Atomic Blonde

It was a mystery: Marilyn Monroe, a silent film star and a cryptic statement. How did they all fit together?

monroe posing for photos by the swimming pool at harold lloyd’s greenacres estate in 1953
Monroe posing for photos by the swimming pool at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in 1953.

The images are striking: Marilyn Monroe reclining in a red bathing suit on a lounge chair next to a swimming pool, a drink in her hand, her trademark platinum blonde hair perfectly coifed. She was at the dawn of her run as America’s favorite sex symbol; just a few weeks before, her hip-swaying performance in the Technicolor film noir “Niagara” had drawn protests from women’s clubs that thought it immoral.

The color photographs taken that spring day in 1953 provide a glimpse of an idyllic time and place. Monroe, in her mid-20s, was filming “How to Marry a Millionaire” when she arrived at Harold Lloyd’s 16-acre Beverly Hills estate, Greenacres. Lloyd, about to turn 60, was the comedic genius who rivaled Chaplin and Keaton. Even if people don’t know his name today, they recognize him immediately as the silent film star wearing glasses and hanging from clock hands.

Monroe had recently turned heads in films such as “All About Eve” and “Monkey Business,” and her latest starring roles, in “Niagara” and the soon-to-be-premiered “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” would showcase a depth to her talent and skyrocket her into a new level of fame.

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For his part, Lloyd had made more than 200 films, most of which he had the foresight to own. With his great wealth, he became a philanthropist and an avid photographer. He was an early proponent of Technicolor and 3-D photography; in 1923, Lloyd predicted that 3-D would be “the ultimate” in cinema, more so than talking films (then still several years away). While he traveled frequently and carried his camera everywhere, Greenacres was his favorite backdrop. His granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, estimates that over the years he photographed several hundred subjects there. But there was only one Marilyn Monroe.

Lloyd’s Monroe photographs are stunning. While the stories of her insecurities are legend, what is clear from these pictures is how comfortable she was in her own skin when she was staring into the camera’s lens. As Lauren Bacall said about her co-star, “The moment the camera turned on her, she became this incredible creature.”

Today, those several dozen prints made by her grandfather are Sue Lloyd’s property. A few of them have appeared over the years in books, as archival prints or in 3-D format. Of the more than 200,000 prints and slides that Lloyd owns, there is something very special about the Monroe photos. I wanted to reconstruct that day and investigate the lives of these two fascinating people hanging out at this fabulous estate. What tied them together? There had to be more to the story.

Marilyn Monroe being filmed at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in 1953.
Marilyn Monroe being filmed at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in 1953.


Hollywood was a relatively small community in the early 1950s. Lloyd and Monroe had become friendly when he accompanied his friend, Philippe Halsman, to her apartment to photograph the actress for Life magazine. Lloyd invited Monroe to Greenacres for a visit that could include a photo shoot.

Lloyd had bought his Beverly Hills acreage as an investment in the early 1920s, when few houses dotted the landscape. He began building in 1926 and moved in in November 1929 — just after the stock market crash — with his wife and former co-star, Mildred Davis, and their five-year-old daughter, Gloria. Over the next 40 years, Greenacres was a popular place for Hollywood to convene, party and enjoy life to the fullest.

There was a huge pool — complete with a glass-lined tunnel that allowed fully dressed visitors to watch or photograph swimmers — and a ballroom-sized pavilion with a stage, a fireplace and its own full kitchen. The changing area was separated into men’s and women’s sections, with full shower facilities, a massage room and salon-style hairdryers. Behind the pool was a competition-sized handball court with 100 seats. Along one side of the property was a man-made river with a waterfall long enough for exciting canoe rides. The nine-hole golf course grew to a full 18 holes when Jack Warner built his estate below Greenacres and added nine holes of his own. And that’s just the exterior. The main house had 55 rooms and the Christmas decorations became so lavish that eventually the huge tree stayed up all year round.

The Lloyds’ children, Gloria, Peggy and Harold Jr. (who was known as “Dukie”) grew up in opulence, but under strains that weren’t visible from the outside. Harold Lloyd was consumed with his work and was a serial philanderer. After insisting his wife stop being his co-star when they married, he carried on a long affair with her on-screen replacement, Jobyna Ralston. Mildred became an alcoholic and got a bit of revenge by having a fling with King Gustaf of Sweden, but that’s another story.

Gloria, the eldest, always fragile, went to Westlake School for Girls, where her classmates included Shirley Temple. Gloria dated some of the most eligible men in Hollywood, including Mickey Rooney and Peter Lawford, but she fell hard when she met the handsome William Orcutt Guasti, heir to a wine and oil fortune, at the private beach club she frequented. Five hundred guests gathered at Greenacres for the wedding (gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons called a truce for the day so they could both attend), but Bill and Gloria’s marriage was short-lived. He was gone by the time their daughter Sue was born, and Gloria moved back to Greenacres.

Gloria died in 2012, but we became friends in the last few years of her life. I spent more than a dozen afternoons recording her stories: about her childhood, romances and life after Bill had left. She had grown tired of Beverly Hills, and her multiple trips to Europe as a child had convinced her she would be happier there. She made a deal with her parents: They would support her in the style to which she had become accustomed, and they could have total control over raising her daughter. Harold, who had been absent much of the time while his own children were growing up, was home more frequently, and Mildred stopped drinking when baby Sue became their responsibility.

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Gloria was still living at Greenacres in 1953, and she recalled some details of Marilyn Monroe’s visit as if it had occurred the week before.

“When Marilyn arrived, I took her up to the pool house,” she told me. “She was my age, or maybe a year or two younger, but we came from very different worlds. She sat down to put on her makeup, and we just started chatting about our lives. She insisted on seeing the baby and talked about how she dreamed of having a child of her own one day. That’s what I remember most. That, and when daddy and the other men were taking her picture, she kept saying, ‘I hate a careless man’ over and over again.”

“I hate a careless man”? Was Monroe talking about her latest romantic breakup or even an unplanned pregnancy? At the time, she was seeing Yankee great Joe DiMaggio; they married the next year. But saying it “over and over” might imply she was rehearsing something, and that would explain the boom mic and film cameras that appear in a couple of the poolside photos. After all, Billy Wilder said Monroe had one-line scenes in “Some Like it Hot” that required dozens of takes. Gloria didn’t remember other details, but whatever was happening that day, and as fabulous as the resulting pictures were, it had to be more than just Marilyn Monroe posing for Harold Lloyd.

A closer examination of the photos, zooming in until the letters are blurry, reveals the words “Lookout Mt. Laboratory” on an equipment box and on the front of the jeep that Monroe arrived in. Lookout Mountain, snuggled near the top of a hill in the Laurel Canyon residential neighborhood of Los Angeles, began humbly in 1947 as a radar station for Southern California, but became a government film studio a few years later. In 2015, a property called “Lookout Mountain” made the news when it was bought by actor Jared Leto for $5 million. What was the connection?

Recently, authors Kevin Hamilton and Ned O’Gorman, while researching their book, “Lookout America! The Secret Hollywood Studio at the Heart of the Cold War,” came across a bit of film with Marilyn saying, “I hate a careless man.” When I heard about that, the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

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As far back as the first World War, the government appreciated the power of film to influence the population. Hollywood stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were recruited to sell war bonds, appear in newsreels and make films that encouraged men to enlist and audiences to “Come and hiss the Kaiser.”

During WWII, the Army Air Force took over Hal Roach Studios in Culver City to produce propaganda and training films, newsreels and informational trailers. Roach, who had been in business since the teens, when Harold Lloyd had been his primary star, had everything needed to produce top-quality films. Dubbed “Fort Roach,” the wartime studio’s work evidently was so realistic that Ronald Reagan, one of the many actors to work there, told stories of his participation as if he had actually served in the war.

When Roach reclaimed his studio, the Air Force shifted its film production operations to the radar base at Lookout Mountain, constructing sound stages, editing rooms, processing laboratories, film vaults and a screening room. Within a few miles of Sunset Boulevard and within easy reach of Hollywood studio expertise, Lookout Mountain was staffed with a combination of military and civilian employees.

Lookout Mountain became the home of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron, which churned out training and recruiting films as well as documenting atomic bomb testing in the Pacific and the deserts of Nevada and New Mexico. Initially, the plan was to release edited versions of the films for public awareness, but when the Atomic Energy Commission saw the footage of the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, it decided it would petrify the general population. Everything was suddenly top secret, but word of the tests kept leaking out through letters home and conversations with family and friends. Too often, these ended up published in local papers.

With a new series of tests, code named Operation Castle, scheduled to begin in early 1954 on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, secrecy became paramount. As Hamilton and O’Gorman explain in their book, “posters saying ‘Loose lips sink ships’ were no longer enough.” Lookout Mountain’s commander, Lt. Colonel Gaylord, came up with the idea to make short films stressing the danger of leaking information to be used in orientation and as trailers shown during the servicemen’s regular movie nights. Gaylord believed it was important to get away from the “punishable by court martial’” attitude and make the trailers “friendly albeit flavorful.”


Who better to underscore friendly and flavorful in 1953 but Marilyn Monroe? Lookout Mountain had good relations with 20th Century Fox, where she was filming, so arrangements to bring her into the project seem to have been made with ease.

But what tied the military and Monroe to Greenacres and Harold Lloyd? The estate’s sheer size guaranteed isolation, and Lloyd could be trusted. As a good friend of Gov. Earl Warren and a delegate to the 1952 Republican Convention that nominated Eisenhower, Lloyd’s connections went way beyond Hollywood. His name was listed among the many in the visitor log at Lookout Mountain, as well as someone who helped with the unit’s work. But the person who may have suggested Harold’s participation was his son Dukie, who was stationed at Lookout Mountain.

From an early age, Dukie had shown a propensity for playing house and dressup with his older sisters. A stint at an elite military school didn’t change his preferences. The Lloyd household had long welcomed gay Hollywood to its dinner table; Harold’s long time aide de camp Roy Brooks was openly gay. “Harold was as accepting of Dukie being gay as any father could have been in that era,” Sue Lloyd says.

A good-looking young man, Dukie had already tried his hand at acting and singing, but by 1951, the draft was on his heels, so he enlisted in the Air Force. After at least one compromising incident, “instead of facing a dishonorable discharge, he was assigned to Lookout Mountain,” Sue recalls. “I assume Harold pulled some strings, but Dukie had always shared his father’s interest in photography, so it was a natural fit.”

So all the connections were in place to have Marilyn Monroe come to Greenacres that day in 1953. Two men from the 1352nd Squadron picked up Monroe at her home that morning, and from the moment they pulled their jeep into the lower courtyard of Greenacres, Harold was waiting to snap pictures.

As the lighting and sound men prepped an area by the pool, Monroe refreshed her makeup, chatted with Gloria and changed into a red bathing suit. She seemed relaxed and natural as she positioned herself on a chaise lounge, sipping a Coke (she later switched to daiquiris). She smiled for Lloyd’s camera and then turned her attention to the movie cameras with the boom mic positioned overheard to deliver her one and only line: “I hate a careless man.”

Monroe posing for photos by the swimming pool at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in 1953.
Monroe posing for photos by the swimming pool at Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres estate in 1953.


A total of 10 short films were made, each focusing on ways secrets could be leaked and the importance of confidentiality. (Apparently only one survives, available on YouTube.) In each film, Monroe was tacked on to the end, cooing “I hate a careless man.” There she was, in all her glory, smiling broadly in her bathing suit and saying her line — and then she was gone. Jolting as it was, the message was clear: If you wanted a chance to sleep with Marilyn Monroe, you’d better keep your mouth shut.

According to the official records of the 1352nd Motion Picture squadron, the films “appeared to have done the job intended.” A report by Lookout Mountain in 1954 proudly stated that there were “no security breaks on the part of the Castle personnel.”

While it may remain a small slice of film history, we finally know that what looked like a routine photo shoot — involving a luminous actress and an accomplished actor/producer/ photographer — also played a key role in keeping the nation as ignorant as possible as thermonuclear bomb tests exploded in the South Pacific.


Lookout Mountain continued to thrive, recording mushroom clouds, space shots and “progress” in methods of annihilation. For public consumption, the facility also filmed Bob Hope’s USO tours, an Air Force Academy recruiting film starring Bob Cummings and the documentary short “Breaking the Language Barrier,” nominated for an Academy Award in 1961.

Finally, in a burst of belt-tightening, the Defense Department moved filming operations to San Bernardino in 1969. The Laurel Canyon property went through a variety of private hands and uses, including a stint as an elite $50,000-a-month rehab center, before Leto bought it in 2015.

Sue Lloyd tried to hold on to Greenacres after her grandfather’s death in 1971, but it is now owned by the venture capitalist Ron Burkle. She continues to own Harold Lloyd’s films, photographs and slides, which she actively archives and screens throughout the world.•

A journalist and historian, Beauchamp is the author of a half dozen books including Without Lying Down: Frances MarionandThe Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.
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