Marilyn glowed as if some radioactive core lay beneath her skin. Her breasts came to uplifted peaks, the nipples traced like two short fingertips.
A close-up of Marilyn taken not long before her untimely death at 36 years old. By the early 60s she had become an international sex symbol, and not coincidentally, her life was falling apart.
Spring 1953, an afternoon party at John Hodiak’s on Doheny. He asked, “You ever met Marilyn Monroe?” I hadn’t. “She’s down on the patio,” he said, leading me to the terrace. Bright sun. Not a cloud in the sky.
The blond with the champagne, laughing with a couple people, glanced up when Hodiak called down, “Hello, gorgeous! What’re you doing?” Her teeth sparkled. Her hair glowed almost white like a halo, and her long, slim legs in tight, white toreadors made her look taller than she was. Red high heels with open toes with bright blood-red toenails. She glowed as if some radioactive core lay beneath her skin, blasting white-hot light through a white sleeveless top and illuminating her shoulders, arms, and throat. Her breasts came to uplifted peaks, the nipples traced like two short fingertips.
Waving, she said, “Hi, John! Come join the party.” It was someone’s birthday, she said.
“Got my own party going,” Hodiak said. “Come on and join us.” He introduced me. “Jonathan’s a pal trying to be a star, so come on up and tell him your secrets.”
I said hello to Marilyn. “Nice to meet you.” She said hello back. Peering through those big sunglasses, she said, “Bring your friend John Hodiak down and join us.” Her party was better than ours, she said, and we’d have a marvelous time.
“‘Different’ is the word, honey,” Hodiak said. “Not ‘marvelous.’”
“Come on, John,” she said, laughing. “They’re the same, aren’t they?”
“Yours are naughtier,” he said, wagging his finger.
She feigned a pout. “They are not naughtier—they’re just more fun!”
That was the first meeting. Simple. Hello—hello.
Taken in the early 1950s, around the time she starred in The Asphalt Jungle with Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern. She was an unknown at the time, and it turned out to be a small but key role in launching her career.
Next came Wynn Rocamora’s soiree on Outpost Drive, and Marilyn in an alcove, tugging on the telephone cord. It was not long after I’d met her on Doheny. Rocamora tended a flock of stars, plus promising would-be’s like myself. He said he wasn’t Marilyn’s agent, but he was “working on it.”
I smiled—she remembered me; didn’t recall my name, just said, “You’re John Hodiak’s friend.” I said yes, told her my name though wasn’t sure it logged in. I’d learn she didn’t forget things, or rather fixed faces in her mind with some label that she wouldn’t shake. I was “John Hodiak’s friend”—she introduced me that way. John was a mentor to me, and not the kind of “friend” typically understood in Hollywood terminology.
Having trouble with the phone, Marilyn said, “Every time I call, the damn line is busy.” Flustered, she said she’d call the operator to interrupt the busy signal. I asked if she did that often. She said, “Otherwise I’m not able to reach the person when you have to talk.” She dialed the long-distance operator again to try the number before asking if I’d seen Hodiak lately. “He’s going to New York,” she said. I nodded. “John’s an admirable person,” she said, then hung up the phone. “Line’s still busy!” She stretched her upper lip practically under her front teeth. From then on I noticed this tic more often: Her fingers against her upper lip, gently tapping, accenting her thinking or not wanting to show her teeth when speaking. No reason to hide her wonderful teeth. It made me think of my former agent, Henry Willson, who said my teeth were small, needing porcelain caps, or should be extracted and replaced with a partial.
Marilyn would also often pull on her upper lip as she spoke, sort of tucking it against the edge of her front teeth, the tip of her tongue easing against it. I figured maybe her rationale was that by lengthening her upper lip, it made her nose appear smaller—even though her nose was beautiful. Doing this caused her to lisp. She had several unusual ideas about her appearance—commercially the most important thing about Marilyn—but she really didn’t have to do anything. She could stand completely still and just let the magnetic waves radiate.
She was staring at me and fiddling with the telephone cord. Laughter from the main room seemed to unnerve her. It looked like she was hiding. Unsure of what to say as I stared at her, I congratulated her on the work she did in the film Niagara. I mentioned the earlier movies she’d made and her eyes widened, her lip was going up and she put two fingers against her mouth. “They were terrible!” she said. “You can’t be serious. They keep coming at me.”
Keeping us moving, I asked what picture she’d be doing next. “Oh, shit,” she said, “I don’t know. I don’t honestly have an idea why I’m doing what I’m doing. It doesn’t look good or substantial…”
I said I thought she was great in whatever she did—even the earlier movies. I told her I’d been to Fox on Let’s Make It Legal, but “Robert Wagner got the part. Richard Sales said I was too young to be married to Barbara Bates—”
Marilyn laughed. “That’s baloney! That’s the part I was supposed to have—the one Barbara Bates did. I tested for the goddamn role and they had me at wardrobe! Richard Sales is an asshole.” Her eyes flashed. “What I did back then anyone could have put up cardboard, and it could’ve been me.”
“I thought you were great,” I said. “So convincing in Niagara, I was hypnotized.”
Staring at me in that odd manner, her eyes intense but easing, she said, “It’s times like you’re saying that are rewarding, when someone says such a thing as you’ve just said—being hypnotized…” She sighed, yanking a little on the phone cord. She said she was working so much that she wasn’t even sure what she was doing because it was all so terrible. “Not the work—I mean the demands—the crowding at me all around. Working too hard, and yet they want to string me out on a limb. It’s terrible.”
I wasn’t sure what, exactly, was so terrible, but I said, “That’s Hollywood, isn’t it?”
“Our friend John Hodiak,” she said, “would understand, and he would say they’re awful. He’s probably saying they’re so bad he can’t stand to see any more of it. That’s why he’s going to New York.”
I said I understood, but those moments I’d mentioned as being hypnotized were the ones that made it possible to do the other crap—certainly not that what she had done was remotely crap.
“Oh, it is crap!” she said loudly. “You know it is. We’re like fish in a dirty bowl.” Staring at me, she asked, “Where are you from?”
“LA,” I told her. “Born in General Hospital. Lived most of my life in Hollywood.”
“I was born in General Hospital,” she said. “In the charity ward.”
“That’s where I was born,” I said. “My mom was in labor and rode the streetcar downtown to the hospital. No money for a cab. She’d been a bit player at Metro—a pal of Jean Harlow.”
“That’s very strange,” Marilyn said. Her eyes seemed to shine, but shifted to a heavyset guy in blue gabardine coming toward us. She knew him but ignored him, and said to me, “I appreciate what you’ve said about being hypnotized, but are you saying hypnotized as if in a trance like a hypnotist puts you in?”
I felt like I’d blabbed myself into a corner. “If you want to look at it that way,” I said, “like if not hypnotized, then certainly captivated. A better word. Personally, as an actor I want to do something worthwhile, or like what you said about it.”
“What did I say?” she asked.
“You said ‘substantial.’ I know what you mean, like me wanting to play Montgomery Clift’s part in Red River.” She loved that film, she said. She loved Howard Hawks, even though he was always “getting mad” at her. She also loved Stagecoach, and she wanted “desperately” to do a picture with John Ford. She’d even dreamed of doing something like Pinky. “My hair is red in what I dream,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be black—” No, I said, it certainly doesn’t. “When one is hypnotized by a movie, do you suppose it opens something into a person’s self as they claim hypnotism is supposed to do?” she asked.
I said I imagined it could. “Like being in a kind of identity situation—”
“How do you mean ‘identity’?”
“Identifying with the character. Carrying it with you. Making it a part of your life, even if it’s only a yearning—”
“—for something better,” she finished for me. “What is the point of doing something if it’s not getting better? It’s like a person being sick in their bed and nobody comes to bring you even some toast.” I nodded, unsure what she meant. She continued, “I have to try this fucking number again,” and turned to the phone. She dialed long distance while I was looking at her shoulder and her neck. She got connected, and I politely moved aside.
The fat man’s face was blank as a pie tin; she was still ignoring him. He said her name several times, trying to get her away from the phone. They had to leave, he said. He smiled at me, and I said I was a friend of John Hodiak’s. “Oh?” he said. “Is John here?” I shook my head.
We waited while Marilyn completed a whispered, anxious monologue of a call, neither of us piecing together what she was saying. Finished, she said, “Fuck ’em. When someone is in doubt over something and they won’t try to understand, you have to say, ‘Fuck ’em.’”
The fat guy nodded, holding his hand out toward her, which she ignored. She whispered something and flashed a little smile—her demeanor instantly having snapped into a persona I’d seen on-screen. Even her voice changed. She dutifully started across the room toward a huddle that included Rocamora, Rory Calhoun, and Jean Howard.
After a few steps, she stopped. “Excuse me a sec,” she said to the fat guy, and held out her hand to me. I took it. “I’m glad you’re a friend of John’s,” she said. “He needs friends so awfully right now. I’d be a better friend, you know. I just love him, and it’s terribly sad what they’ve done at a time when he is so sad.”
I wondered if she meant his estranged wife, Anne Baxter, one of Fox’s stars who didn’t like Marilyn and wasn’t liked by Marilyn since All About Eve. She gave a quick kiss on my cheek, softly saying, “We must spend some time with John.”
I nodded, about to ask what was being done to John, but fatso said, “Marilyn… please?” She did a little backward wave to me, saying, “Ciao, la vedrò presto.”
Some weeks later, having brunch with Hodiak at Musso & Franks, he said, “Half the country’s being seduced by Marilyn. She’s the biggest moneymaker Fox has going. The world will be seduced, but the poor girl won’t find her place in it. She’s sweet, she’s shy, and she’s willful and narcissistic. She’s loaded with the equipment to make a mint for all those selling her, but, Jonathan, the girl’s in need.”
“What does she need?” I asked.
“You’re in the club now,” he said. “You find out and tell me.”
In truth, she’d bypass all speculation. When I told him about the Outpost party, about the couple times I’d seen her since, he used the word “snare,” a ploy of entrapment, “come-hither Italian words,” he said. “And there’s another word: ‘inveiglement.’”
I recall screwing up my face. “What’re you talking about?”
He smiled. “Seduction,” he said. “You’ve been seduced.”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s different than that. It’s this spiritual thing—it’s like connecting in a kind of inner way… It’s hard to put it into words.”
“I just did,” he said, nodding slowly, and kept on smiling.
Archival photos courtesy of John Gilmore