Film history: Focus on veteran film director Jean Negulesco, his secretary, and Marilyn Monroe

In August 2000, I met with actress Sheree North (1932-2005) in Hollywood for an interview about her career in films, focusing on the years when she was under contract at 20th Century Fox, at the same time as Marilyn Monroe was, also at Fox; both were the new studio’s blonde leading ladies. There has been written so much about Marilyn Monroe over the years, about her being so insecure, about her  difficulties to handle herself properly, having to cope with the mockery when others made fun of her. Sheree North knew Ms. Monroe well; she was a personal witness to Monroe’s days at the studio and remembered her as follows when we met.

“I saw they were so cruel and made so much fun of her. She was under contract at Fox at the time, as I was. The studio had their own idea how you should look or dress, and it sort of kills your individual character. I was afraid to say anything because I saw what fun they made of Marilyn. She was willing to fight them, to express her, and be her own self. She had a great sense of humor, a lot more power than she thought she had, but she didn’t know how to use it to call the shots. First, you always want to get noticed, and then you want respect—at that time, she was searching for that respect, but she didn’t feel strong enough within herself. I always thought she needed a really good friend, a mother image, somebody she really could trust. The way they made fun of her—she wouldn’t know it particularly, but when she walked down the street at the studio, several people would walk behind her and imitate her walk, things like that. When she turned around, she would not know it, but still, they’d all be laughing at her. When she went in to do her make-up and her hair, the other people would come out, talk about her and say terrible things because she didn’t want her make-up and her hair done according to the ‘formula’ of the studio.”

Sheree North’s description of the way Miss Monroe was approached and/or treated by a number of her co-workers and studio employees sheds a light on behavior that, at that time, was probably considered to be common and acceptable. In the following story, veteran film director Jean Negulesco (1900-1993) directed Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)—by the way, two years later, Sheree North played a leading role opposite Betty Grable in the sequel “How to Be Very, Very Popular”). Mr. Negulesco describes in his 1984 autobiography his first encounter with Miss Monroe, from the moment he gave her the script, written by Nunnally Johnson, of the film he later that year was to make with her.

From: Negulesco, Jean. Things I Did and Things I Think I Did: A Hollywood Memoir, pp. 216-218. Linden Press / Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1984 (ISBN 0-671-50734-6)

Marilyn Monroe was sex symbol, love goddess, Venus. As a child, she lived in orphanages and foster homes. Her father was never clearly known. She was raped at the age of eight by an elderly actor who paid her one nickel not to tell. A promiscuous mother eventually went insane. There was an early wrecked marriage, a smattering of only partially successful modeling, and a life of easily forgotten affairs. At the age of twenty, her walk had begun to call forth appreciative whistles. Cars honked, and lustful propositions came with every wiggle, every undulated step—the sound she loved that made her alive, completely secure, the robust masculine wolf whistle.
“That’s the trouble. A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing,” Marilyn complained to an interviewer after her teenage allurement had developed into a delightful national scandal. “But if I am going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols for.”
My first confrontation with this phenomenon [Marilyn Monroe] was when I was assigned to “How to Marry a Millionaire” [1953]. Marilyn Monroe was working on Howard Hawks’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” [1953] when I went to present her the script. Howard introduced me. She was vague and did not want to accept the script until I told her that Mr. Zanuck had asked me to give it to her. She repeated, “Mr. Zanuck,” with reverence and took the script. Then she wasn’t there—no way to reach her.
After Marilyn read the script, her reaction was one of confusion: “Is it good for me? Is this the right and the best part for me?” she asked Charles Feldman, also her agent. He suggested she talk to me. She didn’t call to make an appointment. She just came. Wanda, my secretary, rushed into my office all excited: “She is here!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“M.M. is here. She actually talks and moves.”
“Miss Monroe, that’s who.”
She was dressed in a polka-dot white silk blouse, silk black slacks, wearing sunglasses and red high-heeled shoes. Her childlike appeal was sincere and convincing, her vagueness persuasive, her humor seductive. The scene ran something like this:
Marilyn’s voice quiet, childlike, out of breath: “Mr. Feldman asked me to see you.”
“Charlie is a good and generous friend.” (I made this into a compliment to her. No reaction.)
“Mr. Feldman said you’ll explain to me.”
“My part.”
(Now I knew there was some trouble.)
“Have you read the script, Miss Monroe?”
“I don’t know…”
“Miss Monroe, you read the script. It is a brilliant script by Nunnally Johnson. Your part is right for you. Shall I tell you what it is about?”
She took off her glasses and said in a loud voice, “I know what it is all about, but -” (Silence.)
“But what?”
(Still loud): “Who are we?”
(Wow. That’s a good one. So answer the lady. Be clever.)
“Miss Monroe, you are three beautiful girls, Loco, Schatze, and Pola, wishing to marry millionaires. And the kind of girls you are, the contents of your icebox explains: hot dogs, orchids, and champagne. Does that answer your question?”
It didn’t. She started to pull her dark glasses back on but didn’t. Finally, she looked at me—not her uncertain sidelong look, but straight at me. And again, she found her voice: “What is the motivation of my character?”
Now it was all clear. Her Russian coach, Natasha Lytess, had put her up to this. So this called for my know-how voice: “The motivation, Miss Monroe? You’re blind as a bat without glasses. That is your motivation.”
Her eyes came out from under her drooping lids. The puzzled child had resolved the “if”: “That’s all?”
“Yes, Marilyn. That’s all.”
She put back her glasses and left—satisfied.

“How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953, trailer)