Born in Buffalo, New York in 1914, Bacon studied at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, from 1933-36, dropping out in his final year after his parents lost their home in a flood. He completed his journalism degree in 1943 at Syracuse University, and served in the Navy. Bacon’s career in Hollywood, writing a syndicated column for Associated Press, coincided with the rise of Marilyn Monroe and the final phase of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era.’He met her when she was still relatively unknown. Some accounts say he even suggested her name, but in fact, the erstwhile Norma Jeane Dougherty had concocted the name with talent scout Ben Lyon when she was signed by Twentieth Century Fox in 1946.
Bacon himself has sometimes dated their first meeting at around the time of Ladies of the Chorus (1948), when they were introduced by press agent Milton Stein. Bacon told Anthony Summers, author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1986), that his first thought was, “Holy God! She’s so exciting.” He went on: ‘There was something about this girl. The moment you met her you knew she was going to make it.’
He got to know Marilyn better when she briefly stayed at the home of producer Joe Schenck, and Bacon has told a rather lurid story of making love to Marilyn in Schenck’s guest cottage, then being interrupted when Schenck telephoned to request her ‘services’. It is clear that Schenck liked Marilyn and, at times, helped her career. But Marilyn always denied that their relationship was sexual, and as Michelle Morgan noted in her 2007 biography, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, Schenck himself told writer Ezra Goodman, ‘She used to come here quite often for dinner. I think she liked to eat. We have good food here. No, I never had any romantic thoughts about Marilyn and she never had any such thoughts about me.’
Bacon explained to Anthony Summers, ‘I know she was promiscuous in those early days. She admitted it helped, and I had no illusions that Marilyn Monroe was after me for me. She liked me, sure, but she was also after all the newspapers my syndicated column appeared in.’ It was also rumoured that Bacon ‘hushed up’ a dinner date Marilyn once had with the reclusive entrepreneur, Howard Hughes – which impressed Hughes so much that he granted Bacon a rare interview. ‘I wouldn’t have written about them anyway,’ Bacon admitted. ‘The AP didn’t carry stories about “twosomes” and wouldn’t have run it without confirmation from Hughes or Marilyn.’
The few photographs of Marilyn and Bacon together in public – usually at press conferences – seem to suggest they were indeed friendly. But Marilyn cultivated the goodwill of many reporters, from the legendary Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, to the respected W.J. Weatherby, both of whom wrote books about her. Interestingly, neither of those writers claimed any romantic connection to Marilyn.
In 1950, Marilyn won her breakthrough role in The Asphalt Jungle, with the support of her agent and lover, Johnny Hyde (a liaison she never tried to conceal.) Bacon has claimed that he was present at the audition, and found a nervous Marilyn stuffing tissue paper into her cleavage. Anthony Summers tells a story of Marilyn calling Bacon at home on New Year’s Eve, 1951, after Hyde’s death, pleading, ‘I don’t want to stay at home, Jim…Can I go to a party with you?’ Bacon, a married man, said that his wife would not appreciate it. After saying ‘Oh, I understand,’ in a small voice, Marilyn hung up. This poignant dialogue, which could almost be a scene from TV’s Mad Men, evokes perfectly the sexual hypocrisy of the 1950s American male. But as with so many of Bacon’s stories, there are no corroborating sources.
By 1953, after her bravura performances in Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe was the toast of Hollywood. She attended the Photoplay Awards that year, sewn into a daring gold lamé dress, and apparently little else. ‘When she wiggled through the audience to come up to the podium,’ Bacon wrote, ‘her derriére looked like two puppies fighting under a silk sheet.’ This rather lewd description of Monroe’s physical charms is typical of the way her image has so often been hyper-sexualised, and Marilyn herself seemed both drawn to and exasperated by the attention. An outraged Joan Crawford (also a sex symbol, and an actress Monroe had long admired) remarked acidly, ‘It was like a burlesque show. The audience yelled and shouted…’
Unlike the old guard of gossip columnists – principally, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – more likely to moralise about the stars’ behavior, and thus more feared than loved, James Bacon was considered ‘one of us’. Rarely seen without whisky and cigar in hand, Bacon – according to legend – witnessed all the highs and lows in the lives of Hollywood’s elite, who trusted him not to expose their darkest secrets.
Marilyn’s 1954 marriage to Joe DiMaggio collapsed within the year, largely because of her devotion to her career and Joe’s obsessive jealousy. Bacon saw DiMaggio with Frank Sinatra at the Villa Nova restaurant in Los Angeles one evening, shortly after Monroe filed for divorce. ‘Over at a nearby table,’ Bacon told Anthony Summers, ‘it looked like a Sons of Italy meeting – Sinatra, DiMaggio, and a few other paisanos. Hank Sanicola, Sinatra’s manager and a close friend in those days, was among the group. I didn’t join the table, although I have always been a friend of Frank’s, because I could see that DiMaggio was in a terrible mood.’
Later that night, DiMaggio and the others drove to an apartment building where Marilyn was having dinner with an actress friend, Sheila Stewart, and musician Hal Schaefer. DiMaggio and his cohorts were fairly sure that Marilyn and Schaefer were lovers, and broke into one of the apartments, hoping to interrupt them.Unfortunately, they raided the wrong apartment. The tenant, a middle-aged woman, was deeply distressed and the so-called ‘Wrong Door Raid’ became the subject of a criminal investigation.
After her divorce, Marilyn left Hollywood for New York, where she studied acting and eventually married the playwright, Arthur Miller. While she had escaped the spotlight, Bacon continued to chronicle the entertainment business. He accompanied Elizabeth Taylor’s physician to her home in 1956 to break the news that her third husband, Mike Todd, had died in a plane crash. Seven years later, Bacon would tip off Taylor’s next husband, Eddie Fisher, when he spotted her in Mexico with lover Richard Burton, who was filming Night of the Iguana. Apparently, Taylor did not bear a grudge, because she later said of Bacon, ‘He has always been one of the most forthcoming, honest, true, unbitchy (journalists) …a dear, dear friend.’
Bacon was also at the scene of one of Hollywood’s most wretched tragedies, in 1957, after Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, had stabbed Turner’s abusive boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, to death (Bacon entered the house by posing as a coroner, and got a first-hand account from Lana herself.)
In 1958, Marilyn returned to Los Angeles to star in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. After suffering a miscarriage a year earlier, she had become very depressed. There were rumours of failed suicide attempts, and her growing dependency on alcohol and pills was an open secret within the film community. Her relationship with Miller was often tense, and her co-workers soon grew impatient with her unpunctuality and constant demands for retakes. A root cause of Marilyn’s unhappiness may have been Hollywood itself. She was once again playing a ‘dumb blonde’, a label she hated. Marilyn had long felt exploited by the men who monopolised the industry, and resented their condescension towards her talent.
‘As it often did, her fear erupted in cruelty and anger,’ Barbara Leaming wrote in her 1998 biography, Marilyn Monroe. ‘When Marilyn introduced (Miller) to the gregarious James Bacon, she cooed suggestively, “Jim and I used to be real close.” It was as though she and Bacon were in on a joke that her husband didn’t quite get.’ Of course, the source of this story was Bacon himself. Marilyn later told another journalist, W.J. Weatherby, ‘There were times when I’d be with one of my husbands and I’d run into one of those Hollywood heels at a party and they’d paw me cheaply in front of everybody as if they were saying, “Oh, we had her”…But I was never kept; I always kept myself,’ Monroe added, truthfully.
Just as Bacon had witnessed Marilyn’s rise to fame, he was also on hand to record her downfall for posterity. During filming of Let’s Make Love in 1960, Bacon called Yves Montand in his hotel suite, and claims to have learned that Marilyn was in bed with him. The ensuing gossip led to a great deal of harsh publicity for Marilyn, whereas Montand emerged with his image, and his marriage, intact. While filming The Misfits that summer, Clark Gable allegedly told Bacon, ‘I like (Marilyn) but she’s so damn unprofessional…she didn’t show up ’til after lunch some days, and then she would blow take after take…I’m glad this picture’s finished, she damn near gave me a heart attack.’
Bacon later recalled, ‘Oh, she had such an unhappy childhood, foster homes and everything, it made her very insecure…And I told (Gable) about her childhood, and then he understood, yes.’ However, the damage to Monroe’s reputation was already done. When Gable suffered a heart attack and died just weeks after filming ended, the press implied, falsely, that Gable’s wife blamed her, driving Marilyn, recently separated from Miller, ever closer to a nervous breakdown. As Bacon has since acknowledged, Gable was a heavy drinker and smoker, and his insistence on doing his own stunts had a far greater impact on his health than Marilyn’s lateness did. From 1961 onwards, Marilyn returned to Los Angeles to rebuild her career.
In early 1962, Monroe attended the Golden Globe Awards and was named ‘World Film Favourite’, which delighted her especially because it was the only award to be voted for by the public. Bacon, who was also present at the ceremony, noted that Marilyn was escorted by Jose Bolanos, a Mexican screenwriter ten years her junior. Photographs taken that night suggest that Marilyn was elated, and her friend, actress Susan Strasberg, wrote that ‘Some people in the room stood on chairs, just to get a look at her, like kids. I’d never seen stars react to another star like that. Marilyn seemed oblivious to them all…’
Among the wilder rumours swirling around Monroe was that of an ongoing involvement with President John F. Kennedy. Bacon, who also knew Kennedy, said later that this was common knowledge in the press, though at the time it was left unreported.‘I think [the affair] started in 1960 and I think he came to Palm Springs,’ Bacon told Ted Johnson, a reporter for Variety, a few years ago. ‘I think that is where she first met him. He always had someone down there when he was in Palm Springs. Jackie never came to Palm Springs.’ This is interesting, because Marilyn’s masseur and friend, Ralph Roberts, confirmed that she did indeed spend a weekend at Bing Crosby’s home in Palm Springs during the Democratic Convention – but this was in 1962, not 1960, which makes her alleged fling with Kennedy seem shorter and much less substantial than Bacon has described.
Nonetheless, Bacon has also acclaimed that Monroe had a concurrent affair with the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. ‘Marilyn told me about it,’ Bacon added. ‘She just told me how much she loved him. I told my bosses about it. They said, “Well, we can’t put anything on the wire.” It was her say so.’ Bacon also said, half-jokingly, that Marilyn had complained about the president having no time for foreplay. If all this was really true, why did Bacon not mention it until years after Monroe and Kennedy died?
In his 2009 book, Marilyn Revealed, Ted Schwarz quotes Bacon as saying, ‘I used to always cover JFK when he came west to Palm Springs. We knew all about his girlfriends, but the press in those days was a little different than they are now. Everything changed after Watergate. We always looked upon Kennedy’s affairs with girls as a hobby, just like Eisenhower’s golf. And then Nixon came and did to the country what Kennedy was doing to girls, it made it different.’
Bacon claims to have seen Marilyn just five days before she passed away, although no other accounts of this meeting exist (and Marilyn’s final week is quite well-documented.) ‘Well, she was drinking fairly heavy,’ Bacon told TV host Larry King in 2005. ‘And she had champagne and vodka, drinking vodka straight on the rocks. And then she’d pop pills. And I said, “Marilyn, the combination will kill you.” She says, “It hasn’t killed me yet,” and took another drink.’
On the night of August 4th, 1962, Marilyn was found dead at her home after overdosing on barbiturates. ‘I was working for the AP in those days,’ Bacon told Larry King, ‘and I got a tip that the cops had been called to Marilyn Monroe’s house in Brentwood. And I’d been there five days earlier with her so I knew where it was. And I got there, and I was the first reporter on the scene. There was a cop on the door, and I used an old reporter’s cliché. I said, “I’m from the coroner’s office.” He waved me in. I went in, I looked at Marilyn sprawled on the bed…Well, she was nude. Just sprawled there … And I just took a cursory glance and went out, and I dictated the story. And then I was outside when the coroners – the real coroners – came and took her body out, and they covered her with a cheap cotton blanket. And I’m telling you, you know, reporters are companions of disaster. When I saw her under that blanket, I had to wipe away a tear, you know. This beautiful star going out like that.’
Monroe’s tragic death signified the end of an era in Hollywood. The studio system, with it veneer of glamour, was also on the wane. In future, contact between celebrities and the press would become remote and mistrustful. Bacon missed the old days, which certainly seemed to be more relaxed. ‘Back in those days, the press loved the stars and the stars loved them,’ he reminisced. ‘We all got along very well.’
‘They just trusted him,’ Bacon’s friend, Stan Rosenfield, said last week. ‘If you look at the people he was friendly with — Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor — these were people who didn’t always have friendly relationships with the press.’ In 1966, Bacon left Associated Press and began a 20-year stint at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He also married for a second time, to Doris Klein who survives him. Bacon even moonlighted as an actor, appearing in all five Planet of the Apes movies. He helped to expose a hoax ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes. And in 1979, John Wayne told Bacon that he was terminally ill, and asked him to make the news public.
However fond Bacon was of Monroe, and however saddened he was by her passing, the tragedy also gave new life to his career. In 1977, he published an article, ‘The Night I Made It With Marilyn Monroe’, and his first volume of memoirs, Hollywood is a Four-Letter Town. From the 1980s onwards, Bacon became a fixture on documentaries and talk-shows, capitalising on the public’s seemingly endless curiosity about Marilyn.
In 1996, the US cable channel, E! Online, produced a documentary called James Bacon: Hollywood Confidential, thus completing Bacon’s somewhat bizarre transition from reporter to minor celebrity. Among the interviewees was Clint Eastwood, who commented, ‘Jim always made you feel like he was a pal looking to hang out.’ But Eastwood, like Taylor and Sinatra, is a Hollywood survivor who has guarded his privacy wisely. Marilyn is no longer able to enjoy that privilege. If she had lived, Bacon might never have spoken about her as indiscreetly as he later did. His appearances on television, while always entertaining, leave the impression of a canny old newsman, accustomed to telling audiences whatever they want to hear – and of course, the accuracy of his recollections can now never be proved.
The Monroe myth has attracted several alleged fantasists – including, some would say, the likes of Ted Jordan, Robert Slatzer and Jeanne Carmen, who have all appeared in books, magazines and on television. While James Bacon has also been the target of some scepticism, he did know Monroe – although how well he knew her is questionable. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it is most likely that to Marilyn, Bacon was, ultimately, just another reporter. In her lifetime, her dearest wish was to be respected. The endless gossip about her private affairs, whether true or not, detracts from Monroe’s considerable achievements as an actress, icon and human being. But if there was no public appetite for celebrity gossip, James Bacon would never have gone to Hollywood.
Over the last decade or so, Bacon continued to write a column for a glossy magazine, Beverly Hills 213. In late 2009 he contributed an article about Hollywood’s golden age, and his affection for old friends was obvious. ‘With so many beautiful women in Hollywood,’ he mused, ‘it might be difficult to pick a favorite. But I’m pretty sure you know who they are, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. They both were down to earth, straightforward. At least with me, they were never devious. Beneath all that glamour, they were real people. And we had a lot of fun.’