|By Brett Weiss
In 1973, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind reached No. 11 on the British charts. In 1987, a live version was released, and it topped out at No. 5 on the U.S. pop charts. The title is an artful reference to the short, tragic life of actress, model, singer and blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson (later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker).
“Goodbye, Norma Jean,” John sang, “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”
Monroe was indeed a legend, appearing on the cover of the first issue of Playboy magazine (1953), starring in such iconic films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), famously (not to mention breathlessly) singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, and marrying slugger Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller (as with her first marriage to police officer James Dougherty, both of the more high profile marriages ended in divorce).
Monroe’s public persona was that of a ditzy, bubble-headed blonde – a reputation cemented by many of her screen roles. Many contradict that stereotype and say she was an intelligent, career-minded, well-read woman who studied art appreciation and literature at the University of California. (Like Elvis, she had a relatively large collection of books, but was rarely photographed reading them.) According to some accounts she was also a budding feminist and civil rights proponent, but that aspect of her personality went under-reported as well.
Like so many celebrities, regardless of their intelligence or success, Monroe, who was born June 1, 1926 and spent much of her childhood in foster homes, was extremely troubled throughout much of her life, suffering from depression, insomnia, stage fright, alcoholism and drug addiction. Late in her career, she often appeared dazed and disoriented on the set and was ultimately fired from Fox Studio for habitual absences.
Tragically, Monroe was found dead at home Aug. 5, 1962 at the far-too-young age of 36. The autopsy report found illicit drugs in her system – “acute barbiturate poisoning” from a “probable suicide” was the official cause of death – but to this day conspiracy theories abound, including possible complicity with the CIA, the Mafia, or even John and Robert Kennedy.
With her beautiful face (which remains forever young in our minds), pouty lips, curvy figure and impressive body of work (so to speak), Monroe remains an international sex symbol and one of the most famous stars in the history of Hollywood.
Although she was never nominated for an Academy Award, Monroe was nominated for (but did not win) two British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards: Best Foreign Actress for The Seven Year Itch and 1958’s The Prince and the Showgirl. She also received Golden Globe awards for Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Prince and the Showgirl.
In 1960, Monroe received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in 1995, she was featured on a USPS postage stamp; in 1999, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked her sixth among female American Screen Legends; and in 2009, she was immortalized as a collectible Barbie ($50) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the doll (other Monroe Barbie dolls were issued as well).
Monroe’s resting place at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles was ranked No. 3 in Time magazine’s “Top 10 Celebrity Grave Sites” feature, just behind Princess Diana and Bruce Lee. In 2009, the crypt directly above Monroe’s grave was auctioned off on eBay for more than $4.6 million.
The eBay description said, “Here is a once in a lifetime and into eternity opportunity to spend your eternal days directly above Marilyn Monroe.” The sale ultimately fell through, but it made international news and further publicized the already legendary gravesite, which is frequently bombarded with cards, photos, lip prints, candles, statues, flowers and other items left by fans.
Margaret Barrett, Director of the Entertainment and Music Department for Heritage Auctions, has never visited Monroe’s grave, but she’s a fan of the world-renowned star, especially of her most obvious, most transcendent quality: her looks.
“I like how totally beautiful she is,” Barrett said. “Because she’s so beautiful, you’re just automatically compelled to her when she’s in a photograph or onscreen. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She blows everyone off the screen in every single one of her movies. In photographs, she’s almost always alone; but the few times she’s with other people, she blows them out of the frame.”
There’s no disputing Monroe’s aesthetic appeal and her iconic status as a sex symbol, but there have been literally thousands of beautiful actresses through the years, so the question remains: Why Marilyn Monroe? Why does she remain a household name while other blonde bombshells of the era fade into obscurity?
“She died young, so there’s that element of tragedy,” Barrett said. “When people die that young – like Elvis, like James Dean, like JFK – we sort of project onto them and think, ’If Marilyn had lived, she would have done this and that.’ Some people say she would have fought for women’s rights. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s nice to speculate on what she would have done, and that’s why we love our dead icons. We can assume anything about them had they had a chance to live.”
Barrett continued, “Once certain people die young and beautiful, they become icons. If Marilyn were alive today, she’d be 86 years old. Sadly, I don’t think we’d care about her. For females, it’s much harder to age in Hollywood than it is for males. Women are considered old at 30.”
Despite her affection for the actress, Barrett doesn’t collect Monroe memorabilia. “I can’t afford it,” she said. “They’re at such a premium now.”
Heritage Auctions routinely places Monroe collectibles up for auction. In recent months, the company auctioned the following items (among numerous others): a pair of pinups advertised in the August 1953 issue of Popular Science ($1,792); a 1950 portrait photo from MGM’s Asphalt Jungle ($143); a 1953 pinup photo from 20th Century Fox’s How to Marry a Millionaire ($717); a grouping of 33 original black-and-white negatives from 1950 ($11,875); a 1962 hot pink Pucci blouse ($12,500); and a pair of 1962 Jax pants made of black silk ($6,875).
Of course, items signed by Monroe are always in high demand. During an auction that ended July 24, Heritage sold a signed photo that read “To Roy, Love & Kisses and thanks for keeping me out of the clink! Marilyn Monroe.” The “Roy” refers to Beverly Hills police officer Roy Garrett, who would routinely ask movie stars to send him autographed pictures. The photo went for $31,250, which is well above the $8,000 originally estimated.
“One reason that photo did so well is that it was oversized,” Barrett said. “It was oversized at 11 inches by 14 inches, and that’s a pretty rare size to sign. Most movie stars sign the classic, 8 inches by 10 inches. Also, she signed it to a cop, who likely let her off and asked her to send him a signed photo the next day, and she did. I bet Marilyn got let off all the time. I bet no one ever ticketed her.”
Other autographed Monroe items recently auctioned by Heritage include: a black-and-white photo (circa 1955; sold for $11,250) that read “To Vern (Rickard), It was a pleasure to work with you. Love and Kisses, Marilyn Monroe;” a signed check from Aug. 4, 1962 (the last day of her life) from Monroe’s personal checking account at City National Bank of Beverly Hills ($15,000); and a 1952 signed note to the William Morris Agency stating that they are no longer authorized to represent her.