Mike Nichols claims he called Marilyn Monroe to work on a scene.
Are you sure you werent hitting on her? I asked.
I wouldnt have dared dream of it, he replied.
It was the mid-1950s, and they were both taking an acting class in New York with Lee Strasberg. Nichols recounted his conversation with the woman with the familiar breathy voice:
The phone rang and somebody said, Hello, and I said, Hi, is Marilyn there? and she said, No, shes not, and I said, Well, this is Mike. Im in class with her. Could you take a message? And she said, Well, its a holiday, because it was the Fourth of July weekend, and that, to her, was an excuse for not taking a message for herself.
No one ever said Marilyn wasnt complicated.
Nichols directed the Tony Award-winning revival of her third husbands play, Death of a Salesman. I interviewed him for a BBC radio show based on a column I wrote for The Times about how we have devolved from Marilyns aspirational attitude toward knowledge, in which she wanted to collect great books and meet authors and intellectuals even marrying one to Sarah Palins anti-elitist scorn about reading and intellectuals.
Nichols surprised me when he said he was present at what he dryly calls the historic moment in May 1962 when Marilyn sang Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy, who was turning 45. Marilyn was wearing that shrink-wrap, sheer Jean Louis gown ablaze with rhinestones skin and beads, she called it.
At a party afterward, Elaine [May] and I were dancing, and Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn danced by us, and I swear to God the conversation was as follows
Here Nichols put on, first, a feathery voice and then a nasal one:
I like you, Bobby.
I like you too, Marilyn.
The famous director has worked with many famous beauties. So I asked him, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyns death, if he could explain her astonishing staying power.
I think that the easy answer might be that she had the greatest need, he said. She wasnt particularly a great beauty, that is to say, Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner would knock the hell out of her in a contest, but she was almost superhumanly sexual.
Feminism has come and gone, and women now routinely puff their lips, inflate their chests, dye their hair and dress with sultry abandon. But Nichols said Marilyns heat went deeper, with a walk, a look and movements that were an out-and-out open seduction right in front of everyone.
While making her last movie, Somethings Got to Give, Marilyn posed nude for a young photographer, Larry Schiller, hoping to ratchet up her $100,000 salary to Elizabeth Taylors million-dollar territory for Cleopatra.
Schiller wrote in Vanity Fair that he saw the confidence that spurred Marilyn to become one of the first stars to create her own production company. There isnt anybody that looks like me without clothes on, she laughed.
He also saw her dark companion, insecurity. Is that all Im good for? she keened about nudity.
Yet Schiller told The Associated Press that its women that have kept Marilyn alive, not men. He says teenage girls flock to see gallery shows, and that the photos selling now accentuate her humanity, not her anatomy.
I think, he said, people want to see her now as a real person.