Diving in with Marilyn Monroe
In 1962, photographer Lawrence Schiller was invited by the French magazine Paris Match to cover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the movie Something’s Got to Give. Schiller had met Monroe before in 1960; at the time, he was starting his career as a young photographer at 23-year old. Two years later, a slightly more experienced Schiller recognized the new assignment as a publicity shoot; he was not there to do a private assignment; he was to cover Monroe on the movie set. However, the shoot would become special, as Marilyn Monroe jumped into the set’s swimming pool with a flesh-colored bathing suit and returned to the surface with nothing on.
“Now the real competition was to try and capture in a photograph something meaningful, something revealing. Since she was a bit of a mystery, could I show in an image what was going on in her head? Would there be a moment in which there’s going to be something in her eyes? That’s what you’re looking for as a photojournalist: that moment. You try to be as quiet as possible, and you try to capture that moment.” – Lawrence Schiller
Sex Symbol & Style Icon
Marilyn Monroe had already established herself as a sex symbol in motion pictures like Some Like it Hot, The Misfits, and in the unforgettable movie The Seven Year Itch. Here, Monroe began to captivate the minds of American men (and women) as the ultimate sexual fantasy. Monroe captured imaginations not only with her seductive charm but also with her influence as a style icon and by her expression of vulnerability as a fun, innocent, and flirtatious woman. Although, deep down, Marilyn was much more than that. A dynamic individual who rose through the ranks of Hollywood stars and who stemmed from a tragic background, she nevertheless became the prototypal American beauty, one who lived the rags to riches story, the parvenu madame of the American dream.
The Paris Match Shoot
In the Paris Match shoot, Lawrence Schiller captures some of the first nudes of Marilyn Monroe in over ten years. Beginning her film and modeling career in the late 1940s, Monroe was no longer the up and coming young starlet that bewildered new onlookers. In 1962, Monroe was a bankable actress who had experienced the ups and downs of the film industry and who was ultimately competing against the likes of Liz Taylor to be the leading sex symbol of the era. As argued by Joan Mellen as “America’s greatest sex symbol.”
In this shoot, Schiller captured some of the most striking yet subtle pictures of the American sex symbol. Schiller’s images would be inscribed in our memories, foretelling the enduring seismic influence Monroe would have on American culture. In the swimming pool movie scene, Monroe swims around in an attempt to seduce Dean Martin’s character. Monroe is partly submerged in the pool, frolicking around and playfully gazing outside of the camera. In these pictures, water becomes a symbol that suggests the replenishment of life. This element, which symbolizes purification around the world, surrounds Monroe’s body as the actress engages Dean Martin with her renowned gaze. Dripping with water and naked, she is the epitome of seduction, almost a modern-day deity. Marilyn Monroe’s figure, with its peach, light-colored skin tone, is set against the pool’s rippling, inviting water, the gradient of blue hues encapsulating her figure within the composition. The image’s visual structure creates a complementary and magnetic aesthetic; Monroe’s figure resembling Botticelli’s Venus. Moreover, this series helps to immortalize Monroe’s persona in American culture; as the star emerges from the water as the “angel of sex,” as Norman Mailer called her, her coquettish appeal is cemented, and it continues to linger for many generations as an embodiment of beauty and desire.
“Monroe’s overt sexiness and vulnerability replaced (Betty) Grable’s wholesome, forthright, girl-next-door appeal just as sexual mores gave hints of loosening a notch. (Playboy magazine was founded in 1953.) Here Monroe manages to be both narcissistically self-involved and joyously abandoned, almost as delighted with her own charms as with the rush of air up her legs. She is a voyeur’s dream: a woman far gone in pleasure all by herself and deliciously happy to have a man watch.” – Vicki Goldberg.
Lawrence Schiller: Director, Author and Hollywood Photographer
Americans are still entranced by her persona; several of the pictures from the shoot appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine accompanied by the risqué text reading “Marilyn Monroe, a skinny-dip you’ll never see on the screen.” After the shoot, Lawrence Schiller’s prominence continued to grow. He worked in multiple capacities as a director, an author, and a Hollywood photographer. He would shoot other Hollywood legends with his adventurous and fresh eyes, although Marilyn would remain an essential part of his career. Schiller worked for LIFE, Paris Match, Time, Newsweek, and Stern, and directed seven motion pictures.
Capturing the Hearts and Minds of America
Marilyn Monroe is a continuous presence in American culture, perhaps because she helped usher a new era of sexuality in America. As the actress changed from the ingénue Norma Jean to the glamorous Marilyn, the country also changed as it demanded and consumed her legendary sexual radiance. Ultimately the magic, in so far as there is magic in conjuring the memory of Marilyn, is that her appeal is mostly inscrutable; we can’t precisely put into words why she so completely captures the hearts and minds of America. In the end, Monroe was a complex amalgam of incomparable qualities that lived only in her and gave her brief life a light that still shines brightly.