James Collins Remembers ‘Mazzie’ and the Monroe Six

In the October issue of Vanity Fair‘s French edition (#105, with actress Elsa Zylberstein on the cover), Sébastien Cauchon writes about his meeting with James Collins, the last surviving member of the Monroe Six.

“In 1955, six of them tracked her everywhere in the streets of New York. Four girls and two boys. Between them, an immediate complicity. The pleasure of watching together for the slightest appearance of their idol. But also the same sense of humour that set them apart from other fans.

Marilyn Monroe had become accustomed to the fervour she provoked. But she kept her distance from those who could turn into a hostile mob on occasion. ‘Sometimes it’s as if they wanted to rip pieces of yourself out of you,’ she confided one day in a flat voice after a trying public outing. Not so with these six. Marilyn had been discreetly watching them for a while.

Very quickly, they nicknamed themselves the ‘Monroe Six,’ and gave Marilyn her own nickname: ‘Mazzie’. This is what they called her when they wanted an autograph or a photo. No doubt Marilyn was touched by their devotion. She called them by their first names whenever she met them, asked about their lives, and always agreed to pose with them. One day, she even invited them upstairs for a soda in the apartment she had just rented with her new boyfriend, the novelist Arthur Miller.

On May 1, 1955, they were waiting outside the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, when their idol rushed into her driver’s Ford coupe in dark glasses for an incognito trip to Long Island. On June 1, they went to Times Square for the premiere of The Seven Year Itch at Loew’s State Theatre. On June 6, they greeted Marilyn on her way to a work session at the home of Paula Strasberg, her acting coach. Next day, they saw her again when she went to a performance of the musical Damn Yankees at a theatre on 46th Street. On the 27th of the same month, equipped with their little cameras, they shot her dressed in white as she headed to the National Theatre on Broadway and 41st Street to see the play Inherit The Wind.

They were a bunch of teenagers dented by life. There was Edith Pitts, whose fiancé had just died; Frieda Hull, the sister of the deceased; John Reilly, who wore a tweed jacket and wool tie whatever the season; Gloria Milone, an exuberant giant with brown hair, a carnivorous smile and eyes rimmed with butterfly glasses. And finally, the youngest, Eileen Collins and her younger brother James. Eileen became the group’s mascot, amusing everyone with her nerve, her pretty face and her incessant jokes during the long hours of waiting.

It’s difficult to find out more about the ‘Six’. Marilyn’s biographers have never lingered on them. It must be said that no one claimed to have had an affair with the star or to hold sensational confidences about her. It is only in the world of collectors, of which I am a part, that their names are mentioned.

The miracle happened for me on February 4, 2016. On that day, the American auction house Heritage Auctions announced the sale of a batch of unpublished photos of Marilyn Monroe composed of many vintage prints in colour but also in black and white, some signed by the actress herself. The price of each batch soared beyond several thousand euros.

I hadn’t imagined that one of the Six could still be alive. It took me two days to write to him directly. I had a trip planned the following month to New York. Would he by any chance have a moment to dedicate to me? His first words exceeded all my expectations: ‘Sébastien, I am retired so I have all the time in the world to meet you, come and see me when you get here.’ I was going to meet the last of the Monroe Six.

On the appointed day, I find myself in front of a beautiful building of red bricks and blond stone, in Central Park. The sale of James’ 183 photos has already taken place, and I’ve tried to learn what I can of his past. He was 16 when he left Queens to work for a Manhattan advertising agency. His job was to walk the subway to check that the advertising spaces reserved by customers weren’t defaced.

One day, while strolling on Fifth Avenue, he found himself in front of a shop that offered passers-by to write whatever came to their minds on an Olivetti machine placed on a tripod, as part of a photo report for Life magazine. James approached and wrote a single sentence: ‘Marilyn Monroe is a beautiful girl.’ His figure, wrapped in a long elegant coat, and his gaze lost in contemplation of these words, appeared in the magazine.

A youthful James Collins in 1955

I’m still thinking about it when the door opens. Am I on the wrong floor? The slender, youthful clone of Elvis Presley has grown into a bald little octogenarian. Only the spark in his gaze has not faded. He settles down and starts talking.

‘I was a huge fan of Marilyn,’ he tells me, ‘and my sister was curious to know what I was doing when I was hanging out. She started following me when I was tracking Marilyn and she caught the bug. And then we met the others, and you know the rest … We just asked her if we could take a picture or if she would like to sign a piece of paper, and she never said no. Stars were really generous back then,’ James continues. ‘We managed to find out which hotels they stayed in and we called them milk from the reception. Very often we made them laugh and they ended up saying to us: “Okay then, go upstairs!”‘

While talking, he hands me an envelope: ‘Here, I found that too.’ Inside, twenty small format black and white prints with white margins and notched edges. Originals that Heritage Auctions did not want: Marilyn does not appear there but we discover Judy Garland, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor. Liberace, Eartha Kitt. Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Danny Kaye, James Stewart, sometimes with James at their side.

Among the group, he remembers Frieda Hull vividly. ‘She was the most fanatical of us. When Marilyn ended up leaving New York, Frieda got a job with the Pan Am airline. As she didn’t pay for the plane, she could follow her anywhere in the country.’ A few months later. I will inform my host that the young nurse of Frieda Hull, who died in 2014, had auctioned off at Julien’s Auctions, a competitor in Beverly Hills, the collection of originals he had inherited.

Marilyn leaves for England with husband Arthur Miller in 1956

The New York history of the Monroe Six partially ends in 1956, when Marilyn returned to Hollywood to shoot Bus Stop. before flying to England and The Prince and the Showgirl. She came back to New York before heading out to California and the set of Some Like It Hot in 1958.

‘I also went to the West Coast for a while,’ James confides to me. ‘But on the spot, I didn’t know where Marilyn was staying, it was less easy to get information.’ He smiled, ‘You know, even though I adored her, I had my life to live, it wasn’t all about her.’ During a walk in Beverly Hills, he would also ring the doorbell of Jayne Mansfield’s pink palace: the actress opened the door and showed him around.

After the death of Marilyn in 1962, the Six were in mourning then lost sight of each other a little. James got another job in a posh salon on the Upper East Side. Shortly after, he moved into this apartment which he has never left. A clean and comfortable two-room apartment where he lives alone with his two cats, located on a low floor and with the windows overlooking the brick wall of the building opposite.

When I ask him if he’s not sad to have sold his collection of photos, he answers in a pragmatic tone. ‘I hung a few in my living room for years and I ended up putting everything away in a box. I had almost forgotten them.’ A late friend mentioned Heritage Auctions. James called them and the managers came to see his prints signed by Marilyn. The sale was launched.

‘Life is expensive in this district,’ he explains to me. ‘And I have a bad back, I need an operation.’ Listening to him, I notice several rectangular marks on the yellowed walls of the living room. James remembers: ‘That’s where the photos were. I’m glad others are enjoying them. Me, I still have my memories.'”

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn