Legendary photographer Douglas Kirkland recounts an evening spent with a Hollywood icon in 1961 as we celebrate his latest book publication, With Marilyn: An Evening/1961
Words by Kat Lister
It happened on a rainy November evening in 1961 – but not without a few initial hiccups. Marilyn was late. Two hours late, to be exact. Look Magazine’s ‘fair-haired boy’ was on a mission to get the hottest pictures he could for their 25th anniversary issue, but now he was getting worried. The clock ticked. A champagne bottle waited on ice. Her manager finally offered a shrug: ‘Well, she’s usually late but she always shows up…’
Wise words indeed: At 9.30 pm the doors to the LA studio flung open and suddenly there she was. Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s golden creation, seemed gigantic to photographer Douglas Kirkland. And yet, as he recalls over the phone from his studio in the Hollywood Hills: ‘Her movements appeared to be in slow motion – light and unimaginable.’ He pauses. ‘She was truly Marilyn.’
In 1961 – shortly after her problematic final movie The Misifts was released – a series of iconic portraits were taken of Hollywood’s brightest star. 54 years later and we’re talking about them once again, in celebration of Douglas Kirkland’s latest book publication. With Marilyn: An Evening/1961 tells the tale of a photographer, a Hollywood sex symbol and an unmade bed. His translucent and ethereal photographs flirt with breathless immediacy, even now.
Contrary to assumptions, the disheveled bed wasn’t Kirkland’s idea. Monroe would suggest what the 27-year-old photographer was too shy to: ‘I know what you need…’ she flirted. ‘You need a bed, Dom Pérignon champagne, Frank Sinatra records and a white silk sheet. And that’s all I’m going to wear.’ Kirkland was quick to oblige.
Was she playing with the young Look magazine staffer? ‘Yes, she really was,’ he replies. ‘As a young man from a small Canadian town of 7,000 people, imagine: I was a yard or so away from her at times with nothing on at all but a sheet. This was exceedingly exciting for a young boy like me. Here was a superstar of the world and I was a down-home boy.’
Monroe’s next chess move was swiflty actioned: she dismissed her assistant and agent. ‘I’d like to be alone with this boy,’ she instructed. ‘Here I was alone with Marilyn, five or six feet away,’ Kirkland reminisces. Their one-to-one intimacy is what makes these photographs so wonderfully unique.
As Kirkland relays his evening with Monroe, I’m looking at a behind-the-scenes photograph on my desktop. Marilyn lays splayed coquettishly on the bed – left knee raised, right arm stretched. A gymnastic Kirkland dangles directly above her from the ceiling. How on earth did he get up there? There was a stairway leading up to a storage container and he took a chance, he tells me. ‘I was able to get the bed right under it so I could look directly down on Marilyn.’
So, the small-town boy was flirting too? ‘We just kept playing that game – seeing who could play it best. That’s where the power of those pictures is from. It’s Marilyn seducing the camera – and the photographer of course – but the camera was more important.’
Douglas talks about the many Marilyns he met over the three days he worked with her. I wonder which one was the true Monroe. ‘That’s an excellent question,’ he says. ‘I don’t think there was a single Marilyn. She was probably never the same person twice in a row – there were multiple personalities.’
These days, everyone likes to be an expert on what they think Monroe ultimately needed to make her happy, but hindsight doesn’t always give us 20/20 vision. The next day Douglas Kirkland drove to Marilyn’s modest apartment in Los Angeles, ‘bouncing’ after their successful evening’s shoot. A doorbell ring was followed by two more. The door creaked open to a dark room and a vastly different Marilyn to the one he’d met before, hiding under a scarf and dark glasses.
‘Whatever it was, she seemed to have a depression. I had no idea why, I never will know why.’ Kirkland, like most of us, still questions it all. ‘The world will never know why she was so dark.’
As Monroe looked through the previous evening’s photographs, one in particular stood out. In it, Monroe lies horizontally, holding a pillow. Kirkland recalls her words: ‘She said ‘this is one I like the most because that girl’ – speaking in the third person – ‘is the kind of girl any man would like to be in that bed with. Even a truck driver.’
‘Why a truck driver?’ he pre-empts my question, ‘because that meant a real person. Not a director, or an actor, or a rich man – but the kind of man she’d grown up around and she knew she could trust their honesty.’
She trusted Kirkland’s too. In another world, perhaps they would have worked together again. ‘I have concluded that in some ways she enjoyed taking still photographs almost more than making movies,’ Kirkland muses. ‘When she was with a still photographer she could live and breathe and become a true person.’
In 1962, the Look magazine photographer was now working with Coco Chanel in Paris. Returning to his hotel room after a long day at the fashion designer’s studio, a French newspaper with the headline ‘Marilyn est Morte’ stopped him in his tracks. ‘I thought, surely they don’t mean my Marilyn? It sounds absurd to say that, but I just couldn’t believe it. I felt terrible. This wonderful, radiant woman was gone.’
Just eight months earlier, Kirkland had stretched out on the floor with his hands behind his head. On the bed beside him, an inquisitive Monroe rested her head on an arm, swathed in silk. They talked gently about their lives until the early hours. Marilyn, Douglas – and a camera in between.
With Marilyn: An Evening 1961 by Douglas Kirkland, © 2015, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com