Many a biography on Marilyn Monroe mentions Natasha Lytess, a figure who claimed, “I made Marilyn famous,” asserting her influence on Marilyn’s career. Contrarily, accounts also describe how after collaborating on more than 20 films, Marilyn abruptly severed ties with her acting coach of eight years. The reality of this situation, however, may be layered with complexity.
WHO IS NATASHA LYTESS?
Natasha Lytess, born Natalia Postmann in Berlin, sought refuge in Los Angeles from Nazi persecution. After her acting career in the U.S. didn’t pan out, she turned to coaching, and teaching stars like Mamie Van Doren and Virginia Leith.
In April 1948, at Columbia Pictures, Lytess was introduced to Marilyn, who she initially found grating, saying her “voice got on my nerves.” Nonetheless, Lytess took Marilyn under her wing, commencing an intensive coaching routine.
WORKING WITH MARILYN
Lytess began coaching Marilyn for “Ladies of the Chorus” (1948), which sparked a professional relationship that would span numerous projects. Natasha’s coaching was so integral that she left her Columbia position to work exclusively with Marilyn. Directors like John Huston saw the effect of Lytess’s coaching first-hand; by “The Misfits” (1960), Marilyn’s reliance on her acting coaches (then Paula Strasberg) during filming was evident.
Directors’ frustrations peaked when Marilyn sought Lytess’s approval on set, evidenced by Marilyn glancing towards her at crucial moments. Jean Negulesco, after multiple retakes, barred Lytess from the set of “How to Marry a Millionaire” — a decision he reversed when Marilyn insisted on Lytess’s presence.
Billy Wilder navigated this by telling Natasha how he wanted Marilyn to perform, setting a precedent that would challenge directors and strain Marilyn’s professional and personal relationships.
In late 1950, Marilyn and Natasha’s relationship intensified when Marilyn moved in with Natasha, her daughter, and maid, isolating Marilyn and focusing her life on her craft.
Natasha’s claim of a romantic dimension — “I took her in my arms one day, and I told her ‘I want to love you’” — stands in contrast to Marilyn’s own words in “My Story”: “Now having fallen in love, I knew what I was. It wasn’t a lesbian.” quashing the myth that Marilyn and Lytess had a romance.
Financial interdependence was also notable. Natasha earned $500 a week, plus $250 for the private courses she gave to Marilyn, meaning she was making more money than her student. In 1951, Marilyn asked the William Morris agency for a $200 deduction in her monthly salary from 20th Century Fox so that she may cover a dental bill of $1,800 for Natasha. Marilyn once sold a treasured gift from Johnny Hyde to assist Natasha financially, despite already paying her hefty weekly coaching fees.
Natasha’s aversion to Marilyn’s beau, Joe DiMaggio, was blunt — “He is a man with a closed, vapid look” — yet Marilyn’s affection for Joe was unfazed, leading to their marriage in 1954. Their professional parting came after “The Seven Year Itch,” when Marilyn, changing course in life, stopped taking Natasha’s calls.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Natasha’s public discussions of Marilyn, including unauthorised media appearances and interviews, likely contributed to Marilyn’s withdrawal. Despite her student being “insignificant” and that she would be “easily forgotten”, Natasha had no qualms when it came to talking about her to newspapers and gossip columnists. It isn’t a surprise that Marilyn had reached the end of her tether with Natasha by the end of 1954. As a private person, Marilyn wasn’t a fan of discussing her personal life with the media. However, Lytess felt zero shame in doing it for her, using Marilyn’s name as a gateway for her publicity. Lytess’s behaviour had bordered on the obsessive, as she remarked, “I am her private property, she knows that.” Plans for a tell-all book may have been the final straw in their professional rift.
Despite Joe DiMaggio’s purported influence, Marilyn’s independence was clear by 1955 in her decision to leave both Natasha and Joe behind. In March 1955, Natasha spoke with columnist Hedda Hopper stating she hadn’t “heard a peep” from the star. Although listed as an anonymous source, it can only be assumed that it was Natasha who spoke to Steven Cronin for an article titled “The Storm About Monroe”. This source stated “Marilyn Monroe doesn’t know her own mind” and was “unhappy while she was married to Joe DiMaggio”. Marilyn, however, kept her opinions of the dramatic coach to herself.
Despite not talking to Marilyn for half a decade, Natasha couldn’t seem to let Marilyn go. In 1960, researcher Jane Wilkie spoke to Natasha and ended up not publishing Lytess’ manuscript which did nothing but complain about her former pupil.
In 1962, Natasha had written yet another memoir which she sold for $10,000. Marilyn’s press agents attempted to purchase it back from France-Dimanche but the publishers said they’ll make more money by keeping it. The first article was entitled “Marilyn Monroe: Her Secret Life, I Made Her – Body and Soul.” As suggested by the title, the article is nothing but the ramblings of a woman who is obsessed with the sex life of Marilyn Monroe. The articles were published on 15, 22 and 29 July 1962, weeks before Marilyn passed away. The fourth instalment was published on the day Marilyn had been found dead in her home. However, Natasha didn’t stop her verbal abuse. She continued writing about Marilyn after the 5 August, discussing Marilyn’s death and why she had killed herself… And it was all because of men and how they viewed her as nothing but a sexual object.
The article never portrayed any sadness for Marilyn’s passing, just more bitterness. In 1964, before passing away from cancer, Natasha said “I wish I had one-tenth of Marilyn’s cleverness. The truth 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.” This backhanded compliment demonstrates her relentless resentment and disdain which lasted for over ten years. Natasha continued her belittling remarks about Marilyn long after their communications had ended, and was obsessed with Marilyn’s sexual habits, love life, fame and career.
This tangled narrative of mentorship, dependence, and eventual estrangement illuminates the fraught but impactful relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Natasha Lytess, leaving a legacy of influence and controversy.