Word is that there's more than one spirit haunting the exhibition at Christie's in Rockefeller Plaza of the 37-year-old contents of Marilyn Monroe's apartment. Marilyn's ghost won't leave it alone. It wanders the exhibition at night, moaning, "Don't sell my old clothes, I neeeeeed them."
The spirit of Marilyn's recently deceased second husband, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, must be nearby. Then there's JFK Jr., whose tragic end on July 16 was a ghoulish introduction to Christie's display of Marilyn memorabilia. And it is no coincidence that Elton Johns' tribute to Princess Di is just new lyrics set to an old song about Monroe.
Elvis once said "People will come from miles around to see a freak." Christie's definitely has a freakish hit on its hands.
The trove of 1,500 items is on view in New York July 26-Aug. 11 before departing for L.A. (Aug. 20-24), London (Sept. 19-22) and Paris (Oct. 4-8). It comes back to the Big Apple for the actual sale, a two-day affair slated for Oct. 27-28. The auction catalogue won't be ready until September -- priced at $85 -- but in the meantime there's a $10 preview edition.
The symbolism reached its most fecund pitch with the clip, run by every TV news show on the dial, of Marilyn's most famous and slinky Happy Birthday, Mr. President dress, stuffed to the gills with form-fitting plastic and standing lifelessly in a darkened gallery. All that's left of Camelot is this empty dress.
More importantly, Marilyn's sequined white gown is a genuine article of American pop history. Shouldn't it be in the Smithsonian?
In any case, Marilyn always looked great. I couldn't help but remember the good old days, when a President, a movie star, a brother, a wife and family and Peter Lawford could somehow all manage to get along with dignity.
So I went to see the exhibition for myself and got all spooked out.
I had heard that it was like a thrift-shop tag sale, but nothing prepared me for the eerie reality. Somebody has just died and had all their stuff thrown out onto the sidewalk. But it's all perfectly preserved. Calling Rod Serling!
The furniture looks familiar and broken down. A beat up old Danish Modern teakwood table, a mirrored veneered bedside vanity set with the mirror falling off, a set of weights -- parts of the installation at Christie's really are reminiscent of a Salvation Army store.
But it's way more than just clothes, furniture, kitchen bric-a-brac and girlish knickknacks. It's a complete environment, a hermetically sealed, early '60s swinging superstar girl's bedroom and Hollywood time capsule all in one -- starring the biggest babe of all time, Marilyn Monroe.
(The Christie's exhibition makes a nice companion piece to MoMA's "Fame After Photography" show, but is a much more personal trove. An interesting afternoon would be to go to Marilyn at Christie's first and then to the Modern.)
Marilyn's fantastic collection of '60s outfits steal the show at Christie's. She had a lot of bustiettes, teddies, fancy puffy shoes, Harem outfits, and other assorted tools of the trade of a heavy Hollywood star of the '50s. The spectacular couture culminates with the practically painted-on, second-skin Happy Birthday, Mr. President dress, that was worn, apparently without underwear, to JFK's 1962 birthday bash in Madison Square Garden. It's presale estimate is $500,000.
The see-through gown is finely woven beige silk covered with oodles of beautiful rhinestones, and is just the most gorgeous thing ever! It is in a room by itself, with a looped soundtrack of Marilyn singing Happy Birthday and then a verse of Bob Hope's theme, Thanks for the Memories, but with lyrics crafted to thank the President.
Combine the dress, the music, the fresh wounds from JFK Jr.'s completely sorrowful end and you have as chilling, macabre and over-the-top American moment as has ever existed.
Where did all this stuff come from? When Marilyn died, her property was willed to Lee Strasberg, who was responsible for going into her place and bagging it up and putting it on ice till now. Except for being old and out of fashion, everything is in perfect condition. I guess the Actor's Studio scion's heirs decided it was time to cash out.
Most underpriced, I thought, are the photographs Marilyn collected of herself. These include an exquisite candid of Marilyn relaxing between takes, tacked up with push pins and estimated at $800-$1,200. Another is an early '50s cheesecake-type black-and-white photo, autographed to her by Clark Gable, Groucho Marx and all the biggest stars in Hollywood. The autograph seekers should go crazy over this.
Also very interesting are the amateur paintings of Marilyn sent to her by fans. In a few she is barely recognizable, but many are pretty good by 1999 art-world standards. These paintings should be kept together. I hope a single buyer takes them all.
Sadly, in the end Marilyn really didn't have that much. Some books, a grotesquely stylized lamp, a fold-out bed and a lot of once-formidable foundation garments. Some heartbreakingly sentimental stuff like heavily annotated movie scripts, the invitation to the Happy Birthday, Mr. President party (est. $10,000-$15,000) and a lovely framed magazine clipping about DiMaggio.
People like that. It really conveys the short and ecstatic if somewhat unhappy life she led. Good bye Norma Jean.
DOUGLAS KELLEY hosts The Douglas Kelley Show on Manhattan Public Television.