|It was taken in a cramped Los Angeles studio on May 27, 1949. Neither professional photographer Tom Kelley nor the nude 22-year-old blonde posing sensuously before his lens could have realized what was about to happen.
That next click of Kelley"s camera shutter, over fifty years ago, began a love affair, one the world still perpetuates and eagerly embraces. Marilyn Monroe, the sex symbol of the modern age, was born. The two-hour session produced the immortal photos "A New Wrinkle" and "Golden Dreams", photos which sold millions of calendars worldwide and launched Marilyn into the hearts of millions more. One of the Red Velvet poses made her the first Playboy Sweetheart-the prototype for the centerfolds who would follow in years to come. We know them today as Playmates.
A few photographs have gone beyond simply recording history and have actually played a role in shaping it.
One such photo, created in 1949, showed a young actress alluringly posed, totally nude, on a red velvet background. The image, shocking for its time -- an image of raw sex appeal -- was, nevertheless, also an image of tastefulness and sophistication. Photographer Tom Kelley, Sr. couldn"t know the photo would become history and help define sexuality for a generation. The actress" name was Marilyn Monroe.
At the end of 1953 a new men"s magazine appeared on the newsstands. It was an adult magazine targeted to a sophisticated urban male audience. The magazine advocated a philosophy that was very new to the postwar 50"s. It was that sex is a natural, wholesome and healthy human act -- not something to hide or be embarrassed about. Sex was an activity a normal single man might share with the girl next door.
The first issue of Playboy magazine sold over 54,000 copies -- a surprising number for a new magazine with no advance publicity. The profits from this first edition furnished the funding to continue publishing for a few more months. Indeed, Hugh Hefner did not date the magazine because he was uncertain there would be a second issue. He didn"t know the magazine would become an icon of America"s cultural history.
The startling sales of that first Playboy edition can be attributed to Hefner"s good fortune of finding an exceptional centerpiece photo to lure America"s males to the newsstand. Kelley"s calendar photo of the nude Marilyn Monroe was that image -- the image that launched the magazine that brought sex out of the closet into the glaring light of day.
Compared to the well-worn, trite images of sexuality in U.S. culture today, Kelley"s "Red Velvet" photograph remains the pinnacle of erotica. Simple in color and composition, Marilyn"s pose has been copied endlessly by countless would-be Kelleys, but never to the effect that Kelley achieved. The fact is that Marilyn has become the archetypal American sex queen and Kelley recorded her at her best. This was a rare moment frozen in time.
Hefner bought one photo from Kelley, published it as his first centerfold, and American culture has not been the same since. Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner showed us that sex is as natural as eating and sleeping -- and maybe even fun and a little frivolous. Sex became more than mere procreation -- a seismic shift in attitude for the dark, repressed 50s.
Playboy"s rise to prominence in American culture parallels the rise of the sexual revolution. We began looking at our sexual selves in new ways. The Playboy Philosophy -- preached by Hefner in his magazine that eventually reached a circulation over seven million -- championed that cause. And this was a cause that went beyond the surface of sex, delving into deeper issues like population control and disease prevention -- issues with incredible potential for improving the social welfare of every human being.
So Kelley"s photo, and the mystique generated by Marilyn"s amazing sexual presence, played a key role in shaping 20th century history. The photo led to a redefinition of sexuality in America, and spawned a sexual revolution.
But there"s more. When Hefner made the deal with Kelley he only bought one piece of film. There are five more. One of them even has a bonus image, because Kelley double-exposed a sheet of his 8 x10" film in his haste to record the moment.
During my ten years as the photo archivist for Playboy I was occasionally asked to retrieve the 8 x10" Marilyn transparency from the vault to show it to a visiting VIP. I must admit there was something mysterious about holding that sheet of film in my hands. Of course I would speculate on what it was worth. But I would also wonder about its history. Who had touched that film? Where had it been? This was the actual film that "saw" Marilyn Monroe lying naked on that sensuous red velvet. Every time I touched that film it was thrilling.
During a visit to Tom Kelley Jr."s studio, a few years ago, he showed me the camera that his father used to make the Marilyn photos. Being a photographer, like his father, Kelley Jr. seemed to view the camera as just another tool of his trade. He said "It"s just an old Deardorff," but I couldn"t see it that way. I wanted to touch that camera too, knowing it had held that film in that room together with Kelley Sr. and Marilyn.
I have only touched duplicate copies of the five transparencies Hefner left behind. Kelley Jr. didn"t show them to me. Maybe I should have pressed him on that. I know the images well, but there"s something very special about holding the actual original sheet of film in your hand -- the film that was slapped into the back of that Deardorff as Kelley Sr. rushed to capture the nude Marilyn. Maybe someday, if I"m lucky, I will get to touch them too.
Tim Hawkins, January 2001
Former Playboy Photo Archivist (1987-1997)
Past Chair Society of American Archivists Visual Materials Section (1998-1999