BEIJING—Marilyn Monroe’s dress from “Some Like It Hot.” Handwritten notes and letters expressing the H ollywood icon’s inner thoughts and, at times, despair.
These and dozens of other personal items the actress left to a friend and mentor were in Beijing on Tuesday for a private viewing by Chinese collectors. More than 1,200 items, including Monroe’s shoes, purses, makeup and jewelry, will then be auctioned in Los Angeles come November.
The 1950s actress who achieved fame as a sex symbol led a troubled life and died aged just 36. The image and recollections of her have endured and made her into a pop culture icon. Now the personal items up for auction may invite new readings of the screen legend in the world as well as in China, a country she never visited.
“Last night I was awake all night again,” she writes to her therapist in March 1961. “Sometimes I wonder what the night time is for. It almost doesn’t exist for me — it all seems like one long, long horrible day.” She goes on to describe her recent time in a mental institution, which she likens to a being sent to a prison “for a crime I hadn’t committed.”
“Oh, well, men are climbing to the moon but they don’t seem interested in the beating human heart,” she writes.
Around 800 items to be auctioned come from the estate of Lee Strasberg, the famed American acting coach who became a father figure to Monroe. The money will go to his widow, Anna. Other items come from the collection of David Gainsborough-Roberts, a major collector of Monroe’s costumes.
The hundreds of items include dresses and outfits, the negligee she wore in the movie “Niagara” and the green and black-sequined leotard she picked out herself from a studio wardrobe to wear in “Bus Stop.” There is a tube of her “non-smear” Revlon lipstick in “Bachelor’s Carnation” shade, the shoes she wore to marry playwright Arthur Miller, and the pair of costume earrings that she wore to the premiere of “The Seven Year Itch.”
Then there are the personal notes, crayon drawings and watercolours.
Lee Strasberg’s son, David, said that he, his mother and brother found many of the items in suitcases and closets about six years ago during a clean-out, including one trunk he’d been throwing his football cleats on for years that turned out to contain some of Monroe’s personal writings.
“She writes a note to my dad talking about something she heard in class, and she says, ‘It helped me feel freer — you said two plus two does not necessary equal four in acting,’” said Strasberg, 45. “There’s logic and then there’s imagination, there’s something more. And for Marilyn, I think she was always after that ‘something more.’”
Monroe, who would have turned 90 this year, spent most of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage and became one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, trading off her sex appeal and an image as a vacuous blonde. Off camera, she struggled with drug addiction and depression. She died from an overdose of barbiturates.
Some items up for auction have never been seen by the public before. They include a first-edition hand-bound 1957 volume of her third husband Miller’s plays dedicated to Monroe, and a letter from a member of the Kennedy family.
The early 1960s letter is from Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of politicians President John F. Kennedy and Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. Smith writes to Monroe: “Understand that you and Bobby are the new item! We all think you should come with him when he comes back East!”
“There’s always speculation about her relationship with the Kennedys and this speaks to the fact that there was in fact a relationship between Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe,” said Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, which will be handling the sale.
Among the quirkier items are a receipt for a bottle of champagne, her 1947 contract with Twentieth Century Fox and a recipe for stuffing jotted down on a slip of paper with an insurance company’s letterhead. Her final checkbook shows her payments to the window cleaner, her maid and the New York Telephone Co. She paid $200 to herself marked as “cash for trips.”
“Marilyn kept everything. She was a hoarder,” said Nolan. “She bought a pound of butter, she bought a bottle of tonic water she kept the receipt. It’s incredible. We have a pair of strap sandals that she wore when she was Norma Jean, probably 1943, 1945. And all the money she made and how famous she became and she kept those.”
Although Western movies were banned in China during Monroe’s heyday, her pop culture image and aspects of her life are well-known among many Chinese.
Darren Julien, founder and CEO of Julien Auction’s, said about 40 per cent of their client base are Chinese collectors interested in Western pop culture, and particularly Monroe.
“A lot of people relate to her because she had actually a very difficult life in a lot of ways. She never had a lot of money, but she captured the hearts of so many people around the world,” said Julien.
In recent years, wealthy Chinese citizens and private businesses have become big spenders in the art and pop culture worlds, often as a way to display their wealth or find a place to park their money. Real-time online bidding has made it easier for Chinese collectors to buy Western pop culture.
The auction takes place Nov. 17-19 in Los Angeles.