Hollywood beauty Kim Novak is known for starring with Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, often regarded as the best film ever made. However, just a few years later, she announced that she was retiring from acting. Over the next three decades, Kim rarely appeared on the silver screen, and, in 1991, she left the spotlight for good and became a painter.
The reasons for her departure have long been speculated about. Recently Novak has opened up about her experience in Hollywood, her numerous love affairs with stars like Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Sammy Davis Jr., her feud with media mogul Harry Cohn, and her mental health. Finally, the talented actress revealed what made her escape Hollywood.
Kim Novak came into the world on February 13th, 1933, under the name Marilyn Pauline Novak. Her parents, Joseph Novak and Blanche Kral, were of Czech descent, but they and their two daughters were born in Chicago, Illinois. Their household was a strict one, and Kim was a shy child. They lived in a rough neighborhood of Chicago, known for its violent crime.
The Novaks were the only Catholic family on their block, and the other kids often bullied Kim for being different. Her mother wouldn’t let Kim wear makeup or grownup hairstyles for fear that the young beauty would attract the attention of dangerous men. Blanche worked as a seamstress, and until the Great Depression, Joseph was a schoolteacher.
When the Depression hit, Kim’s father lost his post teaching history and took a job as a railroad freight dispatcher. Joseph was a stern and troubled man, and growing up, Kim had a complex relationship with him. Later in life, she revealed that her father suffered from bipolar disorder and had a family history of mental illness that was untreated until the emergence of effective antipsychotics.
Young Marilyn Novak attended William Penn Elementary and Farragut High School before graduating to Wright Junior College. She then was awarded two scholarships to SAIC: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Hoping to help her overcome her shyness, Novak’s mother signed her up to the youth group, Fair Teen Club.
The youth group leader thought Kim should start modeling and urged her to enter a beauty pageant. Novak won and was crowned “Miss Snow Queen.” In 1953, during her last semester of junior college, Kim started a career in modeling and went on tour with the Thor refrigerator company. On tour, Novak was crowned “Miss Deepfreeze.”
The models toured the USA with Thor refrigerators, opening refrigerators and singing, “There’s no business-like Thor business.” One stop on their tour was RKO Studios, where Kim was scouted and chosen to be an extra in two films, The French Line and Son of Sinbad. An agent liked her, so in 1954, Novak was signed into a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures.
At the time, Columbia Pictures was run by the notoriously mean media mogul, Harry Cohn. Marilyn Novak caught his eye, and Cohn decided she would be his next big star. But Novak had no interest in playing another stereotype created by Cohn; she wanted to be herself, an original. Therefore, the two butted heads from the beginning when Cohn told Marilyn that she had to change her name.
He wanted to name her Kit Marlowe and explained that she couldn’t be Marilyn because Hollywood already had Marilyn Monroe. They quarreled over it, and in the end, compromised on Kim Novak, although Cohn was skeptical, saying that “Nobody’s gonna go see a girl with [that] name!” He was wrong.
Columbia Pictures had big plans for Kim. Harry Cohn wanted her to be as famous as Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. Hayworth’s career had famously dwindled out after her many marriages and scandals, and Cohn had missed his chance to re-sign Monroe, who’d left Columbia for Twentieth Century Fox.
He decided that Novak would be the next blonde star of Columbia Pictures, like Hayworth, Mae West, and Jean Harlow before her. So, the studio tried to change Kim to fit their mold. They told her to lose fifteen pounds, dye her hair blonder, and redo her wardrobe.
Kim was set up to live in a curfewed dorm for young Hollywood starlets called The Studio Club. That way, Novak was constantly supervised, and the studio could tail her and make sure that she didn’t bring home men. Columbia Pictures didn’t want another Rita Hayworth on their hands.
Muriel Roberts, Novak’s publicist, wanted to develop a gimmick for the new star, to make her stand out from the rest of the town’s blondes like Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. Roberts’ idea was that Kim’s hair should be tinted slightly lavender to stand out in the crowd.
In truth, Kim hated the color lavender, but Cohn decided it would be her trademark and the studio gave her an all-lavender scheme. It became well-known information about the budding starlet, and even when she appeared in films for other studios, they kept up the color scheme and lavender theme.
While filming one movie, they ensured her hotel room was lavender scented, with lavender sheets and pillows, lavender bathwater, and lavender accessories. Kim’s first credited part was in the film Pushover in 1954, followed by Phffft and Against the House in 1955.
Novak’s first box-office success was in the 1955 film Picnic, in which she wore a red wig and starred opposite Willian Holden. For her role in the movie, she won the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award. After that, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of Novak.
So, the new star was cast opposite Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm. While playing Sinatra’s ex-girlfriend in the movie, the two began a real-life romance off the set. In a recent interview, Kim said, “Frank Sinatra and I had a nice, friendly relationship at times.”
The two later starred in the 1957 film Pal Joey, with Rita Hayworth, whom Novak liked very much. Kim broke down and shared, “It was a bit more than [friendship]. I had a relationship with Frank, yeah. He was a very sexy guy.”
The dates of their affair are unknown, although it has been speculated that Sinatra was with Ava Gardner since they were married from 1951-57, the same time he starred alongside Novak. Sinatra’s valet reportedly claimed that “Kim Novak’s legs were too heavy for [Frank], but her face made up for it.”
Between 1956 and 1958, Kim appeared in her fair share of successful films and became a famous face. By 1958, she was considered a box-office draw and a fan favorite. It was then that Kim got her most memorable role in Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. Initially, the dual female lead in Vertigo was given to Vera Miles.
However, Miles got pregnant and backed out of the movie, leaving Hitchcock with no leading actress. So, the esteemed director approached Columbia Pictures and asked Harry Cohn to offer Kim the part without even auditioning. Novak loved the script and accepted.
However, Cohn despised the script but agreed to lend Kim out because Hitchcock was a star director and good for business. Meanwhile, Novak and Cohn were in the midst of a showdown about her salary. Kim was earning $1,250 a week and went on strike, demanding fair pay.
The insistent star fired her agents and hired a new team who demanded that Columbia adjust her contract now that she was a major star. Novak told the press, “I don’t like to have anyone take advantage of me,” and the studio changed her salary to $3,000 per week.
After winning her fight for fair pay, Kim came back to Hitchcock’s set. Since she highly identified with her character, Novak had “all sorts of preconceived notions” about her. Kim and Hitchcock clashed at first when he insisted that she wear the wardrobe he’d chosen for Madeline.
The director explained how important the visual aspect of the film was in his process. Novak had never worked with a director who was so set on his artistic vision, down to the shoes and dress of the character. In the end, the uncomfortable wardrobe helped her play Judy and Madeline differently.
Despite their wardrobe clash, Hitchcock gave Novak some artistic freedom, allowing her to develop the characters of Judy and Madeline. She brought herself into the roles: “It excites me to work on dual personalities because I think I have many myself. And I think that I was able to use so much of me in that movie.”
Kim explained that they “only did probably two, three takes on every scene… at the most. At first, she felt insecure, but Hitchcock helped her gain confidence and get into the rhythm he wanted. Working with James Stewart also helped Kim.
James Stewart was a massive star and highly experienced, which was highly beneficial for Novak while shooting Vertigo. She learned to count on Jimmy to understand when a take had been good or bad. She’d catch Stewart’s eye after every take, and if he nodded his head, Kim understood that “that was it.”
Stewart and Novak got along and worked well together. They went on to costar in Bell, Book, and Candle. Kim even said that they “saw into each other’s souls.” Novak felt that Hitchcock didn’t like her and was disappointed, but Stewart supported her and treated her well.
Novak identified with her character Judy, who is forced to change into Madeline so that Scottie will love her. The sentence “I want you to love me for me” resonated with the actress and reminded her of being changed and entirely made over by Hollywood as a young girl.
Like Judy, Kim “was always fighting to show some of [her]self”; she resented being made over. She had also felt the need for approval and had experienced “wanting to be loved and willing, eventually, to go to any lengths to get that by changing her hair” in order to be accepted.
Even though she’d become a big star, Kim’s parents never approved of her career in Hollywood. She tried her whole life to win their acceptance, but never did. Joseph Novak only ever saw his daughter’s first two films; he refused to watch anything else.
He despised the fact that his daughter had become a sex symbol, and Kim was disappointed that he couldn’t be happy for her success. She even bought him a car, something he’d always wanted, and tried to convince her parents to come on a road trip to LA. Joseph refused to come and sold the automobile.
Sinatra wasn’t the only colleague Kim Novak fell for throughout her time in Hollywood. Novak was later engaged to Richard Quine. Dick had directed Kim in three films: Pushover, Strangers When We Meet and Bell, Book, and Candle. Kim had been crushing on the director for years but had been busy with other romances.
Novak and Quine never married and broke up in 1960. In 1965, she married British actor Richard Johnson whom she’d starred alongside in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. Sadly, their marriage was short-lived, and the couple divorced a year later, although they remained close friends.
Rumored to have dated her Vertigo costar, Jimmy Stewart, Kim only ever admitted to being his friend. The actress’s most famous and publicized affair was with African American singer Sammy Davis Jr. Their interracial relationship was considered scandalous because the US was segregated at the time.
In 1957, during a party at Tony Curtis’s house, where Kim had expected to meet Richard Quine, she was instead introduced to Davis Jr., a groundbreaking musician. Sammy had always admired Kim and was ecstatic to meet her. Sammy invited Kim to his home the next day to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Kim celebrated Thanksgiving with the Davis family and invited the singer to her own home for Christmas. She and Sammy continued seeing each other, but after they were spotted out in public during one of his shows at the nightclub Chez Paree, the press had a field day.
Sammy was at the height of his fame and fortune but was still not accepted by most Americans as an acceptable romantic partner for a white starlet. When he entered venues as a guest, he was led to the back and discriminated against because of the color of his skin.
As a Black musician who performed primarily for white audiences, Davis was used to racism, but neither he nor Kim expected things to get so messy. Gossip columns went wild over the two of them dating, and they spread rumors. It was then that Harry Cohn caught wind of the romance.
Cohn was determined to put a stop to the relationship between Kim and Sammy, afraid that her career would go downhill. So, the pair began seeing one another in private and eating dinner at Novak’s. Davis would hide in the back of the car and sneak into her house stealthily.
When Cohn found out that Kim and Sammy were still seeing each other, he became furious. Aboard a flight the next night, he suffered the first of his many heart attacks. Harry was fed up and decided to act against Davis and force him to end his relationship with Novak.
Cohn hired some mobsters he was associated with to threaten the singer. The mob conveyed to Davis that if he didn’t end it with Kim Novak and marry a Black woman within forty-eight hours, they would take out his only working eye and break his legs.
Sammy Davis Jr. heeded his warning and within days got married to a Black woman named Loray White. He paid White a large sum in exchange for her cooperation, and the two kept their arrangement for a year. Kim Novak backed away from the singer, and their love affair ended.
In 1958, Harry Cohn had his last heart attack and passed away in an ambulance on the way to the ER. His wife blamed Kim Novak for the media mogul’s death, claiming the star’s “scandalous behavior” was what brought on his heart attacks and eventual death.
In truth, it was Cohn who had constantly mistreated Novak. He was a notoriously mean studio head who everyone in Hollywood feared. He tended to call Kim “a dumb, fat Polack,” despite her being none of the above. Cohn was also known for forcing young stars to sleep with him.
Thankfully, unlike Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford, Kim wasn’t sexually harassed by her employer. Likewise, the actress never experienced any unwanted advances from the notorious creep Alfred Hitchcock, who was accused of harassment by Tippi Hedren. Sadly, Novak wasn’t spared from bad experiences with men.
At the very same party where she first met Sammy Davis Jr., Kim shared that, “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.”
The actress suspects that Curtis spiked her drink. It was the only time she’d ever experienced memory loss. Novak recalled the following day: “I didn’t have my clothes on… [I] don’t know what happened after that or how my car got back in front of my apartment.”
Novak’s suspicious night at Curtis’s wasn’t her only experience with harassment. In 2018, the star shared, “Yes, I’ve had #MeToo experiences… with… producers or whatever.” Kim also revealed that she was attacked as a young teenager in Chicago. She hadn’t wanted to worry her parents, so she never told them.
She was attacked in the street by a group of boys and was then dragged and raped “by multiple boys in the back seat of a stranger’s car.” The actress later admitted her deep trauma: “I inherited mental illness from my father, but the rape must have added to it.”
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Novak starred in hits like Bell, Book, and Candle, opposite her friend Jimmy Stewart and Strangers When We Meet alongside Kirk Douglas. Among her other notable costars were Fredric March and Jack Lemmon. However, soon her career started slowing down.
The reason for her career setback was most likely because Harry Cohn had died. Despite terrorizing Novak, he had also pushed to have her star in numerous pictures. Kim appeared in a few unsuccessful films in a row. In 1966, she fell off a horse while shooting Eye of the Devil.
In the sixties, Kim was about ready to leave Hollywood. The 1961 fires in Bel Air didn’t help, although her house survived. Things got worse in 1966 when mudslides ravaged California. “The mudslide took my house, my furs, jewelry — it all rolled down the mountain, and I watched it.”
Kim had become scared to lose herself, explaining, “It’s exciting to dress up in gorgeous clothes and to feel sexy… but it’s a trap. The mudslide was an “extra push to walk away. It helped me decide what was important to take and what didn’t matter if I left it behind.”
In 1966, after falling off a horse and sustaining painful injuries, and having her house be swept away in a mudslide, Kim decided she’d had enough. The actress had tried to return to shooting Eye of the Devil but had been too exhausted and in pain to go on.
Novak had a broken vertebra; she would eventually heal, but it wasn’t easy, and she needed treatment. Later that same year, Kim and Dick Johnson got divorced. When her Bel Air home was destroyed, she moved to her second home in Big Sur and left Hollywood.
Ten years after she’d been deemed the No. 1 box-office star in the world, Kim Novak quit her Hollywood career and decided to focus on her other passions. She spent her time writing poetry and painting. One of her poems was even turned into a song and recorded by Harry Belafonte.
The former star still took the occasional acting job, such as the 1973 film The Third Girl from the Left, in which she starred alongside her then-boyfriend, actor Michael Brandon. In 1979, Novak appeared in Just a Gigolo with David Bowie, with whom she enjoyed working very much.
In 1980, she appeared in The Mirror Crack’d with an all-star cast including Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Angela Lansbury. She then played Kit Marlowe in the series Falcon Crest. The actress’s final role was in the film Liebestraum in 1991.
Kim had a bad experience with the director of Liebestraum, Mike Figgis. The two clashed throughout the entire production; she felt he was trying to manipulate her and change her to act the way he wanted. The experience reminded Kim of Harry Cohn’s treatment of her, and she got angry and fought him at every turn.
After her experience on the set of Liebestraum, Kim decided that she was through with Hollywood for good. The former actress decided to devote herself entirely to her first great love− painting. She took classes with artists Harley Brown and Richard McKinley and refined her skills.
“Art is what saved me,” Novak expressed in an interview in 2020. In 2021, the Butler Institute of American Art published a book of Kim’s art called “Kim Novak: Her Art and Life.” Novak shared that she was highly influenced by Hitchcock in her art and uses a lot of mystery in her painting.
In 1974, after leaving Hollywood for Big Sur, Kim met her soon-to-be second husband, Robert Malloy. Their first encounter happened when one of Novak’s horses had colic. Malloy was an equine veterinarian, and they both shared a great love for animals, particularly horses.
Two years later, they were married. Robert, or, as Kim called him, Bob, had a great sense of humor, and he and Kim were very happy together. She explained, “I had been married once before, but it didn’t suit me to be married to an actor. Bob and I shared so much in common.”
Kim became the stepmother of Robert’s two adult children. The couple moved further away from Hollywood after building a home in Oregon. They lived together contentedly for many years in the hills and valleys of the Pacific Northwest with their many dogs and horses.
Novak has never had any children of her own, and she likes it that way. The former actress said her animals are her children and that apart from her relationship with Robert, they are the most important thing in her life. Kim has done many paintings of Bob and her pets.
When asked why she chose not to be a mother, Kim explained, “I was always afraid that they’d have mental issues as well, and I didn’t want them to suffer.” Novak has suffered her whole life from mental health problems. She inherited them from her father and often experienced “rages and feelings of depression.”
In the early 21st century, Kim was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The former starlet has done her best to destigmatize the illness, explaining that it’s treatable. Kim uses antipsychotics to keep the disorder in check and says that her painting is a form of therapy.
Because of her husky voice, people have always thought that Kim was a heavy smoker and drinker, with” a voice fashioned by whiskey and fags.” However, the former star claimed: “I never smoked cigarettes. Awful stuff – they don’t make you feel good. And I was never a drinker.”
Unlike other stars like Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth, Novak never lost herself or fell into a life of drinking and hard drug use. However, Kim has admitted experimenting with drugs. She likes marijuana and still smokes occasionally: “It’s relaxing. I like stuff that gives me images in my head.”
In 2000, Novak and Malloy’s Oregon lodge caught fire, and many of their possessions were burnt to a crisp. Among the lost items were many of Kim’s paintings and mementos like her copy of Vertigo’s script and the autobiography she was writing. Furthermore, in 2006, Kim had another horseback riding accident.
She was severely injured and suffered a pierced lung, shattered ribs, and nerve damage. After a year, she recovered fully. In 2010, Kim was unlucky again and was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she underwent chemotherapy. Thankfully, due to her great shape, she recovered well.
In 2014, Kim came to Hollywood to present at the Oscars, and she ended up being bullied by Donald Trump. The former president tweeted, “Kim should sue her plastic surgeon!” Despite being embarrassed by the public ridicule, Novak admitted that she hadn’t looked her best that night.
Novak claims that she hasn’t had a facelift, but shared that her insecurities led her to get fat injections in her face, and her cheeks had still been swollen. She admitted, “that was the stupidest thing I could have done… I didn’t need it because I think my face is too round anyway.”
Kim had been nervous about being on stage and shared that, “I took a Valium on an empty stomach because I was trying to starve myself to lose a couple of pounds.” That night was a reminder of why she left the spotlight: “I thought, I’m much too vulnerable for this town. I take things to heart too much.”
But her experience with Trump made her come back to Hollywood and do a live interview in which she discussed the dangers of bullying. She’s continued as an anti-bullying activist since then, trying to protect the vulnerable and be a positive role model.
When it first came out, Vertigo received mixed reviews, and even Hitchcock was disappointed with the film. However, in 2012, Sight and Sound chose Vertigo as the greatest film ever made, replacing Citizen Kane, calling it “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.”
Novak is ecstatic that the film is finally getting its long-due credit: “It is amazing. And my critics are much kinder to me than they used to be.” Kim only wishes that Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock were alive to see the film revered the way it deserves to be, as a masterpiece.
In 2020, Bob Malloy, Kim’s husband of 44 years, passed away. She hasn’t had it easy since his death: “There were times I didn’t want to keep going without him.” Luckily, her art has helped her work through her grief. Kim’s years with Robert were the best ones of her life.
After his death, Novak painted a portrait of Robert. In a way, doing so brought a piece of him into her studio: “I gave him just that little bit of a smile because he had a wonderful sense of humor — it made me feel like he was there with me.”
Although she is “very happy in her forest,” Kim is still a Hollywood icon and one of the few icons of her time who is still alive. She has been awarded two Golden Globe Awards, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Furthermore, Kim was awarded an honorary Golden Bear Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The artist expressed how “rewarding” it’s been to see that her “film work is receiving more acclaim with the passage of time.” Kim “played her cards carefully, kept her winnings, and finally left Hollywood,” according to Cliff Robertson; “she beat it!”
The talented Kim Novak “had to leave Hollywood to save” herself and since then has lived a long, happy life and pursued her passions. She recently said that “It’s nice to think I will be remembered for more than just being an actress.” She’s very proud of her artwork.
The beautiful star will always be remembered for her performance in Vertigo and her other films. Even today she is often referenced in popular culture. From Riverdale to Basic Instinct and Mulholland Drive, many films and television shows have been influenced by Vertigo, and there are no doubt more to come.