Hello, Norma Jeane

Good morning, it’s  July 19, 2019. When a 20-year-old blonde showed up at the studios of 20th Century Fox for a screen test on this date in 1946, the odds were stacked against her. The young woman had no previous acting experience, a hard-to-pronounce surname, and little clue of the culture she was attempting to join.

For starters, dying her hair blonde for the audition was a miscalculation: Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck preferred brunettes. She also told studio makeup artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder to paint her face heavily, as though she were going onstage, causing cinematographer and casting director Leon Shamroy to explode. The commotion upset Norma Jeane Dougherty, who began to sweat and stammer. Her face flushed, leaving red blotches. Assured that the screen test required no talking, however, she went through with it.

What happened next would have effects that rippled through Hollywood, the world of American letters, U.S. popular culture and beyond — from the New York Yankees to the Oval Office to the ranks of U.S. grunts fighting in Korea, as well as to future generations of artists.

On July 19, 1946, Norma Jeane Dougherty, clad in a floor-length gown, was instructed to walk back and forth, sit on a stool, light a cigarette, and gaze out a stage window.

The change in her was immediate, the effect electric. Her hands stopped shaking, and she walked steadily, and confidently. “I got a cold chill,” Shamroy recalled later. “Her natural beauty, plus her inferiority complex, gave her a look of mystery. This is the first girl who looked like one of those lush stars of the silent era. Every frame of the test radiated sex.”

Ben Lyon, the studio’s top talent scout, reacted similarly to the screen test. Both men communicated their enthusiasm to Zanuck. By Tuesday, she was under contract in Lyon’s office. Not the kind of man to take advantage of a vulnerable woman, Lyon gingerly asked about her career goals.

“I want to be a film star,” she replied simply.

Lyon believed she could attain that aim. First, though, there was that last name, which audiences would stumble over. Was there another one she liked? The young woman thought of her grandmother, one of the few adults who’d been kind to her growing up.

“Monroe,” she answered. For a first name, Lyon told Norma Jeane that she reminded him of a “lovely actress” he knew before the war named Marilyn Miller.

What Lyon didn’t reveal was that he’d broken off his wedding engagement to Miss Miller, who had endured an abusive childhood and went on to have three unhappy marriages. Nor did he reveal that poor health had stalled Miller’s film career, and that she died at age 37. As he gazed upon the newly minted Marilyn Monroe, Ben Lyon felt he was almost seeing the reincarnation of Marilyn Miller. He had no idea how prescient his impression would prove to be.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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