Icons / March 2018

Kim Novak: Czech Mate

With her acclaimed role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Kim Novak showed she could conquer Hollywood. But a greater challenge awaited: could she leave Tinseltown on her own terms, her identity and integrity intact?

Actress Kim Novak, circa 1950.

Kim Novak never intended to be an actress, and her success surprised no one more than herself. “I never dreamed of it, never even thought about it,’ she said. “It literally just happened, as if by magic.”

It wasn’t until a cross-country tour modelling for a refrigerator company took her to Los Angeles (during which she was crowned ‘Miss Deep Freeze’) that Novak, born Marilyn Pauline Novak, was scouted by Columbia Pictures. She was visiting the Hollywood set of Howard Hughes’s production of The French Line when the film’s choreographer, Billy Daniels, noticed her pin-up features and insisted on a screen test. When Columbia took her on, the notoriously unpleasant president, Harry Cohn, told her, “No one’s going to want to see a girl with a Polack name”. This didn’t wash with Novak, whose sense of self was to serve her well over the years. She refused Cohn’s proposed screen name — Kit Marlowe — on the basis that it was too strongly associated with ‘kitten’ (as in sex kitten). She settled on Kim as a compromise, and miraculously managed to maintain her (notably non-Polish) surname. In an industry that systematically manipulated young women into being whatever the studio bosses needed them to be, Novak, who had been raised in Chicago by her Czech parents, was insistent that she preserve her own identity and “not become just another sex symbol”. Statuesque, not skinny, with a handsomely beautiful face and hair like spun white gold, attempts to pigeonhole her as Columbia’s answer to Rita Hayworth and Cohn’s very own Marilyn Monroe were inevitable, but futile.