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Tony Curtis: Movies, money and Marilyn

The legendary actor shares his Hollywood experiences in a memoir, "American Prince."  In this excerpt, he recounts his foray into the industry and his relationship with a budding starlet by the name of Marilyn Monroe.
/ Source: TODAY books

Legendary actor Tony Curtis shares his Hollywood experiences in his memoir, "American Prince." In this excerpt, he recounts his foray into the industry and his relationship with a budding starlet by the name of Marilyn Monroe.

Chapter one: New kid in town
All my life I had one dream, and that was to be in the movies. Maybe it was because I had a pretty rough childhood, or perhaps it was because I was always more than a little insecure, but as a kid I longed to see myself ten feet tall on the big screen. Through no fault of my teachers, I received almost no formal education, but after I spent three years in the Navy dur­ing World War II, the GI Bill allowed me to go to acting school on the government’s nickel. I may not have had much schooling, but it turned out I had a gift for acting. When I walked out on that stage, it felt like a hand in a velvet glove. I wasn’t scared; I wasn’t even nervous. I just loved being the center of attention, just like I’d always known I would.

I performed in summer stock, and I acted in Clifford Odets’s play "Golden Boy" exactly twice over a single weekend, but before I knew it I had been summoned to meet a studio executive at Universal Studios. It was the spring of 1948. I was excited, but I wasn’t surprised. Going to Hollywood had been my life’s plan since I could remember, and I was too naive to know it almost never works out that way.

I got myself out to New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) and boarded a TWA Super Constellation, a four-engine prop plane bound for Los Angeles. I had never been on a Super Constella­tion before, but I knew all about it from movies and magazines. I was served a little lunch. The stewardesses were real nice to me. One of them was very pretty, so I had a chance to fiirt. I was just a kid, but already I loved fiirting. Mostly I succeeded in sparking some kind of response, which was what I lived for.

On my first flight to LA, I sat in coach. In those days the sec­tions weren’t partitioned, so I could see into first class, where a man with a mustache and a herringbone suit was being tended to by what was clearly a personal assistant. The guy in the suit would whisper something to the other man, who would jump up and do his bidding.

To my surprise, a little while after we took off the assistant came over and asked me, “Could you join my friend in first class?”

“Sure,” I said. I got up and walked forward to Herringbone Suit. I had no idea who he was, but he was cordial and expressed interest in why I was going to LA.

“I’m going to be an actor.”

“I figured you might be,” he said.

“I’ve got a meeting at Universal,” I said.

“Do you know anything about the other studios?” he asked.

I had heard the same Hollywood gossip as everyone else, but I had paid special attention to it, knowing that this was where I would work one day. So I said, “Warner Brothers is a tough studio to work for. Twentieth Century Fox makes action pictures. At MGM you have to sing and dance a little bit. RKO wants actors who are stable. And Universal wants young people. So that’s where I’m going.”

We talked for a few moments, and then I went back to my seat and fell asleep. After we landed, I went to pick up my lug­gage and there was Herringbone Suit, waiting for his assistant to fetch his bags. He saw me and said, “Can I offer you a ride?”

“That would be great, thanks. I’m staying at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel.”

He said, “My driver will take me home first, then he’ll be happy to drop you off at your hotel.”

We drove through the winding streets of Beverly Hills for a while before finally pulling up to a big metal gate. Barely visible through the trees and groomed shrubbery was a tasteful man­sion. After we pulled up to it and my benefactor’s bags were un­loaded, he reached over and shook my hand.

I said, “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you. And thanks for the ride. My name is Bernie Schwartz. What’s yours?”

“Jack Warner,” he said. “Let me tell you something, kid. If Universal ever drops you, come see me. I’ll change your name to Tyrone Goldfarb and make you a star all over the world!”

We both laughed. Warner got out, and his limo driver took me to the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, where I slept like a baby.

The next morning I walked from the hotel to a big intersec­tion at Highland Avenue, where a trolley took me into the San Fernando Valley, up the middle of the street, ending up at Uni­versal Studios. After I got off, I walked under a bridge with the freeway overhead until I came to the Universal lot.

I walked right up to the gate. Now it was starting to hit me. This was an absolutely thrilling experience for a twenty-two­-year-old kid fresh from the streets of New York. My whole life I had dreamed of being an actor in a movie studio, and here I was about to walk through the entrance of Universal Pictures as a prospective employee. I pinched myself, but the dream contin­ued. The gatekeeper told me to go to a door marked casting. I walked through it and up to a big, gleaming desk.

“I’ve been invited to come to the studio for a meeting,” I said.

A girl behind the desk looked up at me and said, “What’s your name?”

“Bernie Schwartz.” Now I had my heart in my throat. I thought, Suppose this is a big f---ing joke? I was pretty sure it had to be more than that because the studio had sent me a plane ticket. But what was a hundred and twelve dollars to a movie studio? So I held my breath for the long moment before she said, “Yes. Here you are on the list. Welcome to Universal Studios, Mr. Schwartz. You have an appointment this morning with Mr. Goldstein. To get to his office, turn right when you come out of the gate across from the barbershop, go up the path, and you’ll see his name on the door.”

I was amazed. Not only had she known my name, but she was sending me directly to the office of the man who ran things at Universal. As soon as I left her, though, I got completely lost, so I figured maybe this was an opportunity to make a spur-of­-the-moment detour. In New York I had gone to see some filming of "The Naked City", a Universal picture. Howard Duff was the star. While I stood there watching the location shoot, I struck up a conversation with the propman. We talked, and I told him I wanted to be in the movies.

He laughed, but not unkindly. “Don’t break your heart,” he said to me. “Just enjoy going to the pictures and don’t even think about working in the business. It’s just too tough. You have no chance at all.”

So while I was wandering around lost on my way to see Mr. Goldstein, I decided to see if I could find my friend the propman. It turned out the props department was right nearby, and there he was.

He remembered me. “Hey, kid. How are you? How did you get in the lot?”

“I’m here to sign a contract,” I said.



He was genuinely happy to see me and took obvious pleasure in my good fortune. He gave me directions to Bob Goldstein’s office, and not long after that I arrived at the studio’s inner sanc­tum, where all the executives had bungalows interspersed with perfectly groomed lawns. I walked along the path to an office marked goldstein, where a well-dressed woman looked me over coolly.

“Mr. Schwartz?” No one had ever called me Mr. Schwartz before.

“That’s me,” I said.

“Just a moment, please.”

The door opened. Bob Goldstein was in town for a couple of days and was using his brother Leonard’s office. Bob sat me down, and we talked. He showed me my contract and said it would be good for seven years, with options renewable every six months, at the studio’s discretion. Each time they renewed I’d get a raise. My starting salary would be seventy-five dollars a week.

“I’ll take it,” I said. He laughed. I picked up the pen to sign the last page, and he said, “Never sign anything until you read it.”

“There are a lot of pages,” I said.

“I don’t give a sh--,” he said. “Sit down and read it. I’ll be back in an hour.”

I didn’t have the patience to read every page, but I fiipped to the section that related to payment: if they were renewed, my six-month options would go from a starting salary of seventy-five dollars a week up to twelve hundred a week at the end of seven years. Other than that all I could make out was page after page of whereofs and wherefores. When Goldstein came back to his office I was reading magazines, having spent all of four minutes scan­ning the contract. I’m sure he knew that. I signed on June 2, 1948, one day before my twenty-third birthday. I was officially under contract. Bernie Schwartz was in the movies.

Now that I knew I was going to live in LA, at least for six months, the first thing I had to do was find a place to live. The studio had been picking up my tab at the Knickerbocker Hotel, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I had heard about a rooming house on Sycamore Street where five or six other Uni­versal actors lived. I could get breakfast and a room there for thirty dollars a month, which I could swing on my seventy-five dollars a week and still have some money left over for a car.

I moved in with whatever I had in my suitcase: a toothbrush, a comb, and some clothes. My room contained just two pieces of furniture — a bed and a dresser — but the location was perfect. After a three-block walk to Highland Avenue, I could get on the trolley and ride twelve minutes into the San Fernando Valley to Uni versal Studios. The trolley also went to the Beverly Hills Ho­tel and from there to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way you could see big, beautiful homes in the pastel palette of Southern Cali­fornia, with their emerald expanses of manicured lawn.

I was required to join the Screen Actors Guild, so Bob Goldstein made me deduct twenty dollars a week from my paycheck until I paid my union dues. Bob didn’t want me to wait until I got my first movie role and then be stuck having to pay a big lump sum. He was very kind to me. He made sure I was smart about my money, and I was grateful to him for that.

I got all dressed up for my first day of work at the studio, and I was sent with a photographer to meet various executives, including Wally Westmore, the famous makeup man, and the head of the props department. When I heard that Jimmy Stewart was going to be coming onto the lot, I walked down to the front gate and waited for him to arrive.

When he drove in, the guard at the gate greeted him: “Good morning, Mr. Stewart.”

“How are you, Irving?”

“There’s a new kid here who just signed with the studio. Would you like to meet him?”

“Sure,” Stewart said. He got out of his station wagon, walked to the little kiosk where I was standing, and greeted me graciously while the studio photographer captured the moment. Then Jimmy Stewart got back in his car and went to work. This was my first photograph with a major star — and I had been signed with the studio for less than twenty-four hours!

I started attending acting classes provided by Universal. Richard Long, a young actor who would become a friend of mine, was in one of my classes, along with a half dozen other actors and actresses. The instructor was Abner Biberman, who had acted in a movie with Cary Grant. Abner kept making passes at all the pretty girls, but he seemed to take special pleasure in showing me up. It couldn’t be that I was Jewish, because he was too; maybe it was just that I was young, good-looking, and under contract. But oh, did I catch hell from this guy! You could tell that he had it in for me, so he was doing what he could to make sure I’d get dropped by the studio.

After a few weeks of this, I went to Leonard Goldstein and told him what Biberman was up to. I was smart enough to know I needed the ear of somebody like Leonard, who had the clout that came from being Universal’s most prolific producer. Leonard told me that he had received other complaints about what Biber­man was doing and that he wasn’t going to let anyone dump on me for any reason. A short time later, the studio fired Biberman and replaced him. And I stopped being singled out.

The best thing about moving to California was that I was enjoying total freedom for the very first time. Though I had been on my own in the service, Uncle Sam had still kept his watchful eye on me. Out here in sunny California, I was single, young, and being paid while I was training for a movie career. There were great-looking girls everywhere, so I decided it was time to start developing my knowledge of the opposite sex.

The trolley was no way to take a girl on a date, so I went out and bought a used pale green Buick convertible, with Dynaflow Drive, from Sailor Jack’s on Lancashire Boulevard in the Valley. I paid very little for it, and it wasn’t long before I discovered why. One day I pulled up the rubber mat on the driver’s side and found a hole that had rusted right through the floorboard. I could see the street below, but I didn’t care. I had wheels.

The girls I was meeting, actresses under contract at Universal, were completely different from the girls I had known back in New York. These girls were beautiful, outgo­ing, and friendly, and they weren’t bashful about sex. For girls in New York, sex was a big deal, and lots of girls were waiting until they found Mr. Right. The girls I was meeting in California had often tried sex at a much younger age, so they were more com­fortable with themselves, and with men. I remember some of those girls with great affection. Debbie from Iowa had an apartment in Beverly Hills, a pretty, little place. We’d go out for dinner, she’d invite me upstairs, and then we’d spend the night together. Her boyfriend happened to be an exec­utive at one of Universal’s distribution companies, and he had brought her to LA for a six-month tryout. I found out that this wasn’t uncommon. Producers would bring these beautiful girls out from their hometowns, put them under contract for six months, give them bit parts in movies, and screw them the whole time. Then bim, bam, thank you ma’am, they’d go back to wherever they’d come from. The Universal executive never found out about Debbie and me. I was very discreet. I respected the girls, so I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to get them into any kind of trouble. In addition to aspiring actresses, I was surrounded by girls whom the studio hired to deliver the mail, beautiful young ladies who rode bicycles from stage to stage and office to office, bring­ing scripts and messages. There wasn’t one I didn’t find attrac­tive. If a girl gave me a look, letting me know she was interested, I’d show my interest right back. I was still shy, but I was teach­ing myself to get over it.

I had lots of different experiences with these girls. Some­times things would lead straight to sex, and other times we’d just neck. Whatever happened was fine with me. I was just happy that they seemed to like me. One of the girls lived in a house with a little porch, and we’d sit out there, kissing. We’d go to screenings at the studio and hold hands until her hands got sweaty. But that was it. If I had pushed a little harder, maybe we could have had a relationship, but I wasn’t ready to do that. I didn’t want to cut off the opportunity to go out with all those other girls.

I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having. To make it seem a little more real I started to keep a romantic diary; when I went out with a girl I would take a Polaroid picture of her and put it in my book along with some cryptic notes that only I could decipher. This book was proof that I wasn’t dreaming the whole thing up. Without it I might wake up one morning and find my­self in my parents’ apartment in New York!

One of the girls who came to Hollywood looking for a con­tract in the fall of 1948 was a very young actress who had re­cently changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. I first saw her at Universal just walking down the street. She was breathtakingly voluptuous in a see-through blouse that revealed her bra. Her beauty was intimidating, but there was something about her smile that made her seem approachable. She and I were about the same age.

When I walked by her I gave her my usual friendly greeting: “Hi-i-i.” She smiled. I smiled back.

By this time I had more or less settled on a new name for myself. The one and only book that I had read while I was in the Navy was "Anthony Adverse", by Hervey Allen, a historical novel set during the days of Napoleon. I had decided to call myself Anthony Adverse, but when I mentioned that one day to a cast­ing director, he said, “There’s already an actor in town with that name.” So I kept the Anthony, and I added Curtis; I had a rela­tive, Janush Kertiz, whom I liked very much, so I took his last name for mine. Kertiz is actually a very common Hungarian name. What a perfect name that is, I thought to myself: Tony Curtis. I had wanted a name that was a little mysterious, and this seemed just right.

I said to this beautiful girl, “My name is Tony.”

“My name is Marilyn,” she said.

“I’m driving into town,” I said. “Can I give you a lift some­where?”

She paused, looked at me for a moment, and then said, “Okay.”

We walked together to my car, and I held the door open for her. I got behind the wheel, drove out the gate at Universal, turned left, and then we were on the Hollywood Freeway, head­ing into the city.

I twisted the rearview mirror a little to the right so I could see a bit of Marilyn’s face, and I caught her looking in the mirror at me. We both laughed. Nice. She had red hair then, pulled back in a ponytail. As we chatted I got a strong feeling of, well, heat. She gave off an extraordinary aura of warmth and kindness, of generosity and sexuality. I’d never experienced anything like it.

Both of us were aspiring to be famous, to be in the movies. I had gotten my first break, and this girl was still looking for hers. She was wearing a summer dress, and I could see her shape, her thighs, and her back. She didn’t wear much makeup, just a little lipstick and mascara maybe. I know it sounds crazy, but I no­ticed she had beautiful arms.

We hardly spoke, but I was keenly aware of her. I drove down Highland to Sunset Boulevard and asked Marilyn where I could drop her off. She mentioned a street, and I drove to this little hotel where she was staying. The whole trip took maybe twenty-five minutes.

I said, “Here we are.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Can I call you?”

“If you like.”

She took a minute to write out a number. I wasn’t sure whether the number was for the hotel or directly to her room. She left, and for two or three days I couldn’t think of anything else. But I didn’t dare call her. It was too soon. I figured a girl who looked like that had to be in a serious relationship. She may have been married, for all I knew, although she wasn’t wearing a band. After a week, I figured enough time had passed, so I called her.

“Would you like to go out for dinner?”

She said that would be fine. A few nights later I picked her up in my car, and we drove to a popular restaurant on the Sunset Strip. The food was good and we talked, but not about anything serious. We laughed a lot and had a good time. We went for a drive down Sunset going toward Beverly Hills before I took her home.

On our next date we went to a club called the Mocambo. I picked Marilyn up at her hotel, but I never asked her any ques­tions about her living there, which I think she appreciated. Dur­ing the ride we talked about the movie business. She wanted to know everything about it — the people I’d met, the structure of my contract, my acting classes.

“Any good?” she asked about my class.

“My first teacher wasn’t great, but he left and the class got better after that,” I told her.

I could see how much she was interested in movies. She didn’t talk much, but she listened closely. I told her a little about myself, but when I asked about her life she didn’t offer much, so I didn’t press her. I figured the way she looked, she must have had an interesting history.

It was more interesting than I could have ever imagined, as it turned out. If anyone had had a worse childhood than mine, it was Marilyn. She had been in foster care until the age of seven, and not long after her mother took her back, her mom ended up in a mental hospital. Marilyn spent the rest of her childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home until she got married at age sixteen just to get away.

That marriage had ended about two years before I met Marilyn. She had been discovered by a photographer who had seen her working in an airplane factory. Twentieth Century Fox signed her but let her contract expire. Then Harry Cohn signed Marilyn to a six-month contract at Columbia, and she had appeared in a movie called Ladies of the Chorus, which went nowhere. Harry had the reputation of demanding sex with his starlets before signing them, and I doubted that Marilyn escaped his clutches. But Columbia hadn’t re-signed Marilyn, either. When I met her, Marilyn Mon­roe was unemployed and still looking for her first real break.

We went into the Mocambo, which had one wall lined with canaries in cages. When the two of us walked in, heads turned. Marilyn was wearing a flowered dress, nothing fancy, but she still looked fabulous. It was a weeknight, so the place wasn’t crowded. I had the feeling that Marilyn was uncomfortable being seen in public, as if she didn’t want to run into somebody who might see she was out on a date. What I didn’t know was that Joe Schenck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, had a place in LA where Marilyn stayed with him on weekends. Twentieth Century Fox hadn’t picked up her option, but Schenck sure had.

Schenck was married, so during the week he’d go home and Marilyn would stay at her hotel. At this point I didn’t know about her arrangement with Schenck; I only pieced it together later.

Excerpted from American Prince by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.