’
“However, the Sunday School-side of my background wouldn’t let the words come out. Marilyn, with her sweet intuitiveness, made it easy. She simply said, ‘Okay I know exactly what we need. We need a bed with white silk sheets and nothing else, and it will work. But,’ she added, ‘the sheets must be silk.’ She had done the biggest part of my job for me: understood my ideas and articulated them better than I had been able to—bless her.”
In Kirkland’s photographs from this historic sitting, there is an energy, a spirit flowing through the ether, captured forever in these images, a force that floats through our fingers as we page through the book, which is page after page of Marilyn wearing nothing but Chanel No. 5 in bed. It is quite literally exquisite.
As Kirkland recalls, “Chic is a surprise, in a sense. It is what you find joy and pleasure in. Chic is the very essence and way an individual moves around. It could be a woman It could be a man. In two words, chic is elegance and taste. Marilyn Monroe was never chic she created her very own image with a uniqueness, that evolved as time went on. She began as a pin-up girl and as they years progressed, she embraced a greater understanding of what beauty was and what she could be, not just in a red bathing suit on the beach. She became more than that. She knew who she was and what she wanted. She specified silk for the sheets and champagne for the drinks. She was the essence of sensuality and her style became more sophisticated as time went by, If you are looking for Chic, Audrey Hepburn embodied everything Chic represents.
“What Marilyn was doing in these pictures is an honest portrayal of who she was at this late time in her life. These photographs were taken just ten months before her death. She had evolved to a very high point. The interesting thing was that I didn’t tell her how to move. We worked together. I was young and inexperienced, but I worked with hear and soul. Marilyn flirted and she responded. She just went with it in a spontaneous and elegant manner.”
The cumulative effect of the photographs from this session is the heightened sense of a presence that is not physical. It is ethereal, the light of life that shines through the flesh and the eyes until it transfixes you with its innocent stare, its curious glance, it’s knowing glow. Monroe is the consumate professional, always understanding that the image creates an effect, and that she is the master of the medium, her effortless presence that allows her to look like an angel in heaven in so many of Kirkland’s portraits.
Kirkland recalls, “I was learning another important lesson of my profession: You must treat a star like the princess you want her to be in from of your lens if you are to elicit her most outstanding performance. Everything around her must always be of the highest quality.”
Kirkland’s personal account runs throughout the book, an insightful and concisely told tale of connecting with the woman that is Marilyn Monroe. He recounts, “Frank Sinatra filled the room with his seductive beautiful ballads. That was the atmosphere of the evening: quiet, soft, and enticing. I was becoming very stimulated and I made no secret of it. Marilyn showed me how she felt; slithering erotically between the sheets. I kept shooting. Then at a certain point she stopped and looked up and pleaded, ‘Why don’t you come down here with me?’”
The shoot ended past midnight and the next day Kirkland developed the film. As he recalls, “It was about 6:30 that afternoon when I swung my rented baby-blue Thunderbird convertible out of the Chateau Marmont and onto Sunset Strip to head to Marilyn’s place with the pictures. It felt almost like I was going on a date, as Elvis reminded me loudly over the radio, that ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.’
“I arrived at Marilyn’s secret apartment with a beat in my step and the pictures and a small light box in hand and rang the doorbell…. When the door opened, I was greeted by a completely different person than the one I expected to see. It was Marilyn, although you could hardly tell. She was wearing dark glasses and had a scarf over her head and when she spoke, the music had gone from her voice.”
Monroe requested a magnifying glass, sent Kirkland to the store, and then proceeded to show him her “kills.” As she went through the images, she cut Kirkland’s film right before his very eyes. Kirkland observes how her mood, once finished with the negative aspects of their collaboration, improved reasonably, and she became involved in selecting the image that defined this shoot, the shot where she clutches the pillow, floating like an angel across the page.
Kirkland recounts, “Once Marilyn had found or ‘created this image’ through finding it that evening she sat and stared at it at length. It was as if she wanted to see what her invention of Marilyn Monroe had now become, and what it could be in the future. It was then that she said, ’I like this girl because she’s the kind of woman that every man would like to be in there with; the kind of girl that a truck driver would like to be in that bed with.’
“I realized at that moment that Marilyn hadn’t just been interested in pleasing kings, counts and presidents, all of whom she had known, but the ordinary man. This was the guy she’d grown up with, the ‘shirt sleeves, tell it from the gut’ individual who had no diplomatic niceties or special agendas, If this guy liked ‘that girl’ it really counted, because he could be trusted, he was reliable and that reliability and honesty was what she admired and hoped secretly to find in a man one day herself.”
Marilyn knew the business of her image and it served her well. Just as it serves us, some fifty years after she has died. Her untimely yet not inconsequential death forever ingrains the pleasure of looking at her image as it arcs and crests and with the foresight of what is to come how we can see the shadows of death creeping into these images. We see Marilyn’s transformation of spirit and flesh, made one and undone by the camera lens. And Kirkland’s images, none are ever so pure and innocent for so rarely has anyone said No to Miss Marilyn Monroe.
Douglas Kirkland by Owen Roizman