New York City, June 16, 1957
Remembering the moment when I saw through the bombshell's own shell is a simple pleasure I enjoy every year.
Today, we all know the backstory: Tragic, beautiful Marilyn, doomed by a swirl of drugs and bad men and her wrecked sense of self. But precisely 50 years ago, at the height of her fame and beauty, in a city she would make famous as the site of her blowing white dress over those terrific legs, she could still step into the breathy-blonde persona that I and so many others were in love with.
On the Starlight Roof of the Taft Hotel for hours that evening she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that's--she did Marilyn Monroe. She was drinking white wine that helped things along, and she had a captive audience and the full musical attention of a 20-piece orchestra.
Then there was her inevitable drop, with the play over and done.
I was a young sailor then on his first leave in New York. I had arrived that morning at the Quonset Point, RI Naval Air Station with our plane and crew from U.S. Naval Station Bermuda where I was based. I took a train down to New York and intended to stay a couple days and see the town while our plane underwent an update at the facility in Rhode Island.
Years earlier I had made my first visit to the city as a high school senior on our class trip. We had stayed at the Taft then too. But we were not allowed to visit the Starlight Roof, with all it's celebrities, movie stars and famous orchestras because we were all under age and could not enter where alcoholic beverages were sold. I vowed then if I ever had the chance I'd come back when I turned 21 and visit the Roof.
Marilyn's reflections, even a half-century on, have power.
I had watched, entranced with her beauty and talent, until she stopped, seemingly exhausted, then left the Roof. I also left a short while later, and rather than take the elevator down, I decided to walk the stairs to my room a few levels below. In those days the Taft had a series of small terraces at the end of every 10 floors or so, and I walked onto the one on my floor to take a last look at the city lights.
And then I saw her, sitting quietly and alone in a corner, like a child, with everything gone. Immediately I knew this was a picture of Norma Jean, not Marilyn. But there is always something else, something real, something sad in the winsome smile she gave me, then slowly rose and walked from the small terrace into immortality without a word. So close by me I could smell her perfume and feel her breathe and hear the rustle of her dress. I would never see her alive again.
The Starlight Roof at the Taft is gone now. So are the naval stations at Quonset Point and Bermuda. The aircraft we flew then are antiques. The only familiar thing at Times Square I remember now is the Times Building itself.
I read an article a few years ago by Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, and the man who gave Marilyn her first big break.That was in 1953, and the nude Marilyn in the calendar and on the magazine's cover is still a classic. But Hefner himself said it was not the real Marilyn. The photo was just a shell, he said.
She was the ultimate blonde, the greatest movie star, the beginning and the end, and she was so beautiful. But she was fragile, frightened and lonely and her beauty was indeed just a shell.
The girl I ran into that evening 50 years ago on a quiet terrace at the Taft is the Marilyn I remember.
Jack L. Key is a freelance writer, Tennessee resident and author of several books and feature articles. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org