This Day In History: May 27

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On May 27, 1949, unemployed 22-year-old model-actress Marilyn Monroe receives $50 for posing nude for a Los Angeles photographer against a red velvet backdrop. The picture will go on to become the most famous calendar photo in history and the principal attraction in the first issue of Playboy magazine. It will also risk destroying Monroe’s budding movie career.

While many people would profit from the photo, Monroe never received more than the original $50. As she later told the story, she had repeatedly rebuffed photographer Tom Kelley’s suggestion that she pose nude until one day, nearly broke, she called him and relented. “I was desperate,” Monroe recalled. “What else could I do?”

She did, however, impose a couple of conditions: that he never tell anyone she had posed in the nude and that he take the pictures in a way to make her unrecognizable. Kelley, Monroe said, promised that no one would ever know except for himself and his wife, who acted as his studio assistant.

Just in case, she signed the model release, giving up all rights to the photos, with a fictitious name, Mona Monroe.

Although Monroe was clearly recognizable in the pictures, she was not yet famous. That would change several years later, after 20th Century Fox had begun to groom her for stardom. When a Chicago publisher put her photo on a 1952 calendar, “Marilyn’s bosses at Fox reached for the ulcer tablets,” as one Hollywood columnist put it. The studio asked that she deny that it was her image. Instead, she went public and admitted it. Instead of ruining her career, as both Monroe and the studio had initially feared, it burnished her image as a sex symbol.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner remembered the photo and purchased it from the calendar publisher for $500—but without Monroe’s permission. It ran in the debut issue of his magazine, which appeared on newsstands in December 1953, with a more fully dressed Monroe on the cover. The issue was a sellout.

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