HELLO AMERICA!—I recently watched a brilliantly produced and directed film, one based on one of the most famous film stars in the world, Marilyn Monroe! Because I knew her, I was quite moved by the production. It is titled “My Week With Marilyn,” starring a marvelous actress, Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh with an extraordinary support cast that includes: Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench and Emma Watson.
My personal memories of knowing and being with this golden lady exploded in my mind and I suddenly recalled how real and honest she was. She helped me to survive a director with whom we had a rough time when facing the camera, Otto Preminger.
My last day of work on “Carmen Jones” was quite eventful. My friend, Dan Dailey, asked me to stop by his set of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (on the 20th Century Studio lot) to watch the grand finale of his film being shot. The stars of the musical included Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O’Connor, Ethel Merman, and Johnnie Ray. When I had completed my session in the film’s audio studio with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte I drifted over to Dan’s stage.
When I arrived there, the first thing I noticed was Dan, Donald and a production man playing poker. Knowing how much Dan loved the game, I decided to shoot him a wave and let him know that I was there. He smiled and waved back. I noticed that Marlon Brando was visiting the set too so I decided to say hello, and thank him for a note he had sent wishing me luck on the Preminger film. As usual, he was very warm and easy to approach. He also—jokingly— congratulated me for surviving Otto’s directing technique.
During our conversation, I mentioned that I would love to meet Marilyn Monroe. He assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem and that she would enjoy meeting me as well. He suggested that I go to her trailer, which was stationed practically in front of the stage door entrance, and mention that I was a friend of his. I wouldn’t have a problem.
I eagerly left the set and went to find Marilyn in her trailer. The door was open but no one was there, so I decided to return to the set and wait and see what Dan was doing for lunch.
Just before I re-entered the stage door, I noticed a young girl dressed in white pedal pushers with a handkerchief on her head, white slippers, and no makeup. When I asked if she had noticed Marilyn anywhere around, she smiled and whispered, “No, I haven’t. Who are you?” I mentioned that I had just finished working on the Preminger film and was a friend of Dan Dailey. I asked her name and she said it was Norma Jean. I thought anyone with a name like that would never make it in this business. She then invited me to have lunch in the commissary with her.
All eyes were on us as we entered the commissary. I really believed that I, alone, was the object of their interest. I had managed to get mentions in both of the industry’s two most powerful columns: Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Not in a million years did I believe the people were interested in Norma Jean.
The lunch turned out to be very light in conversation. Norma Jean explained that she loved baseball—after all, she had been married to Joe DiMaggio—and enjoyed reading the classics. The Brothers Karamazov was one of her favorites. One of her dreams was to star in a film like that. She asked what kind of roles I would eventually like to play. I told her that I would simply like to play a human being with objectives and problems of universal concern. She smiled, and said, “Don’t worry, I have a feeling that you will . . . you will.” Ironically, years later, MGM produced the film Brothers Karamazov but refused to sign Marilyn for the star role. Austrian actress Maria Schell was signed instead.
I noticed when Norma Jean decided to hurry back to the Show Business set, the people in the commissary stopped whispering and looked in my direction. On my way back to Dan’s set, I noticed that Marilyn’s dressing room door was still open and I heard voices coming from inside. I decided to say hello and also mention that I was a friend of Brando. When I peered into the dressing room Johnnie Ray, Marilyn and her makeup lady were enjoying a laugh about something. I was shocked to discover that the girl in front of the mirror was none other than Norma Jean, the young girl I believed would never make a dent in the business because of her name. When she saw me, she pointed at me and exclaimed, “There’s my friend. He’s the one I was telling you about.” She invited me in and we spent some time together before she reported to the set.
From what I gathered, several of the cast felt Marilyn was taking her time reporting to the set. George Chakiris, who won an Oscar for his performance in “West Side Story,” was one of the dancers in the film. We had a mutual friend, Rhoda, a wonderful dancer who visited the “Carmen Jones” set to watch some of the dance numbers that Archie Savage, the choreographer, had created for our film. When we arrived on the set, Rhoda pulled me aside and informed me that Ethel Merman was livid that Marilyn was late reporting to the set yet again.
For years, I considered Ethel Merman as one of the First Ladies of Broadway’s musical theater. However, when I became aware of her attitude concerning Monroe, the image I held cracked. She believed that Marilyn’s lateness was unprofessional and unacceptable. At one point the ‘Merm’ exclaimed in her thunderous voice, “I can’t believe that we are all being kept waiting for some half-witted broad who dyes her pubic hairs blonde.” This caused shock along with some scattered laughter from the waiting production staff. There was no reaction from any of the other cast members. But Monroe knew how to make an entrance and she was aware of Merman’s dissatisfaction with her, so when she arrived, she smiled and threw a kiss at Merman. The grand lady from Broadway simply glared at her.
The last time I saw Marilyn was on the Samuel Goldwyn lot when she was starring in the film “Some like It Hot” with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. By that time she was married to playwright Arthur Miller. When I arrived on the set she was on stage doing a scene with Curtis. She only had one line but wasn’t delivering it to the satisfaction of Billy Wilder, the director. After 17 takes, Wilder gave up and called a 15-minute break. Marilyn looked tired and somewhat frustrated. When she was on her way to her dressing room she spotted me and began to giggle in the way only Marilyn could.
We embraced and she insisted that I come to her dressing room to talk. We began to talk about everything and everybody we could think of. She asked if I had worked with Preminger again and I replied that I had not. She said her time with the director, when she starred in “The River of No Return” with Robert Mitchum, was an experience she did not desire to repeat.
After about 10 minutes the door opened and Arthur Miller entered. He looked at me for a moment, then Marilyn introduced me as an old friend and he extended his hand. He asked if I were an actor, and I told him that I was, as well as a singer. I mentioned that I enjoyed reading his plays, and I had always wondered if he had based the character Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” on a real person. Mr. Miller said that the character was based on many people he had known. He then asked if I would excuse myself because Mr. Wyler was calling it a wrap for the day.
Before leaving the set, I was talking with Beverly Wills, daughter of Joan Davis, a well-known actress during the forties and fifties. Beverly played her mother’s sister in the hit TV series “I Married Joan.” During my conversation with Beverly, Arthur Miller pushed open Marilyn’s door and left carrying her in his arms as if she were a small child. When she spotted me, she waved goodbye and rested her head on Miller’s shoulder. That was the last time I saw Marilyn alive.