Helen Rose: Marilyn Monroe, No Designer’s Dream

Casual Marilyn

Frequently, when Karen and I attend a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, or a formal dinner, I can’t help but notice that some people, all decked out in formal wear, look, somehow, not quite themselves. In fact, many women—and it’s mostly women who are genuinely transformed by glittering evening wear—appear like gaudy imitations of themselves. In short, the ordinary day-to-day look is a better, more appealing fit.

Helen Rose, the great Hollywood costume designer who I’ve written about here and here, saw Marilyn Monroe at the very beginning of her career. In her memoir, Just Make Them Beautiful, Rose observes MM with a sharp eye:

She was a sensation in her small part [The Asphalt Jungle, 1950]. The audience made her a star, but the studio [Columbia] did not pick up her option—and they could have had her for only $125 a week. MGM had gone through their share of trouble with this kind of girl, talented, beautiful, but unstable. It always ended the same: liquor, dope, suicide or too much adulation from too many men. Marilyn was snapped up by another studio [a seven year contract at 20th Century Fox], and the rest is history.

Marilyn Monroe was a very kind, gentle girl, but she was—figure-wise—no designer’s dream, nor was she a fashion plate. Somehow she always looked like she had come in from a windstorm or as Ann Strauss, who handles fashion publicity, would say, “Like an unmade bed.”

After the film Johnny [Hyde, MM’s agent] came to me with the request that I try to make her look more chic, and Benny Thau [MGM executive] said it was OK. Both he and Johnny hoped some producer or director on the lot would see her and put her in another picture. Lana Turner, who was exactly the same size as Marilyn and was also a beautiful blonde, had just finished a film in which she wore a black silk cocktail suit. In it, Lana looked crisp and stunning, Marilyn only looked untidy and cheap.

The beautiful models at the Chez Pierre, who looked sensational with very little on, looked actually frumpy in their street clothes. This also applied to Marilyn who looked much better in a skimpy towel than in expensive, high fashion clothes.

Rose’s observation is shrewd.

In photos—and Marilyn might be the most frequently photographed Hollywod star of all time—where MM is in casual clothes, light make-up, and windblown hair, she projects vulnerabilty and intimacy, qualities that are sorely lacking when she’s in glittering evening wear with lacquered hair and her face a tight mask. Indeed, the high fashion Marilyn lacks warmth and spontaneity; she’s trying so hard to be a sex symbol that she is drained of all humanity and is transformed into a parody of a ripe female.

Annex - Monroe, Marilyn_157.jpg
Formal Marilyn

Here’s an interesting article about Marilyn Monroe’s last weekend, just after Bobby Kennedy broke off their five month affair.

‘Marilyn was distraught and heartbroken. She felt the Kennedys had handed her around like a piece of meat,’ Rupert Allan, her publicist and one of her last true Hollywood friends, had said earlier. Her grip on reality—already weakend by mental illness, drink and drugs—was certainly shaky.

Read the entire article.

H/T Bill Brandt

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  1. Posted August 6, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Robert: I found a picture of Mr. & Mrs. Dougherty.

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  2. Posted August 6, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I have been trying to remember that lady’s name — I think it was Dorothy. She related the story in such a matter-of-fact manner, that it kind of threw me a little bit. From what she said, her memory of Norma Jean was that she was a nice, quiet girl. In reading up on Marilyn’s life I found the background of this marriage to Jim Dougherty very interesting.

    “With few options left, Grace (Marilyn’s aunt) approached Dougherty’s mother and suggested that Jim marry her(Marilyn) so that she would not have to return to an orphanage or foster care. Dougherty was initially reluctant because Norma Jeane was only sixteen years old, but he finally relented and married her in a ceremony, arranged by Ana Lower, after graduating from high school in June 1942.” More here:

    Also, in reading about Jim’s life, I read that in 1943, Dougherty joined the United States Merchant Marine. Prior to that he worked with Robert Mitchum in a defense plant — I believe it was Lockheed.

    Sounds like L.A. was kind of a small town way back then.

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  3. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I’m glad we’ve been able to reveal Hollywood as it really is. Phony glamour and romance aside, it’s a scary place where people eat people for fun and profit. It’s tempting to make MM into some kind of female martyr. In truth, she clawed and slept her way to the top and in the process lost her mind.

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  4. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    That’s an amazing story. I wonder how much she remembered about Norma Jean.

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  5. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    That is one of the best scenes in the movie and yes, MM flubbed her lines so often Wilder was tearing out his hair.
    Oddly, my favorite MM movie, fashion-wise, is her last film The Misfits. A really lousy and pretentious film. But seeing MM in jeans and work shirt is so refreshing. She looks great, even though she was imploding.

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  6. Bill Brandt
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Reading Seraphic Secret has opened a new world to me of the lives of many Hollywood stars, from Carole Landis to Carole Lombard to MM.
    I have come to see so many of them as damaged human beings – with both good and bad – rather than the persona the studios projected.
    I saw MM in an entirely different light – not as a glamorous star but a vulnerable, neurotic woman constantly believing that she wasn’t nearly as beautiful as her adulating fans saw her.
    I think of all her suitors the only one who truely cared for her was Joe DiMaggio, rumored to be the anonymous benefactor who had roses placed at her tomb every year.
    But then even he was jealous during their marriage of the attention she got I believe.
    Several things stood out for me in this article, but Greco’s observation of MM as she exited her limo stood out:
    “‘She’s dressed all in green – everything green: coat, skirt and scarf. Before I realized who it was, I thought: “My God, what a beautiful woman. No taste in clothes, but what a beautiful woman!”
    Today the Cal-Neva, named because it straddles both California and Nevada at Lake Tahoe, is just a shell of what it once was – the latest owner – as of a year ago – was nearly bankrupt and the hotel was showing its age.
    I don’t know its current status.
    But what stories it could tell.

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  7. Posted August 5, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I worked at the North Long Beach Grace Brethren Church on Orange Avenue for one year back in 1980. An elderly woman used to come into the church office and help us stuff bulletins. She told me that she helped Norma Jean Baker move when she was married to her brother, Jim Dougherty. Norma Jean Baker Doughherty later became Marilyn Monroe.

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  8. Johnny
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I think MM looked her best when she entered Curtis and Lemmon’s room looking for the bourbon in Some Like It Hot wearing just a little kimono. She also radiated sex in Niagara wearing simple skirts and blouses or the basic black suit she was wearing as she tried to escape Joseph Cotton.
    The scene in SLIH is also funny considering how many takes were needed for her to get the simple line correct and how exasperating it was for Wilder.

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