Born in Manhattan, Kansas in 1880 to a family of newspapermen, Damon Runyon found fame as a baseball columnist, and later for his humorous short stories chronicling the vibrant street life of New York. His eccentric characters – gamblers, hustlers and crooks – and unique style, mixing formal speech with slang – inspired a new literary idiom, the “Runyonesque”.
In 1950, four years after Runyon’s death, ‘Guys and Dolls’ opened on Broadway. Based on two of Runyon’s short stories – ‘The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown’ and ‘Blood Pressure’ – the play was scripted by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, with music by Frank Loesser.
A box office hit, ‘Guys and Dolls’ was selected as the winner of 1951’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, due to Abe Burrows’ troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the award was withdrawn.
Despite the controversy, producer Samuel Goldwyn acquired the film rights to Guys and Dolls. The screenplay was written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would also direct. Uncredited assistance came from another Hollywood scribe, Ben Hecht.
Gene Kelly was an early front-runner for the lead role as charming gambler Sky Masterson, but MGM would not release him. Goldwyn sought out the screen’s hottest young actor, Marlon Brando, instead. Jean Simmons was cast as Brando’s unlikely love interest, prudish missionary Sarah Brown.
After securing America’s favourite crooner, Frank Sinatra, as hustler Nathan Detroit, Goldwyn set his sights on the world’s reigning sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, for the part of Sinatra’s showgirl fiancée, Miss Adelaide. With so much talent assembled, ‘Guys and Dolls’ could hardly fail – or could it?
All About Mankiewicz
Marilyn had previously worked with Mankiewicz in 1950, when as a relative unknown, she played the small role but pivotal of Claudia Caswell, a sexy but shallow starlet, in his Oscar-winning theatrical satire, ‘All About Eve’.
“There was a breathlessness and sort of glued-on innocence about her that I found appealing – and she had done a good job for John Huston in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’,” Mankiewicz said later. Comparing the two directors, Marilyn noted, “Mr Mankiewicz was a different sort of director than Mr Huston. He wasn’t as exciting, and he was more talkative. But he was intelligent and sensitive.”
Monroe’s “difficult” reputation dates back to ‘All About Eve’. Actor Gregory Ratoff predicted that she would soon be a great star, to which actress Celeste Holm retorted, “Why? Because she has kept us all waiting for an hour?” In her 1987 biography, ‘The Marilyn Scandal’, Sandra Shevey wrote, ‘Their antipathy made Marilyn nervous, and when she became nervous she blew her lines.’
Shevey also hinted that Marilyn’s habitual lateness was exacerbated by the studio’s habit of diverting her from the set to photo shoots for their publicity department. “Whilst she should have been allowed to spend the time conceptualising the role and running through her lines, the PR people had booked her into a
gallery shoot allowing her but the briefest warm-up time on the set.”
Mankiewicz told one of Monroe’s earliest biographers, Fred Lawrence Guiles, that he had once found her reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’. “I’d have been less taken aback to come upon Herr Rilke studying a Marilyn Monroe calendar,” Mankiewicz quipped.
Though Mankiewicz invited her to join the rest of the crew, Marilyn rarely socialised. “I thought of her, then, as the loneliest person I had ever known,” he told Guiles.
In her 1954 memoir, ‘My Story’, co-written with Ben Hecht, Marilyn recalled an incident when Mankiewicz had found her reading a book by the left-wing journalist, Lincoln Steffens. To her surprise, he warned her against being seen reading “radical” literature. “I thought this was a very personal attitude on Mr Mankiewicz’s part,” she wrote, “and, that genius though he was, of a sort, he was badly frightened by the Front Office or something.”
A Runyonesque Tale
By late 1953, Marilyn was the toast of Hollywood, with a slew of hit movies to her credit, such as the musical comedy, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. Nonetheless, Monroe was temporarily suspended from Twentieth Century-Fox after turning down her latest assignment, ‘The Girl in Pink Tights’. She disliked the
script, and was unhappy that her co-star, Frank Sinatra, was to be paid considerably more than her contract salary.
In January 1954, Marilyn married her longtime beau, the retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio. During his sporting heyday, Joe had often featured in Damon Runyon’s column. He later described Runyon as “the only (writer) who didn’t rip me.”
Joe spent much of his free time at Toots Shors’ Bar in New York, a hangout that could have been the setting for one of Runyon’s stories.
Having made her peace with the studio, Marilyn started work on a new musical, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, in the spring. Another of Marilyn’s recordings, ‘I’m Gonna File My Claim’ (from her newly-released Western, ‘River of No Return’) became a chart-topper that summer.
Before flying to New York to film ‘The Seven Year Itch’, Marilyn had discussed the possibility of starring in Guys and Dolls over dinner with Sam Goldwyn. (‘It’s like making an appointment with God,’ she said later.) Charles Feldman, who had acquired ‘The Seven Year Itch’ for Monroe, hoped that, after years of chasing the star, winning the role of Miss Adelaide on Marilyn’s behalf might persuade her to hire him as her official agent.
After checking into New York’s St Regis Hotel during filming of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ in September, Marilyn had ordered Feldman’s colleague, Hugh French, to set up a meeting with Joe Mankiewicz. When she discovered that Mankiewicz was in Los Angeles, she called him there.
According to another Monroe biographer, Barbara Leaming, the “meeting” did not go well:
“‘You see, I’ve become a star,’ Marilyn proudly told Mankiewicz.
The director was unimpressed. He talked to her, she thought, as if she were a piece of trash. ‘Put on some more clothes, Marilyn, and stop moving your ass so much,’ he replied. Despite the insult, Marilyn struggled to win him over. Finally, Mankiewicz cut off the conversation with the news that the part of Miss Adelaide had already been cast. Refusing to give up, Marilyn instructed Feldman to keep after Goldwyn and get her the role.
Mankiewicz’s words were a brutal reminder of why Marilyn hated Hollywood.”
Under the twin pressures of Monroe’s soaring career and Joe’s extreme jealousy, the DiMaggio marriage was troubled from the start. Joe finally lost control after seeing Marilyn film her famous “skirt-blowing scene” in ‘The Seven Year Itch’ on location in New York, with hundreds of men looking on.
Among the witnesses to Joe’s humiliation was the influential columnist, Walter Winchell, who knew Marilyn from the Hollywood scene. Winchell had also been a friend of Damon Runyon.
What Might Have Been
In October, a desperate Joe – encouraged by his pal, Frank Sinatra – followed Marilyn to a Los Angeles apartment block where, he believed, she was meeting her lover. However, the two men – along with two private detectives – burst into the wrong apartment. The occupant, one Florence Kotz, went on to sue both Sinatra and DiMaggio in 1957.
The so-called ‘Wrong Door Raid’, another Runyonesque episode, was no laughing matter for its real-life players.
After separating from Joe and completing ‘The Seven Year Itch’, Marilyn walked out on her studio and moved permanently to New York. She also dispensed with Feldman’s services in favour of a new partnership with photographer Milton Greene. But though she was technically in breach of her contract with Fox, Marilyn’s popularity was undimmed.
The stage actress, Vivian Blaine – who had played Miss Adelaide on Broadway – reprised her role in the big-screen version of ‘Guys and Dolls’, released in November 1955. The casting of Brando, a non-singer, had been controversial, while lyricist Frank Loesser thought Sinatra was the wrong choice for Nathan Detroit.
Nonetheless, ‘Guys and Dolls’ – which had cost $5 million to make – became America’s highest-grossing film of 1956. Nonetheless, ‘Guys and Dolls’ – which had cost $5 million to make – became America’s highest-grossing film of 1956. Like so many movies of the fifties (including ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’), ‘Guys and Dolls’ concludes with a double wedding. Even bombshells like Monroe could be tamed by marriage – or so Hollywood liked to tell us.
Seen today, ‘Guys and Dolls’ is still impressive but rather static – perhaps because it was a stage adaptation rather than an original screenplay. Ironically, Brando’s big number – ‘Luck be a Lady Tonight’ – has since been overshadowed by Sinatra’s cover. The film’s true highlight comes when supporting actor Stubby Kaye sings ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’.
Throughout 1955, Marilyn studied with Lee Strasberg at the prestigious Actor’s Studio. She also had a brief affair with the most famous “Method actor” of all, Marlon Brando. They remained close friends until her death.
In 1956, Marilyn would marry the Pulitzer-winning playwright, Arthur Miller. At the time, Miller was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Defying her Hollywood bosses, Monroe stood by her husband, and the charges were finally dropped in 1958.
Sandra Warner, a chorus girl in ‘Guys and Dolls’, went on to play one of Monroe’s all-girl band in ‘Some Like it Hot’ (1959.) Marilyn was pregnant during filming, and Sandra took her place in some publicity shots.
Following the breakdown of her third marriage in 1960, Marilyn had a year-long, on-off relationship with Frank Sinatra. This led to a permanent rift between Sinatra and his old friend, Joe DiMaggio, who hoped to reconcile with Monroe.
While Marilyn was working on her last film for Fox in 1962, Joe Mankiewicz was directing Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra’. It is now believed that the heavy costs incurred on Mankiewicz’s production influenced Fox executives’ decision to fire Marilyn in June.
A week before her death in August 1962, Marilyn was a guest at Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge. They had considered making another film together, based on the Broadway musical adaptation of Betty Smith’s best-selling novel, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’.
But in conversation with the lyricist Jule Styne, Marilyn discussed making the film with Gene Kelly in Sinatra’s intended role. She and Sinatra had clashed at Lake Tahoe, and Joe later blamed Frank and his circle for Monroe’s demise. But veteran columnist Liz Smith believes that Sinatra had loved Marilyn deeply, and was devastated by her death.
Mankiewicz viewed Monroe’s death more cynically. “She died at the right time,” he told Sandra Shevey. “She was old, fat and unloved.” None of these accusations were true, but his words echo the bitter contempt that Marilyn faced throughout her career.
He also rejected the notion that Monroe was destroyed by Hollywood, characterising her as “a suicide in her head since she was five years old.” When Sandra Shevey suggested that Marilyn deserved better than she got, Mankiewicz responded angrily: “She got everything her illiterate little heart could desire. Where did she get her ideas from – her mother?”
In 1955, Vivian Blaine was 33 – almost five years older than Marilyn – while Miss Adelaide, her character in Guys and Dolls, had been engaged to Nathan Detroit for fourteen years.
In some ways, it’s hard to imagine the fresh-faced ingenue of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ as world-weary Miss Adelaide. And though in reality, Marilyn’s love life was in turmoil, her public image was not that of a scorned lover, but everyman’s fantasy.
And she didn’t possess the jaded, streetwise attitude that Vivian Blaine had in spades.
However, Marilyn’s departure from Hollywood transformed her career. When she returned to the big screen in ‘Bus Stop’ (1956), her trademark glamour was shaded with a more mature, fragile beauty. ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ might have been especially poignant if Marilyn had sung it.
Certainly, Monroe could easily have pulled off Adelaide’s purring rendition of ‘Pet Me Poppa’ or the burlesque choreography of ‘Take Back Your Mink’. The all-pink aesthetic of this latter number is reminiscent of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. While Vivian Blaine was an accomplished singer, dancer and comedienne, she lacked Marilyn’s red-hot sensuality.
Had ‘Guys and Dolls’ been made a few years later (after her triumph as downtrodden Sugar Kane in ‘Some Like it Hot’), Monroe might have made a perfect Adelaide. But in 1955, the timing was off. Ultimately, Marilyn’s loss was Vivian’s gain.
‘My Story’ by Marilyn Monroe, 1954.
‘Guys and Dolls and Other Stories’ by Damon Runyon, 1956.
‘Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe’ by Fred Lawrence Guiles , 1984.
‘The Marilyn Scandal: Her True Life Revealed by Those Who Knew Her’ by Sandra Shevey, 1987.
‘Marilyn Monroe’ by Barbara Leaming, 1999.
By Tara Hanks