A Flair for Publicity: Marilyn’s Steps to Stardom

As the new CNN docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe makes its US debut, Julie Miller outlines how Marilyn ‘masterminded her career’ for Vanity Fair. (The first two episodes aired last night, with the final parts set for broadcast next Sunday, January 23.)

“Sixty years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, the blond bombshell is still remembered as a tragic figure—a passive victim of a patriarchal Hollywood. But as Monroe’s friend, 92-year-old Amy Greene, tells us, ‘She was never a victim, sweetheart. Never in a million years. She was a young, vital woman who loved life, loved parties, and had a good time.’

When 20th Century Fox began publicizing Monroe, with her new name, they erased her complicated family history and active pursuit of a Hollywood acting career and created a more marketable origin story. Studio ‘flacks’ advertised her as an orphan who was discovered after babysitting for a talent scout. Monroe not only signed off on the G-rated backstory, but posed for photos changing diapers and reading to children for a story that ran in 1947 under the headline ‘Pretty Sitter Sittin’ Pretty.’

Says docuseries producer Sam Starbuck, ‘They took photographs of her with big bows in her hair and changing babies’ diapers. That was completely made up. But she understood what she needed to do to get herself where she wanted to go to.'”

“Monroe took acting classes and spent hours with photographers to learn about her best angles and refine her on-camera persona. But in the male-dominated studio system, there was only so much Monroe could do on her own. In the words of Mira Sorvino, who played Monroe in 1996’s Norma Jean and Marilyn: ‘I think Marilyn accepted that she was going to have to date people to get what she wanted. And I don’t think she ever should have had to choose that. But at least there was a decision in it on her part …’ Explains Sarah Churchwell in the docuseries, ‘[Monroe] understood that you either said, I don’t like these rules and therefore I’m not playing your game, and give up [my] dreams of a career, or you recognize that those are the rules of the game and you decide how you’re going to deal with it.’

That being said, Monroe refused powerful men as well. While Monroe accepted agent Johnny Hyde’s career help, she reportedly would not take his money. While under contract at Columbia, studio head Harry Cohn—a known womanizer, but one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time—invited Monroe on his yacht. She responded, ‘Will your wife join us?’ When her contract was up, Cohn did not renew it.

In 1952, before Monroe broke out as a movie star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the actor boldly coauthored an article with journalist Florabel Muir called ‘Wolves I Have Known‘ about the predatory men she encountered in Hollywood … Though Monroe did not namecheck any of the wolves, her decision to put her name on an article like this was a calculated risk. Sadly, this ahead-of-her-time outspokenness is a forgotten footnote that has been glossed over in favor of salacious tales of her sexual exploits with other stars.”

“In 1949, Monroe was sent to New York during the summer to promote a small scene-stealing part in the Marx Brothers’ movie Love Happy. Monroe, who was born and raised in California, had never been to New York and imagined it would be the way it looked in pictures and movies: with snow on the ground. So she arrived wearing a wool suit and hat.

‘She didn’t know it was going to be hot,’ says Starbuck. ‘But instead of going off and buying new clothes, she made it into this kind of publicity moment.’ Gamely, Monroe worked with the studio, posing for photos of her in New York in a wool suit and hat, huge smile on her face, holding ice cream cones and a fan, Starbuck says. (The hottest import from Hollywood!) Says Starbuck, ‘She was very witty and was able to come up with all of these kinds of interesting ways of presenting herself. She understood the power of the brand before branding was a thing.’

‘She realized, “People want to come snap pictures of me, people want to know about me.’ She was sort of like an original Kardashian in that way,’ says Amber Tamblyn in the docuseries. ‘She created a narrative that was visual. She would have been huge on Instagram,’ adds Sorvino. ‘Like, the biggest influencer of all time.’ And she had a sense of humour about it all—even appearing in a potato sack in one photo shoot.”

On her first trip to New York in 1949, Marilyn poses with prop ice-cream cones at the train station

“When her marriage to DiMaggio fell apart—and Monroe felt like she still couldn’t get good parts, or respect, at 20th Century Fox—she went to New York to start over … ‘The problem was that [20th Century Fox head] Darryl Zanuck really didn’t like Marilyn,’ says [Amy] Greene. ‘He had a bug up his ass about not absolutely giving her the right parts. She was not respected within the industry. And that’s what she wanted: respect.’

Monroe was hopeful that having her own production company would bring just that. But press did not take the endeavor seriously. One article, about Monroe’s announcement, was titled, ‘”New” Marilyn is Puzzled by Her Own Publicity’ … Monroe’s company would later produce 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, costarring Laurence Olivier.

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Starbuck says that Monroe was ‘ahead of her time. I think the world wasn’t ready for her …’ Adds Greene, ‘She knew what she had to do—shake her ass. But she understood what she was doing when she did it.'”