Art & Photography / Culture Talks

In Bed With Marilyn Monroe

We dive under the sheets with the captivating starlet, courtesy of Douglas Kirkland's smouldering photo book

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05 With Marilyn An Evening1961 Deluxe Edition by D
With Marilyn: An Evening/1961Photography by Douglas Kirkland

Picture the scene – you’re alone in a room with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra crooning on the record player, Dom Pérignon flowing freely. The dazzling pin-up is lying on a bed, striking a range of irresistable poses, dressed in nothing but the finest silk sheets. It sounds like an elaborate 1950s teen fantasy, but it is in fact the real-life scenario in which Canadian photographer Douglas Kirkland – then a baby-faced 27-year-old – found himself on the 17th November, 1961. 

Born in a small town outside Toronto in 1934, Kirkland was determined to make it in photography from a young age, studying the medium for a number of years before heading to New York aged 24 to achieve “the real thing”. Before long he was snapped up by photography legend Irving Penn, who employed him as an assistant for a rather meagre fee. “I learned an enormous amount from Irving,” Kirkland tells AnOther, “but I really couldn’t afford to work for him while being paid essentially nothing, so after four months I asked him for a proper wage. He thought about it, but then told me no – that he could easily replace me with someone who would do the job for nothing. He said, ‘Go back to Buffalo (where my wife was living) and work in a small studio. You’re not the right material for New York, I don’t think you will make it here.’”

Fortunately the zealous Kirkland was undeterred and, after a brief spell back home, returned to the Big Apple where he was offered a job as fashion photographer at the prestigious Look Magazine, sparking a chain of events that would go to prove Penn very wrong. One of his first projects for the publication was to accompany a journalist to Las Vegas where Elizabeth Taylor had agreed to be interviewed on the condition that ‘absolutely no photographs’ were taken. A natural charmer, Kirkland managed to convince the formidable star to change her mind and the resulting images – remarkable in their candour and intimacy – “spun [him] into the big league of celebrities overnight”. 

Kirkland went on to work for Look for many years before moving onto Life Magazine, and over the course of his impressive career has captured everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Marlene Dietrich to Andy Warhol. But it was his encounter with Monroe – taken for Look Magazine’s 25th anniversary issue, the year before her tragic death – for which he is arguably best known, and it is a moment that has etched itself indelibly onto the image maker’s mind. Here, as a new edition of his book documenting the event is released, we catch up with Kirkland – now 81 but just as busy as ever – to hear his memories of clambering into bed with Marilyn Monroe.

On meeting Monroe and the silk sheet strategy...
“Look Magazine was turning 25 years old and they wanted Marilyn to star in that issue. I’d been there for a year and a half and I’d had a great deal of good fortune with the other people I’d photographed so I was appointed to do it. The first time I met Marilyn to talk about the shoot, my colleagues and I went to her home on Doheny Drive – right on the edge where Beverly Hills and Hollywood connect. She was very disarming because she didn’t seem like a big superstar; she seemed more like the girl next door. I wanted to get some hot pictures of her, but in my shy Canadian way, I didn’t know how to say that. In the end Marilyn was the one to take charge. She said, ‘I know what we need. We need a bed, and we need white silk sheets – they must be silk. Frank Sinatra records, and Dom Pérignon champagne.’ She totally pre-empted what I wanted to go for on the shoot, and I was so relieved. We scheduled it to be done about three days later, at 7.30pm on a Friday evening.”

On seeing the “real Marilyn”...
“The day came and I arrived promptly at the studio, which we’d we rented in Hollywood. I waited and waited, and 9.30pm came and she had not yet appeared. I said to myself, ‘If Marilyn doesn’t show up, it’s going to be a disaster. I’m still new at the publication, I’ve been sent to California, and if I don’t take back pictures it will be very difficult to explain.’ Just at that moment, at the other side of the studio, I heard the door open and in came Marilyn, with a lady carrying some clothes – ultimately she didn’t use them very much. She came in a completely different person to the girl I’d met last time – I saw the real Marilyn, the Marilyn we all think of. She seemed to move in slow motion to me; she had a luminescence about her and she didn’t step, she almost floated. That’s my memory of it, that’s the impression she left me with.” 

On getting into bed with Monroe...
“At first, we took some shots of Marilyn in a dress. I tried for a few minutes to get a good picture, but she wasn’t comfortable. So she went into the dressing room and the lady that was helping her brought her out to the bed that we had. She had a robe on, and she took that robe off and got in under the white silk sheets. I just want to tell you, I was 27, but I was mentally 17. As I say, I’d had a very small town background and here, the superstar of all superstars was five feet away from me; I could reach out and touch her, and as she slipped into the bed I saw parts of her body that I couldn’t believe I’d ever see.

“I got overhead so I could shoot directly down on her. I started to take pictures, but I didn’t need to direct her – I just talked with her. It was like flirting, both ways, it became very hot, the charge in the air. I had one assistant, and she had her woman who worked with her. We took a break, and then she said, ‘I want to be alone with this boy, I find it usually works better that way’. So everybody left the room, I heard the door close, and I realised I was alone with Marilyn. Then I came down from up above, and she said, ‘why don’t you come down and do some close-ups down here’. I came down from the stairs that I was up on, and I was a little over one metre away from her.”

On Monroe’s sensuality...
“Marilyn was so sexual, very sensual. At one point she suggested that we should do something more than just talk, in other words, embrace each other. This is where my small town boy came in, I acted like I didn’t understand, I was embarrassed. I looked down into my camera and just kept shooting pictures, over and over, as quickly as I could. I think that’s why the pictures are so strong, because that sexual desire was channeled into the camera instead of into action.”

On hearing of Monroe’s death...
“That shoot took place on 17th November, 1961 and Marilyn died the following August – August 5th. I was working with Coco Chanel in Paris at the time, another wonderful experience. I had finished on a Friday afternoon and I was going back to my hotel. Traffic was heavy and it looked like it was going to rain. I was walking along when I caught sight of a newspaper stand where all the papers’ headlines said, ‘Marilyn is dead’. I thought, they can’t mean my Marilyn, maybe it’s a different Marilyn. When I got back to the hotel, I asked the concierge and he said, ‘Yes, she’s dead. We just learnt about it a few hours ago’. I mentioned her to Mademoiselle, which was what Coco Chanel liked to be called, explained the situation to her, and she said, ‘The poor thing’. That’s all she could comment.”

With Marilyn: An Evening/1961 by Douglas Kirkland is out October 2015, published by Glitterati Incorporated.