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The woman behind DuPont's nylon leg

By: Frank Esposito

August 8, 2014

What do Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis have to do with the start of the nylon market?

Surprisingly, they’re all interconnected. And it all begins with Marie Wilson’s leg.

Wilson was a 23-year-old Hollywood starlet in 1939 when DuPont Co. recruited her to promote its new nylon product. The company had a 35-foot-high duplicate made of one of Wilson’s shapely legs and had it displayed in Los Angeles. The garter-clad cast tipped the scales at two tons.

Wilson was an odd choice for a celebrity endorser at the time. She’d had some success in supporting roles in such films as “Boy Meets Girl,” which starred silver screen tough guy James Cagney, but she hadn’t really scored a big commercial breakthrough. Even in these roles, Wilson was cultivating a role as a ditzy blonde.

The DuPont gig didn’t seem to do much for Wilson’s career. Warner Bros. declined to renew her contract in 1939, but she kept her career alive through live stage work, primarily in the Blackout shows that were a big hit in Los Angeles in the 1940s. In those shows, Wilson was “the sexy stooge” to host Ken Murray, according to her Internet Movie Database entry, written by Gary Brumburgh.

Wilson’s mock striptease was a highlight of the shows, Brumburgh wrote.

Wilson also became a favorite pinup model for soldiers and sailors during World War II. Her big break came in 1947, when she was cast as the radio voice of the title character in “My Friend Irma,” a hit series which was extended into a TV show and two feature films, all focusing on the misadventures of — you guessed it — a ditzy blonde. The radio series would last until 1954.

The Monroe connection comes via Wilson’s persona and use of her physical assets, which Brumburgh described as “a figure that wouldn’t quit.” She’d been assembling this persona since as far back as 1936 when she appeared in the finely-named “Satan Met a Lady” — an early adaptation of the Dashiel Hammett story that would later be remade as the Hollywood classic “The Maltese Falcon.” Wilson’s performance in “Satan Met a Lady” “is a virtual template for Marilyn Monroe’s later onscreen persona,” according to the opinionated person who wrote Wilson’s Wikipedia entry.

Movie buffs are lucky that Monroe chose not to emulate the movie’s female lead: Bette Davis.

Monroe — then Norma Jeane Baker — would have been a poor 10-year-old growing up in Los Angeles when “Satan Met a Lady” was released. She made her screen debut in 1947, the same year Wilson caught her big break with “My Friend Irma.” But even after Wilson’s Warner contract ended, she managed to make 11 more film appearances before Irma debuted. Monroe would have had ample time to study up.

On Wilson’s IMDB page, Brumburgh goes so far as to say that Wilson’s career “bottomed out after the spectacular arrival of Marilyn Monroe.” Let’s just say things would have been awkward if the two somehow met on a street in downtown L.A.

Martin and Lewis come in via the 1949 “My Friend Irma” movie, which provided the comic duo with their first screen appearance after building a successful nightclub act. The combo play juice-bar operators — no, really, juicebar operators — who are discovered when a talent manager hears Martin’s singing voice.

“This is a strange little comedy in which the appearances of Dean and Jerry almost seem an afterthought,” scoffed an IMDB reviewer.

The Martin and Lewis team would go on to major stardom in the 16 films they made together. But in 1949, they needed the star power of Marie Wilson — a decade after DuPont made use of her shapely legs — to get on the big screen.

Wilson’s film and TV career would slow down after the late 1950s, although she’d appear with Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart in the 1962 comedy “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.” She’d pass away young, from cancer at age 56 in 1972. Wilson is one of very few entertainers to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of fame — one each for her work in radio, television and motion pictures.

In a way, Marie Wilson was a good choice for a plastic-based product, even in 1939. Because — like nylon and other plastics — Wilson sometimes had an image problem.

“My closest friends admit that whenever they tell someone they know me, they have to convince them that I’m not really dumb,” she once said. “To tell you the truth, I think people are disappointed that I’m not.”