Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy

Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy

by Elizabeth Winder


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A city, a movie star, and one magical year.

In November of 1954 a young woman dressed plainly in a white oxford, dark sunglasses and a black pageboy wig boards a midnight flight from Los Angeles to New York. As the plane’s engines rev she breathes a sigh of relief, lights a cigarette and slips off her wig revealing a tangle of fluffy blonde curls. Marilyn Monroe was leaving Hollywood behind, and along with it a failed marriage and a frustrating career. She needed a break from the scrutiny and insanity of LA. She needed Manhattan.

In Manhattan, the most famous woman in the world can wander the streets unbothered, spend hours at the Met getting lost in art, and afternoons buried in the stacks of the Strand. Marilyn begins to live a life of the mind in New York; she dates Arthur Miller, dances with Truman Capote and drinks with Carson McCullers. Even though she had never lived there before, in New York, Marilyn is home.

In Elizabeth Winder's Marilyn in Manhattan, the iconic blonde bombshell is not only happy, but successful. She breaks her contract with Fox Studios to form her own production company, a groundbreaking move that makes her the highest paid actress in history and revolutionizes the entertainment industry. A true love letter to Marilyn, and a joyous portrait of a city bursting with life and art, Marilyn in Manhattan is a beautifully written, lively look at two American treasures: New York and Marilyn Monroe, and sheds new light on one of our most enduring icons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250064981
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 373,697
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Winder is the author of PAIN, PARTIES, WORK: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Review, Antioch Review, American Letters, and other publications. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, and earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University.

Read an Excerpt

Marilyn in Manhattan

By Elizabeth Winder

Flatiron Books

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Winder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-06497-4


Miss Lonelyhearts

"Who can think about art in this miserable city?"


Summer, 1953.

Of course, the surface looked sexy enough — parties on Doheny Drive, martini (no olives) in hand, wet red lips, hair like a platinum cloud, white halter top, skintight toreador pants, red peep-toe Ferragamos, and matching cherry polish. Always pale, a milkmaid among Malibu tans.

At twenty-seven, Marilyn Monroe was at the peak of her stardom. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — her highest-grossing film to date — had launched her into the stratosphere of absolute icon. In less than five years, she'd gone from orphanage waif to child bride to factory girl to car model to GI pinup to studio underling to down-and-out extra to mogul's mistress to Playboy centerfold to BAFTA nominee. She'd been Sweetheart of the Month, Artichoke Queen, Miss Cheesecake of the Year, Girl Most Likely to Thaw Alaska, Photoplay's Fastest Rising Star, Redbook's Best Young Box Office Personality, Look's Most Promising Female Newcomer, and The Best Friend a Diamond Ever Had. She'd done twenty-one films, three hundred magazine covers, and won three Golden Globes. Marilyn was now Hollywood's most bankable actress. Not bad for a dirt-poor orphan who'd grown up in foster care and dropped out of high school at sixteen.

But grueling schedules, dawn call times, and constant travel were taking a toll on her. Breakfast of raw eggs whipped in hot milk with lashings of sherry, carrot-juice breaks at Stan's Drive-In. Giuseppa, her Chihuahua, soiling the carpet. Lonely lunches of raw hamburger and crackers, fights with her agent at Schwab's. Blowups with boyfriends at La Scala and Romanoff's. Nightly battles with insomnia, relieved only occasionally by Seconals and Nembutals.

After awards shows she'd flee like Cinderella, skipping the after-party and vanishing by midnight. Alone in her studio dressing room, she'd kick off her heels, strip off her gloves, and unzip a gown that wasn't hers to begin with. She'd peel off her false lashes, wipe off her makeup with tissues dipped in Pond's cold cream. Barefoot in jeans and a polo shirt, she'd throw her Ferragamos in the back of her car and drive west on an empty Wilshire Boulevard, speeding at up to 80 miles per hour. Safe at home, she'd drink a glass of sherry, pop a few pills, and sink into blurry sleep.

On set she was known as ditsy and distant, always darting away with a book between takes. Whenever someone would make a friendly overture, Marilyn would clam up. She was too earnest for idle chitchat and considered it a waste of time. As for gossip, she knew too well the havoc it wreaked. While sitting in hair and wardrobe, she'd tune out the whispers and jabs about who had bad skin and who was sleeping with whom and who had just had an abortion. Attempts to squeeze out juicy tidbits were shut down. "I don't know any," she'd say with a sigh, "because I don't get out."

Studio gossip and cocktail chatter were the pillars of Hollywood friendships, which were often forged at clannish house parties. Marilyn hated these — what would she even talk about? — it wasn't as if anyone was dying to know which Turgenev novel she was reading. "I didn't go out because I couldn't do polite conversation," Marilyn remarked. "I couldn't make table talk, small talk, so I said, 'What the hell, I'll just stay home.'" Whenever she did feel like socializing, Marilyn preferred nightclubs such as Crescendo and Mocambo, where she could slink in and out at will and avoid catty banter and boisterous parlor games.

This made for an especially lonely life in Hollywood — which was about cliques, connections, and friends of friends. In Manhattan it was fine to bar-hop on your own, check out your usual spots and see who's there. In LA, everyone went to people's houses: Charlie Chaplin's in Calabasas or Jack Warner's on Doheny Drive. They all seemed to have their own group — except Marilyn, who found herself alone even one New Year's Eve: "Everybody has a date tonight except me. If you're not doing anything, could we have dinner together?"

"Fundamentally unsure of herself, inclined to be suspicious of people because of past hurts she's suffered, Marilyn isn't easy to know," wrote Rita Malloy in Motion Picture magazine. And she wasn't. Hollywood would always be a bit baffled by her — skipping studio parties to ride roller coasters at Ocean Park or dreamily reading aloud from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet whenever she broke for lunch. Who was this warm-blooded space creature who lugged around dictionaries, spoke like a drugged-up puppy, and looked like a French pastry? And how could they make sense of a girl who got lost on her way to the bathroom, took sixty takes to learn a line, then went home alone to read Heinrich Heine?

* * *

Like most other shy, imaginative misfits, Marilyn retreated into books. Back in '49 she opened her first charge account, at Martindale's bookshop, an odd choice for a starving starlet. Books kept her company during those long afternoons at Schwab's, spending her last nickel on a malted and eating it with a spoon to make it last. She'd leaf through Walden or Camille, waiting to be picked up by some modeling scout, then cab back to her dingy little room, switch on a lamp, and console herself with Look Homeward, Angel.

As her star power rose, Marilyn nourished her mind as best she could. She took yoga with Indra Devi, audited classes at UCLA — Backgrounds in Literature and Renaissance Art. Desperate to find her niche, she attended the Actor's Lab on Crescent Heights Boulevard. Even then she'd been an outsider — plopped in the back absorbed in a book, hungry, shoulder-length hair box-bleached and uncombed. Her classmates rarely invited her for coffee at Barney's Beanery or drinks at Musso & Frank's on Hollywood Boulevard. Perhaps the writer William Saroyan was right when he had prophesied, Grim Reaper–like, "You're a loner, Marilyn, and you'll always be alone."

Only one or two friends sensed Marilyn's depth, including the actress Shelley Winters, who shared an apartment with her in 1951. One late spring evening Dylan Thomas was in town, and Shelley volunteered to cook him dinner. She roasted a crispy pork loin with wedges of garlic, mashed some potatoes with green onions and sour cream, and tossed a salad with Roquefort dressing. She didn't expect much help from her roommate: "If you gave her a rack of lamb, she just stared at it." Shelley had assigned her the applesauce — open jar, pour in saucepan, heat, add dash of Cointreau — but Marilyn got mixed up and poured in the whole bottle.

While Shelley cooked, Marilyn gathered white wildflowers from the empty lot next door, stuffed them in drinking glasses, and arranged them on the card tables she'd placed on their tiny balcony. She strung Japanese lanterns along the awning, lit candles, mixed gin martinis in milk bottles, and set out juice glasses to pour them in.

Marilyn and Shelley had one martini each — Dylan Thomas drank the rest straight out of the milk bottle. He downed a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white, and six bottles of beer he'd bought at a grocer's. (Back in Wales, grocers didn't sell cigarettes or alcohol — for this alone he might move to Los Angeles.) Naturally, Dylan didn't mind when they served the liquored-up applesauce as if it were a cocktail.

"Although Mr. Thomas teased and kidded me with his risqué Welsh wit," Shelley wrote, "he was quiet and respectful to Marilyn. Dylan Thomas seemed aware that behind the platinum hair and terrific body, there was a fragile and sensitive girl. ... He was obviously a horny Welshman, but he never once made any kind of pass at Marilyn. Not even a verbal one. ... I think this poet sensed that she very badly needed not to be thought of as just a tits-and-ass cutie." By the end of the meal Marilyn was smitten, though refused to jump into Dylan's green Hornet and join him at Chaplin's home in Calabasas. Before Dylan left that candlelit balcony, with its view of glittering Hollywood night, he sang a Welsh melody in minor key, which moved Marilyn to tears: "Come all ye fair and tender maids, who flourish in your prime/ Beware, beware, keep your garden fair, let no man steal your time/ A woman is a branch, a tree — a man a clinging vine/ And from her branches carelessly he takes what he can find, find, he takes what he can find."

* * *

If 1953 was Marilyn's breakout year, it was also the year she began to rebel. She had to beg for her own dressing room on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she was making far less than her costar, Jane Russell. The rigors of studio production were making her physically and psychically ill. She'd just finished filming How to Marry a Millionaire, her third major role in nine months. Battered by migraines, insomnia, viral infections, and bronchitis, Marilyn was visibly weakening. She'd wake up shaking, nerves already shot, gulp down a painkiller before rolling out of bed. Nausea was inevitable, and she was often vomiting, unable to keep down anything but orange juice mixed with gelatin. Like everyone else in Hollywood, she'd been diagnosed with anemia, which meant massive vitamin B injections and gagging down concoctions like tomato juice spiked with ground-up liver ("Even lime and Worcestershire sauce hardly mask the taste"). "I had no sense of satisfaction at all," Marilyn told Modern Screen. "And I was scared."

But Marilyn — the most popular actress in the world — was oddly powerless. America's sexy sweetheart was still the property of Twentieth Century Fox, and back in the early fifties, the studio controlled everything: from the roles you took on, to the directors you worked with, to how often you went to the bathroom, and sometimes even who you married. Studio heads had little respect for their actors — especially the women — and often tried to coax out publicity-boosting catfights. Directors often felt irrelevant and lashed out in frustration against their cast. On-set bullying was common, and Marilyn was an especially easy target. "They tell you to cry one tear," she complained, "and if you feel two and cry two, it's no good. If you change 'the' to 'a' in your lines, they correct you. An actress isn't a machine, but they treat you like one."

Marilyn knew she deserved better from Fox. This year alone she'd raked in heaps of glammed-up money. She was their sun, their power earner, yet they treated her like a dumb-blonde cash cow. Executive Darryl Zanuck claimed she had "emotions of a child" and was "ill-equipped" to determine the course of her career. (Not too ill-equipped to earn half their revenue.)

Fox had her lined up for River of No Return, a goofy Western with a slapdash script that was below even Zanuck's standards. Marilyn would play Kay, a honky-tonk floozy and saloon chanteuse. Roles like these made her sick — stumbling around in spiked shoes, slipping on sweat-slick floors, enduring snide cameramen's sneering and leers. She hated being bulldozed into the bimbo act. Most of all she hated Zanuck, who called her "Strawhead" behind her back, then cashed in fast to keep Fox afloat. But Marilyn was contractually stuck. Through gritted teeth, she accepted yet another role she knew was beneath her.

She longed for meaty roles such as Hedda Gabler or Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov. She'd recently read Émile Zola's Nana and had fallen in love with the voluptuous French courtesan. Excited, she called George Cukor to see if he'd direct her in a film adaptation. Yet Cukor, a noted "women's director," declined. It was too risky, he said, and was there really an audience for decadent French novels from the nineteenth century?

Marilyn needed someone who believed in her. Her lawyers and agents would flatter her over salad and Dom Pérignon, then glaze over when she brought up her studio battles. She was beginning to lose hope. No one would take chances; no one would trust her talent. Fox, Paramount, MGM — even LA itself seemed to close in on her. She'd suffocate under its tawdry glare of misogyny, canned art, and smoggy money.

It would take a fellow outsider and artist, a soft-spoken photographer with a red-checked scarf and Brooklyn accent, to ignite Marilyn's rebel flame and give her the strength to defy Darryl Zanuck and change the studio system forever.

* * *

Marilyn had always known the power of image — starting from her first modeling shots in the late 1940s. She'd been a visual learner since childhood. At the orphanage she'd spend hours on her bed, lying on her stomach, leafing through the film magazines of the late thirties and forties: Movie Mirror, Photoplay, and Screen Gems. She'd been studying these images for years — the lowered lash, the parted lip, the plucked brow, and the dewy eye. By the time the cameras pointed at her, she was ready.

Unlike most other models and actresses, Marilyn worked closely with her photographers, makeup artists, and costume designers — and more often than not, they learned from her. She knew her chin looked weak in profile, her left side was prettier than her right, and that the halo of down on her face gave her a soft-focus Garbo glow. She practiced dropping her lip to make her smile less gummy. When she didn't like a picture, she gouged it with a hairpin. By 1953 she was dying to break loose from bloodless glamour shots, but she needed the right photographer. While she was browsing through stacks of picture portfolios, one in particular caught her eye. It belonged to a young fashion photographer named Milton Greene. His pictures were sensitive, spontaneous — especially the ones of Marlene Dietrich. She looked like a swan, with her arched back and snowy neck. "They're so beautiful," Marilyn breathed. "I want him to photograph me." She made a few phone calls, and soon enough Milton was boarding a plane to Los Angeles.

Jaded and skeptical, Milton was far from starstruck. At thirty-one, he'd photographed Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, both Hepburns; his pictures were featured in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. He liked elegant women with a European flair, and he wasn't impressed by flashy screen queens: "Marilyn was not really what I would turn around for or call a whistle at, even though she turned on a lot of guys. I'd seen some of her movies, she looked interesting, but she didn't throw me. My style is more Dietrich, Garbo, Audrey and Katharine Hepburn, even Judy Garland in a different way." But when he met Marilyn, all that changed: "From the very beginning it was completely comfortable, like 'Let's make a date' or whatever. She put out her hand and said, 'You're just a boy' and I said, 'You're just a girl.' And from that moment on we sort of hit it off."

Milton Greene burst into Marilyn's life at just the right time, bringing with him a blast of icy East Coast air. Everything about him — his catlike way of moving, the blazers he had made in Rome, even his staccato Brooklynese — promised a fresh alternative to LA's ostentation. Unlike the big, blowsy Darryl Zanucks, Milton was unobtrusive, a beatnik among peacocks in his black turtlenecks, black linen jackets, black jeans, and black sneakers. A native New Yorker, Milton managed to live an almost European existence. His Midtown studio, at 480 Lexington Avenue, was pure Fellini, where writers, actors, and makeup artists played, drank sherry, and put on lipstick. He partied with jazz musicians, not models, and at night Max Roach and Gene Krupa would "come to the studio and jam." He wasn't sleazy (an anomaly among fashion photographers), nor was he formulaic. He didn't fuss around with lighting ("If you can't light it with one light, you can't light it."). Instead of overshooting or bossing around the models, he'd switch off the phones and break out the sherry, taking time to select the perfect record for the person and occasion (for Marlene Dietrich, it was always Stravinsky).

For their first shoot, Milton stripped off all that Hollywood pancake and shellacked hair to reveal a new Marilyn. "I took off lots of makeup, because it was caked," he said. "I made it much smoother for a fresh-scrubbed look. She wasn't used to that; she was used to a lot of makeup. Fellini maybe did films where he used a bit of pancake or powder, but most actors were used to lots of makeup out of habit." They shot in Laurel Canyon, but she could have been an Ivory Soap Vassar girl in her Peter Pan collar, flower-flocked cotton and almost-pageboy hair. She looked bright and bookishly sexy, not like some dial-a-goddess from a cheesecake mag. Marilyn loved the photos and immediately sent him two dozen roses.

By the time they met for their second shoot, Marilyn and Milton had bonded like school chums. They set up shop on a Fox back lot, ransacked the wardrobe rooms, and found the burlap skirt and wooden clogs Jennifer Jones had worn in The Song of Bernadette. ("It was the ultimate in joke," Amy Greene would later say with a laugh, "to put the world's leading sex symbol in Saint Bernadette's clothes.") The French village from What Price Glory provided the perfect backdrop — they'd later refer to it as The French Peasant Sitting. In scratchy black convent stockings and heavy nun's shoes, Marilyn seemed lit from within, blonde Hollywood saint, gorgeous and tired and not unlike Bernadette herself. Like a Cinderella in reverse, Marilyn went from Van Cleef to sackcloth — with Milton as her fairy godmother.


Excerpted from Marilyn in Manhattan by Elizabeth Winder. Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Winder. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters ix

Preface xiii

1 Miss Lonelyhearts 1

2 The Fugitive 25

3 Blonde on (Subdued) Blonde 43

4 Liquor, Literati, Lee Strasberg 59

5 Infatuation 69

6 Flesh Impact 83

7 Ingenue 97

8 The Strasbergs 115

9 In Bloom 129

10 Shangri-la 147

11 Fire Island 163

12 In the Bulrushes 175

13 Sutton Place 193

14 Baby Doll 209

15 Cherie 225

16 Stars 235

17 The Return 251

18 Mazzie 261

Epilogue 273

Notes 275

Bibliography 281

Acknowledgments 285

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