Kim Novak was among Hollywood's most enigmatic sex symbols of the '50s and early '60s. Blonde and beautiful, she exuded a daunting intellectual chilliness and an underlying passionate heat that made her especially alluring. One of the last of the studio-made stars, she rebelled against her "manufactured" image, struggling to be seen as more than just another brainless glamour gal. Novak brought to many of her roles a certain melancholic reluctance about freeing up her character's sensuality. It seemed as if her beauty was a burden, not an asset.
She was born Marilyn Pauline Novak and raised in Chicago, the daughter of a Czech railroad man. Before she was discovered in Los Angeles by Columbia Pictures helmer Harry Cohn (who chose her as a replacement for his increasingly difficult and rebellious reigning screen goddess Rita Hayworth), Novak worked odd jobs that included sales clerk, elevator operator, and a spokesmodel for a refrigerator company. Cohn signed her to his studio around 1954. While being properly prepared for stardom, Novak engaged in the first of many battles with Cohn when she refused to allow the studio to bill her as "Kit Marlowe." She felt the name rang false and battled to keep her family name, and then compromised by allowing herself to be called Kim because in her mind, Kit was too close to "kitten," as in the sexy kind. In her later years, Novak would acknowledge the studio head's role in her stardom, but also took plenty of credit for her own hard work.
Though Novak had already made her screen debut with a tiny role in The French Line (1954), her first starring role for Columbia was playing opposite Fred MacMurray in Pushover (1954). At first, she appeared uncomfortable with acting before cameras, but she soon relaxed and the following year had her first big break in Picnic (1955). The film was a hit and Novak found herself the hottest sex symbol in town, a title she wore with discomfort. Unlike other similar stars, Novak was pragmatic and did not lose herself in the glamour of the studio's carefully manufactured blonde bombshell image of her. Despite her dislike of such publicity chores as providing "cheesecake" shots for the press, and going out on studio arranged "dates" to keep her name in print, she was a trooper and toed the company line; some of her alleged lovers from this period include Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Aly Khan.
Through the '50s, Novak appeared in a broad range of films of widely varying quality. In 1958, Novak appeared in her most famous role, that of enigmatic Madeleine in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. It was a difficult role, but one she rose to admirably. She did have one conflict with Hitchcock on the set concerning the stiff gray suit and black shoes she would be required to wear for most of the picture. When she saw costume designer Edith Head's original plans for the suit, Novak, fearing the suit would be distracting and uncomfortable and believing that gray is seldom a blonde's best color, voiced her concerns directly to Hitchcock who listened patiently and then insisted she wear the prescribed garb. Novak obeyed and to her surprise discovered that the starchy outfit enhanced rather than hindered her ability to play Madeleine.
Novak's career continued in high gear through 1965. After appearing in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) and marrying her second husband, her film appearances became less frequent. After the loss of her Bel Air home to erosion following a bad fire season in the 1970s, Novak retired and moved to Northern California. There, she and her husband, Dr. Robert Malloy, a veterinarian, raised llamas. She continued to appear on television and in feature films, but only when she wanted to. At home on the ranch she spoke of her screen persona "Kim Novak" as if she were a totally different person. In 1997, she dusted off the old persona to go on an extensive promotional tour to alert the public to the fully restored version of Vertigo. When not busy in Hollywood, Novak continues working on her autobiography.