A major source of unpleasantness, and not just to [Otto] Preminger, was the presence of Monroe’s drama coach- really her surrogate mother- Natasha Lytess. "Horrible woman,” said Reva Frederick. “And smelly. If only someone had taken her out and giver her a bath.” Otto dismissed Lytess as an annoying phony from the get-go- "She was passing herself off as a Russian, for reasons of her own, but she was in fact German”- but Marilyn had an absolute Trilby-like devotion to the woman and her professional advice. Lytess would sit at the sidelines during filming, conferring with the actress before a take, overriding the director’s instructions, signaling Marilyn to demand another take or to refuse to do another one, depending on whether the coach was satisfied with the first. Her most damning influence on Monroe’s performance was an insistence on every syllable of every line being enunciated distinctly, advice the actress followed to an absurd degree. Marilyn, said Preminger, “rehearsed her lines with such grave ar-tic-yew-lay-shun that her violent lip movements made it impossible to photograph her.” To Mitchum, holding her in his arms for a shot, she looked like she was doing an imitation of a fish. He slapped her on the ass-which he found was also undulating uncontrollably-and snapped, “Stop the nonsense! Let’s play it like human being.” He managed, said Preminger, "to startle her and she dropped, at least for a moment, her Lytess mannerisms.”
"Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care" by Lee Server
Natasha Lytess and Marilyn during the filming of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.
On the set of ‘The Seven Year Itch’ with Natasha Lytess. Photographed by George Zimbel.
Natasha Lytess and Marilyn on the set of ‘River of No Return’
In late 1954 Marilyn’s plans for the new years were out with the old and in with the new. She moved to New York to rebuild her life after Joe; her new life included a new drama guru, Lee Strasberg, at the Actors Studio. In her haste to turn over a new leaf, she failed to say anything to Natasha. In February 1956 Lytess learned that Marilyn had flown back into town to start shooting on Bus Stop. Lytess had been replaced by Paula Strasberg as Marilyn’s on-set mentor; no longer protected by Marilyn, Twentieth Century-Fox was preparing to dump her. Lytess made a number of desperate attempts to get in touch with her former pupil- in the first week alone, more than a dozen phone calls and hand-delivered letters. Marilyn had her lawyer Irving Stein call Natasha to tell her to stop bothering his client. Natasha told Stein, “My only protection in the world is Marilyn Monroe. I created this girl- I fought for her… I am her private property, she knows that. Her faith and security are mine.” Marilyn was not moved, not even when two days later Natasha turned up at Marilyn’s rented home. Agent Lew Wasserman answered the door and prevented her from entering. Natasha saw Marilyn looking down impassively from a second floor window.
Not long before she died from cancer in 1964, Lytess gave her final view on their relationship: “I wish I had one-tenth of Marilyn’s cleverness. The turth is, my life and my feelings were very much in her hands. I was the older one, the teacher, but she knew the depth of my attachment to her, and she exploited those feelings as only a beautiful younger person can. She said she was the needy one. Alas, it was the reverse. My life with her was a constant denial of myself.”
By 1953, after Marilyn’s work on How to Marry a Millionaire, the relationship seemed to some to be more vital to the coach than to the pupil. Co-star Alex D’Arcy said, “Natasha was really advising her badly, justifying her own presence on the set by requiring take after take and simply feeding on Marilyn’s insecurity. ‘Well, that was all right, dear,’ she often said to Marilyn, ‘but maybe we should do it one more time.’” As with her previous pictures at Fox, the moment came when the director lost his patience with the countless retakes required until Natasha gave her approval, and the drama coach was banned from the set. The next day Marilyn failed to show, claiming an attack of bronchitis. Marilyn’s agent Charles Feldman told the studio point blank, “Monroe cannot do a picture without her,” and Lytess was rehired and give a bonus package.
Similar problems recurred with Otto Preminger on River of No Return (1954); to his intense irritation, the director found that Marilyn would only listen to her drama coach, who forced her to speak her lines with, as he said, “grave ar-tic-yew-lay-shun.”
By the time Marilyn married DiMaggio she saw very little of Lytess outside of work. Still, in mid-1954, she had Lytess by her side during shooting of There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). Lytess was on hand to comfort Marilyn when Joe became violent after suspecting she was having an affair with voice coach Hal Schaefer. Marilyn sought to repay this support by getting Natasha a further salary hike, which the studio turned down but, as before, recanted.
In 1952, when Marilyn began dating Joe DiMaggio, Natasha, who according to Marilyn had always been jealous of the men she saw, saw the ball player as an enemy: “I disliked him at once. He is a man with a closed, vapid look. Marilyn introduced us and said I was her coach, which made no impression on him. A week later I telephoned her and Joe answered: ‘I think if you want to talk to Miss Monroe’ -Miss Monroe!- ‘you’d better call her agent.’” Joe disliked Lytess just as much. Marilyn attempted to make peace between the two people closest to her, but it was to no avail. Lytess apparently warned Marilyn, “This man is the punishment of God in your life.”
In their working relationship, a pattern was developing as directors rebelled against Lytess’s presence during shooting. Lytess was banned from the set by Fritz Land (director of Clash By Night, 1952) and Howard Hawks (director of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953), only to return within a short space of time, to coax her frightened charge before the cameras. Lytess wrote, “Her habit of looking at me the second she finished a scene was to become a joke in projection rooms… The film of the daily rushes was filled with scenes of Marilyn, finishing her dialogue and immediately shading her eyes to find me, to see if she had done well.” The only director who regarded Lytess as an ally was Billy Wilder: “Without Natasha, there would be nothing.”
When Lytess moved home in early 1951 she was $1000 short on her mortgage (though in some accounts, Lytess required the money for a surgical procedure). Marilyn, who had moved back to her room at the Beverly Carlton Hotel, immediately took steps to remedy the situation. She raised the money by selling the mink stole Hyde had given her, possibly her most valuable possession. Lytess acknowledged. “She treasured nothing more than that stole. Yet she went out, sold it and came back and put $1,000 in my hand- to help me out of my difficulties.”
Not long after this Lytess accompanied Marilyn on a trip to see her long-lost father. This was neither the first nor last time that Marilyn sought (and won) sympathy from a person who filled an almost parental role in her life, by driving down to Palm Springs in an unsuccessful attempt to make contact with C. Stanley Gifford.
Marilyn, briefly moved back in with Lytess in late 1951, sharing her Beverly Hills home at 611 North Crescent Drive during the making of Don’t Bother to Knock. They worked together intensely to prepare her for Marilyn’s first starring role, as a psychotic babysitter. Director Roy Baker was thankful, as budget constraints during filming meant he for many scenes he had to make do with first-take material.
Lytess’s sideline direction made her extremely unpopular with directors. Tutor and pupil devised a set of hand signals, so that Marilyn could see from Lytess if she was doing anything different to how they had to rehearsed her scenes: “I signaled to her if she turned too soon, or if a turn had been ‘empty’ because it hadn’t been motivated by proper thought about herself and the character.’
In the fall of 1950 Marilyn moved in to Natasha’s home, at Harper Avenue in West Hollywood; she slept on a living room sofa, studied and read, and looked after both Natasha’s daughter and the chihuahua that Joseph Schenck had given Marilyn as a twenty-fourth birthday present. It has been written that the dog’s lack of house training soon became a major cause of friction between houseguest and host.
The two went away to Tijuana together in December 1950, at the time that Johnny Hyde had his fatal heart attack. Soon afterwards Natasha discovered Marilyn comatose, with a dribble of white spittle issuing from her mouth and a bottle of pills from Schwab’s at her bedside. Marilyn subsequently told business partner Milton Greene that Lytess found her with a melted sleeping pill in her mouth and then blew up the incident into a suicide attempt to emphasize her heroic actions as a savior.
After their initial experience working together, Lytess gave Marilyn intensive coaching prior to all her auditions. For example, they worked three days and nights rehearsing for Marilyn’s second audition for The Asphalt Jungle (1950). When Marilyn got the part, Lytess gave up her job at Columbia to coach Marilyn full-time. John Huston became the first director to have to cope with Marilyn’s near-total reliance on her drama coach; after every take Marilyn looked to her coach for approval or disapproval. This glance is visible in Marilyn’s first scene in the movie.
Much has been written about the physical aspect of the relationship. Whether or not Lytess’s love was requited is a matter of conjecture. Marilyn was later non-committal: “She was in love with me and she wanted me to love her.” Among others, Marilyn’s New York maid Lena Pepitone (my note: not exactly a trustful resources), columnist Florabel Muir, and reported Sidney Skolsky are all of the opinion that there had been a sexual relationship. In her memoirs, Lytess is candid about her desire: “I took her in my arms one day, and I told her ‘I want to love you.’ I remember she looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to love me, Natasha- just as long as you work with me.”
When Marilyn finally achieved her goal of a long-term contract with Twentieth Century- Fox, the one major change she made to the standard terms was to have Lytess added to the payroll as her private drama coach. Lytess was on a retainer of $500 per week; Marilyn paid her an additional $250 per week for private tutorials, which meant that in Marilyn’s first year on contract, her drama coach earned more than she did.
Adam Victor’s The Marilyn Encyclopedia: Natasha Lytess (1915-1964) [Part I]
Marilyn was sent to Columbia’s drama coach Natasha Lytess in April 1948. Lytess, whose theater and cinema background was in Europe, had been working as a drama coach in Hollywood for seven years. Her initial assignment with Marilyn was to prepare her for her first supporting role, in Ladies of the Chorus (1948). She continued to tutor Marilyn in her performances for the next six years and twenty movies, right up to The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Lytess was an important mother figure, a sometime lover (according to rumours), an island of stability in the young actress’s life; she was prepared to believe and invest in Marilyn at a time when nobody else would. She helped Marilyn to develop and express her talents and curiosity for the world of drama and culture. Lytess is also, in many biographies, painted as a bitter and resentful woman- when the contorted mistress/ pupil relationship ended, it was abrupt and, for the older woman, painful.
Lytess wrote that when Marilyn first came to her her acting was “inhibited and cramped, and she could not say a word freely. Her habit of barely moving her lips when she spoke was unnatural… All this I tried to teach Marilyn. But she knew her sex appeal was infallible, that it was the one thing on which she could depend.”
In dramatic terms, Lytess exerted a discipline on Marilyn’s style by promoting understated movement, diction and recitation. Many of the mannerism in Marilyn’s speaking voice were elicited by Lytess, for whom “the keyboard of the human voice is the gamut of emotion, and each emotion has its corresponding shade of tone.”