‘Made in Paris’: Was Marilyn a Secret Francophile?

In an article for Les Echos, Monroe expert Sebastien Cauchon – author of the 2016 novel, Marilyn 1962 – takes a closer look at her life and learns that in her ‘quest for excellence’, the American icon’s tastes were often ‘Made in France.’

“We know Marilyn Monroe’s passion for Chanel’s 5 and the more fleeting one that linked her during a shoot to Yves Montand. Two symbols of France around the world that the Hollywood icon undoubtedly contributed indirectly to popularize once his two favorites were revealed in broad daylight. What is less known is that in private, this symbol of American pop culture of the fifties, who died sixty years ago on August 4, also liked to surround himself with the big names of the French art of living …  Was it this quest for excellence that prompted her to accumulate Louis XV chests of drawers, reproductions by Pierre Bonnard and Pierre-Auguste Renoir or works by Albert Camus, Flaubert or Proust? … Who knew the epitome of Hollywood glamour had an eight-piece Le Creuset cookware set (including two casserole dishes) in a delicate straw-yellow colour? This is what we discovered in October 1999 thanks to the highly publicized auction of the star’s personal effects organized by Christie’s.

As early as 1952, she took care to make clearly visible on the corner of her bedside table a bottle of Chanel N°5 during a photo session in her apartment on Doheny Drive. The shoot was intended to illustrate a major profile in the magazine Modern Screen which, strangely, would not include any of these images of Marilyn languid in her bed near her personal bottle (and no product placement or advertising contract was ever drawn up.) Crazy about No. 5 and its notes of aldehydes, ylang-ylang, neroli, bergamot and lemon, she regularly got her supplies from major luxury stores such as I. Magnin in Los Angeles or Saks in New York … with two other best-sellers of French perfumery: Arpège by Lanvin or Joy by Patou.

Marilyn also succumbed to another standard of French refinement: champagne. Official drink of the seventh art, whose fairness and sparkling character it shares, it filled the refrigerators of her various successive residences with it (38 in sixteen years, all the same). Dom Pérignon 1953 clearly had her preference: in June 1962, Pat Newcomb, the star’s personal press attaché, ensured that photographer Bert Stern had at least three bottles in stock for his session scheduled for Vogue. If Moët & Chandon seduced her taste buds with its 1953 vintage, Marilyn did not disdain the other great Champagne houses. Her order forms or room-service notes during filming indicate that the Piper-Heidsieck or the Mumm Cordon Rouge regularly found favour. No trace of vulgar ‘sparkling’ Californian in her invoices, Marilyn Monroe was definitely an autodidact of taste, including in the wine field.

Marilyn was formally invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 via dialogue with her press officer Rupert Allan and business partner Milton H. Greene, but despite all the efforts made, each attempt was unsuccessful. In July 1956, when she left the United States for Europe, it was to shoot The Prince and the Showgirl in England. She promises to follow her husband, Arthur Miller, to meet Yves Montand and Simone Signoret who were adapting his play, The Crucible, for the big screen in France. But the conflict between Marilyn and Laurence Olivier delayed production in London, and Miller went alone to Paris.

Marilyn accepted with pleasure the invitation to the ‘April in Paris’ ball, held at the Waldorf Astoria on April 11, 1957. Launched five years earlier by the hotel’s shrewd French manager, a certain Claude Philippe, the event had established itself as the worldly and charitable rout of the year among good New York society. Under the guise of strengthening Franco-American friendship, the dinner dance was a magnificent operation to promote French artists and the gems of French know-how who financed the evening: Dior, Balmain, Givenchy, Cartier or the French National Federation of lace, tulle, embroidery and trimmings. The invitation cost 100 dollars (donated to charity) and gave wealthy participants a voucher for a raffle whose prizes ranged from the Renault Dauphine to the ashtray at Maxim’s! True to her legend, Marilyn arrived late, hand in hand with Arthur Miller, with whom she languidly opened the ball under the flashes of the photographers. During dinner, she met Gérard Philipe, Zizi Jeanmaire and Jean Marais.

We do not know if the representatives of the Baccarat house were present that evening, but Marilyn will rob the New York showroom of the crystal factory from Meurthe-et-Moselle shortly afterwards to decorate her apartment at 444 East 57 th Street where she had just moved in with Miller. An emblematic Sun clock (enthroned above the fireplace), decanters, candlesticks, water and wine glasses, candelabras … The brand had set up its New York ‘flagship’ store a few meters from the actress’ home, at 55 East 57 th Street. An address at which we find the Porthault showroom on the first floor. Marilyn would have purchased here even pink-hearts-printed household linen from the Rieux-en-Cambrésis workshops … What we know with certainty is that Marilyn actually frequented this address, since on November 25, 1958, an invoice attests to it, she pushed the door of the Baccarat boutique to purchase a crystal ashtray reference ‘number 33’ for the sum of 180.25 dollars.

On March 7, 1958, Simone Noir from Christian Dior believed Marilyn was about to come to Paris. She sent a letter to the actress telling her that she hoped Marilyn would visit the Dior boutique despite her busy schedule. Of course, ‘we can come and show you models at your hotel,’ she said, attaching a price list. Marilyn would however never go to 30 avenue Montaigne. And for good reason, as although she was invited in April 1958 by the French Film Academy to be awarded the Crystal Star in Paris for the Best Foreign Actress, she would ultimately receive her trophy on February 26, 1959… at the French consulate in New York in hands of the composer Georges Auric, who came for the occasion.

Surprisingly, there were few pieces of French haute couture in the wardrobe of the star … Instead, it was all about designer Norman Norell, a friend of the Greenes, with whom Marilyn found refuge after leaving Hollywood. On the advice of Amy Greene, Norell was called upon to renew the star’s wardrobe thanks to an ingenious partnership: he would provide his creations free of charge and bear part of the cost of the star’s lifestyle (hairdresser, beautician, manicure), and in return Marilyn would wear Norell for all her public appearances, thus ensuring him immense publicity. Forget fuchsia bow dresses, gold lamés and plunging red silk and lace bustiers. Norman Norell adorned Marilyn with a tasteful minimalist elegance.

Norell’s influence extends beyond the dressing room since it is he who plays the intermediaries between the actress and the Leleu house. A jewel of French decorative arts, Leleu then created exceptional furniture combining lacquered wood, marble, alabaster and bronze for the greats of this world. On September 29, 1959, Marilyn Monroe’s secretary sent a letter to the Paris headquarters of the Leleu house, avenue Franklin Roosevelt: ‘Gentlemen, following the arrangements made with Mr. Norman Norell, please find attached a deposit check for 150 dollars for three lacquered tables in the name of Mrs. Arthur Miller.’

Son of the founder Jules, Jean Leleu hastened to launch the delivery of the three nesting tables intended for the living room of the biggest star in the world. On October 6, he informed ‘Mrs Miller’ by return mail of the receipt of his down payment and of the dispatch of his order, scheduled ‘in the first days of December,’ adding coyly: ‘I am delighted to know some of my furniture at your place, even if it is small pieces. You might be interested in our products … It would be a pleasure for me to make personalized sketches for you if you happened to have residences to furnish and decorate.’

Alas, as evidenced by the thick correspondence preserved on this subject, customs formalities would complicate and delay the delivery of the box containing the famous tables. And Marilyn would not renew an order at the Leleu house… But France was never far from her in this year 1959. A few months earlier, it was indeed a French artist whom she discovered on the boards of Henry Miller Theater on Broadway. On September 21, 1959, Marilyn attended the premiere of the one man show An Evening With Yves Montand. Captivated, she returned with her husband to see the show three days later.

On January 16, 1960, the Montand and Miller couples met in Hollywood for a press conference announcing the start of filming The Billionaire for which Marilyn and Montand shared star billing. As if the film’s American title wasn’t prescient enough (Let’s Make Love), Marilyn declared to the press: ‘After my husband and tied with Marlon Brando, I find that Yves Montand is the most seductive I have ever met.’ The Signoret-Montand and Monroe-Miller couples settled in neighboring bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the duration of the filming and photographer Bruce Davidson immortalized the disaster foretold in a shot that has become famous over dinner: Simone Signoret looks at Yves Montand who looks at Marilyn who looks at Arthur Miller who looks at Yves Montand, a tight smile on his lips. The sequel is well-known. And if, in one of the musical numbers of the film, Marilyn whispered in an adorable French accent, ‘Mon coeur est ta papa’; in private, her marriage with Arthur Miller would not recover from her ‘schoolgirl love at first sight,’ as Montand, a perfect cad, described their brief romance before returning to Paris.

In 1960, Joséphine Baker, president of the Union des Artistes gala, who invited Marilyn to perform ‘in front of all of Paris’ anunusual’ circus number on the occasion of the gala’s 30th anniversary . ‘You know how much Paris loves you and how proud French actors would be to welcome you,’ she said in her letter in French addressed to the Beverly Hills Hotel. Its recipient would note on a memo in response her regret at not being able to participate in the event on March 4, 1960 because of work commitments.

The Montand episode seemed to distance France from Marilyn who, after divorcing Miller, deserted the Atlantic coast to settle again in Los Angeles. It was in Brentwood that she bought a Spanish-style hacienda in March 1962, which she undertook to renovate in the purest Mexican style. Without forgetting, however, to equip her kitchen with copper saucepans stamped ‘Bazar de Paris’ or to decorate his almost bare living room with a bronze by Rodin, ‘The Hand of God,’ an impulse purchase at more than a thousand dollars.

When she appeared on May 19, 1962, on the Madison Square Garden stage to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Marilyn entered the history of the 20th century  . Impossible for the audience, who watched her sparkle in the spotlight in a mermaid dress, to imagine that in three months she would succumb to an overdose of barbiturates. Everyone was also unaware that this mind-blowing dress, worn for its final appearance, is made of raw silk gauze (from France!) enhanced with 2,500 hand-sewn crystals. And that its creator, Jean-Louis Berthault, former costume designer at Columbia and then Universal Pictures now on his own, was French, born in Paris and graduated from the School of Decorative Arts in the late 1930s.”

UPDATE: You can now view this article as it appeared in print, thanks to Divine Marilyn.