“Marilyn’s trip to England may have lasted just four months, but my journey with this book has endured for three decades,” Michelle Morgan writes in introduction to When Marilyn Met the Queen. She first began research in 1992, but was unable to find a publisher. Since then, she has written several books about Monroe, including the biography, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, and two other books focusing on specific periods of Monroe’s life (Before Marilyn, exploring her early days as a model; and The Girl, covering the years before Marilyn came to England, and her rebellion against the Hollywood studio system.)
“I now know why I had to wait thirty years for this book to happen,” Michelle reflects. “I would not have had the skill, resources or experience to handle such a massive project … the time has finally come to tell the England story.” The Prince and the Showgirl is one of Marilyn’s most neglected films, remembered chiefly as the backdrop to her turbulent relationship with director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier, and with little consideration of her achievements as a star producer, or her cultural impact on England at the time. “This book is not just about Marilyn’s experience of Britain,” the Northamptonshire-based author explains. “It is also about Britain’s experience of Marilyn.”
Colin Clark, hired as an errand boy to Olivier, wrote his own gossipy version of events, which inspired the 2011 biopic, My Week With Marilyn. Although a commercial and critical success, the film was billed as a ‘fairy-tale,’ raising the question of whether Clark was a reliable source. This came as no surprise to Michelle, who in the course of her research had identified a number of “discrepancies with the relaying of dates and events … when compared to official records, letters, notes and newspaper reports.”
The Prince and the Showgirl began as The Sleeping Prince, a 1953 play by Terence Rattigan about an unlikely romance between a chorus girl and a Balkan prince visiting London for the coronation of King George V in 1911. Olivier had starred in the West End production with his wife, Vivien Leigh. After establishing her independent company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) in 1955, Marilyn purchased the rights to the play, which would be co-produced with Laurence Olivier Productions, and distributed by Warner Brothers. In February 1956, Olivier and Rattigan flew to New York and announced their forthcoming collaboration with Monroe at a glitzy press conference.
As Rattigan worked on his screenplay, he tailored the female lead for Monroe by making her an American, renamed as Elsie Marina, and toning down the play’s political themes. The playwright occasionally butted heads with Olivier, who proposed shortening the coronation scene – a battle Rattigan won, though in post-production, Marilyn would also criticise its slow pace.
Many of the original cast, including Richard Wattis and Jeremy Spenser, with one notable exception – 74-year-old Dame Sybil Thorndike, who had known Olivier since he was a “dear little boy,” was cast as the Queen Dowager – now the Prince’s mother-in-law, rather than his wife. This alteration may have reassured the censors, although Olivier had to still convince them that the Prince’s amorous adventures would not breach the notoriously stringent Production Code.
In April, costumier Beatrice ‘Bumble’ Dawson visited Marilyn in Hollywood (where she was shooting Bus Stop) to discuss her designs, which the star mostly approved, bar some alterations to the hats. Marilyn was also delighted by Olivier’s choice of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, “the best in the business.” Back in Britain, reporters learned that she would be staying at Tibbs Farm near Ascot, and the lady of the house (a Mrs. Cotes-Preedy) was all too eager to show them around – only to be disappointed when photographer Milton Greene – Monroe’s partner at MMP – took the lease instead.
While stars regularly crossed the Atlantic to perform on stage and screen, Marilyn was a phenomenon on the scale of Elvis Presley. Her name was mentioned in parliamentary debates, and it was hoped that she would boost the nation’s film industry. While moralists warned against celebrity worship and creeping Americanisation, lookalike parades were held in seaside resorts and teenagers rioted outside a dancehall in Scotland, where a Monroe-inspired ‘wiggle contest’ was underway.
Marilyn’s love life dominated headlines during this period, and shortly before her departure to England in July, she was married to playwright Arthur Miller, who would join her for the shoot despite an ongoing legal battle with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics (the case would finally be resolved in his favour in 1959.)
On the eve of her arrival, the publicity team assembled on Marilyn’s behalf met with members of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and London Airport officials, who scoffed at concerns for her safety. Nonetheless, on July 12th, the airport was teeming with fans, journalists and photographers. The situation quickly spun out of control, with extra police being called in to restore order. Amid the chaos Marilyn held her nerve, fielding questions from behind the airport’s snack-bar. Although irritated by her insistence on not speaking into a microphone, the press were quickly disarmed by her unassuming wit. Over the following days she entertained reporters at the Savoy Hotel, proving herself a cannier media operator than either her serious-minded husband, or the guarded, patrician Olivier.
The newlyweds were escorted to their new residence, Parkside House, in the village of Englefield Green near Egham, Surrey, closely followed by the press pack, whom they obliged with another photo-call. As they went inside, local children climbed the gates, and that night, male students from a nearby college serenaded Marilyn with hymns. During these early days she reconnected with Dame Edith Sitwell, the eccentric poet she had first met in Hollywood; and Sir Terence Rattigan welcomed his leading lady with a star-studded party at his country home. This ‘enchanted evening’ is brought to life in atmospheric detail, like a scene from the film they were about to make.
On July 19, Marilyn arrived at Pinewood Studios for a table reading. Far from putting her at ease, Olivier’s declaration to the cast that Marilyn would have to get used to their way of working immediately set her on edge. Thus began a long and bitter power struggle between the classically trained Olivier and Marilyn, the method actress. And while he assumed she would dutifully emulate Vivien Leigh’s characterisation, Marilyn frequently deferred to her acting coach, Paula Strasberg. The wife of Actors Studio head Lee Strasberg, Paula became an unofficial gatekeeper between Marilyn and most of her colleagues, including Milton Greene.
Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, Marilyn’s long-time makeup artist, was embarrassed by her ill-concealed hostility towards Olivier, her constant lateness, and repeated demands for further takes. Meanwhile at home, Arthur Miller was dismayed by her unpredictable moods and growing reliance on sleeping pills. One evening, she found his diary left open on the desk and read of his discontent, and that he feared their marriage had been a mistake. She sank into depression, and Miller’s departure for New York soon afterwards (to visit his children) led her to retreat even further, making only sporadic appearances on the set. During this time, she consulted with John Barnard Blaikley, a well-known surgeon and gynaecologist; and her New York psychiatrist arranged for Marilyn to meet Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, at her London home.
Olivier’s closed-set policy infuriated the British press, who demanded to know why Monroe was indisposed, speculating that she was pregnant. The daily routine in a grand house with a large staff was isolating for Marilyn, accustomed to moving between apartments, hotel suites and sharing the hospitality of friends. She also resented the draconian security measures imposed on her at home, suspecting that bodyguard Roger Hunt (a retired policeman) was little more than a spy for Olivier. Even while resting, Marilyn was constantly disturbed by hangers-on. Nonetheless, there were brighter interludes when she went shopping or dining in London; driving through Sussex, and sight-seeing at Salisbury Cathedral; or cycling near her home, taking picnics in Windsor Park, and chatting happily with her neighbours.
She was not entirely without friends on the set, including stand-in Una Pearl, actress Vera Day (who played Elsie’s chorus girl pal, Betty), and hairdresser Gordon Bond; while Sybil Thorndike, who recognised Marilyn’s expertise in screen acting, was a powerful ally. At home she befriended a young student, Alan, who helped her to prepare ‘I Found a Dream,’ the song she performs in the movie – not with her usual breathy, sensual style, but in tone with character and setting, “like an English Deanna Durbin.”
Miller’s return in September seemed to lift her spirits, with many on the set noticing how smitten the couple seemed, and that he was fully supportive of her career. Others, like Alan, felt that “Arthur was always sizing you up.” Following the diary incident, he and Paula had developed a mutual antipathy. He also distrusted Milton Greene, who in turn resented his increasing involvement with Marilyn’s professional life. Milton’s friendship with Olivier angered Marilyn, while back on the set, nearly everyone found Paula a nuisance. Her generous salary may have compensated, as only Monroe and Olivier were paid more.
In October, as Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge opened at the Comedy Theatre in London, crowds gathered outside to catch a fleeting glimpse of Marilyn, and the play won widespread critical acclaim. She was also encouraged by rave reviews for Bus Stop, despite her misgivings over the final cut. Still using its original working title, The Sleeping Prince was gaining ground at last, though work commitments prevented Marilyn from accepting the many opportunities extended to her (including a proposed television adaptation of her favourite novel, The Brothers Karamazov.)
Her relationship with Olivier remained icy, and even a flying visit from Lee Strasberg could not relieve tensions with the exasperated director. Strasberg advised him not to confuse Marilyn with technical instructions, but Olivier was in no position to reach out. “For Marilyn, you were always on one side or the other,” said publicist Jerry Juroe, also under suspicion due to his warm relations with both Olivier and Greene. Unable to persuade Marilyn that Olivier was not her enemy, her friend and secretary Hedda Rosten flew home to New York.
Throughout these chapters, Michelle Morgan gives a comprehensive overview of the film’s shooting schedule and everyday working conditions at Pinewood, as well as exploring individual scenes in greater depth. The ballroom scene, in which Monroe danced with Olivier, was an organisational nightmare, and at least two journalists sneaked onto the set among scores of impatient extras.
At the same time, it emerged that publicist Alan Arnold was selling his story to a tabloid newspaper. He was promptly dismissed, but the articles were published nonetheless. Even at Parkside, the household cook and her spouse had been fired (and threatened with deportation) after leaking stories to the press. Although Marilyn granted interviews to columnists Donald Zec and David Lewin, her initial rapport with the British press had now turned sour: as Thomas Wiseman wrote in the Daily Express, “seductiveness is not enhanced by standoffishness.”
One invitation she was only too glad to accept was a screening of The Battle of the River Plate at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, a royal command performance – although she had dispatched an emissary to the rehearsal, as related to the press by a disgruntled Joan Crawford. Marilyn took yet another day off work to be fitted by the theatrical costumier, Madame de Rachelle. On the night of October 29, she looked radiant in a low-cut, clinging gold lamé gown, worn with matching cape and platform-heeled shoes, although her sartorial choices hardly met the standard royal protocol.
Flanked by actors Victor Mature and Anthony Quayle, she was beset by stage fright, but her brief introduction to Queen Elizabeth II was captured on front pages nationwide. Much to her surprise, Marilyn learned from the Queen that they were ‘neighbours’ at Windsor Park. “The Queen is very warm-hearted,” she said afterwards. “She radiates sweetness.” She was also introduced to the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, and urged her to go see A View From the Bridge (which Margaret did a few days later.)
The Queen made no public comment on meeting Marilyn, but is said to have told a friend, “I thought Miss Monroe was a very sweet person. But I felt sorry for her, because she was so nervous that she had licked all her lipstick off.” Born just weeks apart in 1926 – some thirty years before their sole encounter – these two very different women would both take their place in history.
During her remaining time in England, Marilyn saw a rough cut of The Sleeping Prince, and attended a fractious debate at the Royal Court Theatre, where her bemused husband joined a panel alongside fellow dramatist Wolf Mankowitz as he verbally sparred with a younger rival, Colin Wilson. On November 20, Marilyn personally thanked all the Parkside House staff and said her goodbyes to the Oliviers at London Airport. In contrast to her arrival four months earlier, it was a subdued occasion, with only a handful of reporters present. Vivien Leigh, still recovering from a miscarriage, gamely supported her weary husband in this final public display.
“I did have a feeling that you British were in the middle of a crisis here,” Marilyn teased the assembled press, referring to the Suez Crisis. Years later Olivier admitted, “I’ve never been so glad when anything was over.” The stars would meet just once more, in January 1957, when Olivier reluctantly flew to New York for a promotional shoot with Marilyn and Milton Greene. Over the next few months Marilyn waged war against Greene, and their partnership was finally dissolved. Under pressure to remove Greene’s name from the film’s opening credits, Olivier compromised by releasing two separate prints. “I co-produced this with Olivier,” Marilyn said in a later interview. “In all fairness he should probably be called the producer. I’m the owner.”
In June, she attended the New York premiere of The Prince and the Showgirl (as the film was retitled in post-production) at Radio City Music Hall. Olivier appeared at the London opening in July, and the film received fair-to-middling reviews, with most critics agreeing that Marilyn had stolen the show from her overworked leading man. Her performance was honoured with a BAFTA nomination, and prestigious awards from Italy and France. Devoting her energies to husband and home, she did not return to acting for another year, and never produced another film.
When Marilyn came to England, she had the world at her feet: at the peak of her beauty, professionally empowered, and in love with a brilliant man who adored her. And yet, for all the glories still ahead, by examining this period in depth we can trace the seeds of her undoing. Michelle Morgan writes movingly of this talented, yet deeply insecure young woman. “Yes, she had become one of the most famous women in the world,” Michelle writes, but Marilyn had “little self-belief … her career seemed to be one long fight.”
From All About Eve to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, writers have explored the making of classic films as a mirror to the lives of their creators, and audience. In an interview for Cellophaneland, Michelle describes When Marilyn Met the Queen as “the book of my life,” and her writing is precise and evocative. Redeeming The Prince and the Showgirl from stale gossip fodder (and home video purgatory), she uncovers a unique moment in British cinema when the rules of stardom were changing. The vulnerable woman at the story’s heart is conveyed with sensitivity and nuance, and Monroe’s rapturous reception is drawn with respect for post-war Britain and an eye for its absurdities.
Incredibly, we are now further removed from Marilyn’s heyday than she was from Elsie Marina and her sleeping prince. When Marilyn Met the Queen is published on the eve of two significant anniversaries: in May 2022, Elizabeth II will enter her seventieth year as Queen; and in August, sixty years will have passed since Marilyn’s tragic demise. “She wasn’t nearly as sexy as men like to imagine,” Dame Sybil Thorndike said after the news broke in 1962. “She was a sad, sad, lovely girl.” When asked about her time in England, Marilyn’s thoughts ran to its weather. “I am dying to walk bareheaded in the rain,” she said before her flight to London. “It seemed to be training all the time,” she added later. “Maybe it was me.”