Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.
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The girl in Alfred Hitchcock's shower (Robert Graysmith) 2011
Hitchcock understood well the importance of publicity and he worked strenuously to provide the clearest of suggestions throughout the marketing campaign for his 1960 shocker “Psycho”, that it was Janet Leigh who was hacked to death by Anthony Perkins as a cross-dressing maniac. Leigh, in her first interview after the film’s release, shared the audience’s horror: “I believed that knife went into me. It was that real, that horrifying. I could feel it!” In later interviews, Hitchcock and Leigh categorically stated that it was her body in the shower scene but it wasn’t as I only discovered when I read Robert Graysmith’s novel. The body belonged to a model called Marli Renfro and when the viewer cannot see closeups of Leigh’s face in the shots, its her body double.
A Dallas-born stripper who worked in Las Vegas, Renfro was one of the first Playboy Bunnies. Apart from ‘Psycho’, she only appeared in one other film, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1962 soft-porn comedy-western ‘Tonight for Sure’. Then she disappeared, easily forgotten, until a news item in 2001 reported on a 34-year-old handyman being sentenced for raping and strangling her, a crime that had occurred in 1988 but had gone unsolved for over a decade.
The US writer Robert Graysmith, author of ‘Zodiac’, the classic account of the 1970s San Francisco serial killer, was fascinated. He had been interested in Renfro and had always thought about writing a book about her. Now it seemed she had died in a murder that was a gruesome echo of the fictional one she had helped to make so famous.
The original 2001 Associated Press report said Kenneth Dean Hunt, the handyman, had been convicted of “killing two women, including an actress who was a body double for Janet Leigh in the film Psycho”. This actress was called Myra Davis; subsequent press reports explained that this was Renfro’s real name.
Graysmith probed deeper into the story, certain that something didn’t add up. In December 2007, he read an interview with Davis’s granddaughter in which she expressed confusion at the shower connection. “My grandmother would never have done any nude work,” she said.
The mystery deepens amidst several interesting observations about Hitchcock’s working practices on “Psycho”. Attired in his usual black Mariani ensemble, crisp white linen shirt and slender black italian tie, the famed director was interesting, nay charming, and a nude Marli Renfro recalled being extremely comfortable around him. He read his newspaper and told bawdy jokes to keep the film crew amaused, a far cry from the reportedly tense atmosphere on set only three years later filming ‘The Birds’ with Tippi Hedren.
The book, available through Titan, was published in 2010 and can be found heavily discounted in certain retail outlets. I wouldn’t presume to spoil any reader’s enjoyment by revealing more than I have – suffice to say that we are all sometimes oblivious to what fate has in store for us…
There were actually three women in Alfred Hitchcock’s shower – Janet Leigh herself, Marli Renfro – a Dallas born stripper who was Miss Leigh’s body double and more curiously, one Myra Davis, who was present for lighting check ups.
Leigh’s character is stabbed to death, but of what little we do see, it is Renfro’s body that is assaulted in such violent circumstances. Marli might well have met her death years later at the hands of a ‘Psycho obsessive’ but like many in the film industry, he found her almost indistinguishable from Myra. Suitably confused, there would be tragic consequences, and a distinctly gruesome coda to that most infamous of Hollywood scenes……