“So did she make a move on you?” I ask Douglas Kirkland. He laughs and says, “Yes,” over the phone from his home in Hollywood. “But it was more. She said, ‘Why don’t you come down and get into bed with me,’ and well, that speaks pretty clearly.” The now 78-year-old photographer is recalling the evening he spent with Marilyn Monroe.
In a new photographic memoir, With Marilyn: An Evening/1961, Kirkland compiles some of the most iconic photos ever taken of Monroe, and with real honesty, tells the seductive tale that goes along with it. At only 27 years old, and just one and a half years into his first full-time photography gig at Look magazine, Kirkland was given the enviable task of capturing Marilyn for the magazine’s 25th anniversary edition. She would die a year later.
We’ve all cultivated our own ideas of Monroe throughout the years. But last year, Hollywood gave us a new portrait of a shy and often insecure Monroe, as played by Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn. Drawing countless parallels to the film’s portrayal of the fifties icon, Kirkland, who has also captured renowned images of Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brigitte Bardot, recounts how a woman who has transcended generations was every bit as seductive and formidable as we remember her today, nearly 50 years after her death. “I knew most of the characters in the movie personally, and there is a point where Milton Greene said to Eddie Redmayne’s character, Clark, ‘Be very careful, she will seduce you and then leave.’ And that’s what would have happened with me, but I didn’t go all the way.”
Kirkland, who met Monroe on three separate occasions for the Look magazine shoot, recalls a triptych of distinct identities. “There have been many portrayals and perspectives on who Marilyn was,” he says. “In the film, there is one point where Michelle Williams asks, ‘Do you want me to be her?’ And suddenly she snaps into the Marilyn Monroe mode people thought she was. And Marilyn, she had that capability. There was the bright, smiling, girl next door I met during the meeting before the shoot; there was the sexually, almost surreal sex symbol; then she was dark and depressed, a totally different Marilyn, even a day later.”
Kirkland, who assisted the photographer Irving Penn before his breakthrough at Look, recalls what, at the time, would have been every guy’s fantasy. “She asked me to come to the bed, and that’s what she’s doing as you see these pictures,” he says. “She had everyone leave the studio after I had been there for an hour shooting. She simply said, ‘I wanna be alone with this boy, I find it usually works better this way,’ and before I knew it, I heard the door close.”
For the record, Kirkland, originally from Fort Erie, Canada, was, and still is, married to his beautiful wife Francoise. “It didn’t happen, but it could have happened,” he says. “And you know what, the magnitude of the images are a result, I put all of it into the pictures. But mentally, I was like a 16 year old alone with Marilyn Monroe, and only a white silk sheet draped across her nude body. Can you imagine the charge I felt as a young man?”
“And, truthfully,” he admits, “in that last instant I was ready to do it, but for some reason, something from who I was—the small town, Sunday-school-and-church kid—came out and it pulled me back. Had I probably taken the opportunity to make love with her, the pictures wouldn’t have had the same power. What we did was put the power of that love I was feeling, and what she was projecting, we put that into the images, and those are the images you see.”
How does someone turn down Marilyn Monroe?
“I felt almost embarrassed that I wasn’t moving. Here’s a woman, the greatest sex symbol of all time, saying, ‘Get into bed with me,’ and I was charged, totally charged, and suddenly I wasn’t doing it. And I was slightly embarrassed by my own lack of taking charge and advantage of this.”
He stops for a moment to catch his breath.
“I felt somewhat juvenile in some ways, so what I did was bury my head in the camera and just kept taking pictures, almost like I didn’t understand, but I did clearly understand. And that’s what raised her level of excitement even, because she wanted to seduce this young man.”
“But the more I didn’t do it, the more she worked to bring me down there into the bed with her. It’s the element of really seducing that you’re seeing there, and it’s genuine – I was just the conduit that put it on the paper.”
51 years later and Kirkland still seems slightly gobsmacked she even paid attention to him at all, let alone ask him to get into bed with her.
“At one point at the end of our photo session I lay down beside her, she was on the bed, and we just shared stories about our lives. She was a sweet, wonderful, warm, caring individual. I mean, she cared about this kid! But she didn’t need to.”
With Marilyn: An Evening/1961 by Douglas Kirkland, $40, is available July 16 on Amazon.