Not many people in this lifetime can say that Marilyn Monroe was their babysitter and Sammy Davis Jr. was their godfather. And not many people can speak of Gene Kelly’s competitive nature during games of Charades with such resolution. But at Mouche Gallery in Beverly Hills, Joshua and Amy Greene recall these memories with nonchalance while we discuss the work of his late father and her late husband Milton H. Greene, a famed celebrity photographer and close confidant of Marilyn Monroe.
First meeting Marilyn at a shoot for Look magazine, Milton (and subsequently, the Greene family) then formed an impermeable friendship with the Hollywood starlet.
About her girlfriends who questioned the nature of Milton and Marilyn’s friendship, she added: “I trusted her completely because I knew as a woman, she would never do that to me.”
At the gallery, rare photos of Marilyn from Joshua Greene’s The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton H. Greene line the walls. First conceptualized five years ago, the book offers 174 never-before-seen photos of Marilyn restored by Joshua from his father’s archives. During our interview, we spoke all things Marilyn (or “Zelda Zonk,” the secret alias she used to check into hotels and flights) that range from her year spent living with the Greenes, the subconscious feminism behind Marilyn Monroe Productions, and the premonition prior to her sudden death.
Read our interview below.
On living with Marilyn for a year:
Amy Greene (AG): “She was a girlfriend. She was a young, vital woman. We were about the same age, so we giggled a lot and she loved to laugh. Don’t ever call her a victim. She was not a victim. We took her everywhere we went. We took her to the theater, to the opera, to peoples’ homes, and she became alive — a New Yorkie.”
Joshua Greene (JG): “Keep in mind that she was based in L.A. My father invited her to come to New York [to] hide and get away from LA. He would give her the financial cover that she needed so that she could live comfortably, [and] take acting lessons and singing lessons. It was a deal that was made saying, ‘Look, this is what I got. I could get you out of this contract [with Twentieth Century Fox]. It’s gonna take a lawsuit against Twentieth. It may take a year and a half to settle. But why don’t you get the hell out of L.A., which you hate anyway (from what she had told him) and take a break.’ So, at that point, she got turned on by the whole New York scene—got introduced to Sammy Davis and Marlon Brando and Sinatra and Ella [Fitzgerald]. Went out to the clubs in New York, and took her acting career to another level where she had full control. All those benefits that my father made available to her made her feel different in the way she felt […] It changed her whole perspective on life.”
Amy Greene (AG): “Joshua Logan, the director who directed her in Bus Stop, called it her golden years.”
On meeting Marilyn for the first time at Gene Kelly’s house:
AG: “I played Charades with Gene Kelly in [his] house on Rodeo. I’m a very good Charades player, so he always wanted me to come on his team. He was fanatical about Charades. We didn’t fool around. He and Stephen Sondheim in New York were just like two crazy people. You didn’t giggle. Competitive. So, I also have to tell you that very few people in Hollywood had ever seen Marilyn because she was almost a recluse. She got up, she went to work, and she came back.
“So Milton said, ‘I’m gonna get Marilyn and come back’ to Gene’s house, [and] that’s where I met her. She came walking in. She was wearing a big Polo coat and no makeup. Her hair looked good. I sort of waved at her and she waved at me. The first break, I went over to her and she threw her arms around me and said, ‘I’m delighted to meet you,’ and I kissed her. It was lovely because we became girlfriends.”
On what led to the formation of Marilyn Monroe Productions:
JG: “The frustration that Marilyn had was that Zanuck, the head of Twentieth [Century Fox], owns her contract, controls everything that she does—what movies she can do, what part she’s gonna play, what clothes she’s gonna wear—and basically, she had no freedom. She’s not respected. A person in a slave contract is a slave. You don’t have a choice. You don’t have an opportunity to be included in the process of making any decisions [..] and they control how much you can make. So, she saw other artists around her in the ‘50s starting their own production company—breaking out from the slave relationship with the large motion pictures studios. She didn’t have the means to do that.”
AG: “But she had the inclination. She didn’t know what she wanted, but she knew she wanted out.”
JG: “Right. So, in the early days of Milton photographing Marilyn, she confided in him [about] her disappointment. And Milton said, ‘You know, give me the contract, let me take it back, talk to Irving Stein (his attorney) and Lew Wasserman, and let’s see if we can find a way to break this.’ After a month or so, he went and got her in L.A. and brought her to New York after convincing her that he had a plan. Basically, that was to sue Twentieth Century Fox to get them to release her from the contract.”
AG: “And the name that she gave to the airline company [when leaving L.A.] was Zelda Shushnik. She wore a big hat, big black sunglasses, a Polo coat, and nobody knew who she was. I had the station wagon waiting at the plane, which was unheard of at the time. No cars are allowed on airstrips.”
JG: “The name was actually Zelda Zonk, which is her name that she would use when she checked into hotels and everything. That was her secret name.”
AG: “So, there I was on the tarmac in a red station wagon at 6 o’clock in the morning, and we [snuck] her [into] the car, threw a blanket over her, and off we went to Connecticut. And she vanished [from the public eye] for a year.”
On Marilyn’s disingenuous media persona as a “dumb blonde”:
JG: “Milton, acknowledging her being typecast as the “dumb blonde” with the gold earrings and the tight dresses and everything, specifically wanted to prove to her that she can [diverge from media perception] as a woman, as an independent character, and still find a way to be—“
AG: “Charming and funny.”
JG: “So, what developed, and I’m saying this in looking back, if you look at the transition in the pictures, you realize he was trying to prove to himself and to her—“
AG: “And to Zanuck.”
JG: “Well, he didn’t have to prove anything to Zanuck. Fuck Zanuck.”
AG: “I don’t wanna fuck Zanuck.”
JG: “He had to find her gifts and her talents. In the early pictures of the first five months of photography, you see that he’s on to something. And he’s capturing her in a way that is natural, candid, dignified, and funny.”
AG: “She still had a great ass.”
JG: “So, with her great ass, over time, you see that [range]—he photographed her as a hooker, as a peasant, as a ballerina, as a gypsy, and also, candidly and personally.”
On finding out about Marilyn’s death:
AG: “We were in France, in Paris. Milton was doing the collections for Life magazine, and there was a radio. I kept saying, ‘Well let’s try to get some music or something.’ All we got was news, news, news, and neither one of us could understand French that well. All of a sudden, the words Marilyn Monroe came on. We didn’t know what it was. So, we went to [Château de] Fontainebleau, had a wonderful picnic lunch, drove back to Paris, and the first thing we heard—the telephone was ringing off the wall. It was Arthur Jacobs, who was her publicist trying to get us all day. And he said Marilyn’s dead. […] I collapsed. Milton was staggering. That was the last thing we expected.”
JG: “Let me add to that. A month before, mom woke up [from] a dream and told Milton, ‘You gotta call Marilyn.’ They haven’t spoken since ’57. This was ’62.”
AG: “‘She needs you,’ I said. In my dream, she needed him.”
JG: “So he called her. They had a two-hour conversation. They rekindled that relationship and he said, ‘Look, as soon as I come back from the collections, I’m gonna come back to L.A. [and] I’m gonna see you.’ So, that’s the precursor of them being in Paris together before [Marilyn was] found dead in California.”
AG: “And that’s the end of that story.”
On the subconscious feminism of Marilyn and Marilyn Monroe Productions:
JG: “When you look at the history of what she was up against, what she did—she knew exactly what she was doing with men, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do for herself. With the right help [and] the right people, she was able to change and break the chain, break the glass ceiling, for someone with essentially no power and no money in the ‘50s as a woman. You gotta look at it through those rose-colored glasses. There’s movements that were created based on her life path—things that she wasn’t necessarily doing for that reason—she was just fighting for her freedom.”