On the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd street is perhaps the most famous subway grate in the world.
It was on this spot, at one in the morning on September 15th, 1954, that Marilyn Monroe had her white halter dress blown up over her hips by an uptown 6 train while filming The Seven Year Itch, creating not only one of the most iconic images of American cinema, but of Marilyn herself.
Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy starred Tom Ewell as a frustrated publisher of pulp fiction, whose wife and children escaped the Manhattan summer heat for Maine. Left alone in the simmering city, he befriends his upstairs neighbor, played by Monroe in one of her defining roles as a ditzy glamour model. For the subway scene, the unlikely couple had just been to the Trans-Lux theatre on Lexington, to see the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Hearing an approaching subway train, Monroe stepped onto the grate, having her skirt blown high by the train passing underneath, saying “ooh do you feel the breeze from the subway, isn’t it delicious.” Minds across the country were simultaneously blown.
In reality, the scene was a publicity stunt orchestrated by 20th Century Fox’s marketing department. Leaking the time and location of the event to the press, somewhere between 3-5,000 spectators showed up to catch a glimpse of Marilyn’s legs. The resulting noise made the shot unusable to Billy Wilder, and the street and scene was recreated later on a Hollywood set. But the nighttime shoot created the desired effect, the photographs from Lexington Avenue were used to publicize the film, and made their way onto the movie poster.
Watching amongst the baying crowds that night was her husband, Joe DiMaggio. Less than impressed with the exhibitionist scene, they argued violently back in their suite at the St. Regis. Weeks later Monroe filed for divorce.
The Trans-Lux theatre has long since gone, and today the French restaurant Le Relais de Venise is the backdrop to where Marilyn caused such pandemonium in the early hours of September 15th. Her iconic white ivory cocktail dress, designed by Oscar winner William Travilla, stayed in his private collection until it was auctioned in 2011 for over five million dollars. But the subway grate is still there, unmarked and rarely noticed, unless by a lady who happens to get caught by the air of a passing downtown 6.