A Last Moment with Marilyn
“I sit in front of the mirror for hours looking for signs of age. Yet I like old people; they have great qualities that younger people don’t have. I want to grow old without facelifts. They take the life out of a face, the character. I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I’ve made. Sometimes I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know yourself.” – Marilyn Monroe 1
Following Monroe’s shocking death, 4 August, 1962, her lawyers Milton Rudin and Aaron Frosch petitioned the probate court to have Inez Melson (1901-85) appointed the administrator of Monroe’s estate holdings in California. Rudin was the brother-in-law of Monroe’s West-coast psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, and was recommended to Monroe by her sometimes boyfriend Frank Sinatra (1915-98). Melson had acted as Monroe’s business manager (1954-56), until Monroe’s bicoastal finances, the establishment of Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) in December, 1954, and Monroe’s other career obligations became too complicated for Melson to handle. Despite owing her position with Monroe to Joe DiMaggio, Melson testified on Monroe’s behalf during their divorce hearing. Nonetheless, she remained on good terms with both parties, and helped DiMaggio clear out the couple’s Beverly Hills home following the disintegration of their marriage in 1955. Melson retained boxes of the couple’s possessions in storage at her house, many of which DiMaggio never retrieved.2
At Monroe’s request, Melson served as the court-appointed guardian (1954-66) for her mentally ill mother, Gladys Mortenson. Mortenson had married for a third time in 1949 to electrician John Stewart Eley, but the union proved disastrous, and Mortenson had accused him of abuse. In any case, the marriage may have been bigamous, as Eley appeared to already have a wife, who claimed his estate when he died suddenly in April, 1952. In spite of which, Gladys followed the expected form and continued to use Eley’s surname thereafter.3 Although Melson retained a professional association with Monroe, via her custodianship of Gladys Eley, their friendship became more distant as Monroe’s personal difficulties escalated. Even when Monroe moved back to Los Angeles in August, 1961, Melson saw little of her, and Monroe kept breaking their appointments. Melson believed that other members of Monroe’s inner circle, namely Patricia Newcomb (who had replaced Rupert Allan as her press agent), and housekeeper Eunice Murray, deliberately kept them apart.4
Melson later gave conflicting accounts to journalists concerning her involvement in the events immediately following Monroe’s death.5 In an unhappy coincidence, Monroe’s first husband Jim Dougherty had been a member of the Los Angeles Police Department since 1947, the year after his discharge from the Merchant Marines. His friend, veteran police officer Sergeant Jim Clemmons went to Monroe’s house to verify the situation; he was unhappy with the scene in her bedroom, and believed tampering had occurred. “With Clemmons’ suspicions, the cloud of chaos began to mushroom. It will unfold its morbid blossom and will disperse its fallout particles of confusion, lost reports, mishandled procedures, controversies, discrepancies, and rumours for untold years to come”.6 The funeral (8 August, 1962) was arranged by Melson and DiMaggio in consultation with Monroe’s half-sister Berniece Baker Miracle, whose family was based in Gainesville, Florida. Owing to the expense, Baker Miracle travelled alone to Los Angeles, leaving her husband Paris, and their daughter Mona Rae, at home.
Monroe had kept in regular contact with Baker Miracle over the years, and invited her sister to stay for two weeks at her New York apartment while Monroe recuperated from gallbladder surgery in July, 1961. Baker Miracle had not spent sustained time with Monroe in many years, owing to her schedule and the intrusion of her fame into their family dynamic. Baker Miracle recalled, “Marilyn was not satisfied with the will and always intended to change it. The right circumstances simply didn’t present themselves in time before her death. It was easy to allow other problems to have priority over the will”.7 She remembers Monroe shouting,
“I’m going to change that will they showed me! I want to work on a will to get it the way I want it!” Of all the sources of Marilyn’s frustrations, the greatest irritation during this period of recovering health is the matter of her will. “They tried to rush me into signing a will just before I went into the hospital [Payne Whitney, in February, 1961]. They kept insisting … My secretary [Reis] and my attorney [Frosch] stuck a will in my face to sign as I was going out the door. It was already made. I was furious! I told them I was not going to sign it! I stood and argued.” 8
But, despite her indignation about the situation, sign it she did. This significant error of judgment would ripple down through the subsequent decades, causing distress to Monroe’s surviving family and close friends, and difficulties for the few other beneficiaries who were included. When she finally received a copy of the document Baker Miracle related, “…when I thought about how upset she’d been about it, I couldn’t bring myself to just accept it. I was extremely frustrated, and I confessed to Inez [Melson] that Marilyn hadn’t wanted to use that will. I was in a terrible dilemma. I couldn’t afford to contest it. I resigned myself to accepting the will as it stood”.9 The will was not released from probate status until 1977. Baker Miracle believes that Monroe’s death was an accidental overdose, but asserts, “I would like to see a thorough investigation. I have never had the means. If I had, there are a lot of things I would have done. I wish I could have afforded the time away from home and family and the travel and the attorneys’ fees”.10
The preliminary process of sorting through Monroe’s papers and belongings at the Brentwood property the actress had only recently purchased went on for three days. Present were Melson, Cherie Redmond, another of Monroe’s secretaries, and Baker Miracle, who described the disorganised circumstances,
“We don’t want the press to get hold of Marilyn’s personal stuff”, stresses Inez. We sat around the fireplace watching Inez burn papers all day long. Marilyn had tons of papers of all kinds. Some were organised in drawers. Some were just lying around. Some didn’t seem important to Inez, and to her it seemed useless to keep them- letters, newspaper articles, scribbled notes on chores to do, and such. Some were important and had legal implications, and Inez sorted those out and kept them. Inez places Marilyn’s red leather Gucci shopping bag on the floor beside Berniece. “Put what you want to take home in here”, she tells Berniece. 11
After Baker Miracle returned to Florida, perhaps with certain sentimental items of Monroe’s that Melson had allowed her to take, Melson continued sorting through the rest of Monroe’s personal effects. These were to be dispatched to Lee Strasberg in New York. He was still the legal heir to the bulk of Monroe’s estate, despite complaints she had expressed about her will, which had been hurriedly redrawn following her divorce from third husband, Arthur Miller.12 Melson was concerned enough about the circumstances under which Monroe had signed the new document to write to DiMaggio about it, but bad feelings are rarely legally actionable. “On January 14th, 1961, the date on which our baby purportedly executed her will, she had car rental charges as follows … I know it sounds like a Perry Mason television script but I am (between thee and me) very suspicious about that will and my only interest lies in the protection and future care of Mrs Eley [Gladys]… I have pretty well constructed what happened that day and I find it impossible to see why Mr. Frosch [Monroe’s New York lawyer] had to be a witness along with his secretary [Louise White]. I know you will understand how very discreet I must be about this”.13
In fact, the officious Frosch has his fingers all over the document: as lawyer, executor, trustee, and witness, as well as a friend to Lee and Paula Strasberg. Established as Monroe’s personal secretary by 1958, May Reis (1904-87) had previously worked for Arthur Miller, and went on to work for Eila Kazan. Reis was a major beneficiary of the new will, at the expense of Monroe’s longer-term employees, particularly Melson, who played a more critical role as Eley’s guardian. Also snubbed were Monroe’s niece Mona Rae Miracle, and her three stepchildren: Joseph DiMaggio, Jr., with whom Monroe spoke the night of her death, and Miller’s children, Jane and Robert, to whom Monroe had grown close. Monroe told Baker Miracle, “I miss Joe, Jr. I’m extremely fond of him. When Joe and I married it seemed that Joe, Jr. loved me more than he did Joe. He would come and talk to me more. He brought his troubles to me … He keeps in touch. He calls. Sometimes he writes. A few days ago I got a great letter. He’s twenty now. I just listen. I miss Jane and Bobby, too- Arthur’s children, but somehow I guess I’m closer to Joe, Jr. I don’t know why. I love all three of them”.14 It is hard to believe that Monroe, who so wanted children of her own, would have failed to acknowledge these four young people in her immediate family sphere if she had been consulted about the drawing up of the will.
Melson seems to have put aside various items of Monroe’s clothing, accessories and mementos for herself. Strasberg noticed the absence of the bronze Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) sculpture, The Embrace, Monroe bought in May, 1962. Also missing was a green sequinned Norman Norell (1900-72) dress Monroe wore to the Golden Globe Awards that year, and the infamous nude soufflé and crystal beaded gown designed for her by Academy Award winner Jean Louis (Louis Andre Berthault, 1907-97), she wore to serenade President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.15 He insisted these items be sent to him, but not before Melson allowed her sister-in-law, Ruth Conroy, to wear the green dress.16 Strasberg was perhaps unaware of what else was in the property; he had not visited Monroe during her last year in Los Angeles, nor did he tour the house after giving the eulogy at her funeral. Melson organised a sale of ‘personal property likely to depreciate in value’, consisting of eleven household items, that were appraised and swiftly sold.17 Strasberg was annoyed that Melson had not consulted him about the auction, but did not otherwise pursue the matter further.18
Some years before, Sinatra had suggested that Monroe needed to better safeguard her privacy.19 Therefore, she purchased two filing cabinets in 1958 when she was still in New York, and later had them freighted to the Brentwood property. One cabinet is tan with a lock, the other gray with a built-in safe in the third drawer down. In these cabinets Monroe kept personal photographs, letters, bills, receipts, cheques, financial records, telegrams, business cards, and other valuables, rendering the contents potentially “the Rosetta Stone of Marilyn scholarship”.20 The gray cabinet was put in the household sale, where Melson contrived to buy it using the name of her nephew Walter Davis (without his knowledge).21 The fate of the tan cabinet is less clear. Either Melson had it discreetly moved to her home office after Monroe’s death, or it was taken by DiMaggio, who delivered it back to Melson’s home in 1969.22 Neither cabinet was turned over to Frosch in New York, nor returned to the Strasbergs.
What was Melson’s agenda for engaging in such a subterfuge? Was she simply being thorough in her role as administrator by removing the records in order to give a better account to the court? Did she believe she was somehow honouring her role in Monroe’s life by protecting her privacy in death, and that of Eley? Did Melson play a role in the suspected cover-up surrounding the events of Monroe’s death, tasked with securing any incriminating documents? Was Melson angered that she had not received a bequest in the will, or any compensation for the long years of supervising Eley’s care? She may have thought that Monroe had been ungrateful, or did she blame the machinations of Frosch, and possibly the Strasbergs? Perhaps Melson felt entitled to benefit from the material at some later date, and thought the sale would provide a justification for having at least one of the cabinets in her possession.
Baker Miracle raises another possible motivation for Melson’s behaviour when she mentions that the three women were, “searching through [Monroe’s] personal effects, hoping to find notes on a current will”.23 Conceivably, the cabinets were removed by Melson, with the possible connivance of DiMaggio, in the hope that closer inspection of the contents would yield a more recent draft stating Monroe’s intentions for her will. In any event, Melson objected to the probate in October, 1962 on the grounds that undue influence had been exerted on Monroe to sign the document, but the court dismissed her complaint.24 Melson continued to supervise Eley’s care for another four years until the custodianship was transferred (19 December, 1966), and Baker Miracle moved her to an assisted living facility in Florida.
The whereabouts of the filing cabinets, and their intimate contents, was obscure until British author Anthony Summers met with Melson in 1983, pursuant to his book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1985), and she revealed the existence of the material to him. When Melson died in 1985, the Monroe cabinets were inherited by Ruth Conroy. Conroy, who also met with Summers, planned to author her own book about the material to be titled Marilyn Confidential: A Glimpse Into Hollywood’s Past Through Rare Personal Documents, Letters, Bills, Correspondence, and Collector’s Memorabilia.25 Although the book project did not proceed, the mimeographed pages, along with the cabinets themselves, were inherited by Conroy’s son Millington following her death in 2001. At Millington Conroy’s behest, the Australian-born photographer Mark Anderson had been documenting the contents of the cabinets since early 2006.
Summers was approached by Conroy that year with a view to writing a book about the collection using Anderson’s photographs, but Conroy changed his mind in 2007 after falling out with the author.26 Just as many of Monroe’s photographers had been smitten by her in life, so Anderson was with her ghost during the long process of documenting her various possessions. He became increasingly concerned that Conroy was selling parts of the Melson hoard through memorabilia dealers before he had the opportunity to document it. Anderson was particularly disturbed when Conroy boasted of selling a beautiful old rosary he had once shown him that, they surmised, may have belonged to DiMaggio’s mother, Rosalia Mercurio (1878-1951).27 In 2007, Professor Lois W. Banner of the University of Southern California entered the fray after Anderson read an article she had written about Monroe, and invited her to Conroy’s house. Recognising the historical importance of the collection immediately, Banner helped Conroy meticulously organise the 12,000 or so remaining items and store them properly.28 Banner had purchased Monroe items from auctions in 2008 and 2009, and was intrigued to find that many of them came in folders with the same markings and labels as the ones she was now viewing at Conroy’s house; clearly, someone had obtained files directly from the cabinets and later sold them.30
Notwithstanding the mystery of Monroe’s filing cabinets, and the quiet dispersal, or outright loss, of their contents over the intervening years, her other possessions were held in storage in New York by Lee Strasberg for many decades. The clause in Monroe’s will that covered her personal effects and clothing, “it being my desire that he distribute these, in his sole discretion, among my friends, colleagues and those to whom I am devoted”,31 was never honoured, at Strasberg’s ‘sole discretion’, but their fate has been just as dramatic- and contentious. Strasberg’s first wife Nora Krecaum, and his second Paula Miller, predeceased him. As well as her inflated salary as Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg was given numerous gifts by Monroe during their association. A strand of Mikimoto pearls DiMaggio gave Monroe while they were in Japan in 1954 found its way to Paula. She then gave the necklace to the couple’s eldest child, the actress Susan Strasberg (1938-99), after Monroe’s death. Susan sold the jewellery privately in 1998, and it was acquired back by the Mikimoto company.32 It is unknown whether Paula Strasberg left other items of Monroe’s to Susan that may now be in the possession of her daughter, Jennifer Robin, or to their son John before her death in 1966.
Following Lee Strasberg’s death in 1982, his third wife, Anna Mizrahi, inherited much of his property including the Monroe cache, still in storage and largely uncatalogued. In October, 1999 Strasberg offered a large collection of items for sale through Christie’s as ‘The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe’, ranging from clothing, accessories, awards, and scripts, to household furnishings. Previously, fans had to console themselves with Monroe’s films, the countless photographs taken of her, and the very small number of personal items that found their way onto the market; now they went into a frenzy, and the sale was a sensation.33 Another large tranche of Monroe’s personal effects was offered at Julien’s Auctions in June, 2005, including several items from the 1999 sale whose bidders had overreached.34 Some years later, two boxes of Monroe’s private material, including poems and manuscripts, were ‘discovered’ by Strasberg while going through her husband’s papers. Some of these items were photographed, edited and published as Fragments (2010), and formed the basis of the documentary Love, Marilyn (Liz Garbus, 2012). Several of these notebooks and other ephemera are being offered in the forthcoming Julien’s sale, ‘Marilyn Monroe: Property From the Estate of Lee Strasberg’ in November this year.
Thus, a fortune would accrue to Anna Strasberg, a woman who apparently met Monroe only once, at a United Nations event some years before her predecessor’s death.35 Film royalties, the licensing of Monroe’s image, and the sale of her personal property would net the Strasberg heirs millions of dollars in subsequent years. The youngest of Lee Strasberg’s children, Anna’s son David, now administers matters relating to the Monroe inheritance. It is at this point that Monroe’s filing cabinets re-enter the picture. Both Mark Anderson and Lois Banner became uneasy about Millington Conroy’s legal title over the items after he claimed to have prevailed in a 1995 court case brought against him by the Strasberg Estate for selling Monroe memorabilia. “The jury in the case gave most of the items up for auction to Anna, but they returned a few to Mill. We pressed Mill on the matter. According to him, seven years had passed since the court case with the Monroe Estate, and he had not been contacted about any other items in his possession”, Banner wrote.36 Closer investigation revealed that, on appeal, a judge had ruled that when Melson bought the gray cabinet under Walter Davis’ name she had committed fraud, for which there was no statute of limitations.37
Fearing that Conroy would continue to sell items from the collection, Anderson and Banner scheduled a meeting with David Strasberg (10 October, 2007) to tell him what they knew. After Conroy was exposed, he maintained that Melson had legally bought one cabinet, and the other was a gift from DiMaggio, since he brought it in person to Melson’s home.38 Regardless, the Strasbergs wasted no time in suing Conroy (25 October, 2007) for the return of the filing cabinets and various other items retained by Melson back in 1962.39 Conroy settled with the Estate on undisclosed terms, and the planned book, MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe (2011), went ahead without him. However, it remains unclear if all the property seized from Conroy actually belonged to Monroe, or whether some of the items were gifts Monroe made to Melson over the years, or those items DiMaggio left with her in 1955. Monroe was known to be very generous, and also somewhat careless, with her possessions from time to time. There is no firm evidence that Melson ever profited from retaining the two filing cabinets and their contents. She may have received some of the other items as gifts from DiMaggio over the ensuing years, or in thanks for her dedication after Monroe’s death.40
Vanity Fair published a cover-story about the bizarre Melson/Conroy case in 2008, in which Banner said, “I like to think that Marilyn would be grateful to us for preserving all this material and not having the vultures go after it”.41 But go after it they will, as various of the items recovered from Conroy will be included as part of the latest Strasberg sale, a selection from which is currently touring as part of the exhibition Marilyn Monroe: The Legacy of A Legend. Banner was hopeful when she wrote in MM-Personal, “In our conversations with her, Anna Strasberg told us that she would place the Monroe Collection in a museum. We hope that she will do so. Marilyn belongs to the nation. As with those of any national figure, her papers should be available to scholars and the public”.42 At the time the Conroy case was settled, Strasberg opined, “as more material is collected that belongs to her estate, we can see more of the real Marilyn and not the caricatures … My husband, Lee, was her teacher, her mentor, but most of all Marilyn’s friend. I am not only protecting her legacy and image; I am honouring my husband’s wishes”.43 In consideration of how Monroe’s memory, likeness, and property has been capitalised on, in such a cynical manner, in the years since her death, such a comment seems both distasteful and utterly self-serving. Having done the conscientious thing by turning in Millington Conroy, one might expect both Anderson and Banner to feel quite betrayed by subsequent developments.
Monroe was a woman who yearned to be respected for her abilities; to be able to follow her creative inclinations; to define herself; to grow in stature as an artist. She fought to be recognised as more than a product to be bartered and belittled by 20th Century Fox, she grew suspicious of people’s motivations for seeking her out, and bristled if she thought she was being exploited. Monroe has been rendered just that in death; her posthumous history littered with sensational biographies, spurious claims, and the indignity of her most private possessions being bought and sold at the bang of a gavel. One might well ask what particular insights are gained from the brisk trade in Monroe’s personal effects, designated as keepsakes for her close friends and family? Does reducing her life and career to a collection of (often mundane) artefacts render her more accessible or intelligible to her audience, or just more saleable to those who can afford to buy a ‘piece’ of her?
In article published in Life the week before her death, Monroe seemed to be in a particularly sensitive, reflective mood. “It’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies, but you also like to be accepted for your own sake. I don’t look at myself as a commodity, but I’m sure a lot of people have. Including, well, one corporation in particular, which shall be nameless. If I’m sounding picked on or something, I think I am. I’ll think I have a few wonderful friends and all of a sudden, ooh, here it comes. They do a lot of things. They talk about you to the press, to their friends, tell stories, and you know, it’s disappointing.” She also pondered what her life might be like without the spotlight of attention and scrutiny trained, as ever, on her. “It might be a kind of relief to be finished. You have to start all over again. But I believe you’re always as good as your potential. I now live in my work and in a few relationships with the few people I can really count on. Fame will go by, and, so long, I’ve had you fame. If it goes by, I’ve always known it was fickle. So at least it’s something I experienced, but that’s not where I live”.44
Someone who has observed the burgeoning celebrity costume and memorabilia market of the 1990s explode over the last decade or so is Trevor*, an Australian Monroe aficionado and collector. He previously curated an exhibition at the Performing Arts Museum, Arts Centre Victoria, Marilyn: An Appreciation (1995), drawing on aspects of his vast collection; it proved so popular that the run was extended, eventually concluding after thirteen weeks. “My collection is quite eclectic, it ranges from novelty items to original vintage material, with an emphasis on the evolvement and promotion of Marilyn’s career in Australia”, Trevor explains. “My fascination with Marilyn dates back to my childhood. I was an avid reader of New Screen News [1927-65], a magazine sold at Hoyts cinemas. Who was this beautiful, attractive new starlet? Then I finally saw her!”, he enthuses. “When she first appeared (in a minor role), walking along the sidewalk in a lightweight comedy called Love Nest [Joseph M. Newman, 1951], I was entranced”.
More recently, Trevor loaned several significant items to the Marilyn Monroe exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery. These included four editioned Monroe photographs, two by Sam Shaw taken in 1957, and two from Bert Stern’s The Last Sitting (1962), as well as rare Australian daybills for Love Nest, and for the commemorative film Marilyn (Henry Koster, 1963). The most remarkable item in his extensive collection is undoubtedly the Cocktail dress and matching bolero jacket (c.1950s) by Elgee Bove. When Trevor purchased the outfit in 1989, it had not been publically seen since well before Monroe’s death, and has never been exhibited. Trevor had declined previous requests to lend the work, but felt strongly that it should be shown here. “I thought it was important to show that there is a depth of appreciation for Marilyn in Australia, and to embrace a platform that was to include a variety of items that encompassed her career”, Trevor remarks. “Other exhibitions about Marilyn have not had this type of range. I thought the exhibition had the potential to include a much broader collector-base because of the international context the curator [Tansy Curtin] was looking at, and the variety of loans she had secured”.
The gallery début of this slinky two-piece qualified as an international exclusive that has occasioned much interest from Monroe fans worldwide, though many casual viewers to the exhibition may not have grasped its significance, or been aware of this aspect of the show. Perhaps also unaware of its importance in Monroe’s career trajectory, Strasberg offered the Bove ensemble to Christie’s (New York) for auction, but it ended up in London as part of their ‘Pop’ sale. Interspersed among items of rock memorabilia, the low-key catalogue entry gave no attribution to a designer, much less when the dress was worn by Monroe. It was accompanied by a small image of a staff member wearing the outfit, but the colour-grading is so poor it looks black instead of aubergine.
Trevor subscribed to Christie’s catalogues at the time, and knew immediately what he was looking at. “To me, Marilyn’s unscheduled, unpaid, private visit to the war-torn troops was a defining time in her life. Her visit received worldwide publicity- the goddess suddenly became real. There she was, boosting the morale of tired young men, performing in the open air in freezing conditions”, he reflects. “I thought, ‘what a wonderful, thoughtful woman’. It was much later, during research, that I appreciated the true significance of Marilyn’s four-day visit to the servicemen. In later years, she said that her Korea visit was the highlight of her life. I have spoken with veterans, and the pianist who accompanied her in Korea (Corporal) Albert Guastafeste, who told me that Marilyn was ‘magic’. And so l had to have the costume, and twenty-seven years later I still treasure it”.
An interesting caveat in the catalogue text advised, “The proceeds from the following lot will go towards a kidney dialysis machine for a children’s hospital in London”.45 Trevor was very gratified to hear of this charitable donation, and wrote to Strasberg seeking more information about the item, and the hospital concerned, but he received no response.46 Apart from its one appearance at Bendigo, this special outfit has kept a very low profile. “I believe that the costume was meant to come to me as its custodian for Marilyn. Eventually, it will be offered to an American institution, as it is associated with American history”, Trevor confides. “To me, this very special personal outfit is far more significant, in Marilyn’s legacy, than any of her movie costumes. I don’t see them as a part of American history, even the ‘notorious’ white dress [designed by William Travilla] worn in The Seven Year Itch [Billy Wilder, 1955]”.
The Strasberg estate has not had everything its own way, however. In 2005, the Estate took legal action against the heirs of some of Monroe’s photographers, including Milton H. Greene and Tom Kelley, claiming that they had violated its rights by using Monroe’s image and likeness for unauthorised commercial purposes. The court noted that neither California nor New York recognised a posthumous ‘right of publicity’ at the time of Monroe’s death. In California, the ability of celebrities to confer ‘publicity rights’ for their image after their death was extended in 2007 by Senate Bill No. 771, provided they were residents there. The Strasbergs then sought to have the case reconsidered, so the Estate could inherit the right of publicity retroactively. Their claim then hinged on where Monroe was domiciled at the time of her death. To reduce estate taxes, in the 1960s Frosch asserted that Monroe resided principally in New York, a position that went unaltered in subsequent years. The district court judge decided that the earlier avowal rendered the Estate subject to New York legislation, where Monroe’s ‘right of publicity’ ended with her death.47
Unquestionably, Monroe’s mystique has proved to be a powerful commodity across the media spectrum: marketing, advertising, brand tie-ins, and the burgeoning memorabilia market. As a young model, and later as a starlet, Monroe was no stranger to paid print advertisements and other brand promotion. Since her death, many companies have been eager to align themselves with Monroe’s cross-generational, cross-cultural appeal and global image recognition. Some of these advertisements have capitalised on Monroe’s documented association with certain products, such as Mikimoto pearls and Coca-Cola. The most famous instance of this stems from Monroe’s response when asked by a reporter what she wore in bed, she quipped, “Chanel No. 5. Now and then I switch to Arpège”.48 This not something that Lanvin ever seems to have capitalised on, probably because Ed Feingersh (1925-61) did not take a photograph of Monroe holding one of their bottles. Feingersh was retained by Redbook magazine to produce a photo-essay on Monroe that followed her during the week of 24-30 March, 1955 in New York as she prepared for a number of public appearances. The spread featured candid shots using available light, one of which was the much-reproduced frame Marilyn with Chanel No.5 (1955), of her dabbing the perfume on her décolletage (reproduced in the second part of this story for the June issue).
Other products Monroe’s image has been used to endorse, such as cosmetics (Max Factor, MAC), jeans (Levi’s, K-Mart, Gap), styling products (Sexy Hair), and lingerie (Warnaco Group) make a certain sense, but others, such as watches (Clyda, Paris), cars (Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen), vodka (Absolut, Three Olives), sportswear (Nike), and investment banking (Dresden Kleinwort) stretch credibility. Nonetheless, Monroe consistently ranks as one of the top earning ‘delebs’, a portmanteau word for ‘dead celebrities’, in terms of global marketing.49 As Karen Yossman has noted, “this trend for using long-dead actresses to front campaigns aimed at female consumers is at best tasteless and at worst insidious … the images seared into public consciousness – and proliferated by advertisers – are of these women at their aesthetic peak. The same, youthful photographs are continuously recycled on social media (sometimes emblazoned with a wrongly-attributed inspirational quotation), in print and online, effectively reducing Marilyn et al to the status of cartoon characters. Dead women are ideal brand ambassadors: compliant, submissive and easily manipulated, both figuratively and digitally”.50
In January, 2011, the Authentic Brands Group LLC, in conjunction with the National Entertainment Collectibles Association (NECA), announced the acquisition of the intellectual property of Marilyn Monroe LLC. This allows them exclusive use of Monroe’s likeness and name on a variety of licensed products; it was noted that Anna Strasberg would continue her involvement as a minority partner in the joint venture. As the number of her surviving friends and contemporaries dwindles, the ‘real’ Monroe drifts further into the realm of myth and conjecture, as though she is constantly receding like a half-remembered dream. Regrettably, Monroe’s status as a global brand has the potential to obscure her real achievements as a performer; her status as a pioneer who demanded control over her own career; a free spirit who wanted to live her life on her terms; the abandoned orphan who captivated the world. Put simply, it is hard to reconcile ‘brand Monroe’ with the conflicted, confounding, flawed, tremulous, and scintillating woman she was. Monroe knew there must be style – and she went about redefining that in her time – but it was substance she cared most about.
Whereas Monroe’s film costumes belonged to their respective studios and were liquidated by them decades earlier, her personal clothing, accessories and grooming items continue to circulate. With the sale of the David Gainsborough-Roberts Collection, items from the 1999 Christie’s auction will come back onto the market. These include a black Cocktail dress (early 1950s) with a silk taffeta bow from one of Monroe’s favourite designers Ceil Chapman (1912-79), and a gorgeous embroidered white Evening gown (c.1950s) from Lanvin-Castillo. “Gainsborough Roberts is one of the early, wealthy collectors who pushed the price of a major Marilyn item well beyond the budget of the average, genuine Marilyn devotee. In 1999, the Marilyn collectable craze spiralled out of control”, Trevor comments. “Any genuine Marilyn fan who hoped to obtain an item belonging to their idol had their hopes dashed at the much-hyped Christie’s auction. The auction was designed only for investors, or those with a very large bank balance. [It] was a social event, ordinary fans were not welcome, they could only attend viewing sessions. Expert fans questioned the accuracy of some Lot descriptions. It was a sad day for the ordinary, long-term Marilyn fan”.
In 1993, Gainsborough-Roberts acquired from Christie’s (East) the Showgirl outfit (c.1958) Monroe wore to portray musical theatre star Lillian Russell (1860-1922). It may have been custom made, and was used in a photo-shoot by Richard Avedon (1923-2004) for Life Magazine. In the spread Monroe channeled several ‘Fabled Enchantresses’, including silent film stars Theda Bara (1885-1955) and Clara Bow (1905-65), Jean Harlow, and Marlene Dietrich. It was one of Monroe’s most successful magazine appearances, selling 6.3 million copies, at that time the highest selling issue in the history of Life.51 Avedon would declare, “There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was an invention of hers. A genius invention that she created, like an author creates a character… She understood photography, and she also understood what makes a great photograph. She related to it as if she were giving a performance. She gave more to the still camera than any actress – any woman – I’ve ever photographed”.52
Trevor will certainly not be bidding at the forthcoming auction, though he retains a keen interest in unfolding events. He is dismayed by the crass commercialism surrounding Monroe of recent times, and the undignified parade of her personal items through various auction rooms. “Fans were, and still are, outraged that Anna Strasberg chose to auction (and continues to do so) Marilyn’s personal belongings. It was hoped that she would honour Marilyn’s wish [in the will], give the items to a reputable museum, or even establish one with the proceeds. Now the items are scattered far and wide and cannot be appreciated or studied by Marilyn’s people”, he scoffs. “The dye had been cast- avaricious Anna had won! She’s not interested in Marilyn’s legacy, it’s just like an ongoing fire-sale! I think the forthcoming sale of Marilyn’s private writings shows a total lack of respect for Marilyn. And respect is what Marilyn fought for … against all negativity the remarkable Marilyn survives, and her legacy grows stronger with the passing years”.
The writer Truman Capote (1924-84) was introduced to Monroe by her The Asphalt Jungle (1949) director, John Huston. Capote was also a friend of the English stage and film actress Constance Collier (1878-1955), who later became a widely respected acting and voice coach. Her clients included the silent screen star Colleen Moore (1899-1988), Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), Luise Rainer (1910-2014), Vivien Leigh, and Audrey Hepburn (1929-93). Capote felt that Monroe could benefit from Collier’s guidance and advice, but admitted, “at first it was not an acquaintance she was too keen to acquire: her eyesight was faulty, she had seen none of Marilyn’s movies, and really knew nothing about her except that she was some sort of platinum sex-explosion who had achieved global notoriety”.53 Despite which, Collier became part of Monroe’s small circle of English theatrical friends who saw in her qualities her countrymen perhaps did not. They warmly encouraged Monroe’s dedication to improving her craft, free of the type of sneering and condescension with which her aspirations were often greeted in America.
Collier was to make one of the most remarkable assessments of both Monroe’s talent, and her potentially self-destructive tendencies. “She is a beautiful child. I don’t mean that in the obvious way- the perhaps too obvious way. I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has – this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence – could never surface on the stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight: only a camera can freeze the poetry of it”, Collier told Capote. “But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow, or harlot, or whatever is mad … This beautiful child is without any concept of discipline or sacrifice. Somehow I don’t think she’ll make old bones. Absurd of me to say, but somehow I feel she’ll go young. I hope, I really pray, that she survives long enough to free that strange lovely talent that’s wandering through her like a jailed spirit”.54
There is something of the universal fable in Monroe’s story, in the way tales are re-cast, with a different setting, for a new generation. There is also an unmistakable touch of the heroic about her, given where she came from and where she went. “We take her seriously as an artist and person, a liberated woman before it became fashionable, who won an honoured place and lost her life”, Norman Rosten attests. “A woman of obscure beginnings who studied and struggled against great odds to create a life of dignity and respect. She confronted a world of caste and prejudice; she broke into the clear for herself and others”.55
There are myriad reasons for Monroe’s inextricable hold over generations of audiences. Her unique and intoxicating combination of beauty, talent, sensuality, impulsiveness, and emotional turmoil continues to beguile and haunt. Monroe’s life was plagued by frailty, isolation, and self-doubt. She suffered from the thwarted ambition and unfulfilled promise that afflicts so many of us- and yet she demonstrated great resilience. We have come to empathise with Monroe’s faults, feel compassion for the many challenging aspects of her life, and applaud her candour. Sometimes it seems as though the desperate pathos of her tragic demise might threaten to overwhelm the pleasure her work continues to bring. It is as though Monroe anticipated this paradox when she mused,
Life- I am both of your directions,
Somehow remaining hanging downward,
The most, but strong as a cobweb in the wind-
I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colours I’ve seen in paintings
Ah life, they have cheated you.56
Marilyn Monroe: The Legacy of a Legend, Cunard Queen Mary 2, New York Southampton (Eastbound transatlantic crossing), 9 – 16 August 2016 | Julien’s Auctions, 741 North La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles California (USA), 11– 18 November 2016 For more touring dates see – juliensauctions.com
CATCH UP: The entire Moment With Marilyn series is at troublemag.com/category/marilyn
1 David Willis & Stephen Schmidt, Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis, itbooks, New York, 2011, p.265. 2 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, Abrams, New York, 2011, p.12. 3 Lois W. Banner, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, Bloomsbury, London, 2012, p.151, 194-95. 4 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.13. 5 Ibid, p.13-14. 6 Berniece Baker Miracle & Mona Rae Miracle, My Sister Marilyn: A Memoir of Marilyn Monroe, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, 1994, p.198-99. 7 Ibid, p.178. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid, p.223. 10 Ibid, p.234, 237. 11 Ibid, p.224-25. 12 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.315. 13 Inez C. Melson to Joe DiMaggio, 6 September, 1962, in Ibid, p.244. 14 Berniece Baker Miracle & Mona Rae Miracle, op cit, p.155-56. 15 In the 1999 Christie’s sale, the Norman Norell dress (Lot 53) sold for USD $96,000, and the Jean Louis dress (Lot 55) for USD $1,267,500. Nancy Valentino (Ed.), The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe, Christie’s, London, 1999, p.84-85, 88-92. 16 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.15, 242. 17 Sam Kashner, “The Things She Left Behind”, Vanity Fair [US], October, 2008, p.324 & Ibid, p.15, 325. 18 Ibid, p.15. 19 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.324. 20 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.9. 21 Ibid, p.15. 22 Ibid & Sam Kashner, op cit, p.324. 23 Berniece Baker Miracle & Mona Rae Miracle, op cit, p.224. 24 Ibid, p.223 & Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p. 315. 25 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.242, 251. 26 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.329, 332. 27 Ibid, p. 325, 332, 334. 28 Ibid, p.334. 30 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.20. 31 Berniece Baker Miracle & Mona Rae Miracle, op cit, p.220-21 32 Nick Foulkes, Mikimoto, Assouline, New York, 2008, p.50. 33 Nancy Valentino (Ed.), op cit. The 575 Lots generated more than USD $13.4 million. 34 Darren Julien (Ed.), ‘Property From the Estate of Marilyn Monroe and Other Collections’, Julien’s Auctions, Los Angeles, 2005. 35 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.324. 36 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.18. 37 Ibid. 38 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.387. 39 Ibid, p.388. 40 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.19. 41 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.388. 42 Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.23. 43 Sam Kashner, op cit, p.388. 44 Richard Meryman, “Marilyn Lets Her Hair Down About Being Famous”, Life, 3 August, 1962. Reprinted in David Willis & Stephen Schmidt, op cit, p.277-78, 285. * for reasons of privacy, Trevor has requested his surname and location not be used. The author is most appreciative of his kind cooperation with this instalment. 45 ‘Pop’, Christie’s, London, 24 August, 1989, (Lot. 292), p.61. 46 In the 1999 Christie’s sale, a selection of Monroe’s books (Lots 17, 46, 500-66) were sold to benefit the charity Literacy Partners. The proceeds from her ermine coat (Lot 24), white fox stoles (Lots 37 & 209) and other fur items (Lots 171-81 & 305) went to the World Wildlife Fund. 47 Sam Kashner, op cit, p. 387-88 & Ken Berry, “Goodbye Norma Jean, Hello Estate Issues”, Accounting Web, 4 December, 2012. [online] 48 Sam Shaw & Norman Rosten, Marilyn: Among Friends, Bloomsbury, London, (1987) 1989, p.26. 49 Andrew Adam Newman, “Marilyn Monroe’s Star Still Shines in Ad Campaigns”, The New York Times, 6 August, 2013, p.B5. 50 Karen Yossman, “From Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn: why dead women make the ideal brand ambassadors”, New Statesman, 12 January, 2015. See also, Sarah Churchwell, “Max Factor can’t claim credit for Marilyn Monroe”, The Guardian, 10 January, 2015. 51 Joe Wolhandler to Marilyn Monroe, 19 January, 1959, in Lois W. Banner & Mark Anderson, op cit, p.84. Monroe retained the orange and yellow chiffon ‘Theda Bara’ harem costume which was included in the 1999 Christie’s sale (Lot 25) and sold for USD $46,000. Nancy Valentino (Ed.), op cit, p.47. 52 David Willis & Stephen Schmidt, op cit, p.188. 53 Truman Capote, “A Beautiful Child”, in Music For Chameleons, Vintage Books, New York, 1994, p.225-26. Capote would accompany Monroe to Collier’s funeral in New York, 28 April, 1955.54 Ibid, p.226-27 55 Sam Shaw & Norman Rosten, op cit, p.10. 56 undated poem by Marilyn Monroe, in Stanley Buchthal & Bernard Comment (Eds), Marilyn Monroe- Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, Harper Collins, London, 2010, p.17.