Marilyn Monroe's name is ubiquitous with sex appeal and star power. However, there was a time when she was a struggling actress just looking to put food on the table. Running out of options, she decided it was in her best interest to pose for a series of risque photographs. While most assumed the controversy would end her career, it actually had the opposite effect.
While many remember Monroe for her appearance in such seminal films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, there's no denying that her likeness is also closely tied to the launch — and subsequent success — of Hugh Hefner's pet project, Playboy.
The source was known as the "Red Velvet" photo shoot. This shared moment between famed pinup photographer Tom Kelley and the then virtually unknown actress Marilyn Monroe would set forth a chain of events that went on to catapult this barely known thespian into a household name. As the most infamous celeb scandal of the era, the "Golden Dream" calendar, in which the photographs appeared, went on to sell nearly 9 million copies and was still being printed as recently as the 1980s.
While the Kodachrome and color separations taken from the shoot remained in the massive print archives of the company that printed the calendar for decades, after they went out of business the originals were believed to have been lost forever. Until, that is, they were then rediscovered in 2009 by internet vintage poster and art retailer Limited Runs, and its owner Pierre Vudrag.
Having since exhibited the "Red Velvet" collection throughout the country, Vudrag's hunt for "all things Marilyn" has given him a unique insight not only into what was happening in the star's life before the photo shoot, but also during and after it as well, when the whispers began that a Hollywood starlet had posed in the nude. We took the opportunity to learn some more about the situation in a one-on-one interview with the man himself:
How did you get involved with this photograph and collecting in general?
A few years ago, I decided to make a change in what I was doing. I was working in television. My wife was looking at all the artwork on the walls and said to me, “You should do something related to what your passion is.” So we sat down and came up with the idea for Limited Runs.
While we were doing that we saw that an auction house in Beverly Hills were getting ready to auction off some unseen photos of Marilyn Monroe – with the original negatives and copyrights. And I just saw the photos on TV and instantaneously said, “We’re getting those, and we’re putting them on the website.” And we did. And it was a two-year process to get the exhibit up and running which we toured last year.
In the process of preparing for that tour, we came across a lot of the photos which are in the current tour. While we were prepping for that, we came across the color separations. We thought it would be a good opportunity to bring another element to the exhibit because we’d be bringing historic, archival, one-of-a-kind color separations which people believed were lost. These are the original color separations that were used to print almost 9 million calendars.
How did it come about that Marilyn Monroe decided to pose in the nude?
In 1945 Marilyn was married. Her husband was a Merchant Marine. She started working in a factory, building planes for the war effort. The Army sent a photographer over to take pictures of women helping the boys back in Europe and overseas. While it wasn’t unusual for women to be on the assembly line, the photographer noticed Marilyn. She stood out. He took her photo and her picture appeared in the article. They started talking and he said that she should really try out for this agency. She did a little bit of research and she realized that they were really looking for blondes so she dyed her hair blonde and went to the agency and they hired her.
For a few years, she worked and was very successful in modeling. She then caught the attention of a scout for 20th Century Fox who did a screen test, and ironically when she did it, she met Allan “Whitey” Snyder who was a makeup artist. The two ended up becoming lifelong friends and worked together for the rest of her career. So she did a couple of movies, and her contract expired, and Columbia Pictures picked her up. She did a couple more movies and then that contract expired – because at that time, people would hire you for like six months.
In 1949, she was in between work and hadn’t modeled in a while. She knew the photographer, Tom Kelley, and he said that he wanted her to model for him, and that he would pay her $50 dollars. And she kinda hesitated. But a couple weeks later, she called him back and said, “I’ll do it under two conditions. One, your wife has to be present, and two, you actually pay me that $50 dollars." She did the shoot, and signed the release as “Mona Monroe” because she was maybe a little embarrassed, but she needed to pay her rent and $50 dollars was a lot of money in those days. Immediately afterwards, she went back to modeling and got a new agent, and started getting small parts. It was after she did All About Eve when 20th Century Fox signed her to a long-term contract.
How risque was it to pose in the nude in the 1940s?
Tom Kelley had been shooting pinup photos for calendars for years. That’s what he did. It wasn’t that unusual, but it was unusual for any Hollywood actress to ever do that. No actress had ever done it. If there was an aspiring actress that posed nude, they probably would have never been hired. Even to this day, every talent contract [in Hollywood] has a morals clause in it which goes back to the ‘30s and ‘40s.
When they put out the calendar in 1951, Marilyn was a relative unknown, and the studio didn’t realize it was her – it was just another woman, “Mona.” As she started to get more popular in 1952 with the release of Niagara and a few other films – and Fox realized that “we have a real star here” – the calendar company realized that this was “Marilyn Monroe” and they decided to re-release it. That’s when the studio and the press found out about it.
Monroe was in the middle of shooting the film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – which is ironically the film that catapulted her to international success. The studio started freaking out that this was going to end her career and that people were going to be outraged. She ended up doing an interview with a reporter that had already been scheduled. Instead of denying it, she plead her case and said, “What was I supposed to do? I needed the money. I was going to be out on the street, and it was tasteful, and the guy’s wife was there to make sure that nothing happened." She asked the reporter – who was a woman – “what would you have done if you were me?” The reporter turned around and wrote a very compassionate story that got picked up around the world. The response from the public was that she instantaneously forgiven because she had “done what she had to do.”
Did owning up to the pictures enhance her star by making her more relatable?
Yeah. Every press person I talk to ends their questions with “why do you still think people are fascinated by Marilyn Monroe?” It’s exactly that. When the studio insisted that she deny it, she said “I will not, and it is me. I have nothing to be ashamed of.” It was that honesty that the public could relate to. She was a real person and had real problems. People looked at Hollywood stars as so glamorous, and she couldn’t pay her rent. At that moment, they realized that she was a human and was just like us. We understand what she had to go through because we’ve all done things that we’re probably ashamed of.
You think of all the Hollywood actors that people still relate to today – James Dean, Elvis Pressley, Humphrey Bogart. Those people bled on the screen. They were honest and their personality was like “this is who I am, take me or leave me.” And it’s that thing that she had and people loved.
How did Hugh Hefner and Playboy get involved?
It’s ironic because the company that printed the calendar were based in Chicago – the same as Hugh Hefner. [He] read in the newspaper about the controversy and he was thinking about launching Playboy. So he contacted [the printer] and paid them $500 USD to have the rights to the photographs – which ironically is what they paid Tom Kelley for the photographs. [Hefner] licensed the images and put her on the cover and the photographs as the first centerfold. The first issue sold between 50,000 and 65,000 copies – which was tremendous – and put Hefner and Playboy on the map.
Here’s a funny little anecdote about Hefner. He loves Marilyn Monroe. She’s buried in a mausoleum in Westwood Cemetery [in Los Angeles]. Hefner bought the mausoleum next to her; he wants to be buried next to her for eternity. But the two of them never met.