NEW YORK – She was Playboy's first centerfold, and Joe DiMaggio's second wife. Marilyn Monroe (search) possessed a knack for the big splash, particularly if there was a camera nearby — and it seemed there was always a camera nearby.
The actress turned enduring American icon was intoxicated by the pop of flashbulbs; during her too-short lifetime, she was photographed drinking and dining, smiling and sleeping, dressed and undressed.
The camera "was to her what water is to a fish," director Billy Wilder once said. "She exulted in it."
More than 200 Monroe pictures from 39 photographers — including such celebrated lensmen as Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks, Robert Frank and Andy Warhol — are on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (search) in a new exhibit, "I Want to Be Loved by You: Photographs of Marilyn Monroe." (search)
The exhibit traces the evolution of small-town girl Norma Jeane into sex goddess Marilyn. In a 1945 picture, the unknown 19-year-old stands alone on a Long Island beach, leaning undisturbed over an open parasol.
A decade later, a coy Monroe stands smiling on a Grand Central subway platform as a man to her left stares in bug-eyed disbelief.
The centerpiece of the collection, owned by Leon and Michaela Constantiner, is a set of 59 Monroe pictures shot by photographer Bert Stern in the weeks before the actress' 1962 drug overdose. "The Last Sitting" features an assortment of behind-the-scenes shots of Monroe, who sipped nine-year-old Dom Perignon to create a mood. The actress posed laughing, with a diamond necklace draped across her bare shoulders, and topless behind a transparent scarf.
More than four decades later, her larger-than-life persona still emanates from each shot, setting the bar for subsequent "blonde bombshells," from Loni Anderson to Madonna to Pamela Anderson.
"Her relationship with the camera was the most important one she had," Kushner said of Monroe. "She saw the camera as a friend."
The most enduring image of Monroe, her infamous photo op for "The Seven Year Itch," is well represented. There are 14 different shots of Monroe's white dress scandalously billowing above her waist as she stood over a Lexington Avenue subway grate.
An infuriated DiMaggio stormed off during the shoot, leaving Monroe alone. Another picture from the exhibit shows a sobbing Monroe leaving in a car after announcing her 1954 divorce from the Yankee Clipper.
Monroe's Playboy centerfold, shot by photographer Tom Kelly, holds a prominent position in the exhibit, with the naked actress seductively posed atop a blanket of red velvet. When a reporter asked Monroe what she had on during the shoot, she memorably replied, "I had the radio on."
There are dozens of other shots offering glances into the off-screen Monroe: Marilyn reading a book at home, shooting craps with director John Huston, slow-dancing with second husband Arthur Miller.
While photographs make up the bulk of the exhibit, the multimedia presentation offers other rarely seen glimpses of Monroe, from a 1950 commercial for Union Oil of California to her provocative serenade of President John F. Kennedy at his 45th birthday in May 1962.
"I can now retire from politics after having had `Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," Kennedy deadpanned. Within 18 months, neither he nor Monroe would be alive.
One of the most moving pictures doesn't feature Monroe at all. Shot by Robert Frank in 1962, it shows a woman lying on a beach beneath an American flag. She's reading the Daily News, and the giant-type headline is clearly visible: