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October 1, 2020

The Story Behind Marilyn Monroe’s Debut LIFE Cover, Photographed by Philippe Halsman on April 7, 1952

In 1952, LIFE magazine assigned photographer Philippe Halsman to shoot Marilyn Monroe in her tiny Hollywood studio apartment. The resulting cover photo pushed her over the top, giving her immediate superstar status, and 20th Century Fox jumped to sweeten her existing multi-year contract to keep their starlet happy.

According to LIFE, Marilyn’s debut cover became one of the most famous and collectible covers in the history of the magazine’s history.

LIFE Magazine, April 7, 1952. Marilyn Monroe’s debut on the magazine’s cover, photographed by Philippe Halsman.

“I drove to the outskirts of Los Angeles where Marilyn lived in a cheap two-room apartment. What impressed me in its shabby living room was the obvious striving for self-improvement. I saw a photograph of Eleanora Duse and a multitude of books that I did not expect to find there, like the works of Dostoyevsky, of Freud, the History of Fabian Socialism, etc. On the floor were two dumbbells.” – Philippe Halsman recalled.

When LIFE sent him to Hollywood to photograph Marilyn Monroe, Halsman asked Monroe to stand in a corner, and placed his camera directly in front of her. Later, he recalled that she looked “as if she had been pushed into the corner cornered with no way to escape.” Then Halsman, his assistant, and LIFE’s reporter staged a “fiery” competition for Monroe’s attention. “Surrounded by three admiring men she smiled, flirted, giggled and wriggled with delight. During the hour I kept her cornered she enjoyed herself royally, and I... took between 40 and 50 pictures.”

“I was facing her with my camera, the LIFE reporter and my assistant at my sides,” Halsman said. “Marilyn was cornered and she flirted with all three of us. And such was her talent that each one of us felt that if only the other two would leave, something incredible would happen. Her sex-appeal was not a put-on– it was her weapon and her defense.”

In the cover photo for LIFE, Monroe wears a white evening gown and stands with her back against two walls, one dark, the other light, her eyes half closed and her dark, lipsticked mouth partly open. Yet Halsman deftly avoided any explicit representation of the true subject of the picture. Using the euphemistic language of the time, Halsman’s assistant admired the photographer’s ability to make “suggestive” pictures of beautiful women which still showed “good taste,” emphasizing “expression” rather than “physical assets.” And then the assistant added, “Halsman is very adept at provoking the expression he wants.”

(Photos: © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos)


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