In 1956, just six years before she died, Marilyn Monroe announced a trip to England. She would be acting alongside Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, with Olivier directing as well.
The movie was something of a fairy tale, revolving around a relationship between a showgirl (Monroe) and a prince regent (Olivier). It was the first project for Monroe’s film company. The whole thing looked fantastic on paper.
But the reality of making the movie was anything but a fairy tale, as I learned in the course of my research for my new book, When Marilyn Met the Queen.
First, there was the aspect of Monroe’s new marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller. The couple had married just weeks before he accompanied her to England, and this marked the first time they would officially live together for a large block of time. The pressure on them was immense.
Though Monroe was used to the attention by this point, the constant press intrusion gave the couple more stress than either could have imagined. Not content with hanging around the gates of the Miller home in Englefield Green, Surrey, some reporters climbed the surrounding trees for a better look, while two enterprising photographers scaled the house and attempted to dangle from the roof. Even being chased by security was no deterrent for the press, and throughout Monroe and Miller’s four-month stay, reporters were often spotted hiding on the grounds.
The stress and chaos of it all pushed the young marriage to the brink. The couple would remain together for another four years after they returned to America in November of 1956, but ultimately they divorced, after Monroe starred in The Misfits, for which Miller wrote the screenplay.
Another layer to the England story was Monroe’s working relationship with Olivier. The two actors fell out almost immediately, when Olivier introduced Monroe in what she believed to be a condescending manner.
Olivier’s own private life was suffering at the time as well. His marriage to actress Vivien Leigh had long been under pressure, and Leigh’s miscarriage during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl didn’t help.
As filming went on, the relationship between Olivier and Monroe became ever more strained, with the actor insisting that Monroe apologize to the cast for her lateness on set. (Luckily for Monroe, she had a staunch ally in veteran actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who stepped in and told Olivier to leave the star alone.)
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Monroe’s time in England was the way the British people reacted to her visit. Her image was used in competitions, dances, and shows; letters arrived daily from businesses, begging the actress to open nightclubs and fêtes; she was even mentioned in the House of Commons and discussed in universities. The British obsession with Marilyn even extended to producers at the BBC, all of whom wanted her to appear on their shows and in their radio plays and interviews.
Though Monroe rarely accepted invitations while in England, one woman she desperately hoped to see was the Queen. She got what she wanted.
This historic meeting took place at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, in London, just weeks before filming wrapped on The Prince and the Showgirl. The two women spoke about being neighbors in the countryside, and the actress would go on to describe the meeting as one of the great highlights of her trip. “The Queen is very warm-hearted,” Monroe said. “She radiates sweetness.”
Michelle Morgan’s When Marilyn Met the Queen: Marilyn Monroe’s Life in England is out now from Pegasus