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How the magic of Monroe endures

Iconic 1954 picture of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up

What is remarkable about Marilyn Monroe is that her magic has not dimmed with the years. Now, 50 years after her death on August 5, 1962, the National Portrait Gallery in London is holding an exhibition showcasing the American screen legend’s links with Britain.

Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair will open on September 29 and run until March 24, 2013.

Monroe, “the quintessential American sex symbol”, arrived in Britain with her newly married third husband, the cerebral playwright Arthur Miller, on July 14, 1956. She was to appear in The Prince and the Showgirl based on a play by Terence Rattigan, opposite Laurence Olivier who was also directing the film. Her four-month stay in Britain generated huge press interest.

The exhibition has been curated by Clare Freestone, the National Portrait Gallery’s Associate Curator of Photographs, who told t2 that Monroe’s magic, like that of Princess Diana, is frozen in time perhaps because she was a beautiful young woman when she died in tragic circumstances.

“I was born after she died and still think of her as one of the world’s biggest celebrities,” said Freestone, who has discovered a wealth of material for her exhibition linking Monroe with Britain. “Her life was tragically short, she represented many different things to different people; pin-up, feminist, great actress, troubled soul and continues to do so through reinterpretations.”

Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 at 36 — exactly the same age as Monroe was when her body was found in her Los Angeles apartment. She had died from a drugs overdose and the cause was officially classified as “probable suicide”. But theories have ranged from an accidental overdose to murder to silence her since she was apparently threatening to go public about her alleged affairs with President John F Kennedy and his brother, Robert. She had breathlessly sung Happy Birthday to the president at the White House in 1962, just weeks before her death.

“Monroe was an international phenomenon,” Freestone stressed. “Although she only visited the UK once, through the media and other connections she was as celebrated here as anywhere.”

Monroe is best remembered for such films as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in which she gave a memorable rendition of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend), River of No Return, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and her last film, The Misfits.

One image of her that has become iconic shows her with her skirt billowing up with hot air from a New York subway. It was taken in 1954 on Lexington Avenue on 52nd Street to publicise The Seven Year Itch. The scene, which required many retakes, so infuriated her then second husband, the baseball star, Joe DiMaggio, that it triggered a quarrel, a split and a divorce from Monroe.

Before they got married, Monroe would visit DiMaggio in his apartments in the building which is now the Radisson Lexington New York Hotel that is run by its executive vice president Sam Bhadha. Indian VIPs — and they range from politicians to tycoons and Bollywood stars — who come to Bhadha’s office admire the large photograph of Monroe he has on his wall. Bhadha, something of a celebrity himself, likes telling the story of how the photograph came to be taken during one of Monroe’s visits to see her then lover.

Although Monroe played up to the image of “the dumb blonde”, she had dyed her hair from its natural brunette in her early days. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, but the surname was quickly changed to Baker by her mother who reverted to her maiden name. Norma had a troubled upbringing, grew up with foster parents and periodically suffered sexual abuse.

Marilyn Monroe was the name given to her when her film career started to take off after she had acted in a series of forgettable movies and also done some nude modelling to get her through hard times. These pictures resurfaced when she became famous. But later she was not averse to being photographed in the nude for she was aware of her alluring sexuality and the effect she had on men.

HER WEEK IN LONDON

Since her death, Monroe’s life has itself become the subject of movies, with many actresses attempting to portray the legend. The latest is Michelle Williams who played her in a small British film last year called My Week With Marilyn.

This depicts her visit to Britain and the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, with Kenneth Brannagh cast as Laurence Olivier. Monroe’s journey is seen from the standpoint of the film’s star-struck third assistant director, Colin Clark, son of the great art historian Kenneth, and younger brother of the notorious Tory MP Alan.

The film focuses on the week in which Monroe spent time being escorted around London by Clark (Eddie Redmayne), after her husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), had left the country.

The charming film was hailed as an unexpected success. In his review in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw said: “My Week With Marilyn is light fare: it doesn’t pretend to offer any great insight, but it offers a great deal of pleasure and fun, and an unpretentious homage to a terrible British movie that somehow, behind the scenes, generated a very tender almost-love story.”

More recently, at the National Portrait Gallery, while curating her exhibition, Clare Freestone has also spent time, sort of, with Marilyn Monroe.

Her display will include little known images by photojournalist Larry Burrows who worked for Life magazine, and press images of Monroe meeting the Queen amongst others. Cinematographer on the film, Jack Cardiff, had a private sitting with Monroe for which she arrived nine hours late. Monroe inscribed on one of the dreamy images created with a wind machine and vaseline over the lens, “Dearest Jack, if only I could be the way you created me.”

Throughout the 1950s, British photographers contributed greatly to the vast Monroe iconography. The display will have a selection of these photographs including Antony Beauchamp’s poses of Monroe in a yellow bikini (1951), Ted Baron’s photographs from a Hollywood assignment (1954) and Cecil Beaton’s photographs taken in the Ambassador Hotel in New York (February 1956).

A selection of British magazine covers on show will plot Monroe’s changing image and progressing movie career. The earliest cover on display will feature André de Dienes’s 1947 portrait of the then Norma Jeane Baker on the cover of Picture Post. Also on display will be a cover of Today magazine from 1961 in which she is pictured alongside Arthur Miller, her husband from 1956 to 1961, who scripted The Misfits. A poignant conclusion to the display is the cover of Town magazine published three months after Monroe’s death, featuring an image from her last official shoot with George Barris.

Freestone said: “Monroe was the pin-up of the day and continues to appear on magazine covers today. In terms of differences today, re-touching, as wardrobe and make up and PR, is more sophisticated, although, of course, they had their own version in the 1950s!”

She does not think photographs always have to be black and white to be evocative. “People often think that is the case, but I am not sure. Baron’s colour photograph of Monroe taken in the fading Californian sunlight in 1956 certainly feels more real than some of the monochrome shots.”

Freestone added: “We have collected more than we could include due to space restraints; more magazines, more film stills....with Monroe there is always more I imagine!”

Amit Roy