St Marilyn

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe
    Christie’s, 415 pp, US $85.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 903432 64 1
  • The Complete Marilyn Monroe by Adam Victor
    Thames and Hudson, 339 pp, £29.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 01978 9
  • Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming
    Orion, 474 pp, £8.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 7528 2692 1

New York – contrary to popular opinion and Frank Sinatra – is never a city that doesn’t sleep. It sleeps soundly in fact. You walk the streets on certain nights and suddenly you can feel quite alone under the buildings. It’s not that the place is deserted, there are things going on – taxi-cabs, homeless people, late-night walkers, the police – but they can seem to proceed at that hour like things out of step, like odd yearnings of the imagination, or unexpected items in a gasoline-smelling dream of urban ruin.

I stopped one night in front of the Ferragamo shoe-shop on Fifth Avenue. The light from the shop was so strong it seemed like daylight spilling over the pavement. I felt drenched in the uncanny whiteness. And there in the window, draped on transparent mannequins or laid on silver boxes, were some of the dazzling relics of the late Marilyn Monroe. ‘A pair of stilettos by Salvatore Ferragamo, scarlet satin, encrusted with matching rhinestones.’

There’s no place like home, I thought.

‘Estimate: $4000-6000.’ And further along a hand-knitted cardigan, ‘with a brown geometric pattern and matching knitted belt. Worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and featured in a series of photographs by George Barris taken on the beach in Santa Monica, California. Estimate: $30,000-50,000.’ In the corner of the window there stood a halter-neck dress from the movie Let’s Make Love. I thought of Marilyn and Yves Mont-and posing for the cameras with their unhappy smiles. ‘Estimate: $15,000-20,000.’ The Monroe things had been to London, Paris and Buenos Aires, and were now back in New York for auction at Christie’s. Ferragamo took the opportunity for a cute bit of public relations flimflam. The cold air from the ice-rink at Rockefeller Plaza – underneath Christie’s salerooms – seemed to be blowing in one great frosty whoop down the avenue.

The people who stopped put both hands on the Ferragamo window and the white light made each one a little blonder. One woman said ‘beautiful’; the glass misted up in front of her mouth. I walked on a few blocks. There was a midnight service going on at St Patrick’s Cathedral. A long queue stretched all the way down to the altar, where a glass case stood by itself, with a casket inside, containing the relics of St Theresa of Lisieux. A hundred years ago the Carmelite nun Thérèse Martin died, and she died, according to a woman I spoke to at the end of the queue, ‘with a heart as big as the world itself’. The last words of St Theresa are not open to doubt. ‘I am not dying,’ she said. ‘I am entering into Life.’ She was canonised in 1925.

I joined the line at St Patrick’s and followed it down and when it was my turn I touched the glass and walked away. Men to my side were crying and whispering. The relics of St Theresa were travelling the world too: last year Russia and Europe, this year America, from New York to Tucson, Arizona, with a spell over Christmas at the Church of St Jane Frances de Chantal in North Hollywood.

The Christie’s sale of Marilyn’s relics raised $13,405,785. The Ferragamo ruby shoes were bought for $48,300 by the son of the man who made them, while Lots 51 and 40, the Santa Monica cardigan and the dress from Let’s Make Love, sold for $167,500 and $52,900 respectively. The big wow of the auction, as expected, was the Jean Louis sheath dress, covered in tiny stones, worn by Marilyn at John Kennedy’s birthday tribute in 1962, when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’. This went for over a million dollars. The man who bought it (owner of a memorabilia shop called Ripley’s Believe It or Not) thought he’d got a great bargain. The Kennedy dress smashed the previous world record for the sale of a female costume: a blue velvet Victor Edelstein dress belonging to Princess Diana that sold for £222,500 in June 1997. The actor and peroxophile Tony Curtis, who must have forgotten that he once said kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler, got out of his seat at the auction to tell reporters that Marilyn would have been thrilled. ‘She’d have enjoyed the fact that people still love her so much,’ he said.

The sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal property – a plastic cup, a group of blankets, a plexiglass tissue-box cover, a piece of paper with the words ‘he does not love me’ written in pencil, to name just a few of the 576 lots that were auctioned – may represent the most interesting event to occur in contemporary art since the death of Andy Warhol. Indeed it takes Warhol’s deification of celebrity past its absurdly logical conclusion: why pay more for a representation of Marilyn Monroe, even an Abstract Expressionist one like De Kooning’s, or a mass-produced one like Warhol’s, when, for a not dissimilar price, you can own a little something of Marilyn herself? The Christie’s sale goes so far ahead of Warhol’s thinking that we ironically end up back where we started, with the basic principle of authenticity. The threat – the joy – was always that Pop would eat itself in the end, and it has done. The old superstition about High Art, ‘Rembrandt actually touched this canvas,’ can now be applied to the personal belongings of the century’s most famous woman – this object actually touched Marilyn – and thus our era’s tangled worries with the meaning of fine art are for a moment resolved. Pop culture became its opposite number: the ordinary minutiae of the extraordinary life came to seem as formally expressive as Guernica. The designer Tommy Hilfiger pays a fortune for two pairs of jeans Marilyn wore in The Misfits. He frames them and hangs them up in his apartment. He gets the pleasure of Charles I pacing a banqueting hall replete with Van Dycks. Hilfiger gets to feel he has captured the thing that is truly seen to capture his time. The spirit of the age is a bundle of famous rags. Going, going. Gone.

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[*] The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe (Warner, 671 pp., £7.99, 5 August 1999, 0 7515 2652 5).

[†] Joyce Carol Oates’s contribution will be published after Christmas.