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Photographs

Cecil Beaton on… Marilyn Monroe

Cecil Beaton was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century and his iconic images captured everyone from Hollywood greats such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, to art world legends including Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. In a new series adapted from Hugo Vickers’ book Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles, we take a look at images from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, which is located at Sotheby’s in London, and uncover the stories behind the famous images.

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Marilyn Monroe, 1956 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Cecil Beaton had only one shoot with Marilyn Monroe, which took place at the Ambassador Hotel in New York in February 1956.

The actress turned up at his suite 90 minutes late and in his diary Beaton admitted that he was: "startled, then disarmed, by her lack of inhibition".

The photographer compared the actress to ‘an over-excited child asked downstairs after tea’ and added: "The initial shyness over, excitement has now got the better of her. She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on to the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance".

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Marilyn Monroe, 1956 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Marilyn shot to fame playing dumb yet witty blondes in films including Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch, and Beaton acknowledged that while it was likely ‘press agentry or manufactured illusion’ that had helped her find success, it was "her own weird genius that [had] sustained her flight".

He wrote: "The real marvel lies in the paradox – somehow we know that this extraordinary performance is pure charade, a little girl’s caricature of Mae West… There is an unworldly, a winsome naiveté about the child’s eyes that, quick as a flash, will screw up into a pair of sexy, smouldering slits and give you a synthetic ‘come-hither’ look."

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Marilyn Monroe, 1956 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Prophetically, his diary entry ends, ‘It will probably end in tears’. Six years later Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an overdose in her Hollywood home. She was 36 years old.

The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, consisting of over 100,000 negatives and 9,000 vintage prints, is located at Sotheby’s in London and managed by Art Agency Partners. Click here for more information on licensing images and buying prints.

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Marilyn Monroe, 1956 by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Discover more about the world of Cecil Beaton.

Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles is published by Frances Lincoln Limited and available to buy now.

All quotes © The Literary Executors of the late Sir Cecil Beaton