In the summer of 1953, briefly in London during the Coronation celebrations, I took myself to the Phoenix theatre (Upper Circle, 6s.) to see The Sleeping Prince, with the two glittering stars of the time, Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Olivier had commissioned the piece especially for the season from the playwright Terence Rattigan, and the paper-thin plot had the Regent of Carpathia, in town for the 1911 Coronation, reluctantly mesmerized by a chorus girl. No play embellished by Olivier and Leigh could fail to captivate a popular audience, and this one had a good run – but for those with a more robust appetite it was really nothing more than a moderately tasty meringue.
Now fast forward to 1956, when Colin Clark, younger son of the art historian Kenneth Clark (later famous for his TV series Civilisation), left university determined to become a film director. With nepotism fluttering its obliging wings (Sir Kenneth was a friend of Sir Laurence) Colin managed to install himself as third assistant director on a film based on Rattigan’s play, now retitled The Prince and the Showgirl. His position was as trivial as could be: that of a ‘gofer’ (‘go for this’, ‘go for that’). But this was to be no run-of-the-mill film.
Olivier had fallen as heavily as any film fan for that sensation of the Western world, Marilyn Monroe, and she, flattered by an invitation from the greatest classical actor of the time, had agreed to come to England to star as Elsie, a showgirl, in a film to be made at Pinewood studios during her honeymoon with her most recent husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. One can perfectly understand Olivier’s confidence that the production would be a success, with Monroe straight from The Seven Year Itch and the notorious photograph of her standing astride that famous New York subway grating. He would direct the film himself – he could walk through his own part as the uptight Regent, and his international fame as a leading classical actor with an Oscar for film direction (Hamlet, 1948) would surely guarantee that Marilyn – who had a reputation for being uncontrollably difficult on set – would behave herself at Pinewood.
Happily, Colin Clark decided to keep a diary during the film’s production, and in 1995, years after Monroe’s death, it was published as The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, a title which suggested that it might be more than a dry record of this ‘take’ and that ‘cut’. And so it is. On the page Colin seems at first naïve, brash and self-obsessed – but young as he was (24), after at first being roughed about a little by Olivier and the film crew, he became an objective and eager observer of life in and around the studios.
Marilyn soon identified herself as the infuriating personality advertised within her profession: late on set and usually unable to remember her lines or even what scene she was in. She was also accompanied by her drama coach, Paula Strasberg, the wife of Lee Strasberg, founder of the New York Actors Studio and the presiding god of ‘Method’ acting. Before and after every ‘take’ Marilyn had to report to Ms Strasberg and be sycophantically complimented and encouraged to be as wilful as might be. This drove the ultra-professional Olivier into paroxysms of ill-concealed rage. The fact that the ‘rushes’ showed a wooden performance from him while Marilyn lit up the screen with her every appearance did nothing to improve his temper – nor did the rebuke that the adorable Dame Sybil Thorndike actually delivered to him in front of the crew: ‘Don’t you realize what a strain this girl is under? She hasn’t had your years of experience. She is in a strange country, trying to act in a strange part. Are you helping or bullying?’
Colin watched all this with mixed feelings. He was as appalled by Marilyn’s behaviour and amateurism as everyone else – but, also like everyone else, he saw that on-screen she was incandescent; she ‘looked like an angel, smooth, glowing, eyes shining with joy, irresistible. We all fell in love there and then.’ She, of course, hadn’t noticed him, or so he thought – until one afternoon he was asked to pick up her script from her dressing-room while she was filming on set. But she wasn’t on set: as he walked into the room,
there stood MM, completely nude, with only a white towel round her head. I stopped dead. All I could see were beautiful white and pink curves. I must have gone as red a a beetroot. I couldn’t even rush out, so just stood there and stared and stammered. MM gave me the most innocent smile. ‘Oh Colin,’ she said. ‘And you an old Etonian!’
So she had noticed him – and somehow came to suspect, halfway through the production, that he was the only person at Pinewood who was ‘on her side’. Paranoia was permanent, with some reason: she was surrounded by an unsympathetic director and impatient fellow actors, and off set by her coarse American ‘minders’, including a lawyer and an accountant. Her husband had made it clear he regarded his wife as his inferior in every way and had retreated to Manhattan. She relied on Colin more and more for sympathy and occasional giggles. Olivier, by now obsessed by her failure to match his own competence, was highly suspicious of their friendship – and puzzled by its nature – while the crew smirked and Marilyn’s American ‘protectors’ worked hard to shield her from the young Englishman they increasingly believed to be obscurely dangerous.
Marilyn took a mischievous delight in irritating them and, as Colin would later reveal in a short additional reminiscence, My Week with Marilyn (2000), one morning he was shocked to find her hiding under a blanket in the back of the car driven by her conniving police driver. ‘I don’t want to be Miss Monroe today,’ she said; ‘I just want to be me.’ He found himself in the back seat, with the most desirable woman in the world cuddling up to him. Dizzily, he grasped the consequences of allowing her to become too close and proposed a sedate walk in Windsor Great Park. When that pleasure was exhausted, he recalled that his godfather happened to be the librarian at Windsor Castle, and Marilyn was shown around the private apartments. By the time they came to leave, a little crowd had gathered. Marilyn paused. ‘Shall I be her?’ she asked.
Without waiting for an answer, she jumped up on a step and struck a pose. Her hip went out, her shoulders went back, her famous bosom was thrust forward. She pouted her lips and opened her eyes wide, and there suddenly was the image the whole world knew.
Later, they bought swimming costumes and bathed in the Thames. Marilyn’s costume proved superfluous, as did reticence. ‘You’re the first person I’ve kissed who’s younger than me,’ she said, happily aware of his obvious confusion. When they drove back to the studios her furious lawyer threatened to sue Colin for ‘enticement’. ‘If you hurt one hair of his head,’ Marilyn said, ‘I’ll be very, very upset. Understand?’
Later still, the relationship became more complicated. When she suspected she might be having a miscarriage, it was Colin to whom she appealed. Eluding her minders, he climbed a ladder to her locked bedroom and became her psychologist, analysing her marriages and her insecurities before falling innocently asleep in her arms.
If Colin’s account is accurate, he was certainly a remarkable 24-year-old. But his diagnoses were right enough. And there was a little more clandestine psychology before the film was eventually completed, with Olivier continuing to treat Monroe as a stupid, infuriating, incompetent amateur. He could only acknowledge his wife’s comment: ‘He fell for her, and look where that got him.’ In the end, the film finally complete, Marilyn’s minders whisked her back to Hollywood and the set of the best film comedy ever made, Some Like It Hot.
Is Colin Clark’s diary fact, or fact with a measure of fiction? Many of its pages echo evidence already freely available in earlier books, but what Clark manages to do is to show Monroe as the delightful child she could become when not in a dark mood, the too infrequent moments when, magically, she became perhaps the only great star whose fame equalled that of Garbo (who also, we might remember, had her problems). Doubters should sit through the indifferent film of Rattigan’s comedy until they reach the scene in the Carpathian Embassy when she dances alone to the music of a barrel-organ outside in the street; one’s short hairs rise amid the goosebumps. Clark gives us a believable portrait of the creature who could provoke that reaction. Fact or fiction? Well, after all, even in their diaries, not all writers are upon oath.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 76 © Derek Parker 2022
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 61: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me
About the contributor
Derek Parker and his wife have returned to England after twenty years in Australia, and now live in Bognor Regis.