“Jean took the best pictures of me I’ve ever had,” said Marilyn Monroe at one of Gloria Vanderbilt’s celebrity-studded party in the 1950s. Everyone turned to look at the photographer in question, Jean Howard. Former Ziegfeld girl and MGM contract player, Jean Howard had transitioned into photography as a way to capture Hollywood glamor of the 1940s and 1950s. Her superagent husband, Charles Feldman, founder of Famous Artists talent agency, offered her entrée into the homes and private parties of the movie industry’s elite. Jean Howard knew Marilyn Monroe through Feldman, who was Monroe’s agent from 1951 to 1955.
On the 54th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 5, 1962, the AHC commemorates Monroe through the words of Jean Howard, excerpted from the book, Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir. The AHC houses the papers and photographs of Jean Howard.
“The first time I saw Marilyn Monroe was in my own garden in 1950. She had come to our house with Elia Kazan, who had a business meeting with Charlie Feldman. I was leaving for a lunch date when I spotted her, a lonely little girl sitting by the pool doing nothing. I asked her if she would like something to drink. She softly refused and I went about my business. We met again in 1953 at the Fox studios, where she was making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire.
Several years later in New York, around 1957 or 1958, I asked her if she would come by my East Seventy-Seventh Street studio to sit for photographs. Marilyn willingly accepted. She arrived about an hour and a half late. I had just about given up and started to take down the lights when she rushed in, breathless. Once we got going, Marilyn was as cooperative as any person I have ever photographed.
First she eyed the birdcage that Tony Duquette had given me and simply found her own pose.
But this was not exactly what I had wanted. Although Marilyn had brought along that little tight-fitting, almost strapless black dress she called her “lucky dress,” I wanted to get away from the stereotyped, sexy shot that I had seen so often. We looked in my closet and came out with my favorite Hattie Carnegie black taffeta jacket. In the photograph that followed, I found the true spirit and soul of that beautiful, gifted girl.
Sometime later, at a party at Gloria Vanderbilt’s, Marilyn appeared. In her sweet, soft way, she said something that startled me and I’m certain the others: ‘Jean took the best pictures of me I’ve ever had.’”
The personal and professional archive of Jean Howard housed at the AHC is a valuable resource for those who wish to learn about Hollywood celebrity and culture from the 1930 through the 1960s. The major part of the collection consists of Howard’s celebrated photographs, which portray celebrity events and portraits. Also included are biographical materials relating to Howard and her husband, Charles Feldman.
Excerpted from Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p. 226-227.
– Leslie Waggener, Associate Archivist