Sixty years ago today, Marilyn Monroe mesmerized a crowd of lucky onlookers while her white dress blew suggestively above her knees — and sometimes over her head. It was 1954, and the director Billy Wilder was filming a scene of the film The Seven Year Itch on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street in New York City. In the script, Monroe and co-star Tom Ewell exit a movie theater and a breeze from the subway passing below lifts Monroe’s skirt. Instead of rushing to cover her legs, as any decent woman of that era would have, Monroe exclaims, “Isn't it delicious?”
Even if you have not seen the film, you have seen the photographs. The whole world has for decades, although not everyone knows the story behind the photographs or the name of the photographer who had the "flying skirt" idea in the first place. Melissa Stevens, the granddaughter of photographer Sam Shaw, shares her grandfather's experience with the blonde bombshell:
The photographer was Sam Shaw, and he was also my grandfather. In 1951, Sam met Marilyn on the set of the film Viva Zapata. He was the set photographer and she was an unknown out-of-work actress. Marilyn drove Sam to and from the set everyday because as a New Yorker, he did not have a driver’s license. The two independent spirits instantly connected and became lifelong friends and collaborators.
A few years later Sam was asked to be the special still photographer for The Seven Year Itch, starring his friend Marilyn Monroe, who was now famous. It was his idea to use a picture from the movie theater scene as the logo to promote the film, and it was his job to create the images.
The idea originated from an earlier photoshoot that Sam orchestrated in the 1940’s for Friday magazine. It featured a sailor and a young girl at Coney Island playing in a wind tunnel. A playful photograph showing the girl’s skirt moving from the wind appeared on the cover and the magazine sold out immediately. Over a decade later, when Sam read the script for The Seven Year Itch, he saw a chance to revisit this “skirt-blowing” idea and turned it into one of the most memorable images ever created.
Most people also don't know there were two separate shoots. One was a publicity event in New York where a large crowd of bystanders and the press were invited to create hype. The noise of the crowd rendered the film footage unusable and Billy Wilder reshot the scene on a closed soundstage in Los Angeles. Only my grandfather, the set photographer, was allowed into the studio.
In New York, front row access was reserved for Sam. Amidst the roar of the crowd, Marilyn turned, looked directly at her friend and called out “Hi, Sam Spade.” Marilyn gave all her friends nicknames and this one was inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Maltese Falcon. Sam clicked the camera and captured Marilyn in what he always referred to as “her composition.” Sixty years later, Marilyn’s powerful pose and Sam’s pictures continue to captivate.