When the 20th century’s most famous blonde, Marilyn Monroe, died in mysterious circumstances in her Brentwood home it emerged she had willed her estate to acting coach Lee Strasberg. In 1999 Christie’s sold all of the gowns, furs, Ferragamo shoes, costume jewellery and lingerie Marilyn left behind. Included in the sale was furniture, discarded make-up, scripts with handwritten notes on character and photographs.
For Marilyn fans, objects from the 1999 sale are as prized as religious icons. What we didn’t know was that the Strasberg family held so much back including letters, diaries photograph albums. This cache is being sold by Julien’s Auctions in LA over three days from the 17th of November.
In addition to the Strasberg haul, Hollywood costume collector David Gainsborough Roberts is selling his vast collection of pieces worn by MM throughout her film career. Lots include the black beaded flapper dress from Some Like It Hot, the green basque with net fishtail from Bus Stop and a showgirl costume made for a number cut from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The star lot is the nude crystal-encrusted goddess gown Jean Louis made for Marilyn to wear at Madison Square Garden when she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy months before her untimely death. Christie’s set a world record when the dress sold for $1.2 million in 1999. Julien’s Auctions expect the Mr President dress to top $3 million.
The most poignant piece in the Julien’s Auctions sale is a letter from Marilyn to her psychiatrist Dr Greenson reporting on the horror of being incarcerated in a high security psychiatric ward in the Payne Whitney clinic against her will. It was only with the swift action of MM’s ex-husband Joe DiMaggio that she was released. As Marilyn wrote ‘I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic’.
Echoes with what happened to me in Toronto this year make me value this letter. Much harm was done to Marilyn Monroe in her short life. Some wanted to control her and some to take advantage. We will never know what happened that weekend shortly before her death at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva lodge but it clearly precipitated a crisis in Marilyn’s life. I also doubt anyone will conclusively prove who or what killed Marilyn on the 4th of August 1962.
A death that allegedly involved JFK and his brother Bobby, Kennedy fixer/pimp Peter Lawford, the Mafia and the CIA will inevitably burnish a legend such as Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think it is the conspiracy theories per se that make Marilyn an enduring figure of fascination. No, I believe it is the tragedy that Hollywood somehow killed a unicorn that makes MM a heroine of film fans, feminists, gay men and teenage girls. It is they, not the men who lusted and still lust after Marilyn who have made her immortal.
Marilyn always wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. This is not a contradiction for a woman who was essentially a comedienne. Ask any actor and they will tell you chewing the scenery is a walk in the park. Effortless comedy is instinctive but also a craft that can be honed with experience. As the copious notebooks for sale in the Julien’s Auctions marathon prove, Marilyn was fastidious about every line being true to character.
Marilyn did not simply play the same dumb blonde in every movie. Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is as dumb as a fox and Cherie in Bus Stop is heartbreaking in her need not to be treated like a joke. The Prince and the Showgirl’s Elsie Marina is an intelligent woman who has to masquerade as a doxy and Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot is a thoroughly decent girl who always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
The real tragedy of Marilyn Monroe’s demise is that fate appeared to have thrown her a lifeline in July 1962. 20th Century Fox – who behaved despicably – had been forced to hire her back on Something’s Got To Give because co-star Dean Martin wouldn’t perform with anyone else. Good for Dean! Marilyn had also been photographed with her second husband Joe DiMaggio who was apparently keen to remarry.
I rather like the thought of second chances. A star in his own right, DiMaggio couldn’t cope with Marilyn filming the skirt-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch when he was still her husband. Perhaps a remarriage in 1962 might have rescued a Marilyn entirely disillusioned by affairs with Sinatra and the Kennedy brothers.
I don’t know how I feel about some of the Marilyn ephemera that has been sold in the past. I am thinking of prescription vials of pills from Schwab’s Drugstore, X-rays of her ribcage and – most distasteful of all – illicit photographs taken of Marilyn after she had passed. All of the items in the Julien’s Auctions sale are tasteful and appeal to people who love Marilyn not ghouls who want macabre souvenirs of her life.
I wonder who invests in pieces of Marilyn Monroe’s life. I believe Mariah Carey bought her white baby grand piano in 1999 and Tommy Hilfiger bought the jeans she wore in River of No Return. I have no idea who bought the Mr President dress but would rather like it if the gown goes into a public collection so it can be enjoyed by all of MM’s fans.