Leigh, who was uncomfortable with the idea of nudity on screen, refused to bare all for the terrifying 1960 shower scene. Instead, Alfred Hitchcock hired self-proclaimed "nudist" Marli Renfo, described by Graysmith: "Robust, energetic, and breezy, the redhead exuded health and wholesomeness. Her carriage was erect, graceful, poised, and as limber and lithe as a cat's." After the filming of Psycho, Renfro went on to star in Francis Ford Coppola's first movie, The Peeper. She became one of the first Playboy bunnies after posing for the front page of Hugh Hefner's revolutionary magazine, before suddenly and inexplicably… she vanished!
Marli Renfro's disappearance led to rumors, lies, and seemingly unsubstantiated reports that she had been murdered. For over forty years Robert Graysmith kept her photos, as obsessed as the detective in Laura who fell in love with a dead woman's picture. But as he wrote the beautiful redhead's story, a nagging doubt entered his mind. What if, like "Laura," she was still alive, and someone else had been murdered in her place? And if she was alive could he find her?
Interview with Robert Graysmith by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this story?
Graysmith: The visual aspects. My real training is not as a writer but as a painter and sculptor and cartoonist. Initially, what drew me to the story of "The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower" was an intense culture shock as much as the visual elements. I had left Japan at age seventeen in the summer of 1960 after graduating high school to come alone to San Francisco to attend college.
Photo: Director Alfred Hitchcock on the set of "Psycho."
On the conservative US Air Force base where I lived with my officer parents in Japan, Psycho was not to be shown and periodically even Playboy was banned. Arriving early at the deserted college, I wandered the streets of Oakland, California at night and at a newsstand saw the cover of Playboy showing the beautiful red haired Marli Renfro looking over her shoulder.
Her photo, in jigsaw puzzle form, had a piece missing---just like a mystery. At the time I did not know that Marli had been the nude in the Psycho shower. It was a well kept secret.
I tacked her cover up in my art studio and during 1960-61 often wondered who she was. The connection between Marli, Playboy and the great Hitchcock made the stunning model and dancer irresistible and I vowed to someday write a book about her. One of my books took fifteen years to write, another ten, and another took six. Marli's book took forty years.
When did the Marli Renfro case become an obsession for you?
Graysmith: Almost immediately. I am not only a visual person but an obsessive one. Once I start a project I finish it, I can't let go. For over forty years I kept her photos (and have them in front of me as I write this), as obsessed as the detective in the classic noir film "Laura" who fell in love with a dead woman's portrait. But as I finally wrote the vivacious redhead's story after all the rumors and reports in print said that she had been murdered, a nagging doubt entered my mind. What if, like "Laura," she were still alive and someone else had been murdered in her place? And if she were could I find her?
Alfred Hitchcock is such a Hollywood icon – did you learn anything about him, or his movie-making, that you didn't already know?
Graysmith: About Hitch personally, I learned that he often developed crushes not only on his leading ladies, but supporting actresses. He was more petty than I anticipated, and he was not a happy man, nor very mature in his relationships. He was the ultimate voyeur. As for Hitch's filmmaking, he was a genius and always fascinating and visually thrilling. For all the books written about Psycho, Marli Renfro had never been interviewed.
I found it a tremendous cultural loss. The redheaded chorus dancer and outdoorswoman had been at the heart of the most famous movie scene ever filmed, seeing everything that went on behind the scenes and in the shower.
Today you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of the original cast and crew of Psycho who are still alive and can say what really went on. "The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower" adds to the knowledge of Psycho with some huge surprises.
Los Angeles was a dangerous place in 1960. The Bouncing Ball Strangler remained uncaught, and The Psycho Killer, a Tony Perkins look-alike named Sonny lived less than a mile from Marli and eight miles from where Psycho was being filmed.
Sonny, inspired by Hitchcock's film, began killing women who reminded him of the character of Mother, three hours after seeing Psycho with one of his victims. After strangling the older women and cutting them, Sonny wrapped them in sleeping bags, but was unable to find the strength to lift their corpses into his car trunk as in the film. Over the blazing Labor Day weekend bodies began to pile up in his apartment and in their homes---a truly horrifying scene, as Sonny went cruising for other victims.
Psycho is one of the most visual movies ever made and as a painter this appealed to me, just as the Zodiac killer's imagery and arcane codes he sent to my paper and that crossed the polished table of the editorial room appealed to the editorial cartoonist I became in 1968.
One "inside Hollywood" detail you get into is the difference between a body-double and a stand-in. What's the difference, and why does it matter in this case?
Graysmith: The distinction, a term that Hitch himself often misused, led to tremendous confusion in the case and even on the part of the victim. A body double does nudity or acts in scenes too dangerous for the star. Unlike body doubles, stand-ins were always dressed and used for non-filming purposes such as lighting adjustments. Once I discovered that Saul Bass, the Shower Sequence designer, had filmed a test run of the shower scene with a handheld camera and saw the art hung on the victim's wall, I found the answer to why people believed what they did about the case. That allowed me to finally complete the book.
From Page One we know Marli is doomed---wire services, magazines, a TV show and even a book---report her ironic later death as a victim of a serial killer, the same part she played in Psycho. We dread what is to come. The suspense in "The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower" is driven by our growing love for Marli as we learn about her amazing year. In 1960 Marli appeared in the most famous scene in movie history, starred in Francis Ford Coppola's first movie (The Peeper), the third Nudie-Cutie ever filmed, and was a Playboy cover girl and one of the first bunnies. During this single year Marli worked with Hugh Hefner, dated Lenny Bruce, attended nudist camps with nudist queen Diane Webber and rode stallions along the Malibu Beach with Steve McQueen. What an astonishing individual she was.
Without giving away the ending, what's the most surprising thing you can reveal about what happened to Marli Renfro?
Graysmith: I would say three things. First, this was not the first time Psycho or a Hitchcock TV program inspired a murder.
Second, if I had not figured out the answer to the puzzle eighteen hours before and laid a cunning trap, I would have fainted dead away at the phone call I got the next morning.
The third surprising thing was the extent to which both Hitch and Janet Leigh misled the public, saying in numerous interviews and in a book that only Janet had been in that shower, that Janet had done the bulk of the shower scene and that Marli was only used as the corpse wrapped in a shower curtain. Only later did Hitch admit that when you see Janet's face it is her, but when you don't it is Marli Renfro holding the pose a click at time so that her nudity could be concealed by a well placed arm or hand. Certainly Janet's wonderful acting in Psycho leading to the shower scene created a sympathetic character we care about, but there were two people in that shower and as a frame by frame remake recently showed it was a tremendously difficult and grueling performance for Marli Renfro and not easy to duplicate. Marli never received more than $500 for a pivotal role in a film that made $15 million in its first year. Nor did she get the recognition she deserved which I hope she will now.
Lots of people have had nightmares because of the shower scene in Psycho. Do you?
Graysmith: No. The ring of a telephone makes my skin crawl.
Robert Graysmith has been a San Francisco Chronicle journalist and cartoonist for twenty years. A national bestselling author of seven true-crime books, Foreign Press Club Award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee, as well as a nationally syndicated political cartoonist and a gold medal illustrator, Graysmith has illuminated his true-crime books with detailed line drawings and maps. Two major motion pictures, AutoFocus and Zodiac, were adapted from his books.