In an adaptation from his memoir, Marilyn & Me, photographer Lawrence Schiller remembers what the icon, who died 50 years ago August 5th, meant to him and shares his memories of her. Plus, see some of his photographs from their famous sessions on the set of Let’s Make Love and Something’s Got to Give.
In the years that followed, I’ve thought a lot about the little time I spent with Marilyn and how it seemed to go beyond my being a photographer and her being “Marilyn Monroe.” As a photographer, I’m always talking about myself in order to build relationships with my subjects, but I never expected one to develop with Marilyn.
She was Stars and Stripes’ Cheesecake Queen of 1952; Look magazine’s Most Promising Female Newcomer; and Photoplay’s Fastest Rising Star that same year. Redbook named her Best Young Box Office Personality in 1953; and she received Golden Globe Awards for World Film Favorite in 1953 and 1961 and Best Actress in a Comedy for Some Like It Hot. It was her iconic status as both America’s Sweetheart and America’s Sex Symbol that made me believe that all I’d ever do was photograph her. I realize now that I spoke to her in paragraphs, babbling on and on, while she talked sparingly but concisely. And maybe that’s why I remember much of what she said and how she felt poorly treated by the people she worked for. She had thought a lot about those things, and when she said them to me, they came out plainly and clearly.
Even though Marilyn always had people around her, I felt she was a lonely person. Almost everyone in her circle was there to serve her: do her hair, do her makeup, fix her wardrobe, handle her publicity, schedule her day. She had an acting coach to guide her; a driver to run her errands; a masseuse to relieve her backaches; a psychiatrist to listen to her heartaches; and a bunch of doctors to give her pills to help her sleep or keep her awake, to calm her down or speed her up. But despite this assortment of helpers, she was, ultimately, alone.
I never had a desire to interview her, so our exchanges evolved naturally, always beginning with the camera and photographs. I wasn’t a writer at the time. I didn’t go home and jot down what we had talked about in a diary. Sometimes I would tell my wife things she had said, and other things she said just stuck in my memory. As her legend grew after her death, I thought about her, and I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to recapture her and the days on and off the sets of Let’s Make Love and Something’s Got to Give.
The Marilyn I remember is not the Marilyn I’ve read about in the books that have appeared in the fifty years since her death. I wasn’t a party to her reliance on barbiturates; I couldn’t swear to any of her alleged affairs. I did see Bobby Kennedy at her house, but I didn’t see him in her bedroom. I overheard some of her heated comments about studio executives, but I never saw the violent rages that were later reported. I saw her complexity and her kindness. She was extremely giving when it came to posing for pictures, and she was also a good listener. On movie sets and elsewhere, she may have taken advantage of her position as a temperamental movie star, but it didn’t always work in her favor. She wished to be taken more seriously than she was.
When she spoke of being afraid that any child she might give birth to might have the family gene for mental illness, I couldn’t help wondering if her reported miscarriages were self-induced or if she somehow unconsciously willed her body to reject the fetuses. Her eyes had lit up when she talked about having eighty-four-year-old Carl Sandburg as a houseguest; I could see her genuine excitement at having someone of his stature as her friend… and dance partner! I saw the frustration in director George Cukor’s face when she kept him waiting on the sets of both of their movies, and I also saw Robert Kennedy’s look of boyish elation when she jumped into her own swimming pool. She brought a smile to men’s faces when she shuffled her hips as she walked by.
She survived, for one who had taken so many beatings, who had been passed from foster home to orphanage to foster home so many times that she looked upon marriage at the age of sixteen as a way out of her misery and insecurity and loveless life. But a happy, successful, lasting marriage wasn’t in the cards for her. The first lasted until she started making movies; the second, to DiMaggio, didn’t even last a year; the third, to Arthur Miller, lasted almost four years, but she seems to have had a better relationship with his father than with the playwright, for whom she was a muse. She never lacked for male companionship—from photographers like Andre de Dienes, Sam Shaw, and Milton Greene, who adored her; to actors like Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Yves Montand, and Tony Curtis, who enjoyed her; to powerful studio executives, directors, and politicians like Joseph Schenck, Elia Kazan, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy, who may have exploited her.
Of course, there has been much speculation about her death. Did she commit suicide? Was it an accidental overdose? Was she murdered on orders from one of the Kennedy brothers? Murdered by the Mob?
I had witnessed how quickly Marilyn could polish off a bottle of Dom Pérignon by herself; all the studio photographers have said that she drank champagne and wine steadily during their shoots. We know from the amount of time she spent in therapy that she was depressed and an insomniac and that she always took pills to fall asleep. And at our last meeting, I myself saw signs of how upset she could get.
Being around celebrities, I’ve seen how they can lose themselves. As they take more and more drugs, they can’t find their way out of the forest. Night becomes, in a way, a companion, a safe haven. I can see Marilyn using not only the darkness of her bedroom, which she kept pitch-black, but also the darkness of sleep as a safe haven.
Did she want to kill herself? I don’t think she did. I think she overdosed accidentally. I can imagine Marilyn drinking champagne that night—just like any other. Drinking champagne, popping some pills, talking on the phone, forgetting about the pills she had already taken and taking some more, and, finally, in the safe haven of the darkness, knocking herself out. Only this time she didn’t wake up.
She died more than fifty years ago, and the mystery of how she died remains unsolved, though perhaps there is a bigger mystery. Marilyn Monroe is a bigger star today than she ever was when she was alive.
Marilyn Monroe came into my life in 1960, and she is still a living, breathing, extraordinary presence for me fifty-two years later. I think about her often.