Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis are indelibly linked in the public consciousness for two main reasons: firstly, they co-starred in the comedy classic, Some Like It Hot (1959); and secondly, because when asked what kissing Marilyn was like, Curtis allegedly replied, ‘Like kissing Hitler.’
According to Monroe’s first biographer, Maurice Zolotow, it happened one evening during filming, in the screening room.
‘In the darkness, someone said to Curtis, “You seemed to enjoy kissing Marilyn.” And he said loudly, “It’s like kissing Hitler.”
When the lights came on, Paula Strasberg (Marilyn’s drama coach) was crying. “How could you say a terrible thing like that, Tony?” she said.
“You try acting with her, Paula,” he snapped, “and see how you feel.” ‘
In his new book, Some Like It Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie (co-written with film historian Mark Viera), Curtis tells it slightly differently.
‘The lights came up. I had to leave. On my way out, some guy whom I didn’t recognize called out to me.
“Tony,” he said. “That was terrific. Hey. Tell me. What was it like kissing Marilyn?”
I didn’t stop to acknowledge him. I kept walking.
“What do you think it was like, buddy?” I got to the door. “Like kissing Hitler?”
I went through the door and slammed it after me.’
As recently as 2001, Curtis denied ever making the oft-quoted slur on Monroe. ‘I called her and we talked for a moment, and she understood that it was never said by me,’ he told broadcaster Larry King.
Film critic Mick LaSalle examined Tony’s account in ‘Some Like It True’, his San Francisco Chronicle review of November 2009. ‘He has spent two books trying to contextualize that remark, claiming that he was just being sarcastic, as if to say, “What do you think it’s like to kiss Marilyn? Like kissing Hitler?” ‘ LaSalle commented. ‘If he wanted to be sarcastic and sardonically evoke someone unappealing, he might have said kissing her was like kissing, say, Milton Berle. Hitler may be a reference point, but not for ugliness or physical revulsion. He’s a reference point for moral horror, for someone you really, really hate.’
So why did Tony Curtis make such a vicious remark about Monroe, only to later deny insulting her? Marilyn’s erratic behaviour on film sets was already well-known when Some Like It Hot began shooting in 1958. Her chronic lateness and endless demands for retakes were notorious, but she was rivalled only by Elizabeth Taylor as the biggest female star of the era.
Director Billy Wilder had worked with Monroe before, on The Seven Year Itch (1955.) ‘There was always something bothering her,’ he recalled. ‘Directing her was like pulling teeth.’ But while casting Some Like It Hot, Wilder received a letter from Monroe. ‘Marilyn wanted the part, so we had to have Marilyn,’ Wilder told Cameron Crowe in 1999. ‘We opened every door to get Marilyn.’
Monroe would complete two more films before her sudden death in 1962. The tragedy shook the world and in years to come, interest in her life only increased. ‘When you got her to the studio on a good day,’ Billy Wilder reflected, ‘she was remarkable. She had a quality that no-one else ever had on the screen, except Garbo.’
After Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis went on to star in Spartacus (1960) and The Boston Strangler (1968), as well as a TV show with Roger Moore, The Persuaders. In 1985 he played ‘The Senator’, a character based on Joseph McCarthy, in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, alongside Theresa Russell as ‘The Actress’, a fictitious portrait of Monroe.
In recent years, Curtis has largely retired from acting. Now 84, he has published an autobiography, American Prince (2008), and regularly appears on television chat shows. Unsurprisingly, he is frequently asked to relate his memories of Some Like It Hot, and Marilyn in particular. Over time a vivid, but contradictory picture of his relationship with Monroe has emerged.
In American Prince, Curtis claimed to have had an affair with Marilyn in 1948, when she was still a struggling actress. Curtis has also stated in some interviews that the affair took place when Marilyn was 19, which would place it three years earlier. However, in 1945, Marilyn was not yet an actress, but a married factory worker and sometime model, still known as Norma Jeane Dougherty (she did not change her name or take up acting until the following year.)
Curtis’s latest memoir, Some Like It Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie (2009) dates their alleged romance at 1950, by which time Marilyn was no longer a ‘nobody’, but after key roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, on the brink of stardom. Curtis was then a bit-player at Universal Pictures, on Hollywood’s ‘Poverty Row’. He too would soon find fame in 1952’s Son of Ali Baba, shortly after marrying actress Janet Leigh, and Curtis later won praise for his performances in Sweet Smell Of Success and The Defiant Ones.
There is no record of an affair with Curtis in the many biographies of Monroe. All that is certain is that they did meet at least twice before: in 1951, when they and several other young hopefuls were photographed together for a Life magazine feature, entitled ‘Stars of Tomorrow’; and in 1954, at a birthday party for a mutual friend, Sammy Davis Jr.
In his autobiography, Curtis claimed that his supposed affair with Monroe was rekindled on the set of Some Like It Hot. All the more peculiar, then, that he should compare the experience to kissing Hitler. Now, in Some Like It Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie, Curtis makes an additional claim – that Marilyn became pregnant with his child during filming.
Curtis details a one-night stand with Marilyn early on in the shoot, and later, a confrontation with Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller, where she implied that Tony was the father of her unborn baby. (Curtis’s wife, Janet Leigh, was also then expecting their second child, daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.)
In December 1958, shortly after Some Like It Hot wrapped, Marilyn suffered a miscarriage. Her pregnancy had lasted at least three months. Curtis has never before claimed that he might have fathered her child until Some Like It Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie was published earlier this year – even 2008’s American Prince, which covers Curtis’s relationship with Marilyn in detail, omits this scenario.
‘Tony Curtis’ new book…’ observed Mick LaSalle, ‘underscores one of the unsung advantages of longevity: If you live long enough, you can claim to have had sex with any of your contemporaries, so long as they’re not around to deny it.’
LaSalle notes the bizarre incongruity of Curtis having had a tender, passionate affair with Marilyn, while at the same time telling all who would listen that he detested her. His infamous ‘Hitler’ quote made headlines, and Marilyn later told a journalist, ‘You heard that there was some actor who said kissing me was like kissing Hitler? Well, I think that’s his problem…If I have to do intimate love scenes with a person who really has these kind of negative feelings about me, then my fantasy comes into play. It’s like, out with him, in with my fantasy. He was never there…’
Furthermore, Mick LaSalle has noted that the chapters where Curtis describes his liaisons with Monroe seem flat and unconvincing, with one exception – the love scene in Some Like It Hot.
Contrast Curtis’ accounts of their supposed sexual encounters with his memories of shooting the famous yacht scene in “Some Like It Hot.” Curtis has little to say about the sex, but not as though he’s gallantly leaving out details, but rather as though he can’t come up with anything – that is, besides a description of Monroe’s rear end, which I could write.
But Curtis is all details in describing the yacht scene shoot, in which Sugar (Monroe) tries to seduce Curtis, who is pretending to be impotent. She lay on top of him, an event which prompts Curtis’ single greatest line: “I got an erection … that would have killed an ordinary man.”
Interesting. To be driven to such extremes by just coming into contact with a woman he’s already slept with multiple times, including just a few nights before. It’s not impossible, of course. He was a young man, and she was one of the most desirable women of the era. But this recollection has a newness about it – a first-time feeling, a war-stories feeling, an almost bragging quality – that makes me suspect that this incident, on the set, was Curtis’ one and only intimate contact with Marilyn Monroe.
What is not in doubt, however, is that Marilyn was very difficult to work with at this time, and this may have prompted Tony Curtis’s public attack on her. ‘Tony had his hands full with Marilyn,’ co-star Jack Lemmon recalled. ‘She was ill. We didn’t know that until later. All we knew that she was driving everybody nuts. You might do forty takes with Marilyn. You might do one. Billy was gonna print the one that was best for her. I figured that out early on and I made up my mind, if I let this get to me, it’s going to hurt my performance.’
In February 1959, Billy Wilder told the New York Herald Tribune of his relief at having finished Some Like It Hot. ‘I am eating better,’ he said. ‘My back doesn’t ache any more. I am able to sleep for the first time in months. And I can look at my wife without wanting to hit her because she’s a woman. Would I direct Marilyn again? I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant. They tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through it again.’
Nonetheless, Some Like It Hot was an instant success, and Marilyn won a Golden Globe for her role. It remains her most popular movie, and is now considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Tony Curtis is justly proud of the film, and of his own fine performance.
Even without Some Like It Hot, Monroe’s mythic status is unsurpassed, whereas Curtis’s fame is at least partly tied to hers. This may explain his dilemma; resentment of Marilyn, and envy of her undiminished appeal, paired with his increasingly desperate need to forge a bond with her in the public imagination to sustain our interest.
UPDATE: In MM – Personal, the 2011 book based on documents from Marilyn’s private archive, author Lois Banner found a handwritten note in which Monroe appears to address Curtis’ notorious ‘kissing Hitler’ remark: “There is only way he could comment on my sexuality and I’m afraid he has never had the opportunity!” (The note was sold for $3,840 at Julien’s Auctions in 2016.)
Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress by Carl Rollyson (Umi Research Press, 1986)
Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’ by Billy Wilder, Alison Castle (Taschen, 2001)
Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder – A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
Call Me Bud – Jack Lemmon On Film by Nick Fuller (Authors Online, 2006)
The ‘Some Like It Hot’ Companion by Laurence Maslon (Pavilion, 2009)