"What I Want Out of Life Is to Be Loved": Kim Novak on Healing After Leaving Hollywood
Courtesy Everett Collection

"What I Want Out of Life Is to Be Loved": Kim Novak on Healing After Leaving Hollywood

The icon of 'Vertigo' — and Trump target at the 2014 Oscars — reveals what liberated her after years of studio system abuse, her bipolar diagnosis and the untold story behind her rumored romance with Sammy Davis Jr.

"As much as on the outside I've been vulnerable, I am, on the inside, a strong person," Kim Novak says over Zoom this month, just weeks after her 88th birthday and the publication of her new book, Kim Novak: Her Life and Art. "I've had a lot of obstacles in my life. And I'm here."

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You can listen to the full conversation here. The article continues below.

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Novak is not as universally known today as contemporaries Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly — but to a generation that came of age in the 1950s, she still looms as large as any of them. "I can close my eyes right now and see her in color — soft lavenders, golden hair and green eyes," says Martin Scorsese. "She was born for the color in '50s films, for that kind of lighting and production design and staging. And she was such a powerful presence: She seemed earthbound and ethereal, ordinary and extraordinary, all at the same time, and she was heartbreakingly vulnerable."

A blonde with an hourglass figure, a husky voice and expressive eyes, Novak made her big-screen debut in 1954 and won a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer a year later when she starred in Picnic (highlighted by her charged four-minute dance with William Holden) and The Man With the Golden Arm (the first of her two films opposite Frank Sinatra). One of America's top 10 box office draws of 1956, she graced the covers of Life in '56 and Time in '57 en route to starring opposite Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo.

But just a few years later, along with the studio system from which she emerged, she was gone. In between, she says she suffered abuse from mogul Harry Cohn and an untold dark moment in the era's big "are they or aren't they?" romance with Sammy Davis Jr. Either way, as The New York Times once put it, "Kim Novak's was the last face that classical Hollywood presented to the world."

For many, it was a delight to see that face re-emerge at the Oscars in 2014, when Novak presented two awards with Matthew McConaughey. For more than a few, though, including Donald Trump, it was an occasion to mock an octogenarian for not looking like she used to. Novak later acknowledged that she had gotten cheek fillers ahead of the show to boost her confidence, a decision she regretted. But the mean-spirited backlash reminded her why she had fled Hollywood in the first place.

These days, Novak feels much more comfortable on the sprawling ranch in Oregon where she has lived for decades, surrounded by the art and animals that have sustained her through tough times — from losing prior homes to a fire and mudslide to, most devastatingly, losing her husband of 45 years, equine veterinarian Robert Malloy, last year. "I'm surviving," she says, tearing up and noting that she recently painted a portrait of him. "I talk to it every night. I've got this wonderful little smile on the corners of his lips, so when I say something, he's always saying, 'Oh, yeah?'"

The pandemic isn't bothering her much. "If Bob's not with me, I'd just as soon just cuddle up with my dogs," she adds. "I don't mind having the separation from people. In fact, I'm enjoying it."

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Marilyn Novak entered the world during another dark time, the Great Depression. She was the younger of two girls born in Chicago, her mother working in a bra and girdle factory at nights, and her father, who suffered from mental illness, on the railroad during the day. Even then, she says, art was her refuge — she'd sketch people at the train station where she walked every day to meet her dad, hoping to earn his affection but inevitably being met with silence.

One day in her early teens, she was raped by a group of neighborhood boys in the back seat of a car — a revelation she recently made to The Guardian. She never told her parents. Her mother, concerned that Marilyn was withdrawn, pushed her to join a local girls club. Other girls there modeled; the supervisor nudged Marilyn to do the same. "I would put myself in the shoes of someone else," she remembers. "I couldn't have done it just as myself." One modeling gig, during a summer break from junior college, involved riding a train to San Francisco and promoting refrigerators at stops along the way. At the end of the line, another model suggested a quick trip to Hollywood to see a movie studio before heading home. While at RKO, they were hired as extras on The French Line, whereupon Novak was asked to come to Columbia for a screen test. She was told to look into the camera and say, "What I want out of life is to be loved." She said it. She meant it. And the course of her life changed forever, as she was signed by the studio.

Cohn, Columbia's notoriously stinting, dictatorial chief — he kept a photo of Mussolini on his desk and his desk on a pedestal — looked at actors as replaceable commodities. He wanted a younger starlet to keep his screen queen Rita Hayworth in check and a blond bombshell to compete with Fox's Monroe. Novak checked both boxes. He put her up at the all-female Hollywood Studio Club, the better to keep an eye on her. He tried to change her name to Kit Marlowe, but she resisted; she knew she couldn't keep Marilyn — they settled on Kim — but refused to surrender her surname. And then his underlings tried to make her over with a "Joan Crawford mouth," "Lana Turner hair" and the like. She recalls, "The first thing I did was run to the ladies room and wipe off as much as I could — I needed to feel like me."

During the ensuing years, Cohn could be particularly cruel, yet he kept Novak's career on the right track. He would summon Novak to his office by yelling at his secretary to send in the "dumb, fat Polack," though she was neither dumb nor fat nor Polish. At the same time, he persuaded Joshua Logan to cast her in Picnic as a small-town beauty yearning to be loved for more than her looks — a part she certainly understood.

Otto Preminger, who directed her in The Man With the Golden Arm, said, "Novak is the way every American girl would like to look, and every man would like to have a girl like that." That sort of framing bothers her to this day: "It's torture because they're looking at the facade rather than looking at where you're coming from," she says. "They put all kinds of glamorous clothes on you so that everything's sparkling on the outside, but they don't get to see what's sparkling on the inside."

Novak says she was never allowed to forget that she was studio property. She wasn't paid nearly as much as her male co-stars and, at a time before unions had real teeth, once worked on three movies at the same time. ("They had me sleep at the studio," she recalls. "I had maybe four hours max of sleep, just going from one set to the other.")

It was, therefore, a welcome respite when she learned she was being sent to Paramount to make From Amongst the Dead — later retitled Vertigo — with Hitchcock and Stewart, in return for which Stewart would make Bell, Book and Candle at Columbia with Novak and director Richard Quine. "I didn't know who Hitchcock was," she admits. "Harry Cohn said, 'I'm going to loan you out for this movie because he's a great director. But it's a lousy script.'"

In Vertigo, Novak plays two characters — Madeleine, who is tailed by a detective who becomes obsessed with her and then devastated by her death; and Judy, Madeleine's less sophisticated doppelgänger whom the detective tries to remake in her image. Says Novak, "I really identified with Judy so much. I could understand her completely because it's exactly what I went through at the studio with them saying, 'Well, if only you put on this, if only you'd change your hair, if only you'd….' I'd been there, done that."

Some, such as fellow "Hitchcock blonde" Tippi Hedren, with whom Novak keeps in touch, have said the director was a sadist. That wasn't Novak's experience. She butted heads with him over an ill-fitting gray outfit he wanted her to wear as Madeleine, but she came to understand that she was meant to feel uncomfortable as that character. Plus, he treated her like an adult. "I was used to directors telling you what they want you to do, so I went up to him and said, 'What is it you're wanting from this?' And he said, 'My dear, that's why I hired you. You work that out.' And I thought, 'This is too good to be true.' "

Vertigo was panned in its day, but its merits have been re-evaluated in recent years, and it was chosen in a 2012 Sight & Sound poll as the greatest movie of all time, dethroning Citizen Kane. "I only wish Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock were alive today to see it," laments its leading lady. Says Scorsese, "She and Hitchcock created something extraordinary together, far beyond where most of us have ever dreamed of going."

Novak also is remembered for something that has been accepted as Hollywood fact — a forbidden romance with Sammy Davis Jr. Janet Mock is even directing a movie called Scandalous, starring Jeremy Pope, about the alleged affair. But the truth, according to Novak, is beyond mere scandal.

"I was making Vertigo," she recalls, "and he called up my manager and said, 'I'd like to do a photo session with her.' I guess he did photography on the side. They checked and I said, 'OK.' So he's shooting and I said, 'Did you ever think of taking off the lens cover?' He had the lens cover on the whole time." She continues: "I don't know if he was totally in love, but he certainly had a crush on me. But I was in love with Dick Quine," to whom Novak would become engaged.

One day, Novak left the studio — still in her wig and green gown from Vertigo — to attend a charity dinner, where Tony Curtis invited her to an afterparty at the home he shared with Janet Leigh. Hearing that Quine would be there, she said yes. When she arrived, the director wasn't there but Davis was, and he offered to help her take off her wig. "By the time he got it off," Novak recalls, "Tony Curtis had brought me a drink. I don't know, I only had, I think, one drink there. But that's the last thing I knew. I do not know anything afterward, cross my heart, hope to die. Don't know what happened after that or how my car got back in front of my apartment."

Does she think someone spiked her drink? "I really do," she said. "I didn't think of it then because people didn't talk about things like that, but I could never figure it out…I've never blacked out in my entire life." She adds, "I think Tony Curtis did it. I don't want to think Sammy did that." And when she awoke the following morning? "I'll just tell you the honest truth: I didn't have my clothes on."

She continues, "The next day, Sammy calls and says, 'Where are you? You're supposed to be here — it's Thanksgiving Day! My mom and dad have dinner all ready.' And I thought, 'Where is this coming from?'" But she rushed over and had a lovely time. "Then I said, 'Well, if you're going to be having me over for Thanksgiving, come on over to my place in Chicago — I'll be there with my mom and dad for Christmas.'" Sure enough, Davis showed up with presents.

Before long, gossip columnists caught wind of these visits, as did Cohn, who supposedly had his first heart attack upon hearing about this alleged interracial romance at a time when segregation was legal in much of America and interracial marriage forbidden. "Harry Cohn said, 'You're not to see this person again,'" Novak recalls. "When someone says something that definitely, it makes me want to do exactly what they don't want me to do." But she emphasizes the relationship with Davis was never romantic, even though he claimed otherwise. "I knew [Sammy] had this crush, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings," she says, and they continued to hang out. Eventually, though, Cohn, through intermediaries, threatened to take out Davis' one good eye. "That's when I, for his sake, thought, 'I'd better not see him.'"

Cohn succumbed to a second heart attack in 1958. "When he passed away, I was lost," Novak says, "because the one thing he was really good at was making wise decisions." She made some poor ones — turning down Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Hustler and the movie that Monroe was set to make when she died in 1962, Something's Got to Give. But, she maintains, post-Cohn Columbia "had no idea what to cast me in other than sexy glamour movies that I just didn't want to be a part of," adding, "I wasn't going to spend my time waiting around for something that may never happen when I felt I had so much more to give. And that was not the place to give it." After Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid in 1964, her acting career was — with a handful of exceptions — a thing of the past.

Novak, who had been briefly married to actor Richard Johnson in the mid-'60s, met Malloy in 1974 when he treated one of her Arabian mares. They wed two years later, and she began to accompany him on house calls. "I felt useful," she says. Did clients realize who the doctor's wife was? "A lot of them afterward said, 'That person looked familiar. Oh, my God, it couldn't have been, could it?' I loved that."

But, more than anything, Novak says, when she left Hollywood she "wanted to express my feelings" — and she received a diagnosis that helped explain some of them. "When I found out I was bipolar, I thought, 'Well, yeah, that makes sense.' I could understand a lot of my behavior as a result. You know, it's not such a terrible thing if you know how to handle it." She adds, "There's no better way than drawing and painting — let the inside out." (Also helpful, she says: an occasional hit of marijuana.)

Novak's decades of art — in watercolor, pastel and oil — went on public display for the first time in 2018 at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. This year, the Butler — to which Novak is bequeathing her work — published her book, which includes paintings inspired by Vertigo and the recent #MeToo movement. ("Yes, I've had #MeToo experiences — not with Harry Cohn but other people, producers or whatever," she acknowledges.)

The former actress — who'd been offered scholarships to the Art Institute of Chicago before signing with Columbia — considers how her life would have been different had she not been plucked from a crowd on the set of The French Line. "I'd be painting and doing just what I'm doing now in art," Novak says. "I would've had a few more years up on it, too."

This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.