Recently, I spoke with legendary but humble and charming photographer, Murray Garrett, at the grand opening of his Marilyn Monroe exhibit, “Marilyn Monroe Revisited” at the lovely Washington Square Hotel in New York City. Mr. Garrett worked as a professional photographer specializing in show business, photographing stars such as glamorous leading ladies: Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, Loretta Young, Lauren Bacall; dashing leading men such as Clark Gable, Gregory Peck; sex goddesses such as Jayne Mansfield, Ava Gardner, Zsa Zsa Gabor and great comedians such Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball. Mr. Garrett photographed Marilyn on the brink of stardom, here is our candid and revealing interview together:
BW: How did you get your start in photography?
MG: I got my start in photography in this very city (New York City), I went to a high school that taught photography. It was a unique school because it was the only Trade school of its kind that you could go to and then still take courses that were general courses, that you were permitted to take regents and go off to college. So, that intrigued me because I wanted to be an attorney and I loved photography. And then I got a job with a woman named Eileen Darby. She was absolutely famous in theatrical circles. And after about a year or two as her assistant, and going it with the Life Magazine people, and seeing plays on the road where they were opening, I just said to myself ‘You know, I think I’ll give up wanting to be an attorney, this is an incredible life,’ and that was it.
BW: You’ve done it ever since?
MG: Well, up until I retired. I actually retired as a photographer in 1973 because it became apparent to me that I wasn’t as good in 1973 as I was in 1943, and that it was time to move on.
BW: How did you meet Marilyn?
MG: It was interesting. I met her when she was still Norma Jean. She was living in a house full of (as they called them in those days) Starlets, and they were a source of what were then called ‘Cheesecake’ photographs, and if there was a girl available, if we had a roll, and we could take a pretty girl to the beach in a very risqué bathing suit – which was really a two-piece bathing suit, but back THEN it was risqué. So she said she would like to do it, and we agreed on $25, which was a standard fee. And I picked her up, we drove out to the beach for several hours, made a lot of pictures, sent them to my agent in New York, and waited to get a check back.
BW: Did you notice a spark in her when you met her?
MG: Well, truthfully I didn’t, because I don’t think she herself had become Marilyn Monroe at that time. I think it was a result of the Tom Kelly calendar which followed, that she understood she was a valuable commodity and that makeup, hairdo, all that stuff, apparel, look was extremely important.
BW: What were you first impression of her when you saw her?
MG: That she was a really nice girl, but that there was a certain amount of pathos involved with her because – I don’t know how much of a threat I was, but she seemed threatened, she seemed very nervous. That blew itself out as they started to see her under the conditions they saw her represent. I always refer to her – and a lot of my contemporaries would laugh at me because they felt differently, but I always felt that she was a deer in the headlights, and that all this pressure – the throngs would scream and yell when she’d get out of a car. 60, 70 guys with flashbulbs and strobe lights and you could see how she fought fear.
Somebody asked me about the poster, the head shot on your left [photo above], and I said “If you were to run that picture from a tape, that picture froze 1oooth of a second with a strobe light, and that’s what you got. But if you were to add a continuity frame, you could see the shifting eyes, you could see the fear. But there were a whole bunch of other photographers there.”
I always felt sorry for her. I remember when my wife woke me one day and said ‘Oh my god!’; I said, ‘What?’ she said ‘Marilyn Monroe died’. I sat there and thought for a minute, I said, “She finally found peace.”
I don’t think this woman could have grown old gracefully in that business. Katherine Hepburn, or any of those old, female stars who endured because their physical being was not what they sold, they were incredible talents. Marilyn was a good actress, and if she worked with a good director, she was terrific. But it unfortunately, the only thing that really bothered her was in her stock in trade. Her stock in trade was to be sexy.
BW: Was she as painfully shy as we all have read about, in your opinion?
MG: I think it depends with what the word means. To you it’s shy, to me it was fear. And I just cling to that, because I got that vibe from her throughout the years.
BW: What would be your fondest memory of her?
MG: How nice she was, she was a nice person. And that’s all why I felt the pathos, she wasn’t tough, hard – because if she was, she would have survived. But she couldn’t have survived; she was threatened by almost everything.
BW: I think we live in an age where glamour isn’t what it used to be. What do you think of the difference between now and then in terms of star power and starlets?
MG: I think there are eras. She (Marilyn) replaced Betty Grable who was the unquestionable pin-up girl throughout World War 2. There are some pictures of them together. She had a different road to hoe. Grable was a part of the war publicity, stuff to make you feel very patriotic. Monroe didn’t have that going for her. All she had was that she was the sexiest thing to come down the pike since Jean Harlow, and Harlow was another one of those stories that didn’t work out as well as it might have.
Look, it’s very tough, stardom, in itself for a man or woman, but particularly women. It’s a very hard, hard road to conquer and I don’t think she was strong enough, emotionally strong enough, to handle that and conquer it. I think it conquered her.
BW: Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken, and the story behind it?
MG: The ones that I like the most, that you see here, are the ones over in the corner when she was at the baseball game, because she had yet to become an Icon. She was invited because everybody knew she was somebody who was trying to come up, and people were talking about her. So she threw out the first pitch at some charity ball game called the ‘Out of This World Series’ and she didn’t have anything to live up to. She wasn’t yet an icon, she actually enjoyed that evening, you can see by looking at the pictures. And it was only until she became coiffed, and groomed, and talked to by the 20th Century Fox PR staff about “Hey, we have a lot of responsibility, we have a lot of money riding on you, we’re making these movies that cost millions of dollars, etc, etc” and that just added to this feeling of ‘Oh boy, that’s on me.’ It was really sad.
It was a pleasure speaking to Mr. Garrett who treated Hollywood’s greatest with the upmost respect. To view more photos from the Marilyn exhibit and to purchase from the Marilyn Monroe collection, visit the Washington Square Hotel in New York City from now until Labor Day, or contact Marc Garrett at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Marilyn Monroe’s Famous White Dress Sold for $5.6 Million! (news.instyle.com)
- Michelle Williams Begins Her Week With Marilyn Monroe and Dominic Cooper (popsugar.com)
- Champagne Named After Marilyn Monroe (femmesdallure.com)
- The Best Marilyn Monroe Shots You’ve Never Seen (stylecrave.com)
- New Marilyn Monroe photos unveiled on star’s 85th birthday (telegraph.co.uk)