A completely naked Marilyn Monroe swims to the end of the pool and suggestively hooks her leg over the concrete edge. Clinging to the slab border, the actress seductively pouts for the camera. Now, this wasn’t a contrived move by directors on the set of Something’s Got To Give. For you see, a studio photographer has revealed how the racy scene truly came about.
Of course, the scene would go on to become an iconic one, even if the film was never finished. After all, no one could have known at the time that it would be Monroe’s last. At the time, film bosses thought they had the measure of the famously curvy blonde. Her producers, too, had little regard for her acting abilities.
But when the daughter of photographer Lawrence Schiller saw an image of the scene years later, she said, “Daddy, that’s a picture that shows nothing but says everything.” You see, there had been revelations behind the photo that only its lensman had originally been privy to. And when Schiller spoke out in June 2020, he revealed more about the blonde bombshell.
Monroe was under no illusions as to how the world perceived her. In fact, she sometimes played upon her own reputation as a sex symbol, hence the racy film scene. As we’ll later find out, the whole concept came from a place that no one, including Schiller, had expected.
In 1962 Lawrence Schiller was an upcoming photographer on the Hollywood scene. Aged only 26, he was just starting to earn a reputation for his commissions. And in May that year, he was invited to document Monroe’s time on the set of her upcoming movie, Something’s Got To Give.
Now, Monroe’s appearances on set were not exactly punctual, a reputation that preceded the actress for several years. And her behavior was growing increasingly erratic, to the point producers of Something’s Got To Give eventually relieved the star of her acting duties. Just two months later, her body was discovered at her Los Angeles home. Her story, of course, is now well documented.
Monroe’s early life had been a turbulent one. She was named Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, and never knew her dad. And her named father, Martin Edward Mortenson, was the second husband of Gladys Pearl Baker – whose maiden name was Monroe. However, one C. Stanley Gifford, a colleague of Baker’s at Consolidated Film Industries, is today widely recognized as Monroe’s biological father.
However, neither men were involved in the young Monroe’s upbringing. As it happened, Baker and Mortensen were separated and eventually divorced in 1928. Meanwhile, Gifford walked out when Baker revealed her pregnancy to him. The young mom, who was 26 at the time, had neither the financial or mental stability to care for her daughter.
You see, Baker suffered recurring bouts of mental health issues, and spent periods recuperating in psychiatric hospitals. The young Monroe, then, grew up in various foster families, as well as an orphanage. And it was not a happy upbringing for the future actress. She later made allegations of sexual assault, and claimed she was raped aged 11.
So Monroe’s distressing upbringing left her withdrawn and reticent. However, when she was a teenager, she found the courage to contact the man she understood to be her father – Gifford. But it’s alleged that as she introduced herself as “Norma Jeane, Gladys’ daughter,” the line went dead. What’s more, tough times still lay ahead.
By age 16, Monroe had dropped out of high school to wed 21-year-old Jim Dougherty. But, if the actress’ later accounts of the union are to be believed, the marriage was far from rosy. For she claimed she wasn’t in love, and that she’d effectively been married off to avoid being sent back to an orphanage.
History suggests that, with marital activities revolving around Dougherty’s interests, one half of the couple was happier than the other. And when her husband joined the Marines in 1943, Monroe was left to her own devices while he was stationed overseas. But while working at a military factory in Burbank, California, she found her own calling.
Yes, a photographer named David Conover stopped by the factory to document women’s involvement in the Second World War. And Monroe caught his eye, providing a pivotal moment for the young factory worker. After the photographer featured her heavily in his images, she had the impetus to pursue a modeling career. That saw her change her name from the drab Norma Baker to the alluring Marilyn Monroe in her grandmother’s honor.
So Monroe divorced Dougherty in 1946 and started taking acting classes. She soon signed to 20th Century Fox, and while her early roles were modest, they were a springboard to more notable parts. Yes, recognition grew with turns alongside Bette Davis in 1950’s All About Eve, Ginger Rogers in 1952’s We’re Not Married and Monkey Business, which also starred Cary Grant.
And the actress’ first leading role came in 1953’s Niagara. As it happened, it was the first in a trio of films that year which shot her to global stardom. Furthermore, while Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire remain among Monroe’s most renowned movies, Niagara stands aside because her character was distinguishable in it.
However, Monroe’s relationship with fame wasn’t all glitz and glamor. In Carl Rollyson’s 1993 biography A Life Of The Actress, she was quoted as saying, “When you’re famous you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way. It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe?”
Monroe continued, “They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, of any kind of nature – and it won’t hurt your feelings – like it’s happening to your clothes not you.” Also, Monroe had grown tired of being pigeonholed as the “blonde bombshell.”
Anyway, Monroe married baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954, further cementing her celebrity. However, she didn’t feel her contract with 20th Century Fox any longer reflected her growing stature in Hollywood. While the studio briefly suspended the actress, they later gave in to her demands for increased pay. The movie The Seven Year Itch followed in September, spawning one of the most iconic images in Hollywood history, the “flying skirt.”
Few people know the full story behind that famous shot. You see, the concept came from photographer Sam Shaw, who was hired to document the making of The Seven Year Itch. But a crowd was invited to the filming on New York’s Lexington Avenue to generate a buzz for the film. Shaw, however, had the prime spot.
And Shaw’s granddaughter, Melissa Stevens, wrote an article for culture website Biography on the image’s 60th anniversary. As she told it, “Amidst the roar of the crowd, [Monroe] turned, looked directly at her friend and called out ‘Hi, Sam Spade.’ …[Shaw] clicked the camera and captured [Monroe] in what he always referred to as ‘her composition.’” The actress seemingly, then, knew the power of her beauty.
Now, the following year Monroe took lessons in method acting in a bid for more independence from 20th Century Fox. And critics would often praise her later performances, noting more diversity in the actress’ roles. She received a Golden Globe nomination in 1956 for the acclaimed Bus Stop, an award she won three years later for Some Like It Hot.
In the meantime, Monroe’s marriage to DiMaggio collapsed, and they divorced amid allegations of his controlling and jealous character. Nevertheless, they remained friends while the actress married playwright Arthur Miller in 1956. However, the union added extra strain to Monroe’s status when the FBI opened a file on her due to concern about her new husband’s rumored “communist sympathies.”
Tragically, Monroe would only make two more movies after her Golden Globes win. You see, towards the end of the 1950s, the actress suffered from bouts of depression and developed a dependence on barbiturates. Her third marriage fell apart, and it’s believed she had affairs with singer Frank Sinatra and French actor Yves Montand. What’s more, her behavior on set became increasingly unpredictable.
Moreover, conjecture has long surrounded what would have been Monroe’s next movie, Something’s Got To Give, since her untimely death. For several years the troubled actress had developed a reputation for tardiness. However, a good day’s shoot on this movie was the rare one on which she’d actually show up for.
By this point, Monroe lived much of her life as a hermit in Brentwood, California under the watchful eye of a psychiatrist. And on the scarce occasion she showed up for work it was reportedly a struggle to tempt her onto the set, the actress instead hiding away in her trailer. But could there have been more to the situation than met the eye?
You see, some remember Monroe as being “wilfully disruptive.” She would routinely forget her lines and, according to the Marilyn: Something’s Got To Give documentary in 1990, the actress would “drift through her scenes in a depressed and drug-induced haze.” However, there was more context than history sometimes gives credit for.
Yes, because when Monroe was selected to play Ellen Arden, she hadn’t made a movie in more than a year. And her time off had been far from relaxing. She’d had her gallbladder removed and also had an operation to treat endometriosis. Also, the actress spent a period in hospital due to her depression. The mounting effects were visible.
Indeed, Monroe was noticeably skinnier. What’s more, her absence from filming was often excused with doctor’s notes describing issues such as high fevers, acute sinusitis and a chronic virus. Some now suggest she wasn’t ready to return to acting. Not that the movie studio was in any way sympathetic to the star’s physical or mental well being.
You see, 20th Century Fox was delighted with Monroe’s weight loss. Moreover, it wasn’t overly concerned about her blundering reputation. As the film’s producer told UK newspaper the Independent in March 2019, “She didn’t have to perform, she just had to look great. And she did.” In fact, the actress would often vie for column inches with Hollywood’s other leading lady of the era, Elizabeth Taylor.
But Monroe, far from the “dumb blonde” she was often perceived as, had a way of working the media to her benefit. Now, at the time Taylor was filming Cleopatra in Rome. What’s more, it was the first movie to give a million-dollar pay check to a leading lady. That was a vast contrast to Monroe’s $125,000 remittance. Nevertheless, she had a plan.
As Schiller described to Fox News, “I’m in [Marilyn’s] house – [she’d] just come back from Mexico. She had all these floor tiles that she was going to redo in the kitchen and she was trying to pick out what color blue she liked… She was asking for my opinion – not that my opinion meant anything to her. Maybe she was being polite or something.”
Schiller continued, “And she said, ‘Oh, you know about that scene in the movie where I’m supposed to be in a swimming pool and I have a bathing suit on, but it looks like I’m nude?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s going to really make some good pictures.’ She said, ‘Larry, what would happen if I jumped in the swimming pool with the bathing suit on, but I came [out] with nothing on?’”
At first the photographer joked about the proposition. As Schiller recalled, “I said, ‘Well, Marilyn, the problem really is… you’re already famous. Now you’re going to make me famous.’ She looks at me and giggles and says, ‘Larry, I can fire you in two seconds.’ Of course, she didn’t fire me.” But then something struck him about the actress.
Indeed, Schiller described what Monroe said regarding Taylor’s salary. As he recalled, [she said] “‘I should be getting that kind of money! That’s why I want to come out of the swimming pool with no clothes on. Because the pictures will then be on the cover of all the magazines and they won’t have Liz Taylor to look at.’”
And the killer blow to Monroe’s strategy? As Schiller described, “[Marilyn said] ‘If you shoot the pictures, I want to make sure that when you release them, everybody’s got to put me on the cover and Liz Taylor can’t be in the same issue of the magazine.’” The photographer noted Monroe had a business sense as devastating as her beauty.
“Marilyn knew exactly what to do,” Schiller explained. “You didn’t have to tell her, ‘Pose this way or that way’ in between the takes. She knew exactly what to do when she was directing herself. I felt quite honestly that I was the technical guy who was like a sponge. I was capturing it and absorbing it. Preserving it. But Marilyn was directing.”
And it proved a masterstroke. The shoot graced the covers of more than 30 magazines around the world. Perhaps Monroe had turned a corner. However, it would be one of the actress’ final appearances in front of a camera. After Schiller shot her 36th birthday party, Monroe was sacked from the movie for disappearing to attend President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party – where she famously sang “Happy Birthday.”
Although 20th Century Fox eventually reinstated Monroe, it was ultimately too late. The actress’ body was discovered at her Los Angeles home in August 1962. She was naked, face down on her bed, holding her telephone. The most likely cause of death was an overdose of prescription drugs. Schiller last saw his friend the day before.
“She already had Vogue magazine,” Schiller recalled. “I went out to talk to her and see whether she really wanted to do it… All of a sudden, she turned to me and said, ‘Oh, they’re just interested in my body – nothing else but my body!’… I just knew I had to get the hell out of there. I blew her a kiss and drove off… The next morning I got a phone call. [Marilyn] was dead.”
Among Schiller’s archives is a photo of a visibly distraught DiMaggio at Monroe’s funeral. And he remembers his friend as a fiercely intelligent woman who knew photography better than many lensmen. Also, he recalls that era of Hollywood with fond nostalgia. He said, “I personally think it’s a window into a period of American history, world history, which we will never see again.”