a picture is worth a thousand-word story

Monroe’s Flying Skirt

I have a confession to make. I hate Marilyn Monroe. Or, rather, I hate the hype about Marilyn Monroe. I would much rather see girls admire Audrey Hepburn. That being said, even in my hatred of her hype, no one can deny the many iconic aspects of this famous image:


Friday magazine featured a photo shoot by photographer Sam Shaw in the 1940s. The pictures were of a sailor and girl playing around in a wind tunnel at Coney Island. In the images, the girl’s skirt was being blown around in the wind, and one of the photos landed on Friday‘s cover. The magazine sold out almost instantly.

In 1951, Sam met an unknown, out-of-work young actress named Marilyn. They were on the set of Viva Zapata, where Sam was the set photographer. The two became friends, forming a strong bond as Marilyn drove Sam to and from the film set every day. (Sam did not have a driver’s license.) Marilyn, who reportedly had nicknames for all of her close friends, referred to Sam as “Sam Spade” in reference to Humphrey Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon. (On a completely unrelated note, Sam’s mustache reminds me of Howard Stark in Captain America. Why? I don’t know.)

Sam and Marilyn

Three years later in 1954, Billy Wilder was filming The Seven Year Itch, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. Sam was asked to be the still photographer for the film, and luckily so. When he read the script, he thought of his wind tunnel photo shoot and immediately knew how he could recreate it for the film. As the script goes, Marilyn and Tom leave a theater and as a subway passes by underground, the breeze lifts Marilyn skirt. “Isn’t it delicious?” Marilyn says, breaking every rule of 1950s modesty and concealment. Sam knew this scene would draw attention, and he wanted to get to use the image for promotional posters.

Standing on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd in NYC at 1 AM, Wilder shot the scene surrounded by very loud bystanders and press. The crowd (100 photographers and somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 spectators) had been invited to the shoot to increase hype for the movie, but the front row was reserved specifically for Sam. It took three hours to film the scene 14 times, and every time Marilyn’s skirt flew up, the (predominantly male) crowd responded with very loud cheers. The only man who seemed to disapprove of the scene was Joe DiMaggio, who was married to Marilyn at the time. Apparently all the noise stopped and you could hear a pin drop as DiMaggio very openly and publicly stormed off the set. (Though it was never confirmed, many believe Marilyn and DiMaggio argued over the filming of this scene, and this argument led to their divorce soon after Marilyn returned to California.)

The cheers returned after DiMaggio left. Wilder really wanted to get the scene right and continued to shoot. Over all the noise, Marilyn turned to look at Sam and yelled out, “Hi, Sam Spade!” Sam captured the image as quickly as he could, preserving Marilyn in what Sam always called “her composition.”

The crowd was so loud that all 14 takes were useless. They could only be used in promos. The scene was reshot in an LA studio closed to the public and press. The only photographer allowed inside was Sam, who later published one of the most famous photos in history.

Tanner (Peter and JP – you’re welcome to read this too, if you’re so inclined) – Your comment about remembering the day bin Laden was killed reminded me… I also remember it. It was pretty late at night when it was first announced, and as I was walking upstairs to go to bed, my older sister sent me a text and told me to turn on the news. I did, and I immediately sent a text to my best friend telling her to do the same. She went downstairs, turned on the tv, and woke up her younger (by two years) brother, Frank, to tell him the news. “Frank, they killed bin Laden!” she said. Frank looked at her with a blank stare and asked, “Is that good?” When she told me about that, it was the first time I realized we’re some of the last people to remember 9/11 or the months after… to remember hearing the names Hussein, al Qaeda, Taliban, and bin Laden used almost every day on the news… We may not have had an understanding of what it all meant, but we knew they were enemies of the US. It never occurred to me that someone only two years younger than me wouldn’t have any concept of those names at all. And while I understand the obvious reasoning for it, it’s kind of sad that sheltering children from the horrible events of 9/11 has resulted in them having very little understanding of that time period and the wars that have truly affected their lives, whether they realize it or not. I’ve noticed even years later that younger students don’t have the same understanding of 9/11 that our age group and above does. I don’t know if it’s something that is skipped over in history class, if they’re still being sheltered from it, if teachers feel the war is “too close” still and creates too many biased opinions to teach it objectively, if it just doesn’t occur to anyone that these younger students don’t remember… I really don’t know. In my experience, 9/11 information was taught to us on 9/11, sort of as an obligatory memorial class day. We had a small unit on the Middle East in my geography class in 7th grade, and we discussed 9/11 very briefly in my US History III class as juniors, but that was it in terms of actual lessons. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that they were only 3 years old or younger, and that history class needs to adjust. Just thought that would be interesting food-for-thought for you.


4 Responses to “Monroe’s Flying Skirt”

  1. Tanner Quiggle

    I did not know much about Marilyn Monroe other than the obligatory Pittsburgher knowledge that Andy Warhol used her a lot in his artwork. It is interesting to hear about where some of these iconic people in our country come from. As for the part about 9/11, I do not really remember to much, but I lived in DC at the time and I remember the public warning system sirens going off and my mother frantically picking me up from school. However, I think you are right with the sad fact that we are the last generation of people who experience what that felt like, because while I may not remember it, I remember how it felt. I also feel as if now we will watch the transition of it from being a current issue to a history lesson. I too did not learn about it, but instead researched it on my own. We must also remember that it may be touchy for those teaching it as well.

  2. JP

    I personally do not remember anything about when 9/11 happened, where I was or what I was doing, although I know the reason for it. My birthday happens to be September, 12th, and thus my mother tried to keep as happy of a face on as possible during the incident, she has told me that she can still remember sitting in front of the TV watching it happen while making my birthday cake. It must have been pretty scary for her though, as my father (who lives in California) was flying into New York City that day to drive down for my birthday, so we had no idea whether he was ok or not. But, despite all of that, I knew what it meant when I heard we had killed bin Laden, because I could remember all of the commercials and news reports that floated around in my childhood.

  3. Peter Rivera

    For a second, I thought you said Katherine Hepburn and I was going to mention I have distaste of her as well due to most of her roles devolving from strong to emotionally fragile. But, I enjoy Audrey and agree with your sentiment :). She’s just much more…real, if that makes sense? Sigh, so many girls look up to Marilyn Monroe without knowing her past or her as a person, it makes me sad. The history behind this picture was rather lighthearted and made me chuckle a bit; nice change of pace from all the emotionally riveting content in the previous posts (I love all of your posts though, this one just surprised me as it was more light in tone). I read the message for Tanner and I agree with you :/. My “baby” cousins who are younger than me by around 4-7 years varying, didn’t even seem fazed. At all. It’s like the September 11th attacks were already so far in the past for them, like the Civil War. I agree with you and I think history classes really need strong teachers to emphasize and draw attention to why these events in history were so relevant, and how it still matters today. Anyways, great post as always! 😀

  4. Ani

    I had a similar reaction to Frank when I heard that he was killed. I think it was probably my anxiety, but I was so scared that America would be under attack in the days to come. I was so nervous that I didn’t even have time to appreciate what a feat our country had just had. I was so absorbed in what could happen that I didn’t actually think about what just did happen. It wasn’t even that I didn’t remember the events of 9/11 or every horrible act of terrorism they committed; it was just for the first time in my entire life, I was able to comprehend the danger that the United States could be in. When 9/11 occured, we were so young. Yes, I remember where I was, but I was not old enough to understand. I watched my Mommy and sister cry as they called my Dad, making sure that he was okay, but I did not know what it truly meant. When Bin Laden was killed, I understood and I was scared. I was scared for my safety and my freedom and liberty!

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