Hollywood’s First Big Silence Breaker: Marilyn Monroe
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Marilyn Monroe was an early silence breaker in Hollywood — and she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s weekly podcast unlocking a series of linked histories, starting with feminist leader Gloria Steinem and stretching all the way back to the casting couches of early Hollywood. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
The article that ran in the January 1953 issue of Motion Picture and Television Magazine exposing Hollywood’s toxic environment for women was called “Wolves I Have Known.” Its author was not a former performer or an industry outcast. She was a rising star, one with only a few films under her belt. Still, Marilyn Monroe was not afraid to put what was fast becoming a household name on the story’s byline.
In the 1953 article, the 27-year-old Monroe describes the different types of men she had met in Hollywood. “There are many types of wolves,” she wrote. “Some are sinister, others are just good-time Charlies trying to get something for nothing and others make a game of it.” Calling out the culture of sexual harassment in Hollywood did not start in 2017 or with allegations against Harvey Weinstein. In fact, one of the industry’s biggest legends was also one of its pioneering silence breakers.
Monroe began to call out the wolves.
As Michelle Morgan chronicles in Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential, the young Monroe struggled for years as an aspiring model and actress during the late 1940s. She often had trouble paying for food and rent, and modeling came with certain occupational hazards. In an interview she gave two years before her death from a drug overdose in 1962, Monroe explained how sex factored into the profession: “When I started modeling, it was like part of the job … and if you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.”
Being a starlet in Hollywood was no easier. “Even in those early days of modeling when she was trying to break into Hollywood,” says Sarah Churchwell, author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, “men would accost her and tell her that they could help her break into the movies.” Monroe’s agent Harry Lipton once recounted the story of a high-powered executive at a Hollywood party who offered Monroe lavish gifts in exchange for sexual favors. She refused. “What can I say to men like that, Harry?” she asked Lipton on the car ride home. “You’ll learn,” Lipton replied.
Monroe did learn how to tolerate the wolves. “There were plenty of them,” she notes in her unfinished autobiography, My Story. “I didn’t take their money … but I kept riding in their limousines and sitting beside them in swanky places. There was always a chance a job, and not another wolf, might spot you.”
In 1946, at the age of 20, Monroe landed that first big job, a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. The following year she signed a new contract with Columbia Pictures. But that didn’t stop the unsolicited offers. “There were many stories about producers who tried to have a sexual relationship with her,” says Churchwell, “to get her on the casting couch.” After she had her screen test for Columbia Pictures, Monroe claimed that the studio’s married head, Harry Cohn, invited her to take a trip with him on his yacht. She responded that she would only come if Cohn’s wife came too. Monroe was dropped from her contract.
But, if Monroe wanted to pursue her dream, she could not avoid the casting couch entirely. “You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script, that isn’t all he has in mind,” Monroe observes in My Story. “I’ve slept with producers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t.”
Once she became a star, Monroe started to look out for other women in the industry. In an interview last year on the British talk show This Morning, Joan Collins recalled the time when Monroe warned her, as a young British actress coming to America, about the perils of working stateside: “She said, ‘Watch out for the wolves in Hollywood, honey … if they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop your contract.’”
Monroe also began to call out the wolves, most notably in My Story and the 1953 article, which included multiple examples of harassment by and propositions from unnamed men. The directors who cornered her at parties. The producers who invited her to their offices on a Saturday afternoon. “Marilyn was really one of the first big stars to speak out about what we would now call sexual harassment,” says Churchwell. “She was talking about a culture in which women were unsafe [and] her whole point was to say this happens over and over and over.”
In the years after her death, Monroe’s biographers, largely men, tended to ignore the star’s silence-breaking role, preferring to focus instead on the more salacious details of her personal life and the rumors that she slept her way to the top. Nor did Monroe, while she was alive, think of herself as a social reformer or a trailblazer for women’s rights. As the singer Ella Fitzgerald, a good friend of Monroe’s, once reflected about the screen legend: “She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times, and she didn’t know it.”