The White Mask: Marilyn Monroe and the Hotel Del Coronado

Monroe between takes
  • Monroe between takes

Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe at Hotel del Coronado during filming of Some Like It Hot

Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe at Hotel del Coronado during filming of Some Like It Hot

On Saturday, September 6, 1958, Marilyn Monroe and the 175-person company of Some Like It Hot arrived at the Hotel del Coronado to begin location shots, after filming in Hollywood the previous four weeks. The movie, cowritten and directed by Billy Wilder, is about two musicians, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who, to elude a gang of bootleggers, dress up in drag and join an all-girl band. Tony Curtis falls in love with the band’s lead singer, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Monroe. Wilder set the movie in 1929 Chicago, which was re-created at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood and at a resort hotel in Miami, Florida, for which the Hotel Del was the stand-in. The San Diego Union’s drama editor, Edwin Martin, noted in a puff piece that Monroe was “still beautiful and still shy.” He said her playwright-husband Arthur Miller was expected, along with Paula Strasberg, her “dramatic mentor, wife of the famous head of the New York Actor’s Studio,” where Monroe, who had not done a Hollywood picture in two years, had been studying.

That Labor Day weekend in San Diego was hot — 90 degrees in Balboa Park. The citywide Fiesta del Pacifico held force with numerous events. Parades, carnivals, and street dances dotted the coastal communities. The California Story, a theatrical panorama of the state’s noble ethnic past, was seen over 14 days by 70,000 at the new “million-dollar ball park in Mission Valley.” A “gigantic open house at Convair–San Diego,” the Union said, drew “55,829 visitors,” who “toured Plants 1 and 2 and the Research and Development Center on Harbor Drive.” The pageantry of state legend combined with the drama of the defense industry swelled Southern Californians’ pride about where they came from and where they were going. One future beckoned with this Union advertisement the same day Monroe arrived: “A City Is Born!” boasted the M. Penn Phillips Company, which had sold “on opening weekend $4,377,321 worth of property” on the “Salton Riviera,” a development fronting the Salton Sea.

And, in what would be de rigueur by the end of the century, the press corps inaugurated the late-summer ritual of shark sightings. “Sharks Arrive, Swimmers Leave” rang a Union headline. Hammerheads or blue sharks, eight or nine feet long, “scared 50 swimmers” at La Jolla Shores. A week prior, an eight-foot hammerhead had chased 150 swimmers out of the water at Pacific Beach and a “seven-foot shark off the Casa de Manaña pool in La Jolla” had been killed.

Monroe between takes

Monroe between takes

For Union reporter Alfred Jacoby, shark sightings and Monroe on the beach fit hand in glove. The Wednesday, September 10, edition detailed how on the previous day Monroe, escorted by two Coronado police officers, made the “100-yard trek” to the ocean. Arthur Miller “was close at hand when she walked out of her makeup tent; he walked with her to the beach; he met her when she came dripping from the ocean; and he walked back to the tent with her.” The star “cavorted in the ocean for an hour or so. Minutes after [she] scampered ashore…a rumor whipped through the crowd of 500 watching…that a shark had been spotted.” Someone commented that the shark was trying to see whether a “vintage 1929 bathing suit would hide the famed Monroe figure.” The Evening Tribune noted that while the “movie girls” are in the water, veteran lifeguard the Duke of Catalina is in charge. “I didn’t see a shark,” the Duke said. “I didn’t even see a sardine.”

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe

Miller had flown in to be with his wife of two years, according to one biographer, “to try to help stabilize” her. For the first month of shooting in Hollywood, Monroe had been repeatedly late; she often flubbed her lines, requiring multiple takes and incensing her costars. (One scene asked her to enter a room, open a dresser drawer, and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” It took more than 50 takes for her to get it right.) The probable reason Monroe was having trouble was the baby — she was pregnant, the second time that year. Though having a child was her dream, pregnancies tried her system, sometimes severely. Six months earlier she had suffered an ectopic pregnancy and miscarried. During breaks in filming, Monroe would sit on the Del’s veranda and breathe the fresh Pacific air, saying, “This will be great for the baby.”

Les Webb, the Del’s doorman at the time, delivered mail, costumes, and personal things to Monroe at her residence in the Del’s Mar Vista Cottage. Webb, who after 45 years at the hotel now works at City Chevrolet, remembers that “when Marilyn Monroe wasn’t in front of the camera, she seemed like a different person. What little I had to do with her, which was in the morning — she seemed very pleasant.” He said she was up early every day; others, including Billy Wilder, complained that she often didn’t get to the set until midafternoon. (Asked about other Monroe stories, Webb declined to comment, saying that whatever happened on the set of Some Like It Hot resembles a fish story. “It just grows and grows.”)

On the first day of shooting, Monroe was upbeat. Onlookers cheered her when she emerged from the cottage or stood around the hotel in her white terry-cloth robe. Wilder called Monroe a “show-off” for the fans. When he wanted quiet, he had to ask her to shush them: “They listened to her.” On the beach, with the Del as backdrop, Monroe and Curtis did one of the most comically complicated scenes of the movie — in one take. At the Del, “Marilyn remembered her lines,” Wilder said. “Everything was fine.” The only problem was the jets at North Island, landing and taking off every 15 minutes. Because of the jet noise, Wilder projected the beach scene would take three days. With the scene in the can, he was overjoyed and, for once, ahead of schedule.

That Friday Edwin Martin’s Union column was titled “Marilyn’s Career At Crossroads.” Recalling such hits as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, he wrote, “Fans were delighted by this swivel-hipped blonde whose elaborate bathing and original approach to sex often gave love scenes a humorous flavor.” The pencil-mustached Martin revealed how Monroe-watchers saw her at the time — girlishly alluring; in essence, her screen persona. Dubbing her “provocative” and “elusive” (five days earlier she had been “beautiful” and “shy”), Martin said she’d made the “culture break” from Hollywood to the Actor’s Studio because “she was determined to play more dramatic types.” As to her current role, he wrote, “she is said to combine tenderness with humor, has moments of sheer pathos, and achieves identification with her character she seldom achieved previously.” Martin seemed unable to understand why she sought roles other than the bimbo: “Audience lines were blocks long at the box-office, yet Mrs. Miller decided to change her style.”

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