Monday, August 13, 2012

"The Misfits" and Me - by Christian Esquevin

Where does the first step begin on a journey to fate? For me it was sometime in August of 1960, just a kid on a camping trip with his parents and their friends. Lake Tahoe was the destination, with side trips to Squaw Valley, Reno, Carson City, and Virginia City, Nevada. Little did I know, nor anyone else in our little party, that we would run into the production of The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift, as directed by John Huston. It was clear from the entourage around Gable and Marilyn that this was a very big deal. And my father reinforced this message with his excited exclamation, “there’s Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable!” although he probably uttered this in French, my parents’ and their friends’ native language. 

My recollections of this event are from the mists of time, and likely distorted by accretions of images and later reflections on the significance of the occasion, and the powerful warping auras of the stars themselves. As a kid turning twelve I was already highly aware of the significance of stardom. We did after all live very close to Hollywood, and in those days before paparazzi, seeing stars was not uncommon. But seeing Marilyn and Clark Gable at work was like entering the stratosphere. My best recollection of the scene was that it was taking place in a casino in Reno, likely Harrah’s Club. Production personnel were orbiting around the magic couple.  An aura emanated from Marilyn. In spite of the effects on her of nerves or drugs, which I wouldn’t have known anything about, she was glowing from the lights and the sheen of her platinum blonde hair. I don’t believe a scene was being filmed at the moment, since she seemed to be smiling and basking in the rapt attention of the small audience that was there, of which we were a part. Clark Gable was smiling too, though in a sort of cool, smirky way, aging, but still the king of the jungle. I couldn’t see their figures very well, and I was old enough to know that Marilyn’s figure was very special. But with the big stars, then and now, “we had faces” was all-important, and with these two in particular, their very unique faces reverberated in the room.  I had a particular affinity to Clark Gable. I grew up with prominent ears, the cause of a childhood complex, and my father would always tell me that this physical feature was what made Clark Gable famous. I believed him, and as a chubby kid with a funny name, I believed in the possibility that there was hope for me yet. Seeing Clark Gable in person might just provide that twist of fate that would correct my negative self-image. “See what I mean,” my father said to reinforce his message. 

That perception of Clark Gable, directly seen and experienced, provided me the kind of connection that seems magically possible to children; a more direct connection than just seeing him on the screen, as I had done, during a re-release of Gone with the Wind.  
Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift
Marilyn seemed even more magical. Here in real life and in plain sight she still seemed ethereal. Perhaps it was that very quality that made people, especially men, want to possess her, and somehow to hold onto a cloud. She was the embodiment of contradiction, an ethereal, almost angelic image that was hotly desired for her earthly body, and that most famous of movie stars, capable of moving mountains, yet unable to control her own life or emotions.

Finally we moved away from all the action, onward to seeing other sights, me looking backward at the marvel just beheld. Alas, the whole scene was destined to be an ethereal vision. Clark Gable, “the King” died of a heart attack three months later in November 1960. The Misfits premiered in February 1961, to mixed reviews.  Then my father died on June 5, 1962 and Marilyn Monroe died two months after that on August 5, 1962, now fifty years ago.  How could these giants just disappear? My own fate had indeed led me to The Misfits, a rendezvous with the realization that I too might become one.  Marilyn’s star now shines ever more brightly, a testament to film and the power of image. We continue to try to hold onto a cloud.

The Misfits was not a hit in 1961. No one then knew, of course, that it would be the last film that both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe would ever star in, nor that Montgomery Clift would also die five years later. The audience wasn’t ready for this modern, existential film in 1961. Its reputation, because of all its baggage, doomed it to the “missed opportunity,” or “underrated film” category. Today it is being rediscovered. The Misfits is not a fun film to watch, its barren landscape parallels its wounded characters. But it is a true reflection of the human condition, and for film buffs, a unique view into the life of several movie legends. For me, it was a rendezvous with destiny – an opportunity to see those legendary stars before they faded, and the passion to now write about them and the world they lived in, a world I briefly transited.

Christian Esquevin is the author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, published by the Monacelli Press in 2008. The book is about the life and career of MGM’s famed Golden Age costume designer Gilbert Adrian and his subsequent fashion business. Christian also produces his Silver Screen Modiste blog covering classic film fashion. This is Christian's third guest contribution to this blog, and for each piece I am eternally grateful...


  1. This is a great story and a wonderful tribute to those in this film.

  2. I imagined that being in close proximity to Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable would have had a powerful on you as a child, but didn't realize your encounter intimated an aspect of your own destiny. This is a beautiful piece, Christian, thank you so much.

    Having seen the photos you posted of yourself from your fashionable youth it is hard to believe you were insecure about your appearance, etc., as a boy. How thoughtful and perceptive your father was to point out to you early on that one of the most iconic of Hollywood's great leading men shared the very physical attributes about which you were so concerned.

  3. Thank you so much for this! I always love hearing how Marilyn was in person--everyone I have met who has met her says she was the sweetest, loveliest, most charming human being. And your description of her as ethereal seems so much like how I would expect her to be. Thanks again!

  4. Lady Eve, silverscreenings, and Lara. Thank you for your warm comments. I knew right away that this was a special sighting and a lucky one. Fate is the only thing I can call it, and this vision has been a special souvenir throughout my life. Also lucky for me I grew out of my baby fat and became tall, and my ears grew slower than the rest of my face. Marilyn was definetely a magnet. She was not the prettiest actress but all eyes locked on her. She was not the best-looking kid either, and thus I think she not only craved those admiring eyes, but did not take them for granted. Thanks for this opportunity to share these memories, as I had never written about them previously.

  5. Christian, a lovely collection of reminiscences worthy of those larger than life individuals who were part of your childhood. Although much of our childhood memories acquire a “veneer of mist” with the passage of time, you were fortunate this occurred at an age when memories are more than mere impressions. You’ve given us a unique glimpse of both Gable and Monroe and the delightful summer you spent traveling with your parents. You weren’t to know it at the time, how inextricably linked this chance encounter with cinema would become with your perception of life. I’m sorry you lost your father so young, which undoubtedly continues to add to the poignant nature of these memories. Thank you for sharing your recollections of your father, the summer of 1960, Gable and Monroe, and the ineffable power of classic films.

  6. Christian, a wonderful memory. I loved your line describing Marilyn, "She was the embodiment of contradiction, an ethereal, almost angelic image that was hotly desired for her earthly body." I think you captured an awful lot with those words - the people or works of art that seem to have the deepest resonance with us are often paradoxical in nature. You've retrieved a very evocative scene from the mist of your past. I'm the same age as you but I was brought up in Milwaukee, which offered few encounters with iconic movie stars. I remember reading something about "The Misfits" in the papers during the time it was being made, how it was going to be the ultimate movie with that combination of great stars; for me it was very far away, a distant galaxy, but you got to bask in the starlight up close. When I was a young adult I did have a chance encounter and conversation with Burt Lancaster in an elevator - he was the star of the first film I ever saw, and was my original movie favorite, so that had meaning for me. You were a personal witness to a little bit of immortality still in mortal form and I very much enjoyed reading about it. "The Misfits" is a unique film and it will live on.

  7. Whistlingypsy - You are right about how such experiences can imprint themselves in your memories or subconscious at that young age, especially this experience and how it all became a whole, and then a key part of the web of life. This is really the first time I've thought through that experience and tried to bring back those memories in a continuum, and not just the "I saw Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable" digest. Thank you for your sympathies.

    Motorcycle Boy - Thank you too for your comments. I have realized for years that some of my experiences were privileged based on where I lived and travelled. I was thinking of writing this into the piece but I didn't want to "belittle" the importance of the occasion, and how much pure chance (or fate) played into it. And I like your line too, "a little bit of immortality still in mortal form." But running into Burt Lancaster was special too, he was another great movie icon.

  8. Oh, Christian, you lucky boy! What a wonderful set of memories. Thanks for another up close and personal verification of the magic that was Marilyn. I wish I had such a great tale to tell, but my only childhood brush was with Soupy Sales. I doubt the Lady Eve will be asking me to write about that!

  9. Hey FlickChick, I was a BIG fan of Soupy Sales! And White Fang and Black Tooth too. I'd love to hear your story.

  10. FlickChick, Loved Soupy! Just a few months ago I watched his show for the first time since back in the day - thanks to YouTube.