Saturday, March 26, 2011

Marilyn Monroe The Red Velvet Calender

A few photographs have gone beyond simply recording history and have actually played a role in shaping it.
One such photo, created in 1949, showed a young actress alluringly posed, totally nude, on a red velvet background. The image, shocking for its time -- an image of raw sex appeal -- was, nevertheless, also an image of tastefulness and sophistication. Photographer Tom Kelley, Sr. couldn't know the photo would become history and help define sexuality for a generation. The actress' name was Marilyn Monroe.
At the end of 1953 a new men's magazine appeared on the newsstands. It was an adult magazine targeted to a sophisticated urban male audience. The magazine advocated a philosophy that was very new to the postwar 50's. It was that sex is a natural, wholesome and healthy human act -- not something to hide or be embarrassed about. Sex was an activity a normal single man might share with the girl next door.
The first issue of Playboy magazine sold over 54,000 copies -- a surprising number for a new magazine with no advance publicity. The profits from this first edition furnished the funding to continue publishing for a few more months. Indeed, Hugh Hefner did not date the magazine because he was uncertain there would be a second issue. He didn't know the magazine would become an icon of America's cultural history.
The startling sales of that first Playboy edition can be attributed to Hefner's good fortune of finding an exceptional centerpiece photo to lure America's males to the newsstand. Kelley's calendar photo of the nude Marilyn Monroe was that image -- the image that launched the magazine that brought sex out of the closet into the glaring light of day.
Compared to the well-worn, trite images of sexuality in U.S. culture today, Kelley's "Red Velvet" photograph remains the pinnacle of erotica. Simple in color and composition, Marilyn's pose has been copied endlessly by countless would-be Kelleys, but never to the effect that Kelley achieved. The fact is that Marilyn has become the archetypal American sex queen and Kelley recorded her at her best. This was a rare moment frozen in time.
Hefner bought one photo from Kelley, published it as his first centerfold, and American culture has not been the same since. Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner showed us that sex is as natural as eating and sleeping -- and maybe even fun and a little frivolous. Sex became more than mere procreation -- a seismic shift in attitude for the dark, repressed 50s.
Playboy's rise to prominence in American culture parallels the rise of the sexual revolution. We began looking at our sexual selves in new ways. The Playboy Philosophy -- preached by Hefner in his magazine that eventually reached a circulation over seven million -- championed that cause. And this was a cause that went beyond the surface of sex, delving into deeper issues like population control and disease prevention -- issues with incredible potential for improving the social welfare of every human being.
So Kelley's photo, and the mystique generated by Marilyn's amazing sexual presence, played a key role in shaping 20th century history. The photo led to a redefinition of sexuality in America, and spawned a sexual revolution.
But there's more. When Hefner made the deal with Kelley he only bought one piece of film. There are five more. One of them even has a bonus image, because Kelley double-exposed a sheet of his 8 x10" film in his haste to record the moment.
During my ten years as the photo archivist for Playboy I was occasionally asked to retrieve the 8 x10" Marilyn transparency from the vault to show it to a visiting VIP. I must admit there was something mysterious about holding that sheet of film in my hands. Of course I would speculate on what it was worth. But I would also wonder about its history. Who had touched that film? Where had it been? This was the actual film that "saw" Marilyn Monroe lying naked on that sensuous red velvet. Every time I touched that film it was thrilling.
During a visit to Tom Kelley Jr.'s studio, a few years ago, he showed me the camera that his father used to make the Marilyn photos. Being a photographer, like his father, Kelley Jr. seemed to view the camera as just another tool of his trade. He said "It's just an old Deardorff," but I couldn't see it that way. I wanted to touch that camera too, knowing it had held that film in that room together with Kelley Sr. and Marilyn.
I have only touched duplicate copies of the five transparencies Hefner left behind. Kelley Jr. didn't show them to me. Maybe I should have pressed him on that. I know the images well, but there's something very special about holding the actual original sheet of film in your hand -- the film that was slapped into the back of that Deardorff as Kelley Sr. rushed to capture the nude Marilyn. Maybe someday, if I'm lucky, I will get to touch them too.

The story as written by Hedda Hopper, movie columist, in 1953
I'll bet 10,000 stories have been written about that now famous calendar portrait of Marilyn Monroe in the nude...
" ...and while Marilyn looked helplessly he, too, kicked the tires and looked under the hood. It took only a minute to get to the gas tank. Then he broke the sad news,
"You're out of gas miss. We can call the Auto Club and they'll bring you some," he said. He knew right away from the expression on Marilyn's face that it wasn't that simple. "If you don't have any money in your purse, let me give you some - and my card. You can pay it back whenever you're near my studio.
It was several months before Marilyn found herself in a position to pay the $5 back. That is by no means an unusual situation in Hollywood. She drove out to Kelley's studio, knocked on the door, and when Tom opened it, Marilyn stood there holding out the money. All she said was:"Remember me?"
Well, you can fool a landlord, a casting director, a wolf and lots of other people in this town about your finances, but if you are a pretty girl you can't fool a photographer who works with models. Tom knew the fiver was Marilyn's last. He asked her to step inside. He asked her if she had done any modeling. She said she'd done a little, Tom tried to think of something he could use her for right then, but nothing came to mind. So he lied. "Tell you what," he said. "A calendar company wants be to do some nudes. Are you interested?" Marilyn said she was. So Tom hustled her into his studio, set up the lights and camera - and Marilyn reclined on the red velvet drape, which Mrs. Kelley arranged and the most famous photo of our town was snapped. Tom told Marilyn to keep the five, made out a check for $45. To this day Marilyn doesn't know that Tom took the picture so he could pay her $50 - and had no assignment at all for calendars.
More than a year passed and Tom got a request from Western Lithograph for a nude. He dug Marilyn's prints out of the files and sent them downtown. The company bought two for $200 - a small fee for Kelley's work, but better than nothing. The calendars were printed and sold slowly. For almost two years they were shipped out with the other regulars and nobody thought much about it. Then one day an executive of the company came running into the office looking as though he was about to have a stroke. "I went to the movies last night," he stuttered, "and I think that blonde dame on one of our calendars is Marilyn Monroe."

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