Twenty-seven-year-old Douglas Kirkland was about an hour into photographing Marilyn Monroe, 35, lying nude in bed, when she told everyone but him to leave the room. “I want us to be alone,” she said. “I find it works better that way.”
It was almost midnight on November 17, 1961, and the Toronto-born, Fort Erie-raised Kirkland was in a Los Angeles studio, shooting the world’s hottest star for the entertainment magazine Look. Today, his lush and sensual images can be viewed at the newly opened show, Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection; the photo session endures as one of Monroe’s best-known.
In a phone interview from L.A. last week, Kirkland, now 76, recalled how he started his career as a teenager taking pictures of babies and weddings for a Fort Erie photo studio. Jobs followed at the town’s Times Review, Welland’s Tribune and a camera shop on Toronto’s Kingsway before he moved to the U.S. “I tried to get work in Canada,” he says, “but there wasn’t much available then.”
In 1958, Kirkland was hired by celebrated New York portrait photographer Irving Penn. This led to a job, three years later, taking fashion pictures for Look. Kirkland’s big break came in the summer of 1961 while on a bathing-suit shoot in California. His editor asked him to head over to Elizabeth Taylor’s set to try to get some shots of her. “Nobody had taken her picture in a while,” says Kirkland. “When she let me photograph her, it put me on the map.”
In the ensuing months, sessions with Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine and Marlene Dietrich followed. When Look decided to feature Monroe in its 25th-anniversary edition, Kirkland explains, “I was the fair-haired boy.”
A few days before the shoot, Kirkland flew to Los Angeles, where Marilyn was recuperating from illness and heartbreak. Earlier in the year, her divorce from the playwright Arthur Miller had been finalized. Shortly thereafter, she underwent two surgeries: one on her Fallopian tubes, the other on her gall bladder. But when Kirkland sat down with Monroe to plan for the photo session, she was relaxed and easy to chat with. “We hit it off,” he says. “She was very much the girl next door.”
At that meeting, Monroe came up with the concept for how she would be photographed. “I know what we should do,” she told Kirkland. “I should have nothing on but a silk sheet.” She also explained that she wanted Frank Sinatra on the stereo and Dom Pérignon in her glass.
In the following days, a loft was constructed in the studio so Kirkland would be able to take pictures of Monroe from above, looking down on her in bed.
On the day of the photo shoot, Monroe was supposed to arrive in the early evening, but she didn’t show up until around nine. Still, she walked in the door looking every inch the star. “That night she was truly Marilyn Monroe,” says Kirkland. “She was luminous.”
Monroe headed for her dressing room and came out wearing nothing but a robe. She took it off, got into bed and Kirkland got to work. At the start, the actress was a little reserved. “She hadn’t been too well and she’d lost a lot of weight. She liked that she was thinner, but her breasts weren’t as large.”
It didn’t take long, though, for Monroe to become the seductress. As she twisted from side to side on the bed, closing her eyes, hugging a pillow and stretching sultrily beneath the sheet, she made that request for everyone but Kirkland to exit the studio. Then she commanded him, “Come lie with me.”
“I was in complete shock,” says Kirkland. “There I was—a kid from Fort Erie. My background was Sunday school and small town. And there was Marilyn in her most vivid and charged form.”
Over the years, many of Kirkland’s friends have teased him, insisting, “Come on, you must have slept with her.” According to the photographer, the fact that the shoot didn’t go in that direction explains the power of the pictures. “All the sex went into the camera.”
But Kirkland didn’t remain entirely upright. Once he had his shots, he lay down beside Monroe. “We talked about our simple beginnings,” he says. “About how her mother had been in an insane asylum.” By that point in the night, confesses Kirkland, “I was really, truly in love with her.”
The next day Kirkland went to Monroe’s apartment to show her his contact sheets. Upon arrival, he found a woman very different from the one he had been with the night before. Her place was dark and she was wearing sunglasses. “I don’t know what had happened or what was wrong,” says Kirkland. “It could have been so many things.” Still, Monroe carefully went through all the images of the previous day’s shoot. As she did, the actress spoke of herself in the third person. “That girl is the kind of girl that anyone would want to be in bed with,” she said.
Although they made plans for another photo sitting, Kirkland never saw Monroe again. She died nine months later.
Kirkland went on to have a career—one that continues still—as an internationally renowned celebrity photographer. He has taken the picture of countless famed beauties, among them Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Angelina Jolie. But when asked if he’s ever had another experience like that night with Monroe, his answer is simple: “No.”
Kirkland’s photographs are a central and brilliant component of the McMichael exhibition, but there are also countless other mesmerizing Monroe-related works on display by a wealth of 20th-century masters, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Avedon. Featuring more than 150 works, Life as a Legend offers a serious and highly entertaining study of the photographers, painters, writers and sculptors who made Marilyn the focus of their gaze.
We are provided with an incredible range of highlights from her life as icon—Marilyn showcased in her first nude photographs (1949), pictures that later appeared in the inaugural issue of Playboy; standing over a subway grate while a wind machine blows her white skirt upwards in the filming of The Seven Year Itch (1954); entertaining American troops in Korea (1954); singing for President Kennedy’s birthday (1962); and the actress’ famous last sitting with photographer Bert Stern in the weeks before her death (1962).
Collectively, these works offer an impressive commentary on the nature of femininity, consumer culture and celebrity in the 20th century. They also explain why Marilyn Monroe still haunts us, just as she continues to cast a spell on Douglas Kirkland.
Monroe has been the subject of macho Montreal poet Irving Layton, abstract painter Harold Town and contemporary Vancouver writer and artist Douglas Coupland. Our country’s artistic relationship with the screen legend is the focus of Marilyn in Canada, the McMichael’s sister show to Life as a Legend. Highlights include documentary photographs of Monroe at work on two movies filmed in Canada: Niagara, shot at Niagara Falls in 1952 and River of No Return, made near Banff in 1953. Indulging Hollywood’s obsession with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other iconic images of Canada, Monroe hams it up on the set of River of No Return, first in a canoe, then with a grizzly bear.