Marilyn Monroe — 60 years later, photographer recalls visiting her the day she died
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
SHE WAS TENDING to some flowers in the front yard of her Brentwood home when the visitor arrived that Saturday morning. Her hair was uncombed and loose. She wore no makeup.
“If somebody didn't know that that was Marilyn Monroe, you could walk right by and not even recognize her,’’ the visitor, photographer Lawrence Schiller, recalled the other day.
It was after 9 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1962, and Schiller’s unannounced visit would be brief. He was dropping off some photographs from one of his many sessions with her, but he had another motive: To gauge her interest in a previously discussed project, posing for the cover of Playboy. Hugh Hefner wanted to use some of the more provocative shots taken less than three months earlier when Schiller famously photographed her swimming nude on the set of Something’s Got to Give.
“It’s still about nudity. Is that all I’m good for? I’d like to get publicity without using my ass or getting fired from a picture,’’ she replied that morning, according to Marilyn & Me, a memoir Schiller wrote in 2012 for the 50th anniversary of her death.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,’’ she told him. “Leave it at that. I’ll call you.’’
There would be no phone call. Late that night, Monroe died at home of a barbiturate overdose at age 36.
IN A RECENT Zoom interview, Schiller recalled his experiences working with Monroe and his collaboration with the Holden Luntz Gallery on Palm Beach. Here is an edited transcript.
You’re famous for the many photographs you took of Marilyn Monroe, but you might have been the last photographer to see her before she died.
I was one photographer in a long list of many that photographed her, some of them quite eloquently. I happened to be there the morning of her untimely death by pure coincidence.
You’ve been asked this before but do you feel any guilt about having approached her that morning about the Playboy cover?
I don't because the demons in her life were far greater than one spoke in the wheel. I was one of the spokes in the wheel. She was fighting battles her entire life. Obviously the marriage to Arthur Miller when she felt she was being betrayed the way he wrote about her in The Misfits, her character, and the way the studio was treating her juxtaposed to how they were treating Elizabeth Taylor. Her demons were very, very deep yet there were times she was very motherly to me talking to me about my daughter and hinting on one occasion her fear of having a child. She’d already had several miscarriages. There were moments when all of a sudden you could say she had a very motherly attitude. You have to remember that I was in my 20s, she was 36 and she was already giving motherly advice at 36.
Marilyn Monroe in 1962 (Lawrence Schiller/Holden Luntz Gallery)
When she introduced herself to you for the first time in 1960, what possessed you to reply, “I’m the big bad wolf’’?
I've had that happen with presidents and important people. Sometimes I don't know how to respond in a certain situation and something comes out of me where I don't really know where it comes from. Of course, she had the one liner – ‘Well, you don't look so bad right now but I’m sure when you grow up you're gonna be badder.’ She was right on top of everything. What that says is she was listening very carefully.
From everything I’ve read, it seems like she took a liking to you. You wrote about how she sent your wife a bouquet of roses one night after keeping you on the set so long. Not every photo subject would make a gesture like that.
She sent the roses because I was complaining that we just had a daughter and my wife wanted to make sure I was always there to help put our daughter to sleep. It wasn't like she was keeping me away. In essence, she was keeping me away from my child. I think children in her life always played an important role, subconsciously or consciously. She’d been run over by a lot of trucks in her life. She was a very smart woman. This was not the dumb blonde that you see in Seven Year Itch. The short and long of it is, by the time I am in the same highway for a few moments in life as she is, she had a lot of life experiences and I had very few.
Marilyn Monroe in 1962 (Lawrence Schiller/Holden Luntz Gallery)
Many people still wonder if her death was an accident. What do you think?
I think it was an accidental drug overdose. I saw her sitting next to me in a T-bird outside Schwab’s popping pills with Dom Perignon. She was a prescription drug abuser, not an illegal drug abuser, let's make that very clear. You could say she predated the opioid crisis where doctors prescribed pills for her because of who she was where they might not have done that for some other client.
Are you at all surprised that 60 years later it’s almost as if she is as large in death as she was in life?
The thing that’s amazing to me is that she still appeals to young people. There are names that people remember today – Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Charles Manson, the good, the bad and the ugly — that still resonate in our culture and society where a lot of people are completely forgotten that may have played an important role in shaping our evolutionary process. Who remembers Dr. (Benjamin) Spock? Even young mothers now have not heard of Dr. Spock and his book shaped hundreds of millions of women.
Couple admires a Lawrence Schiller photograph of Marilyn Monroe in the window of the Holden Luntz Gallery on Worth Avenue.
You published your memoir Marilyn & Me in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of her death. Are you doing anything special to observe the 60th anniversary?
Not at all. I’m working on some projects having to do with the history of slavery going back to 1512 in Peru. Fifteen-thousand documents have been uncovered which are just extraordinary. And without mentioning the person’s name, there is a man who has 3,000 scrapbooks starting when he was age 14 and became one of the most important people having to do with First Amendment issues. I'm involved with historically preserving and databasing these 3,000 scrapbooks.
How often do you think about Marilyn Monroe?
I don't think of Marilyn at all unless somebody calls up and says I want to buy a print of yours or do an interview. She doesn't exist in my day to day memory in any way.
Many of your Monroe photographs are on display at the Holden Luntz Gallery on Palm Beach. How did that collaboration start?
Oh, that’s a very fine gallery. They represent not only my Marilyn pictures but many others. I met Holden through a printer who prints pictures. He asked me one day, ‘Who represents you down in Florida? You should be introduced to Holden.' I looked up Holden on his website and said, ‘Wow, this guy represents some important people’ and I sent him a portfolio. It took him six months to answer me. I'm not the only one knocking on his door and he truly represents a lot of really incredible artists. I went to an opening there a few months ago. Now, I'm just 16 years old going on 86, so I don't travel as much.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.