More Marilyn – the Black Sitting

Photo courtesy Tim Hamilton.

This is me last night – having the time of my life!

I’ve given quite a few talks about the subjects I’m passionate about: fashion, social history, textiles – but the lovely people at ACMI invited me to talk about my first true love, my love of Marilyn Monroe and her costumes and it was a dream come true.

They provided a slide show of 16 costumes from “The Asphalt Jungle” in 1950 to the last costume MM wore in public – the glittering Jean Louis silk souffle confection she wore in 1962 to sing “Happy Birthday Mr President” to JFK at Madison Square Garden.

Oh what fun! My inner fifteen year old could not believe that after all the years of scouring libraries, ordering in books, waiting for that elusive film to be shown on TV – back in those terrible days when we were at the mercy of free-to-air TV and that was it – sketching my favourite gowns and boring friends silly talking about it – I would find myself in a place where I could share Marilyn’s stories and receive a happy, enthusiastic response!

Happy Day indeed.

So now that I’ve been encouraged, you’ll have to endure more Marilyn content I’m afraid – actually, if the response to the talk and previous posts is anything to go by, most of you won’t mind at all – so today I wanted to share with you some of my favourite MM pics, from what is known as Milton Greene’s “Black Sitting”.

You’ve seen what Bert Stern managed to achieve with three days with Marilyn, imagine what her co-producer and manager Milton Greene achieved in four years? Over that time there were fifty two photo shoots and this may be the best of all – I certainly love it, and it encapsulates what I consider to be essence of Marilyn.

You may recognise the image above – it was featured on the front cover of Norman Mailer’s “Imaginary memoir of Marilyn Monroe” called “Of Women and their Elegance”, a semi-fictional book that like many (all?) fails to capture the real Monroe, but it’s filled with glorious images of MM and other women by Milton Greene.

Worth it for the eye candy although the text made me a bit stabby. Men seem to have difficulty seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, especially when it’s a woman like Monroe on whom people liked to project their ideas. Excuse me if I now attempt to project some of my own ideas on her!

I consider Monroe to be primarily a model: she wanted to be loved, and understood that the eye of the camera was an effective medium to receive mass love. When she first started as a model, she would take home prints and spend hours minutely exploring what did – and didn’t – work in her pose and expression. It was a painstaking process that perfected her art – by the time she was cast in her first film she had a very good idea of how to communicate what she wanted, down that lens to the audience.

Photographers would speak of how strong the connection was, they frequently felt that they were literally being seduced and at any moment she would drop her clothes and magic would happen. That even in a room of photographers, each man would feel as if he alone, could have her.

It was an illusion of course: despite the many stories that paint Monroe as a loose woman, her goal was always to be “fabulous”. She wanted to be famous and loved and her hard work and ambition got her there. If she slept with anyone in the pursuit of her career, it was usually a love match as it was with Johnny Hyde, her first agent.

Much of what has been said and written about Monroe tells us more about the culture she was a part of, with it’s conflicting ideas of who a woman should be. We still have a lot of difficulty with female sexuality and allowing women the freedom to express themselves as men do.

Marilyn lived in a very constricted post WW2 world where women’s primary role was as consumer and home-keeper, replacing the stocks of humans and tending to their needs. She had to balance sexuality with an unthreatening demureness.

These photos show Marilyn at the height of her powers – taken in February 1956, there was a fifty foot billboard of her “Seven Year Itch” subway dress pose gracing Times Square and she had just thumbed her nose at Hollywood by relocating to New York where she was studying The Method at the Actors Studio, turning down more “dumb blonde roles” that she considered below her abilities.

She set up her own production company with Milton Greene and was soon to marry Arthur Miller. Her next film would be Bus Stop, her first serious acting role.

Marilyn Monroe was a movie star – she had worked hard and now she had a level of control over her career and her life.

These photos show a woman who is comfortable with herself and who she is – less of the ’50s cheesecake pin up movie star who yearned for approval, and more of the “eternal woman”. They’re relaxed, sexy, playful and natural – timeless. In many she’s not even recognisable as Monroe.

Milton Greene left us in 1989 and since then, his estate has done well out of the photos – like many photographers, the time he spent with Marilyn made his name, reputation and fortune. A large collection of photos has just been auctioned for $2 million but no images from the Black Sitting were included.

Thank you Marilyn and Milton for leaving this wonderful legacy behind.

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