© George S. Zimbel
On the night of Sept 11, 1954 I shot Marilyn Monroe. I wasn't the only one. There were over 20 still photographers, a Hollywood film crew, lots of cops and a crowd estimated at a thousand. We all gathered on a corner of Lexington Avenue in New York to see the great Marilyn and the self effacing Tom Ewell act a scene from the movie "The Seven Year Itch" directed by Billy Wilder.
I was a 25 year old freelance photographer under contract to PIX Inc., one of the first photo agencies. At that period the magazine business was healthy, and the older photographers would sit in "the photographer's room" and wait for the magazines to call in the assignments. Or so us younger photographers thought. We younger ones were always hustling for a story.
I remember a question from one of the old timers, George Karger:
"Kid, who would you photograph as the most renowned world figure?"
My answer : "Mae West." (A joke)
Reply: "Close, how about Marilyn Monroe?"
Me: "Wow I'm ready."
The question was not rhetorical. Marilyn was coming to town and he generously gave me his credentials. It was the situation I liked best. No assignment, complete freedom to shoot the event as I saw it.
That is one session that I remember vividly. Most of the photographers arrived around 10:30pm. They were a lesson in the history of modern photography. Press photographers with their speed Graphics. They called them "real cameras." Photographers from the "belly-button school" using Rollieflexes and Ikoflexes. Most of the younger photographers were using 35mm cameras - Leica, Nikon, Canon, Contax.. all rangefinder models with no motors, no built in anything.
It was around midnight when Marilyn arrived on the set, dressed in the now famous white dress. You could feel the crowd surge. There were a few calls of "Hey Marilyn", but mostly people just looked, always shifting for a better view. They couldn't see much with the phalanx of police and photographers in front of them, but Marilyn knew how to play to a crowd. She turned and waved several times and they went wild, "fifties wild". This was a time when crowds didn't get out of control. Even the photographers were civil to each other.
For those too young to remember the scene, here it is: "A beautiful blonde in a white dress walks along Lexington Avenue with her "summer bachelor" friend. They walk over a subway air vent as a train speeds by below. The updraft of warm air catches her dress like a parachute. It billows up and up. The guy is flustered, the blonde is surprised." (End of scene.)
During the first run through, the crowd goes crazy. They shout "More, more" and she gives it to them. A lovely tribal rite. Next she consults with her drama coach, Natasha Lituska, and then director Billy Wilder orders additional run throughs to fine tune the scene. Ewell with his felt hat and baggy suit and Marilyn in her white dress sauntering down Lexington Avenue past the theater marquee advertising the 3-D movie "Monster from the Deep". They walk over the grating and her dress starts to rise. It rises very very high and we can't believe it. Remember this is 1954. I am sure a lot of shots were missed first time around but there were many more opportunities as the scene evolved, getting just the right height of the dress from the special effects crew operating the fans.
Monroe and Ewell were ready and it was time for the film crew to do it's work, but suddenly all action stopped as two men walked across the set. It was Joe Dimaggio, her husband and Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist. They were very publicly leaving and everything stopped for their exit. Norman Mailer later wrote that DiMaggio was furious about the scene and jokes from the film crew didn't help his disposition. There was a changed mood on the set and everyone could feel it. Wilder went into deep conversation with Monroe. Finally she smiled and that was the signal to resume work on the scene.
I am more of a determined photographer than a pushy photographer but that night I did something atypical. I started to shoot as the filming commenced. (Strictly forbidden!)) There was enough street noise to cover the discrete click of the Leica shutter, but someone obviously didn't like what I was doing and I was removed from the press photography area and escorted behind the police lines by two of New York's finest. I used the new viewpoint and kept shooting from there.
I forget how many takes they did, but I remember we wrapped up about 2:30 am. After the session and probably at the same time I was looking at the first batch of negatives in my darkroom on Second Avenue, Marilyn was playing out another scene in her hotel room. According to several biographers when she got back from filming she and Dimaggio had a violent argument that signaled the end of their marriage. She filed for divorce as soon as she returned to Hollywood.
That photo session in New York was one of the most successful publicity stunts ever staged. The shoot was scheduled so that all publications would have time to meet their deadlines before the film opened in February 1955. Every publication that could find an excuse to run photos of that event did so. And here is my personal mystery - I decided not to throw my shoot into the editorial pot. I don't remember why. I know I was working on a photo essay that had to be completed before I left for Texas on assignment in December 1954. Since I was printing all my own material perhaps I was overloaded. I don't know. The negatives were filed away unprinted and unpublished. They survived a fire in my darkroom in 1966 and my move to Canada in 1971. They were shown for the first time in a solo exhibition at Confederation Centre of the Arts, Prince Edward Island Canada in 1976. The full set was shown for the first time in 1982 at Galerie Art 45 in Montreal.
In January 2000 I had a retrospective in Valencia Spain and my Marilyns were exhibited on the walls of Sala Muralla, a gallery fashioned from an ancient archeological site at Institut Valencia d'Art Modern where they shared space with an ancient plaque of a Roman goddess. I felt it was a homecoming for her image.
To me these photographs are a document of the age of innocence, my own.
Montreal, July 2000