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The Forbidden Love of Sammy Davis Jr. What began as a boldface item in Dorothy Kilgallen’s gossip column in the New York Journal- American threatened to become a national scandal on the eve of America’s long struggle for civil rights. It started in 1. 95.
Chicago’s most famous nightclub, Chez Paree. The man known as “the greatest entertainer in the world” was onstage, the smoke from his cigarette trellising the air. You had to see him: the gorgeous shirt, the cuff links, the way everything billowed. He was in the dark and suddenly the spotlight picked him up—he was electric, he was hot, it was almost a sexual thing. He was singing to Kim Novak, sitting at a stageside table; she had just finished work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the most challenging film of her career.
That night would be the first and virtually the last time that Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr. At the heart of their star- crossed affair was one of Hollywood’s sacred monsters: the notorious Harry Cohn. It was said that Harry Cohn put more people in the cemetery than all the other moguls combined. He ran Columbia Pictures as if it were a family business, and in a way it was, because he had wrangled control from his brother Jack, who was back on the East Coast in New York.
By the mid- 1. 93. Cohn had nurtured Columbia from a low- rent, B- movie studio on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” a block off Sunset, into a major Hollywood film studio. Cohn wanted to be known as the toughest, meanest mogul in Hollywood. He brandished a riding crop and slashed it across his desk to terrify employees. He kept a framed photograph of his hero, Benito Mussolini, on his massive desk and had his office decorated to look like Il Duce’s. The reporter James Bacon, fresh out of Chicago, was assigned to cover Hollywood for the Associated Press back in 1. He’d keep tabs on all the writers.
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He used to fire people all the time—usually on Christmas Eve.”Henri Soul. At the time, Le Pavillon was one of the most famous restaurants in the world: Through its doors, at 5 East 5.
Street, came the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Cabots, and the Windsors. When Cohn came in, however, the imperious Soul. Unfortunately for Soul. You really have to understand that Mr.
Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner—these men with their blood and their money and their reputations, they smelled out who had star material.”Cohn took all the credit for creating Rita Hayworth—he was also obsessed with her. She was Columbia’s resident sex goddess in the 1. Her first husband was a 4. Edward C. Judson; she then married director Orson Welles, Aly Khan, heir apparent to the Ismaili Muslim throne, and singer Dick Haymes. Every time she got married, her box- office standing eroded.
Her marriage to Khan, a notorious playboy and womanizer, kept her out of pictures for more than two years, infuriating Cohn and further alienating her fans. After Hayworth returned to Hollywood in 1. Cohn wanted her in one of his pet projects, a biblical epic called Joseph and His Brethren, until her then husband, Haymes, came into Cohn’s office with a marcelled beard and demanded to be cast as Joseph.“I’ll have that son of a bitch back in Argentina,” Cohn exploded. He was still smarting from having let Marilyn Monroe slip away: unimpressed by her beauty, he had neglected in 1.
Cohn decided he was going to take the next girl who walked into his office and manufacture a new star for Columbia Pictures, one who would do exactly what he wanted, who wouldn’t walk away until he and the public were finished with her.“We always had a blonde,” George Sidney remembers. After that, we switched over to Grace Kelly. It’s a terrible comparison, but it’s like betting on the Kentucky Derby. That fourth horse, I think can do it.”The next girl to walk through Cohn’s door was Marilyn Novak, a shy, plump, large- boned 2. Chicago with no acting experience but a breathtaking face. Cohn had found his blonde. Since there was already a Marilyn, the first thing that had to go was her name.
She balked at being renamed “Kit Marlowe,” and, incredibly, she won that battle. They compromised on “Kim” Novak—the name of the son of her Chicago friend and business manager, Norma Herbert, then Norma Kasell. Kasell was running Chicago’s Fair Teens Club for a local department store when she discovered Novak, and helped groom her for a modeling career and a $4. Patricia Stevens Professional Academy. This led to her going to California to demonstrate refrigerators as “Miss Deepfreeze.”The studio contoured her figure by encouraging her to purge 1. Then they changed her hair, dyeing it three shades of blond at once.
Columbia Pictures’ house designer Jean Louis was brought in to remake her wardrobe. He had created the notorious second skin glittering with sequins that Marlene Dietrich wore for her nightclub premiere in Las Vegas in 1. Marilyn Monroe into the sequined formfitting gown she wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1. Novak was installed at the Studio Club, a curfewed dormitory for young starlets where Cohn could have his expensive new possession watched around the clock—even tailed by studio detectives to make sure she didn’t follow the wayward path of Rita Hayworth. No men allowed. At some point in the transformation of Marilyn Novak, her studio- assigned publicist, Muriel Roberts, dreamed up an all- lavender scheme and insisted that they rinse her hair with a pale lavender tint. The studio had wanted a gimmick to distinguish its blonde from the many other new platinum blondes on the block: Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Joi Lansing—all outsize girls signed to compete with Marilyn Monroe and built like the decade’s big Chevys and Buicks.
The lavender gimmick followed Novak to other studios when she was loaned out. For example, when she made Vertigo for Paramount, a publicist wrote to Hedda Hopper: Miss Novak, James Stewart, Albert . Her suite will be lavender- scented; bed sheets and pillow slips in lavender; and while she’s tubbing in lavender- scented water she may take her calls on a lavender- colored bathroom telephone. It didn’t matter to Cohn that lavender was a color that Novak loathed. Novak, however, found ways to dig in her heels and refuse to be completely made over by Cohn. She went public with her salary disputes with the studio.
She was being horribly exploited, paid $7. Otto Preminger for The Man with the Golden Arm, while Preminger was paying Cohn $1. Jeanne Eagels she was paid only $1.
Jeff Chandler, got $2. Cohn was enraged when her salary disputes made it into a July 1. Time- *magazine cover story on her, and his remarks made history: “They all believe their publicity after a while. I have never met a grateful performer in the picture business.” Novak even managed to evade Cohn’s casting couch—considered the most notorious in Hollywood.“Harry Cohn used Kim Novak like a chess piece,” remembers Vernon Scott, a reporter who covered Hollywood in the 1. Novak better than any other journalist on the beat. That quality hits you right between the eyes in William Inge’s Picnic (1.
Novak plays Madge, the small- town beauty who wants to be loved for herself. Novak would never have won the part of Madge if Cohn had not forced the esteemed Broadway director Joshua Logan to cast her in the role. Cliff Robertson, who made his film debut in Picnic, recalls, “Kim was in a quiet hurry to leave Chicago before her beauty clock ran out.
She was nervous and intimidated because she was working with experienced Broadway stage actors, but she had something going for her besides her beauty. She had Harry Cohn—we all knew that, we weren’t blind. She had publicists around her a lot, photographers, makeup people—she was kind of insular.”Picnic also featured Rosalind Russell as the eccentric and desperate “spinster schoolteacher,” and William Holden as the heartbreaking drifter with the glistening torso who steals Madge away from Robertson. Novak was so overwhelmed, outclassed, and terrified that at one point, Logan had to drag her from her trailer for a crucial scene as a hundred extras waited for her in the diminishing Kansas daylight and cinematographer James Wong Howe gnashed his teeth. Josh Logan kept saying, . He was pulling her across the bridge in her beautiful dress, and she was fighting him, protesting, ! But somehow her lack of readiness made her a more poignant Madge.
Even Logan came around, admitting that Novak brought a quality to the film he hadn’t foreseen: he thought that she wore her shocking beauty “like a crown of thorns,” as if it were a physical deformity. Ironically, Vertigo, the film with which Novak is most identified, wasn’t even made for Columbia Pictures, but at Paramount. Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted to cast Vera Miles in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy. He had become obsessed with Miles, an icy, imperious beauty along the lines of Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, but when Miles became pregnant and turned down the role, Hitchcock settled for Novak.
Though the director never publicly acknowledged her valuable contribution, Novak gave the richest performance of her career in Vertigo—she is almost unbearably affecting as the lonely Judy, who, like Madge in Picnic, wants to be cherished not for how she looks but for herself. In her desperation to win the love of Scottie, the expolice detective played by James Stewart, she consents to being made over by him to look more like his id. I don’t care anymore about me.”Vertigo has been called Hitchcock’s most personal film, but in a fundamental way it is Novak’s as well. Judy’s reluctant transformation into the ghost of Madeleine is an eerie echo of her metamorphosis into a movie goddess. The mysterious Madeleine—a creation dreamed up to mask a murder and therefore never “real” to begin with—is uncommunicative, withdrawn, passive.
She is essentially a cipher. Like Proust’s madeleine, she exists only to arouse emotions in others.