Had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would have turned 90 on June 1. Though she has been dead almost 54 years, she remains a timeless icon, an American Sex Goddess who continues to capture the imagination of a legion of fans.
She has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and more than 3 million fans on Facebook. She still graces the covers of magazines. There are movies about her life, stamps bearing her image, a line of cosmetics and clothing. Americans certainly idolize their movie stars. They’re a part of our pop culture. But few have earned the distinction of being timeless icons … like Marilyn Monroe.
As fans remember Marilyn on her birthday, I flash back to a chilly March night in 1955 when I got to meet her and take her picture. For a teenager with raging hormones, it was an awesome experience standing next to the world’s sexiest woman.
I had read that she would be the star attraction at the opening night of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. It was a benefit for the Leukemia Society, and Marilyn would ride atop a pink elephant into the arena.
I called the publicity office at the circus and requested press accreditation, telling them I was going to take pictures and write a story for my high school newspaper in the Bronx, “The Taft Review.”
I figured it was as good an excuse as any to get to meet and photograph Marilyn Monroe. I arrived at the press office a few days before the opening and flashed my high school press pass and was issued a circus pass that permitted me access to the arena and backstage.
I wore a nice sports jacket and shirt for my rendezvous with America’s Sex Goddess. I loaded my Rolleiflex with Tri-X black and white film and slung the heavy strobe flash over my shoulder. I entered the side entrance to Madison Square Garden and positioned myself in the middle of the pack of newspaper photographers like I really belonged.
Unlike the competitive paparazzi of today, the photogs back then were nice guys and they weren’t about to bother a teenage kid with a camera. Suddenly I saw a flash go off and I turned to see Marilyn walking toward us, strutting past the clowns and circus animals.
She was statuesque, her long legs covered in fishnet stockings. She was wearing a skimpy costume that showcased her sexuality. Her blonde hair was swept back. She was absolutely gorgeous and most accommodating to the relatively small group of photographers. No big TV cameras jostling for position back then, just a few film cameras from the networks and news services. Marilyn glowed with baby doll innocence but her walk and expression radiated sex.
I positioned myself in a spot where I knew I could have a clear shot of Marilyn walking with her friend and photographer Milton Greene, at whose Connecticut home she had been staying since her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. This was her first public appearance since the split.
My finger was frozen on the shutter as I clicked away, grabbing several frames as she walked toward the pink elephant she would ride into the arena. She was radiant and gracious as she stopped frequently to the chorus of shouts from photographers calling out her name. At one point she turned from the rest of the pack and glanced directly at me. She threw back her head and asked in a faint voice, “Is this alright?” I couldn’t believe that Marilyn Monroe was actually speaking to me. Wow!
She mounted the elephant and rode triumphantly into the arena to the thunderous applause and cheers of adoring fans. I got a great shot of her striding the elephant. She seemed to be loving every moment.
There was a magical quality about this beautiful woman in front of a camera. The smile was real, but the pose often seemed studied. As America’s sex kitten, Marilyn toyed with the lens the way a kitten toys with a spool of wool.
There she was, as big as life, and I was taking her picture. Marilyn generated an electric charge with each click of the shutter, and I captured her image that has been frozen forever.
POSTSCRIPT: I never did run a story and photos in my high school paper, but I did manage to sell them to a small magazine that, if I recall correctly, paid me $50 and gave me a credit line. In subsequent years I have donated my Marilyn photos to charity auctions. I’ve used them in exhibits and have twice sold some of the images at auction at Bonham and Butterfields Auction House in Los Angeles. In December of 2010, the New York Times wrote a wonderful story about the kid who got into the circus with his high school press pass and took iconic photos of an immortal Hollywood star named Marilyn Monroe.