All About Marilyn’s Oscar Gown Drama

Writing for Vogue about Marilyn’s only Oscars appearance (on March 29th, 1951), Hayley Maitland reveals how she narrowly avoided a major wardrobe mishap.

It’s a good article, with a few caveats: firstly, Audrey Hepburn was not ‘pitched by the press as Monroe’s inverse.’ This is a retrospective judgement, based on their posthumous fame. These two very different women weren’t compared at all during Marilyn’s lifetime.

Secondly, Marilyn didn’t leave the stage with a mere ‘Fox employee sent to collect the Oscar on behalf of the studio.’ Thomas T. Moulton was, in fact, the sound engineer for All About Eve, and this was his fifth Academy Award.

And finally, when Oscar host Fred Astaire mentioned Marilyn being photographed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he may have been referring to another baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, whom she had met less than three weeks before. (The ensuing press coverage would soon catch the eye of one Joe DiMaggio …)

“Still a star on the rise at that point, she had made a cameo as the breathless Miss Caswell, ‘a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts’, in All About Eve, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s picture had scooped a cool 14 Academy Award nominations at the 1951 Oscars – a record matched only by Titanic and La La Land many decades later. The 25-year-old pin-up had been tapped to hand out the award for Best Sound Recording – a category in which All About Eve was up against Walt Disney’s Cinderella, among other films.

More than 1,800 people crowded into the Pantages Theatre to watch the 23rd Academy Awards on 29 March, including Mayor of Los Angeles Mogens Skot-Hansen and Governor of California Earl Warren. Bleachers had been erected up and down Hollywood Boulevard, too, with speakers piping out audio from inside the theatre. (The Oscars were only televised for the first time in 1953, making this the closest fans could get to the action.)

Unlike Audrey Hepburn […] Marilyn never established a relationship with a particular couturier during her career, with her sense of style outside the 20th Century Fox lot leaning clean, classic, and quintessentially American. On the red carpet, meanwhile, she relied, like most starlets of the era, on her studio’s costume department … And so, for the Oscars, Monroe chose a gown by costumer Charles LeMaire – head of wardrobe at Fox – which had originally been sported by Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill a few months prior.

Jointly with Edith Head, LeMaire won Best Costume Design on the night for his work on All About Eve. (He had been attached to the film in its early stages, when star Claudette Colbert was set to play Margo Channing, before a back injury forced her to give up the role to Bette Davis.) If the Academy fell for Eve’s sumptuous costuming – the famous cocktail party scene alone featured $500,000 worth of mink coats – Monroe’s sequin-scattered bouffant gown proved less of an unequivocal success.

Shortly before she was due to present, Marilyn noticed that her dress had a large rip down the side, and insisted tearfully that she wouldn’t be able to go onstage as a result. A seamstress was promptly summoned to fix the tear in a matter of minutes, with the starlet duly heading out onto the Pantages stage after a typically chauvinistic introduction from Astaire. ‘If you follow the sport pages, you may have noticed a recent picture of Miss Marilyn Monroe, taken with the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team,’ he quipped. ‘A Louisville sports editor summed it up when he said it’s the best the Pirates have looked since before they blew the 1927 World Series.’ Gown now intact, Monroe managed to make it through her speech – announcing All About Eve as the winner …”

UPDATE: Another article about Marilyn’s Oscar night has been posted on the OUP Blog by Richard Barrios, whose book, On Marilyn Monroe: An Opinionated Guide, will be published in July.

“The big winner that year was All About Eve, with six awards. One of those, Best Sound Recording, was the only Eve prize handed out by one of the film’s cast members. Although she’d had limited—if flashy—screen time in All About Eve, Marilyn Monroe was starting to launch a major career and had been spotlighted in the 1 January 1951 Life magazine as one of Hollywood’s ‘Apprentice Goddesses.’ Six of those deities-in-waiting were called on to be Oscar presenters that year, and besides MM the roster included Debbie Reynolds, Arlene Dahl, Debra Paget, Phyllis Kirk, and Jan Sterling. For MM, then in the first year of her contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, it was a signal moment. With no further films yet on the professional horizon, she was feeling ignored by her studio and eager for opportunities. An Oscar appearance, even on the radio, would be great exposure, and Monroe was determined to make a major impression.

And, because it was Marilyn Monroe appearing before a live audience, there was also a major case of nerves. Backstage, as the show commenced, her panic ratcheted up to the crisis point when something (or someone) caused the net trim on her gown to rip. As her fellow presenters watched in horror, MM came close to falling apart completely. Gloria De Haven, Jane Greer, and Debra Paget rushed over to console her and, since malfunctions were as much of an issue in 1951 as in 2023, there was a wardrobe woman nearby with a needle and thread. After a hasty repair, MM found the means to pull herself together before Fred Astaire called her name.

As the orchestra played ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll,’ Monroe glided serenely out onto the Pantages stage, deftly maneuvering the oversized skirt and giving no indication of the terror she’d been feeling. In her familiar throaty murmur, she carefully read the scripted list of nominees, her nervousness apparent only to those who wondered why she looked up only briefly in the course of her presentation. After calling the winner as All About Eve, she looked out at the audience with a big MM smile and walked over to greet Thomas T. Moulton of the Fox Sound Department, hand him his Oscar, and stride offstage with him arm-in-arm. Backstage, she posed with Moulton and alone, looking every inch the professional and, indeed, an Apprentice Goddess.

As in other moments in her career, Monroe had scored a public triumph after a rough private start. Yet, despite her successful appearance and the legendary stardom that would soon arrive, it would be the only time she ever attended the Academy Awards. It is, without question, Oscar’s loss.”

Marilyn and the ‘Apprentice Goddesses’ in LIFE Magazine, January 1st, 1951