MARILYN: Time for a Makeover

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Wednesday, March 8, 2023. A couple of weeks ago I read Frank and Marilyn by Edward Z. Epstein. A really excellent biographical piece about two actors and entertainers who met fame and fortune and each other in Hollywood in mid-20th century. Everyone knows or knew who they were.

We read about them in the papers and the magazines, saw their films and had (imagined) personal relationships with them. And besides their films, their private lives were another movie. Such was fame and fortune in the mid-20th century.

Click to order Frank & Marilyn.

First hearing about Epstein’s book about the two, it never occurred to me that they knew each other. I don’t recall reading anything about them back in the day and their prime.  And I was a fan of both. This book is a biographical piece, considering the lives of the two, and centered by the reader’s natural interest around Marilyn.

I was a big fan, ordinary as that was in those times. So were millions. I saw her as a comedienne but something else that ran deeper. That was the appeal. That and sex. As “fans,”  the audience learned early about the personal history of that (not dumb) blonde who was also hilarious and compelling.

She lost her mother very early in her childhood, not to death, but to mental factors. Ironically her mother actually outlived her by a number of years. She was a foster child. That is the ultimate loss in one’s life. Loss of Mother leaves a profound mark on the child which they take through life. Marilyn Monroe bore that mark, and the impression it made on her became her prize and that eternal loss.

Epstein’s book brings that all to mind while taking us up to the heights and then down the path of a very intelligent, driven, hardworking, curious and ambitious woman who took the name from the original Norma Jean and turned into Marilyn Monroe — names she chose from others’ fame and fortune.

Discussing it all over our dinner, I asked Ed Epstein if he ever wrote more about her character. I finished the book thinking it’s an important part of a bigger canvas, a bigger picture.

This week he sent us the following piece on Marilyn, the professional. Serious lady. — DPC

Marilyn Monroe at the Gigi premiere in Los Angeles (1958) wearing a gown by good friend and a favorite designer, John Moore.

“She had an unerring instinct for choosing just the right professionals to enable her to always be ready for her close-up,” noted her friend, designer John Moore. And he wasn’t the only friend who found it fascinating how, over the years, Marilyn became the archetype of “the victim.”

In fact, until the tragic end, Marilyn had been very much in control of the direction her life and career took.

“If you are in the performing arts, and choose a career that demands that you exhibit yourself, you’re going to pay a price for it,” noted the TV, motion picture, and theatre star, Arlene Francis. “The bombardment will be rough…”

An acknowledged genius as exhibiting herself, Marilyn had navigated the many pitfalls successfully. But, by the Spring of 1955, a turning point was approaching.

On April 8th, 1955, seated alongside her new mentor, photographer Milton Greene — “Color Photography’s Wonder Boy” — and his beautiful brunette wife Amy, she appeared on “Person To Person,” a highly anticipated “live” television interview with distinguished journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Marilyn Monroe with Amy and Milton Greene at their home during her “Person to Person” interview Edward R. Murrow on CBS on April 8th, 1955.

Afterwards, she asked “friendly” columnist Hedda Hopper what she thought.  Hopper performed surgery without anesthetic: she bluntly told Marilyn she thought that Amy Greene, who resembled Audrey Hepburn, had stolen the show.

That’s all Marilyn had to hear.  This was a chaotic period in her life.  She’d moved from Los Angeles to New York, was on strike from her studio, had divorced Joe DiMaggio, was being courted by Arthur Miller, and was engaged in an under-the-radar, sometimes intimate friendship with Frank Sinatra.

In the Murrow interview, she’d worn her hair in typical “Hollywood Blonde” fashion, and was dressed in a tight sweater and skirt, “strictly an ‘Old Hollywood-Sweater Girl’ look,” as one report noted.  Amy Greene’s “look” was au courant, fresh, now; there was nothing “Old Hollywood” about her.

Milton, Amy, and MM take 5.

Marilyn, 29, only three years older than Audrey Hepburn, wasted no time; a makeover was in order.  Some new players would be required to join her team; the time had come to introduce the world’s number one sex goddess to the world of haute couture.

As always, she was an eager student.

Norman Norell, born Norman David Levinson, was 55 years old and heralded as “the American Balenciaga,” “the inventor of American elegance,” “Master of American Fashion.”  He “dressed” the most fashionable women of the day, including Mrs. William (“Babe”) Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy.  Socialites, the wives of industrialists, and select Hollywood stars, including Lauren Bacall, were on his client list.

MM in Normal Norell at the 1962 Golden Globe Awards.

Bacall had worn one of Norell’s signature, sequin-paved “mermaid” sheath evening gowns to the premiere of the film she’d co-starred in with Marilyn, “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

Marilyn would wear a halter-top version of the “mermaid” gown — the gowns were priced at $3,000 to $4,000 ($33,000 in today’s dollars) — to the New York premiere of her film “The Prince and The Showgirl,” to an iconic photo session with photographer Richard Avedon. She wore the high-neckline “mermaid” to the next-to-final event she attended before her death, the 1962 Golden Globe Awards.

Norell found the prospect of working with Monroe an intriguing challenge — blatant sex appeal was hardly the goal of his distinguished clientele. But he was no stranger to Hollywood. He’d begun his career, at age 22, as a costume designer for Paramount Pictures in New York. He recognized Marilyn’s dilemma as far as her wardrobe, and other issues, were concerned. She was sensitive, smart and there were obviously complexities beneath the surface sparkle. He respected her and the feeling was mutual.

She was candid — she needed help! The solution was subtle, the results dramatic: refine, tone down — the simpler the setting for a glittering solitaire diamond, the more impact the stone would have.

When Marilyn later returned to Los Angeles, there was a press conference at the airport, where a reporter commented on her sophisticated “new look” — she was wearing a sleekly tailored dark suit, very chic — did that signal a change in her? She was asked.

“No, I’m the same person,” she replied.  “It’s a different suit.”

Marilyn arrives in L.A. in “a different suit.” Photograph by Leigh Wiener

Marilyn had confided to Norell that she was experiencing difficulty with her hair. The years of bleaching, perming, working under blazing hot studio lights, and studio hairdressers’ lacquered, stiff coiffures, had taken a heavy toll. Her hair was thinning now, fast.

MM getting her hair done by Kenneth Battelle, 1959.

He put her in touch with Kenneth Everett Battelle, known professionally as Mr. Kenneth. One year younger than Marilyn, with, like Marilyn, a gift for self-promotion, he was already acknowledged as a genius in his field.  His clients were a diverse Who’s Who of VIP’s, ranging from the Duchess of Windsor, Happy Rockefeller, and Jacqueline Kennedy, to important beauty editors at major magazines.

The chemistry between Marilyn and Mr. Kenneth was immediate, and their friendship would last to the end of her life.  His prescription for her hair woes worked wonders, and his soft hairstyles actually moved!  Marilyn could shake her head, and the hair would fall back into place.  “She was accustomed to hairstyles that wouldn’t budge if she were in a wind tunnel!” joked her Hollywood pals.

Flash Forward:  Marilyn’s next makeover occurred a couple of years after she had relocated to the West Coast. She’d filmed “Some Like It Hot,” a smashing success, but her marriage to Arthur Miller was unraveling, an affair with Yves Montand ended badly, she was unhappy with the people managing her career (“People were messing with her,” observed Frank Sinatra).  If ever there was a time Marilyn felt the urge to once again re-invent herself, this was it.

Enter George Masters. Born in Detroit, ten years younger than Marilyn, the hairdressing/makeup wizard, working at Saks Fifth Avenue, had swiftly built up a wealthy clientele, which eagerly responded to his incredible talent for devising hairstyles and makeup that brought fading beauties back to life, and instilled new life to young beauties who lacked the skill to make the most of their attributes.

Marilyn en route to Mexico (February 1962) while George Masters keeps an eye on the doo.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood actresses took note, Arlene Dahl and Jennifer Jones among them; future clients would include Ann-Margret and Audrey Hepburn. “Jennifer couldn’t stand people staring at her, so she wouldn’t take the elevator, and walked up many flights of stairs to the salon.  I was flattered!” recalled Masters.

He performed his magic on Marilyn at her home.  He changed the color of her hair to “pillowcase white,” gave her a striking new haircut and vibrant new makeup.  It took hours, with the sound of Sinatra singing, full volume, on her hi-fi, but she was thrilled, happily paying him two thousand dollars (over $20,000 in today’s dollars), and gave him an autographed photo: “To Killer George, Thanks for what you did for me!”

She had a bold new look as the decade of the 1960s dawned. “Georgie” would remain her stylist until the end, all through “those trying Kennedy days,” as Masters described them.

Marilyn Monroe costume test (she passed!) for The Misfits (1961).

The final creative genius Marilyn turned to, when an event of prime importance loomed up, was the veteran Hollywood designer, Paris-born Jean Louis. In his early fifties, diminutive in size, a giant in stature, he’d designed the on-screen wardrobes for most of Hollywood’s most famous and enduring stars.  The black satin gown he’d devised for Rita Hayworth in “Gilda,” in which she performed “Put the Blame on Mame,” was a classic (and a masterpiece of construction).

He’d designed Marilyn’s wardrobe for “The Misfits,” and recalled their first meeting:  “She came down her stairs in a dressing gown, and stopped in front of me.  She said, ‘Jean if you’re going to make clothes for me, you should see what I look like.’  She pulled open her dressing gown, and there she was — wearing absolutely nothing.”

And that was the effect she was after when she asked Jean to design a gown — “one that only ‘Marilyn Monroe’ could wear” — for a very special occasion: the 45th Birthday celebration of President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Louis knew exactly what she had in mind.

You thought you saw everything, but in fact you saw nothing,” said Bob Mackie. Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were many fittings. She would have to be sewn into the gown the evening of the performance. The final cost: $1,440 ($12,000-plus in today’s dollars).  She was delighted with the results, describing the gown as “skin and beads”; in fact it was an ingenious nylon mesh bodystocking the color of Marilyn’s skin, a garment which held the bust in place, slimmed the waist and shaped the derriere.

“You thought you saw everything, but in fact you saw nothing,” said Bob Mackie, back then Jean Louis’ sketch artist.  The sprinkling of strategically placed, glittering rhinestones completed the illusion, which, it turned out, worked too well;  as far as the President and his advisors were concerned (it was an open secret that he and Marilyn were having an affair), Marilyn looked far too sexy; from this point on, all connections with her were severed.

Ironically, the way Marilyn looked and performed in that gown memorialized her in a way that neither she, nor Jean Louis — nor John F. and Robert Kennedy, for that matter — could have imagined.

MM with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy at the birthday “celebration.” Cecil W. Stoughton, official White House photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most recently it was Kim Kardashian, amidst an explosion of publicity, who channeled Monroe by wearing the gown at last year’s Met Gala; Madonna had channeled her in her famous “Material Girl” video.

Many contemporary icons continue to be heavily influenced by Marilyn’s image and wildly unpredictable life; actress Ana de Armas is currently in the running for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Marilyn in the controversial film, “Blonde.”

Marilyn’s story remains surrounded by red flags waving, and whistles blowing; the fascination with all involved survives, along with an unassailable fact:  despite countless attempts, over the years, to “discover” or “create” the next Marilyn, not a single one of those attempts has been successful.

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