I had that Marilyn Monroe in my studio…

I had that Marilyn Monroe in my studio…

For the Times of Israel posted May 29 2018

Without doubt, few men can declare, with a straight face, “Marilyn Monroe was my babysitter”.

And yet this is the unique boast of Joshua Greene, an American photographer and digital film restorer, who has achieved the seemingly impossible by restoring the thousands of pictures of the iconic actress, taken by his father, the late Milton Greene.

Greene Senior, according to Greene Junior, had an extraordinary relationship with the woman who was arguably the 20th century’s greatest pin-up. And while Joshua Greene freely admits his father was not religiously observant, nevertheless the Brooklyn-born Jewish photographer had a long and lasting influence on Monroe — and even saw her through her own conversion to Judaism, in order to marry the playwright Arthur Miller.

Milton Greene’s ravishing portraits of Monroe, many rare or previously unseen, are on show in London in an exhibition called “Up Close With Marilyn”. On display are pictures from 50 different sittings Greene shot of Monroe, resulting in an archive of more than 3,000 images.

There is Marilyn in a white mink coat, Marilyn in a negligee, Marilyn pouting beautifully in bed or sprawled as a tomboy against rocks. And in every picture the eye is drawn to her astonishing beauty, her evident love affair with the camera, and her confident and relaxed pose.

Joshua Greene is in no doubt where that confidence comes from: his father. “She was comfortable with him, she trusted him. Their relationship wasn’t about sex. He was a wonderful photographer of women, and because he was so good, women trusted him”.

It didn’t hurt, probably, that Milton himself was easy on the eye. Born Milton Greengold, he began taking pictures when he was just 14. By the time he met Marilyn, in 1953, he was already an accomplished photographer.

“My dad”, says Joshua Greene, “was commissioned by Look magazine to photograph some movie stars, including Marilyn. When they met they immediately struck up a strong friendship. They both enjoyed each other’s company.

“About a month after this first session of pictures, my father flew out to Los Angeles and Marilyn confided in him how unhappy she was with her contract at 20th Century Fox. Milton said he would speak to his lawyer in New York to see if they could get her out of her contract. She wanted more control over her career, and he wanted to get into film work. They could help each other”.

Monroe was on the threshold of stardom in 1953 when she met Milton Greene, and they were much of an age — he was 31, she was 27. She had a telling cameo role in Niagara, and a bigger part in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But she was restless and had not had a pay rise since 1950.

“My dad told Marilyn to come out to New York, and so she did — and he changed her career. He introduced her to all kinds of people, artists, musicians — he loved jazz — and she stayed at my parents’ homes in New York and in Connecticut. Through Milton she met Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin — and that’s also how she started her association with the Actors’ Studio, working with Lee Strasberg”.

Milton Greene was a dandy, a “very glamorous gentleman, and charming”, according to his son, who regularly “travelled with five steamer trunks of clothes”. So he understood well Monroe’s constant need to reinvent herself.

Greene was as good as his word about helping Monroe break her contract. The two of them formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, or MMP, together, and she appeared in new films such as Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl, the latter with Laurence Olivier, which Greene produced.

It’s hard to know how Amy Greene, Milton’s wife, reacted to having the blonde bombshell that was Marilyn Monroe living in their home. Joshua Greene, though only a little boy of three at the time, has vivid memories of the room Monroe stayed in at their New York apartment. “You’d have to go down a couple of steps and I would run and jump in the air and she’d catch me and tickle me and make me laugh. You could say she was my babysitter”. He and Monroe were often left together in the apartment and he says his parents trusted her completely.

For her part, “the New York years were her happiest. She was treated with respect and affection”. And all the time Milton Greene was building his portfolio of astonishing pictures of Monroe.

Joshua Greene speaks of a Marilyn largely unknown to the public: not the woman who was dependent on pills, who showed up late on set and repeatedly fluffed her lines. The Marilyn embraced by the Greene family was shrewd and funny — and desperate to control her own career rather than be subject to the whims of the studio system.

But there were two shadows impending on this life of bliss, one literal and one metaphorical.

The literal shadow was that which physically affected Milton Greene’s archive. “By the time my father died, in 1985, he believed that most of his photographs of Marilyn were unusable and could not be reproduced. They had faded, he thought, beyond rescue.”

And the metaphorical shadow was that of Arthur Miller, Monroe’s unlikely third husband. “She married Miller in 1956 and he made it plain that he felt he could manage her career better than Milton. He pressured her to end her relationship with Milton — and eventually she gave in to what was effectively abuse”.

So in 1957, recounts Joshua Greene with some distaste, “Milton was asked to name his price to be bought out of MMP. My father didn’t want to be just one more man to take a piece of Marilyn’s life — and she had been very badly treated by a number of men.

“He said he would only take the $250,000 he had put in to form the company. He could have taken 10 times that. But he wanted to leave the door open, for their friendship to remain respectful.” The two continued to be in touch right up until a month before Monroe was found dead, in 1962, of a presumed barbiturate overdose.

“My father never believe she committed suicide. He was shooting fashion collections in Europe when he heard about her death”, says Joshua Greene, who says Monroe was on the verge of big new projects in her career and would have had little reason to kill herself. “She was a survivor, not a victim”, he insists.

Milton and Marilyn may be long gone, but Joshua Greene has revived their legacy through his discovery that new digital techniques would allow him to restore the iconic Milton Greene archive. The pictures are sharp as the day they were taken and show a glowing Monroe, often with a face full of mischief, as she and Milton Greene created a series of fantasies to seduce every viewer.

Up Close with Marilyn: Portraits by Milton Greene, is at central London’s Proud Gallery until June 24 2018.

  • 29 May, 2018