the isle of horseshoe crabs
of the mechanical watch
Larry Schiller as told to Jeffrey S. Kingston
The signposts of events in Marilyn Monroe’s life burn brightly still, nearly 60 years after her passing. They are seared into our memories and culture. Her images in photos, her innocent persona in films, her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to President John F. Kennedy, her tragic death in 1962. There is one more headline, perhaps not as widely known: Marilyn’s watch was a diamond-set Blancpain. These are all powerful remembrances, but do they reveal much of her as a person? Was she really the flighty blonde as she was so often cast in films? Was she like some in Hollywood, aloof with little regard for those around her? Was she intelligent? Witty? Clever? Who really was the woman born as Norma Jean that the world came to know as Marilyn Monroe?
Larry Schiller began his career as a magazine photographer working for such leading publications as Look, Life, The London Sunday Times and Paris Match. He would go on to a successful career as a film director and author, winning an Academy Award, Emmy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Early in his career, at just 23 years of age, he met Marilyn Monroe for the first time on the set for the film Let’s Make Love co-starring Yves Montand. Over the next two years he would have privileged access to Marilyn, often in relaxed settings. Using his special talent to put his subjects at ease, Schiller was able to witness sides of her beyond the headlines known to the general public. From his vivid memories, recalling vignettes, Schiller paints a remarkable and intimate portrait of the life and character of this complex woman.
Her quick wit was on display within seconds of their first meeting. As the studio publicist introduced Schiller as the photographer from Look magazine, her riposte was priceless: “Hi Larry from Look, I’m Marilyn”. Schiller no longer remembers from where or how this popped into his head, but he blurted the reply: “And I am the Big Bad Wolf”. Not missing a beat, and topping Schiller’s ice breaker, Marilyn giggled her reply: “You look a bit young to be so bad”. That first duel of wits set the tone for their working together going forward. Schiller became “Mr. Wolf”. Later after a gap of some months, her opening remark on seeing him was “Have you become any badder?” Banish the thoughts harbored by some of Marilyn as a ditzy blonde. She was capable of quick repartee.
On several occasions, Schiller saw a deeper side of her. Marilyn gravitated toward intellectuals, her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller a publicly well-known example. But she was far from a vacuous groupie. One glimpse of Marilyn’s intelligence came when seeing her at a party at actor Peter Lawford’s Southern California home. Marilyn was off in a corner intensely engaged with historian Arthur Schlessinger in political conversation centered on the now infamous Bay of Pigs failed invasion of Cuba and communism. Not only was she absorbing what he had to say, but authoritatively matching his comments with her own serious and deeply thoughtful observations. Indeed, she was adding a measure of gravitas to her points, lowering her voice into a range not heard in her films.
Few in the public know that Marilyn was an avid reader. She eagerly devoured books and cultivated authors like the poet Carl Sandburg. Marilyn had read Sandburg’s detailed biography of President Abraham Lincoln and sought him out to discuss the history he had penned. On one of Schiller’s visits to Marilyn’s Brentwood home, Marilyn, beaming, gushed: “Guess who may be staying here? He’s a writer”. She was speaking of the then 84-year-old Sandburg. Later, Schiller would see photos of the two dancing together at a party at producer Henry Weinstein’s apartment.
Not only was she a deep thinker able to hold her own with intellectual elites, Marilyn was a clever and savvy business woman. She was an entrepreneur who was to be taken seriously and respected, founding and leading her own production company. She also fully grasped that she was in competition for studio promotion resources with other actresses of her time: Katherine Hepburn, Lee Remick, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis all had major motion pictures being filmed co-incident with hers. She knew her career depended upon trumping her rivals by garnering publicity elevating herself to prominence in the public eye above the others. Her peer, Elizabeth Taylor had previously grabbed the spotlight, as well as the studio’s full resources, with her wildly intense romantic fling with Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra. Marilyn knew that a similar gossip column romance was a card she could not then play. During the time of filming Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin and Wally Cox, Schiller talked with her about photos he wanted to shoot pairing her with co-star Wally Cox. Marilyn saw that going nowhere. The subject instructed the photographer: “What you want is splish splash”. The movie had a swimming pool scene with Dean Martin looking down from a balcony while she swam below him. “Splish splash” meant that Marilyn saw her opportunity to light up the press with provocative photos taken of her in the pool which had been constructed on the studio’s set. She knew she had to reveal herself in a way that the public could not ignore.
She was decisive. Schiller had taken photos of Marilyn on the set that were subject to her approval. Presenting the photo contact sheets to her brought an impish grin and her entreaty to: “Let’s go get Dom”. Mystified, Schiller accompanied her in her convertible as she drove up to Los Angeles’ famed Sunset Strip and parked opposite the neighborhood’s high-end liquor store and wine shop. Returning from the store, she bounded up to the car with “Dom” in a paper bag, Dom being Dom Perignon. Drinking from the bottle, plainly enjoying herself, she reviewed the contact sheets, using pinking shears to snip in half the photos which she didn’t like. Schiller recalls that her judgments were spot on. She had a keen eye for the best photos and no hesitation in quickly rejecting the others.
She knew herself. How often does a subject give directions to the photographer? Marilyn did. On several occasions when Schiller was setting up a photo, she would tell him he was in the wrong place, that he would get a better photo from another angle. She was right. Having a mirror handy also helped. Rather than look to him for her pose, she looked at the mirror. Asked why, her response was: “I can always find Marilyn in the mirror”.
Her savvy and self-awareness doesn’t mean that she was always easy to work with. On the contrary, she was habitually late onto the set during filming. Many times, hours late, leaving the director, her co-stars, and the crew fuming, not to mention studio executives mentally calculating the extra costs flowing from the delays. Her lateness was so notorious, that Peter Crawford who hosted the famous evening when she sang for President Kennedy wove that into his introduction of her. With the band playing a small fanfare, he announced: “And here’s Marilyn”. Nobody appeared on stage. After a few moments, again “Here’s Marilyn”. Same result. Finally, a third time “And here’s the late Marilyn Monroe”. The audience having been thoroughly gingered, the drama staged, out she came in that now famous black dress to croon breathlessly “Happy Birthday Mr. President”. She even enjoyed a pinch of self-deprecation, musing that: “I’ve been on a calendar, but have never been on time”.
A-list stars for the most part have not earned accolades for their manner in dealing with ordinary people. Marilyn was not cast from that mold. Even in that first meeting with Schiller she showed her concern for a photographer she had met only moments before. As Schiller snapped his photos in her dressing room, she noticed that he kept his left eye open while focusing his camera with the right one. Normally, of course, photographers closed the eye not pressed against the viewfinder. Schiller explained he had lost sight in that eye as a young boy. As any caring person would, Marilyn insisted that he tell the tale of his accident. On another occasion Schiller was obliged to stay late photographing her. She knew that he was newly married, wife and newborn at home. She showed concern: “You’re working late… your wife is expecting you”. Schiller insisted upon staying late to finish the shoot. Unbeknownst to him, Marilyn arranged to have two dozen roses and a note from her delivered to Schiller’s wife. The next day, when Schiller arrived to continue shooting, he carried back one of the roses. Placing the rose behind her ear, threaded through her hair, Marilyn responded: “I’m glad I kept you out of the doghouse”.
Another of her qualities stood out: her ability to put her fame to one side and live as an ordinary person. Schiller recalls visits to her Brentwood (a very tony Los Angeles neighborhood) home, finding Marilyn dressed without glamor, her hair uncombed and loose, tending her garden and on another occasion asking his opinion on the colors of tile samples, laid out upon the floor, for a kitchen remodel. Even with important guests present, Bobby Kennedy (then Attorney General of the United States) and his principal aide, Ed Guthman, she could be herself at home, free of any pretense, as she enjoyed a swim in her pool, the two looking on.
Schiller has firm views on why Marilyn is more famous today than when she was alive. Unlike other female bombshells, Marilyn was attractive in a way not offensive to other women. Perhaps it was the innocence of Norma Jean shining through the veil of Marilyn Monroe. The two years he spent photographing her changed his life. Schiller thinks about her frequently. She remains a living breathing presence.
Blancpain honored Marilyn Monroe with a special exhibit in its New York boutique. On opening night, the guests included actress Naomi Watts. Featured were photographs taken by Schiller and other chroniclers of her life, famous dresses worn by her, along with other memorabilia including a chair from one of her film sets. The centerpiece, surrounded by rose petals, was Marilyn’s diamond-set Blancpain timepiece. Schiller entertained the guests with his remembrances of Marilyn.
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