The apartment building I grew up in was on East 57th Street near York Avenue in fashionable Sutton Place, Manhattan, New York City. There were a number of noteworthy individuals who lived in the building, one of whom was the renowned fashion designer Bill Blass. Mr. Blass was a most congenial neighbor to our family. His manner always upbeat and cheery, complimented by his attire, which sported subtle stylistic touches every time we’d happen to run into him: the very manifestation of his original fashion designs. On a related fashion note, the famous model – later turned actress – Suzy Parker, also lived in our building for a time. She was always in a rush, appearing forever distracted by matters of great import and consequence.
John Hammond, legendary record producer and impresario was also a tenant. He was born to enormous wealth, having been the great-grandson of New York City’s William Henry Vanderbilt. Mr. Hammond’s career in life followed his passion for music, discovering jazz luminaries such as Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Count Basie. He also brought to us three rock gods of all time, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bruce Springsteen. He was a civil rights champion/activist who in 1941 was one of the founders of the Council on African Affairs.
Another outstanding figure in the building of whom I was particularly fond and proud, was my own father, not to overlook my mother and brother. Sports Editor of The New York Herald Tribune, Bob Cooke’s journalist/editor prestige figured into the how and why us four Cookie happened to be living in that particular Sutton Place apartment building.
At the time of this telling, I was ten years old, but looked more like five or six. My face revealed feelings that were evident within me at any given moment. I was open-wound incarnate, vulnerability seeping out of every pore of my skinny frame. With obvious humor and sensitivity my father employed a bit of reverse psychology on my low self-esteem, saying “I wouldn’t be concerned. When they’re taking attendance and you’re standing sideways, they mark you down as absent.” When he said that he’d make me smile, melting away for a moment my crushing insecurity. And there was someone else, a very singular woman, who also lived in the building. She would consistently don a most informal style of garb whenever leaving for her work in honing her professional skills. Her usual ensemble would consist of a nondescript pastel-colored scarf wrapped tightly around her head. Only the mask of her face was seen, her blonde hair hidden, except for a few unruly strands peeking out from the edge of the scarf by her temples on either side of her face. The late actor and novelist, Sterling Hayden, had made a motion picture with this woman, directed by John Huston entitled, “The Asphalt Jungle”. Sterling, when asked about her in that film, said: “That was her first film I believe…her first primary film, hey? …I remember the day she came on the set, yeah! – stopped business, mmm? …everything stopped.” She who stopped everything was Norma Jeanne Mortensen: Marilyn. She and her then husband, the renowned playwright Arthur Miller, were THE premiere ‘notable persons’ who lived in our apartment building. Marilyn’s not-to-be-recognized façade was a face entirely devoid of makeup, thickly cold- creamed. In fall or winter, she would wear a black pea coat, which extended just above her hips. Her slacks were black, tight-fitting, appearing unwashed and wrinkled. Faint spots of smudge and dusty white could be seen, as if talcum had been unevenly splotched along sections of her pant legs. The espadrilles she wore were scuffed. An additional muffler bunched up around her neck, presumably to protect her throat from the harsh elements of the New York City climate, but also as a form of defense.
We lived on the fifth floor. Her apartment was quite a few stories higher. When the elevator stopped to pick us up, we would share a five-story descent with her. There could be no other possible setting for a little boy and his mother to connect with such a famous entity. Our apartment building’s elevator allowed for a certain rapport to occur, for the most part non-verbal, apart from the usual courtesies of a “Good morning”, or a simple, “Hello”. When the elevator stopped at our floor to collect my mother and myself, Marilyn would be standing in the rear of the small elevator, her back against the far corner, pinned against the slats of the elevator car, expressionless, unblinking. Then to complete her cover-up of self- protection, Marilyn would, upon reaching the lobby floor, crown her disguise by placing atop her heavily cold-creamed nose a pair of dark-rimmed, smoky-lensed sunglasses. These cheaters would serve as a protective safeguard, not only for her eyes, but also from the intrusive public at large. Our doorman would stand at the ready, opening one of two adjoining window-paned black lacquered heavy wooden doors. She’d sometimes nod and address him, and sometimes say nothing at all. She’d bound over the entrance threshold to the sidewalk under the building’s awning to the curb and then stop short, a princess standing before her carriage – a nondescript black car with chauffeur. He would open the door for her, and she’d slip onto the backseat as the driver would run around and slide behind the steering wheel. With his payload now unseen due to tinted windows, the driver would gun the throttle and pull away from the apartment building’s front curb into the thoroughfare as if the sedan were a mini black jet. My mom and I would stand there a moment in a sort of limbo-like bewilderment. Neither she nor I made any comment. We’d just take it in, this entity, this – element, then move to go on about our day. Because of her fame and sense of privacy, Marilyn held back any warmth on our brief elevator encounters. Her elusive presence brought out a different quality from what the public saw from her onscreen persona. This person in the elevator was serious. There was a committed sense of getting whatever had to be done, done, with as much economy as possible. Yet her charisma was striking: the one who “…stopped business, mmm?… everything stopped.” No cover of scarves, cold cream, or blend-into-background clothing could mask how extraordinarily self-protective and wary she was, in her attempt to conceal her vulnerability. The proof of this resided in the well of her eyes, the mirrors that revealed all. No wrapping or covering could camouflage such an open sore. It was that element, that quality of hers in conjunction with my vulnerable state that was the primary connection between her and me. This was simply what I saw and felt. None of this emotional connection was ever verbalized. It couldn’t have been.
Purportedly Marilyn could not biologically conceive a child. It is possible, on a remote once-in-a-while trip in an elevator, that the presence of my being might well have struck some chord within her. I may have subconsciously touched off within her a representation of a child she could never have. This entire presumption could be laughed off as hubris-motivated, dreamt up by a wet-behind-the-ears kid. There is, however, some actual basis in fact, made plausible by specific statements told to me by my mother. My daytime hours were taken up attending elementary school. My mother, having her various appointments, would ever so often find herself sharing an elevator ride alone with Marilyn. She told me on at least two or three occasions, Marilyn had asked specifically about me. With noticeable pride, mom would say to me: “You know, Marilyn speaks about you on a regular basis, asking me how you are. She’s obviously very fond of you. She’s the one who brings it up. It’s very sweet.” Then mom added, “She clearly sees something in you. There’s a definite affection there.” Despite my uncorrupted age of ten, I was not unaware of the significant dynamism of Marilyn’s fame and film goddess image. In 1957, Marilyn appeared in the movie “The Prince and the Showgirl”. Her co-star and director of the film was Laurence Olivier. My father and mother knew about the opening night premiere of Marilyn’s film. I was excited because the starting point of the film’s premiere would be in our very own apartment building lobby. I asked my parents if I could go downstairs to see Marilyn’s leaving for the premiere. Luckily they had no qualms about my attending, saying how it might actually be a good experience for me. And though only ten, they gave permission for me to go down to the lobby to take in what surely would be a singular event. Thinking they would accompany me I asked what time should we all go downstairs. Father and mother surprised me by opting to stay well out of any fanfare of that night. Mom walked me down the hall to the elevator. When the elevator arrived she said to our night man, Carl, who was at the control helm, “Carl, would you mind keeping an eye on him downstairs?” And with that assurance met, Carl duly conveyed me to the lobby.
It was a summer evening. There were numerous people, reporters and all sorts, huddled in the apartment building’s crowded lobby. All the attendees were in fervid anticipation, holding their collective breaths. I positioned myself up front by the lobby’s open doors. That spot, I had thought, would afford the best vantage point to see Marilyn’s emergence from the elevator. It was twilight’s end. The atmosphere in the lobby was teeming with high-pitched anticipation. Whenever the elevator door would open, everyone would tone down their voices and direct their collective eyes towards the car door, expecting Marilyn to appear. When they’d find “regular people” stepping off the elevator, the throng would just as quickly avert their eyes disgusted. Mini-islands of conversations that moments before had ceased now picked up again. There’d be a pause as the buzzer on the floor number panel of the elevator would sound its annoying, ear-blaring buzz, and Carl the elevator man was off, going back up the shaft in order to collect … ? Marilyn was notorious for being tardy for any major event. She was consistently late on set for allotted call times. She was indeed running late for this occasion as well. This caused the disappointed lobby attendees to glare all the more at the unwanted discharge of tenants. From where I stood at the lobby’s entrance, what with all the people crammed there, all I could catch were the backs of suit coats. With my pint-sized height, I could barely make out the elevator from where I stood. If I remained where I was near the front of the lobby, all the suit coats would totally obscure my vision, and I’d see absolutely nothing of Marilyn when she finally made her appearance. I decided to move to a more effective space. I worked my way back to the elevator door, standing several feet to its side with a fairly clear visual access, even with the suit coats shifting about. As more regular tenants came out of the elevator, I could see that even the Marilyn lobbyists were growing increasingly impatient with her delay. And then finally – the door opened and – the one – the one we’d all been waiting for, appeared. She paused a moment radiant. The convocation audibly gasped, then hushed, then cheered, greeting her on adoringly. Tentatively she took her first step onto the diamond-tiled lobby floor. She placed one foot before the other, as if a tremor were affecting her balance. And then she just stood there a moment. Like the star without question she was, she held stage, and in that moment swept away the entire room.
Slowly, she began to dramatically open her arms wide to her multitude, topping off her welcome with the dazzle of a sustained unstoppable smile that only the one and only Marilyn could pull off. The spot I had moved to was just about perfect. I was able to catch all this action even though it was in profile. As the blinding light bulbs flashed, there was from Marilyn this shimmering that seemed to blast from her from everywhere. It was some sort of silver shimmer, like sun-blast lasers, fireworks shot into the heavens. She was amazing, honest-to-God breathtaking. And there she was, right there gleaming in front of me and all of us. She was swathed in this “silver thing” that was beyond dazzling. How she ever fit into it, only her dressers knew. She was literally squeezed into this glistening off-white silver full- length dress with matching wide silver cape. It was held up by two thin silver piping straps rounding each shoulder. She could easily have gone strapless as the bodice was so tight, nothing could’ve budged that dress but a tailor’s scissors. The fit on her was so perfect it seemed to not miss one miniscule attribute of Marilyn’s voluptuous figure, covering most of her body until down around the area of the knees – where the thing broke away. This whole breakaway effect was highlighted with a flailed “poodle-skirt” thingy that jutted out from her knees. It splayed out from her, not unlike one of those ridiculous mini electric battery-hand-fans people, on a hot summer’s day click on and have the dragonfly wings fluttering and blowing all over the place. The bottom of that dress looked silly and captivating at the same time. But the enthralling part was that silken/satin bodice – so sensuous, so all encompassing. I may’ve been a mere lad of 10, but something was stirred within my elemental consciousness. Marilyn proceeded to the center of the lobby with the light bulbs flashing. I played as much peek-a-boo as possible in order to catch as many looks of her as I could until her form was obscured by too many suit jackets. Just before the crowd swallowed her I was able to take in the figure standing back, lingering a bit behind. This figure was that of a man who did not like the role he was assigned, and consequently forced to play, that of Marilyn’s clearly out-of-the-picture husband Arthur Miller. Handsome, he was also clearly forlorn and camera-shy standing uncomfortably behind the radiance glowing before him. He looked pained, like most all the photographs where he was seen with Marilyn. He was cast in the third billing supporting role distanced from the fans occupying the co-starring slot with all of them following after the shooting star of the goddess. As mentioned, the apartment building’s lobby doors were both wide open, with a maximum crowd full in the lobby and overflowing everywhere else onto the front entranceway sidewalk. Marilyn and Arthur fought to make their way through the sea of the crowd with their handlers doing their best to part the human waves. I shot past many knees in order to get outside to the curb so I could spot her as she got into her car. I was able to catchg limpses of Marilyn’s back, as she tried with difficulty to maneuver herself and her shimmering gown into a fancier limousine then the one she took during her daytime activities. In order to prevent any smudges from tarnishing the splayed, butterfly part of her gown, her handlers tackled the challenge, and managed to transfer both dress and wearer into the back of the limousine without tarnish to person or garment.
Marilyn perched herself right by the open passenger door, smiling, happy. Arthur then followed, sliding along the back seat as far to Marilyn’s left as possible. In his solemnness one could sense that if he could quickly disappear entirely, he most certainly would’ve. The door of the limousine now closed, Marilyn leaned toward the half-opened back window of the car and beamed her iconic smile, waving to her adoring fans. After a second, the limousine, like a mid-sized black whale, glided away slowly, the now dwindling twilight enveloping the vehicle as it swam deep into the darkening night. The introductory “night of the premiere scene” now concluded, the throng began to dwindle. I walked to the elevator and approached Carl, who nodded deferentially to me before I was about to enter the car. Turning back to look at the lobby, I took in the setting, the front doors of our building still wide open. Out on the sidewalk, the few remaining stragglers of the crowd were dispersing. In the lobby, there was not a living soul anywhere, but for the front doorman standing in the threshold of the open doors, just standing there, doing nothing. Where only a moment ago there was a fervent pitch of energy from so many people, now no energy or spirit remained. The atmosphere of the abundant celebration had been ripped away, forsaken for what felt to me like being hit with a sucker punch. It appeared as if something had been absconded, hijacked, thieved, with an added mournfulness of some kind of life extinguished. Carl slid the elevator door shut and ascended to the fifth floor where I stepped onto the corridor landing. He said to me, “Quite an evening, huh? Have a good night.” I stood there adrift a moment as Carl closed the elevator door. In the silence of the moment I paused. I then walked to our apartment, 5D. I found father and mother sitting in the living room. They looked up and asked my overview of what had taken place downstairs, and I told them, to not much reaction. Wind had been knocked out of my sails.. Both my parents projected a sense of benevolent disengagement about my recounting of Marilyn’s departure from the building. I was struck by their attitude. They were behaving mature or something like that, ultra-cool, somewhat detached, yet caring at the same time. They projected no haughtiness or pretension in their manner. Adults, that’s what their behavior appeared to me to be like, grown ups.