August 5th will mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, and still, a half century later, the world is fascinated by the legend of Hollywood’s most celebrated sex symbol. Marilyn the icon will continue to be an indelible persona in our pop culture, but behind the movie star, there was a woman who few knew as well as photographer Sam Shaw. Shaw famously shot the iconic image of Marilyn standing over a subway grate with her skirt flying on the set of The Seven Year Itch. But that celebrated photo was just one of many the photographer captured of Marilyn, and his candid images of her, off-set and away from the movie cameras, are the images that tell a more intimate story of a friend whom he described as “beautiful without makeup and in spirit as a person."
Shaw photographed the iconic "flying skirt" image of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven Year Itch, New York City, 1954. When posing for this shot, Marilyn called out "Hi, Sam Spade," her nickname for Shaw, borrowed from the protagonist in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Marilyn and Shaw first met in the early 1950s when he was the photographer on the set of Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!. The charismatic Shaw was a friend of actors Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando (whom he famously photographed in a ripped t-shirt for Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire.) But it was Kazan’s girlfriend at the time, a young actress named Marilyn Monroe, whom Shaw developed a close friendship with during the making of that movie. Kazan had asked Marilyn to drive Shaw to the set everyday, and this was the start of a relationship between the movie star and photographer that lasted until Marilyn’s tragic death in 1962.
Shaw, who died in 1999, said of Marilyn: "I see her as a metaphor for Hollywood . . . the good, the bad and the beautiful." In describing his famous photographs of her, he explained: "I just want to show this fascinating woman with her guard down, at work, at ease, off-stage, during joyous moments in her life as often she was—alone.”
Shaw's close connection to Marilyn translated through his photographs. He described her as "...always joyful, witty, fun loving and serious about acting—with a terrific desire to learn, to know about the arts, the theater, her craft, to read good books, to read poetry and to try to reach the ecstasy of poetic thoughts." And so it’s fitting that on the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death, her friend Sam Shaw, whom she said always made her “look good,” is being celebrated posthumously for his centennial—he would have been 100 this year. Together, the movie star and photographer captured the glamour of their Hollywood era, but maybe more importantly, stepped behind the façade of movie stardom and documented the real Marilyn who happened to become an icon we’ll never forget.