the column of lasting insignificance...
In 1955, a year after my arrival in New York, I was assigned to interview Marilyn Monroe. She was a big name but much outranked at the time by such screen goddesses as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Garbo. For one reason or another Marilyn was surprisingly easy to contact. I called the genial press agent Frank Goodman and requested an interview with Ms. Monroe and within days we’d arranged to all meet in the lobby of the Waldorf Towers, her Manhattan home since separating from Joe DiMaggio.
Frank looked at his watch. It was 2:40pm. “Maybe I should call her suite?” but almost as soon as he’d said it, she was there.
Short, black skirt over bare legs, polka dotted blouse, her blonde hair falling untidily over enormous sunglasses. "I'm not late am I?" the goddess asked, and being assured of the time added: "Oh, ten minutes? Well, Sir Thomas Beecham told me ten minutes was all right."
Baffled but delighted by this unexpected endorsement, we set off up Lexington Avenue for Child's, a now-defunct bar, which MM had declared to be one of her favorites. Noticing the curious stares from passers-by I observed that her "disguise" didn't seem to be working because passers-by were staring at her. The goddess gave me a reproving glance. "It's probably because I'm a girl" she said. "I do hope it's because I'm a girl".
Sitting across the table from her was an exhilarating experience, but I suppressed my excitement; there was work to be done. In suspension from her studio, 20th Century Fox for persistent tardiness, she had just left DiMaggio and was being constantly linked in the columns with one man or another. Tabloid theories aside, I said, what kind of a man did she really like?
"Well," she replied, "what I really like are men who are poets--but that doesn't mean they have to write poetry. Do you know what I mean?" And leaning across the table she squeezed my forearm for emphasis. I was in ecstasy; who among us, after all, could not imagine himself a poet on such an occasion?
She hardly stopped smiling the entire time we were together and scarcely needed prompting to talk about the Actors Studio, whose daily workshops she was attending. "I feel more serious about this than anything else in the world" she declared. "I want to be a good actress and if I ever know I'm good I shan't care what people say about me ..."
Her sentences tended to trail off towards the end as though she wasn't quite sure how to finish them, and I asked if interviews made her nervous. "Yes. I used to stutter a little but in any case I've always been shy. Still am. I suppose I'm getting better at meeting people but sometimes I'm quite terrified. On that (Ed Murrow) Person to Person show, for example."
Was she ever lonely?
"Aren't we all sometimes. Aren't you? I know I am. It doesn't have anything to do with whether you're with anybody or not. I love to go for walks on my own, though, especially in New York. I don't even want to go to Europe until I've seen more of New York. I haven't been outside the United States....No, no. That's not right. I was in Canada twice. At Banff and also at Niagara Falls. I think Banff is the most beautiful place I've ever seen and Niagara Falls looks even better from the Canadian side. I made that movie Niagara there and can't really understand why those women's organizations made such a fuss about it. It's true I played a tramp in the picture, but I was only acting. How silly if people thought you were what you played in movies".
Frank ordered more drinks and the warmth of the Indian Summer leaked into the half empty bar, momentarily breaking the magical mood. He’d been her agent for a while but seemed to be as fascinated by this conversation as I was.
What had come through to me about Marilyn was her apparent naiveté and total lack of guile. And yet she was obviously very smart and fully aware of her skills. Since her separation from DiMaggio she had been taken in, seemingly protected by the photographer Milton Greene and his wife with whom she had formed a company, Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc.
"I really believe in this", she said enthusiastically. "We're going to do all kinds of things--movies, TV, anything else that we think is creative. Of course I won't be the only one in it. I'm not very good at business--I don't even understand it much--but we want to be company that doesn't get so big that all it cares about is money".
I knew that she had been suspended by 20th Century Fox, only part of the way through the seven-year contract she had signed with Darryl Zanuck, and I asked her what the current situation was.
She sighed. "It's difficult to say. Better not to talk about it at present, I think, because I'm just not sure what's going to happen. The situation could change overnight. I disagreed with them over How To Be Very, Very Popular, not because of the story but because there were one or two things I didn't understand. A good director can get certain results and so I was interested in talking to the director to ask him how he was going to handle these things. But it didn't prove possible to sit down and talk about them so I didn't report for work and was suspended."
As that seemed to be all she was going to say on the matter, I brought up the subject of carping critics. She seemed surprisingly self-confident and untroubled by them. "It doesn't really matter what people say about you", she said. "Sometimes it's bound to hurt a bit but it won't alter things, especially if you know yourself how things really are."
She reached for her glass of Harvey's Bristol sherry and accidentally knocked over the glass. As the liquid ran across the table Frank signaled to a waiter. One was hovering instantly at her side bearing a rag, and Marilyn mopped away with her half-open blouse --I saw her white bra!--all the while muttering something about how easy it was for an actress to be misunderstood.
I mumbled something about the difficulty of certain people being taken seriously when they looked so attractive.
MM smiled and looked coolly into my eyes. "Oh, I don't know" she said lightly. "You look nice and I'm sure you're a good writer".
What happened after that I was almost too dazed to remember. There was some discussion concerning the role of Grushenka in Dostoievsky's The Brothers Karamazov, it being the role she said she most yearned to play.
Frank leaned over the table and said gently, “I think I should be taking you home now, Marilyn. It looks like it might rain”. The goddess looked bewildered at first, as though she had no plans to leave. Then she rose slowly as she edged out of the booth and smiled at us both, saying how much she’d enjoyed our little chat. Outside the bar on Lexington Avenue, it was late afternoon and the crowds were growing. Frank hailed a cab within moments and both climbed in. As I made my farewells I told Marilyn that if she ever cared to visit, I’d enjoy showing her around Greenwich Village (where I then lived in a $46-a-week apartment). But of course I never saw her again.
A few days later I picked up the phone at my 26 Perry Street home to hear a husky voice ask: "Mr Wilcock? This is Marlene Dietrich". Once again a press agent had come through, requesting an interview to which the great lady herself had chosen to respond.
Sadly, many of the people I met in my New York days remain little more today than mere name-drops, but I’ll always bless my luck that I spent an hour or two with these interesting ladies.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
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also available on amazon.com...
National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
Now on Boing-Boing!
February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner