The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marilyn Monroe helped launch Hugh Hefner’s career. But they never even met.

Marilyn Monroe in an undated publicity photo. (Running Press/AP)

Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91, will be laid to rest beside the woman who helped turn him into a publishing mogul and cultural force: Marilyn Monroe.

When he launched Playboy in 1953, Hefner decided to use a nude, color photo of Monroe as his inaugural “Sweetheart of the Month,” the predecessor to Playmate.

“I feel a double connection to her, because she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy,” Hefner told CBS Los Angeles in 2012. “We were born the same year.”

So, in 1992, Hefner spent $75,000 to purchase the crypt beside Monroe’s in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery as his burial site. “I’m a believer in things symbolic,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up.”

But for all the impact Monroe had on Hefner, the two never met, he said. And Monroe wasn’t even paid directly for the use of those images.

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While Hefner’s 1953 magazine turned him into an instant success, he didn’t make his way to out California until the 1960s, he said. Monroe died in 1962 in Brentwood.

“She was actually in my brother’s acting class in New York,” Hefner said of Monroe in 2011. “But the reality is that I never met her. I talked to her once on the phone, but I never met her. She was gone, sadly, before I came.”

The nude Monroe photo came into Hefner’s hands in a roundabout way. Years before, Monroe was in the beginning stages of her career and in desperate need of money after acting gigs dried up. She agreed to pose nude for pinup photographer Tom Kelley. She signed the release of the images, known as the Red Velvet series, as “Mona Monroe.”

“I don’t know why, except I may have wanted to protect myself,” Monroe told George Barris in “Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words.” She continued: “I was nervous, embarrassed, even ashamed of what I had done, and I did not want my name to appear on that model release.”

The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan discusses the legacy of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Monroe said she was later told that Kelley sold the photographs for $900 to the Western Lithograph Co., and they made their way into the “Golden Dreams” pinup calendar — which ended up making millions, especially after Monroe’s career took off.

“Me? All I was ever paid for that nude calendar photograph was the fifty dollars Tom paid me as the original modeling fee,” Monroe said.

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A year after the cash-strapped Monroe posed for those nudes, her acting career took off with acclaimed roles in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve.” Four years after the photo shoot, Hefner paid a Chicago calendar company $500 for one of those nude images, plus another clothed photo, to launch his magazine, Monroe said.

Monroe graced the front while sitting on top of an elephant at Madison Square Garden. The cover proclaimed, “First time in any magazine, FULL COLOR, the famous MARILYN MONROE NUDE.”

On the inside, the magazine read: “There were actually two poses shot au naturel back in ’49, just before the gorgeous blonde got her first movie break. When they appeared as calendar art, they helped catapult her to stardom. We’ve selected the better of the two as our first Playboy Sweetheart.”

Hefner had laid the first issue out on his kitchen table, and cobbled together a few thousand dollars (including $1,000 from his mother) to launch Playboy.

“His greatest piece of luck was his choice of the first centerfold,” the New York Times wrote. “It remains by far the sexiest of all Hefner’s pinups.”

Monroe herself said “the magazine, I was told, thanks to my photos, [was] an instant sellout all across the country, an instant success.” From “Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words:”

I never even received a thank-you from all those who made millions off a nude Marilyn photograph. I even had to buy a copy of the magazine to see myself in it … I admitted it was me who posed for that nude calendar even when the Fox executives became nervous and believed this would cause the ruination of any films I would appear in and also the end of my movie career. Of course they were wrong. The fans, my public, cheered when I admitted it was me, and that calendar and that Playboy first-issue publicity helped my career.

Those iconic Monroe images will forever be linked to Hefner and the empire he’d go on to build. So the plan he concocted decades after publishing Monroe’s images — to be laid to rest beside her — made sense to the publisher.

As he explained in 2012, “It has a completion notion to it.”