In honour of what would be Marilyn Monroe’s 87th birthday, I explore the story behind a remarkable home movie – filmed by a teenage fan, and retrieved by chance almost fifty years later. (This article can also be read via Immortal Marilyn.)
Marilyn’s Photographers: Peter Mangone
In 2002, 62 year-old Peter Mangone – retired, and living in Palm Beach, Florida – had a surprising phonecall from his brother. While sorting through their father’s possessions, he had found a long-lost home movie belonging to Peter.
Almost fifty years old, the film – around five and a half minutes long – showed a radiant Marilyn Monroe, then 29, walking down a New York street with two male friends. Kept inside a beat-up cardboard box, the film was, miraculously, in mint condition.
Russ Suniewick, president of a film preservation company, transferred the film to 16-millimeter stock and VHS and DVD formats. There was no soundtrack. The film was shot from four or five feet away, with a series of interactions between Monroe and the camera.
One of the first to hear the news was Joshua Greene. Son of the photographer, Milton H. Greene, Joshua had been involved in restoring his father’s work since 1990. He instantly recognised Milton as one of Marilyn’s companions in the Mangone film.
‘One of the gents was my dad,’ he confirmed, ‘and the other was George Nardiello, a fashion designer and a family friend.’
Gallery curator James Danziger has noted that, seven years later, Nardiello would sew Marilyn into the diaphanous, beaded dress (designed by Jean Louis) that she wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
However, a fellow teenage fan, James Haspiel shared this anecdote in 1991 – eleven years before Mangone’s discovery.
“On a mild mid-morning…I was walking towards the Gladstone and as I arrived at the entrance I came upon a teenager standing outside with an 8-mm camera aimed directly at the hotel’s revolving door, which was already in motion. Marilyn came awhirl through the door and literally performed a 360-degree turn for his home-movie camera… So I walked side by side with her; naturally, to the utter frustration of this kid who was walking backwards with his movie camera pointed at us, because I was now unavoidably in all of his wonderful footage of Marilyn. In fact, although I sought him out over the following years, he never allowed me to see the candid film he took of Marilyn and me walking across town that day.”
Marilyn Monroe, NYC, 1955
“Marilyn had just divorced Joe DiMaggio and was living at the Gladstone Hotel while taking classes at the Actors Studio,” James Danziger wrote in 2012. “Peter had been skipping classes at James Monroe High School in the Bronx to stake out the star and take photographs as she left the hotel. On this particular grey March day Peter had borrowed his elder brother’s Revere movie camera and waited outside the hotel in the hope of running into his idol. Luck was on his side. The star emerged, recognised her young fan, and beckoned for him to follow. For the next few hours Peter accompanied Marilyn…”
“As she walked her famous walk in her very high black stiletto heels, cars and trucks just pulled over to the curb and drivers emerged from them shouting ‘Marilyn! Marilyn!’” James Haspiel wrote in his earlier account. “When we finally got the three blocks over to Fifth Avenue, we then had to walk uptown to 54th-55th Streets. As we arrived at the doorway to Elizabeth Arden’s salon, I heard the nearby sounds of an automobile crashing, and looked over to see a taxicab driver whose head was bobbing out of the passenger-side front window of his cab, the vehicle itself now embedded in the back end of a delivery truck! He had a gleeful smile on his face and was hollering, ‘Marilyn!’ I tapped her on the shoulder and exclaimed, ‘See what you did!’ She gave me a very ‘Marilynesque’ laugh and swept rather grandly into the salon.”
“It is the way that she drifts in and out of interaction with her 14 year-old film-maker fan that is most intriguing,” Danziger observes. “She blows him a kiss with a smile that could light up the Empire State Building. She looks up at the skyscrapers with a look that is both naïve and perturbed.”
After leaving Elizabeth Arden, Marilyn flashed Peter another ‘bewitching smile’ before disappearing into I. Miller & Sons, a shoe store. When she left with Greene, the sky had darkened and evening approached.
“Whatever the reason and no matter how accidental the methodology,” Danziger reflects, “Peter Mangone’s selected film frames burst with artful resonance. They never intended to echo Thomas Ruff’s blown-up sex pictures or Chuck Close’s painted pixelations but they do. Mangone did not study the New York School photography of the 1950s or Alexey Brodovich’s dance pictures but there’s a connection in many of the images.”
Peter’s film reveals Marilyn’s daily routine: Ed Feingersh, who also met her that March, photographed her outside Elizabeth Arden’s Salon. And the mink fur collar that she wore on both occasions is now owned by Scott Fortner, who traces its past on his Marilyn Monroe Collection website.
“Marilyn wore this fur regularly when living in New York City,” he writes, “and also during at least two Milton Greene photo shoots, one being the famous Edward R. Murrow session, which was shot at his home prior to Marilyn’s now famous appearance on his television show. On another occasion, Marilyn was interviewed wearing this collar at Milton Greene’s studio, located at 480 Lexington Avenue in New York.”
57 Years Later…
Mangone returned to his home on Starling Avenue. After having the film developed, Danziger tells us, “he viewed it so many times that every shift and flicker and shimmy was committed to memory.”
”Once you saw her, once your eyes fixed into her, she was burnt into your head,” Peter told the New York Times. ”I haven’t been able to look at another woman the same way since.”
”When I was about 17, I remember cleaning my room and throwing a bunch of stuff out, movie magazines and stuff, because I was a mature person now,” he said. ”I remember losing it.”
He later became a roller derby skater and hair-stylist to some of Marilyn’s celebrity peers, including Sammy Davis Jr and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
But Joshua Greene’s expertise in photographic restoration made him an ideal candidate to digitally manipulate Peter’s film, when it surfaced after almost fifty years. “We started scanning every frame of the film,” he explains. “Finding the balance between the colour tones while still allowing Marilyn’s persona to come through the small dark 8mm frames was the challenge.”
“Then, in 2008, it hit me: do multiples! It’s a film, so why not show images in a series, play with the frames and create a new work as a print.”
In 2012 – half a century after MM’s death – an exhibition and accompanying book was launched. Among the visitors was MM fan Edgar Freire.
“The background story of the Peter Mangone photos,” Edgar writes, “is a story of nostalgia, for an era of innocence – a time when it was not unheard of for film stars (before the era of stalkers) to befriend their die-hard fans; and it is also a love story, not only of a fan and his idol, but a fleeting poem to New York.”
“It is also a story tinged with a bittersweet ending. The exhibit was originally scheduled to open in November 2012, but due to flooding as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the Danziger Gallery suffered damages, and closed for a couple of months for repairs. Sadly, Peter Mangone passed away in December 2012, missing the rescheduled opening of his exhibit in January 2013 by less than a month.
“I visited the exhibit with a small group of fellow Marilyn fans when it opened in January. When we arrived at the gallery, I was surprised to discover that the Marilyn exhibit was not in the main exhibit space, but in a little room tucked away in a corner of the gallery, hidden almost like an afterthought. The exhibit itself was pretty sparse, three walls of framed stills taken from Mangone’s home video of Marilyn, and a fourth wall consisting of a television display continually playing Mangone’s video on a repeat loop.
“It is important to remember that the framed stills in the exhibit consisted of screen ‘captures’ of an almost 60-year old amateur film, therefore the images lose some of their crispness when blown up to this display size, and some graininess was evident. In spite of this, the unmistakable allure and magnetism of Marilyn was present in every inch of the celluloid.
“Viewing these photos, one was reminded of the remarkable serendipity that created this meeting between fan and star, and allowed Mangone to be present to record these images – to allow us to rediscover Marilyn in 1955, the candid, relaxed movie star, exuding confidence in the arms of her dear friend Milton Greene, engineer of her flight from Hollywood and reinvention in New York City.”
You can watch an edited clip of Peter Mangone’s film here.
Marilyn Monroe: New York, 1955, by Peter Mangone, 2012
Marilyn: The Ultimate Look at the Legend, by James Haspiel, 1992