Janet Leigh shares more than a few attributes with Marilyn Monroe, the actress whose fame is most closely associated with the heyday of LIFE magazine. Leigh was a movie star, she was a beautiful blonde, and she had a celebrity husband. While she was not a singular icon in the manner of Marilyn, Leigh starred some unforgettable movies, and she was a fixture in the pages of LIFE.
Born in 1927, Leigh broke into acting at age 18, and made her film debut with a lead role in a 1947 drama about life after the civil war called The Romance of Rosy Ridge. Two years later she photographed for LIFE for the first time, around when she was playing Meg in the 1949 adaptation of the movie Little Women.
Leigh’s public profile took a big leap forward when she married actor Tony Curtis, which earned her a spot on the cover of LIFE in its June 25, 1951 issue. The report on her marriage noted, “The wedding went off smoothly enough although the best man, comedian Jerry Lewis, arrived an hour late.” A second story talked about how the young actress was transitioning to a more adult phase of her career. “She limbers up for sexy roles,” declared a headline with photos that showcased Leigh undergoing training as a dancer for her role in the musical Two Tickets to Broadway.
LIFE rode along with Leigh as her list of film credits grew, usually at the rate of two to three per year. She and Tony Curtis posed for photos for LIFE to promote a 1953 Harry Houdini biopic. Leigh’s most notable movies included Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. In 1960 she gave her most famous performance in Psycho, starring in “the shower scene”, which is one of the most storied sequences in cinema history. LIFE’s brief coverage of Psycho, which the magazine delightfully described as “a film about a murder in a motel and an amateur taxidermist’s strange way of showing filial love,” understandably focussed on the director, Alfred Hitchcock.
The photos of Leigh in the LIFE archives document moments great and small, and give a sense of the sweep of her journey in the public eye. LIFE captured, in addition to a multitude of glamor shots, her wedding to Curtis, the birth of their daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee, a forgotten flirtation with the world of clothing design, talking with Ted Kennedy as she hosts a fundraiser for John F. Kennedy, an appearance with Curtis at JFK’s inaugural ball, those dance lessons, and photographs from the set of a movie she costarred with John Wayne in called Jet Pilot. That movie didn’t make much of a mark with the public, but likely lingered in Leigh’s memory. In the Cold War drama she played a Russian pilot who came to America and was charmed by the ways of the west. The producer was Howard Hughes and multiple directors came and left the project over its 18 months of filming; the production began in 1949 but the movie didn’t reach theaters until 1957, when the modern military aircraft that the movie was supposed to showcase had been rendered obsolete, “WARS have been fought and airplane designs have been improved since “Jet Pilot,” which opened at the Palace yesterday, went before the cameras in 1949,” began a scatching New York Times review which wondered the movie was released at all.
The photos of Leigh in the LIFE archives that resonate the most are the ones that track the actress through distinct stages of her public life. The oldest photo shows her posing demurely under a parasol. The last shows her in 1983, with her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, taking her turn as a movie star.
Janet Leigh died of vasculitis in 2004, at age 77.