The February 1994 cover of Scientific American showed a publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe, from the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch, arm and arm with an 1863 image of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner. The purpose of the cover was to show how digital photography could create photographic images for events that never happened. Lacking a film negative as reference, digital images make it impossible to distinguish between a scene that reflects an actual event and one that digitally creates a mythical event.
Although Marilyn Monroe never met Abraham Lincoln as depicted on the cover of Scientific American, she did admire him and on at least four occasions was photographed with images of Lincoln or with the greatest popularizer of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg. The number of biographies of her pales in comparison with those devoted to Abraham Lincoln, but a theme common in most is that she looked upon Lincoln as the father she never knew in childhood. During a visit to Bryant Cottage in Bement, Illinois, in August 1955, Marilyn Monroe told a reporter, “I have honored and admired Mr. Lincoln since I first heard about him. As a child, he represented sort of a father to me. But then I guess he does for everyone in the U.S.” Her appearance generated a crowd of 10,000 curious onlookers. Bringing in tow her own photographer, Eve Arnold, Monroe had her visit documented at the house museum where legend, not historical documentation, claims that Lincoln and Douglas met to establish the schedule for debates in 1858.
The earliest image of Monroe and Lincoln was taken in 1954 by the famed photographer Milton H. Greene. It shows Monroe standing in a Cadillac convertible holding up a framed photograph of Abraham Lincoln. The car was a gift from Jack Benny for Monroe’s appearance on his television show The Jack Benny Program. Milton’s son, Joshua, created a limited edition of 500 copies of this famous photograph that were each stamped, numbered, and signed. He presented one such copy in 2007 to the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Len Steckler, a New York City photographer, took a series of three images of Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg in his apartment in December 1961. Steckler had studied photography with, among others, Edward Steichen, Carl Sandburg’s brother-in-law. As a photographer, Steckler was called upon to capture images of many celebrities, and he soon formed a friendship with Sandburg. Steckler also became acquainted with Marilyn Monroe. These professional relationships led to the meeting between the 35-year-old Monroe and the 83-year-old Sandburg.
The last meeting between Monroe and Sandburg took place in January 1962 in Hollywood. Arnold Newman, the legendary New York photographer, was at the small gathering that included Monroe and Sandburg. Seven images from that evening survive, including one that shows Sandburg teaching Monroe breathing exercises, although most people would conclude that they are dancing. Monroe had trouble sleeping, and, according to Sandburg, breathing properly would help.
An interesting reference to Lincoln is found in the 1960 George Cukor film Let’s Make Love, starring Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand. The basic plot has a playboy billionaire businessman, played by Montand, attending a rehearsal in Greenwich Village of the independent Let’s Make Love musical theater company. The director/producer of the show mistakenly thinks Montand is an actor look-alike of the billionaire who wants a part in the show. Montand pretends to be an actor to woo Marilyn Monroe, only to find it difficult at the end of the film to prove his true identity. Worried that Montand is delusional, Monroe provides the following bit of advice:
“There used to be an actor, he played Abraham Lincoln for so many years. He grew his own beard. He went around in a shawl. And you know what they used to say?
He looks like Lincoln, talks like Lincoln. But he won’t be satisfied until he gets shot.”
It would be interesting to know if Monroe had a hand in adding this reference to the script. Certainly she was one of Lincoln’s biggest fans.