In this season of holiday extravagance, it’s worth revisiting Simon Doonan’s take on Marilyn Monroe’s modest estate, which he helped Christie’s prepare for auction. The excerpt below, originally published in 2012, is from Simon Doonan’s Gay Men Don’t Get Fat.
There was, for many years, a big photograph of Judy Garland by the late, great William Claxton duct-taped to the wall of the Barneys display studio where I worked. In this compelling image, Liza’s highly strung mother is caught backstage wrapped in a towel. Her face is a festival of anguish. One rigor mortis hand claws the air. The other clutches at a bottle of rubbing alcohol which has clearly just been torn from her grasp. Judy is having a preshow meltdown.
Next to this picture is another, taken five minutes later by the same photographer. There is Judy, dressed in a black-sequined number, standing confidently onstage and belting it out to what one can only imagine must have been a sea of frenzied, weeping, and adoring homosexuals.
Needless to say, these images were, over the years, repeatedly defaced. Speech bubbles were added to Judy’s mouth: “L’chaim!” “Bring me a chai latte!” etc., etc. Fictitious liquor labels were applied to the bottle of rubbing alcohol. Despite the graffiti, the picture endured, a metaphor for the agony and the ecstasy experienced by creative types like us.
We gays adore a tragic woman. There is a force field around every pill-popping pop sensation which ignites our gay souls and draws us in. The list of iconic tragic chicks who enjoy gay adulation is a long one. From Edie Sedgwick to Maria Callas to Anna Nicole Smith, we inverts have accumulated a cavalcade of tragic, tormented, drug-addled lovelies in our gay hall of fame.
At the turn of the century, I got a unique look at the greatest tragic gay icon of all time. Judy pales in comparison. I am talking about Marilyn.
When Christie’s auction house announced the sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal estate, my interest was piqued. When they called me and offered me the opportunity to design the auction installation, I reached for the rubbing alcohol and began screaming at the top of my lungs.
I have always enjoyed watching Marilyn wiggling and whispering across the screen. I relate to her desire to self-educate. I identified with some of the grimmer aspects of her childhood. Like me, she had done her time in a public orphanage. Like me, she had a lobotomy in the family. The shadow of mental illness hung over her. I know the feeling. I always empathized with her ballsy struggle to replace dismal aspects of her past with a life of glamour.
I remember well the day when M.M. kicked the bucket. It was 1962. I was staying with my toothless, drunken grandfather in Northern Ireland.
Every time he came home from the pub, which was twice a day, he was in the habit of announcing his presence with the phrase, “Guess who’s dead?” Without waiting for an answer, he would divulge the identity of whichever of his old pals had given up the ghost on this particular day. A few days later he would transform his collapsed old face by inserting his false teeth. He wore them only for funerals.
On this particular day the question “Guess who’s dead?” was followed by him plopping the Belfast paper on the kitchen table. MARILYN MONROE DEAD AT 36 screeched the headline. “Poor wee thing!” he said, in a rare burst of tenderness. Later he went back to the pub and got thoroughly obliterated. I would like to think this was in honor of the screen goddess, but since he did this every day, it is impossible to verify.
Little did I know, as I read the details of her untimely death, that I would be fondling her frocks before the century was done.
Upon her death, Marilyn’s personal effects had been boxed up and placed in storage, and there they had remained for 37 years. I was present in the Christie’s offices the day they were unpacked.
Unpacking Marilyn’s possessions was a surreal and extraordinary experience. I touched her Pucci blouses. I folded her black capri pants. I found myself holding crackly, dried-up old shopping bags—JAX of Beverly Hills—filled with stockings, slips, and brassieres. I touched hairbrushes with blonde hairs in them. I sniffed the Mexican wrap sweater she wore in the famous beach photo shoot, and detected a whiff of perfume.
The process of cataloguing and displaying Marilyn’s bits took months. During this time I learned some crazily illuminating stuff about the breathy blond bombshell. Brace yourself for some next-level revelations.
Right away, I discovered that Marilyn was shockingly and unimaginably slender. She was sort of like Kate Moss but fleshier on top. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
When it came to finding mannequins to fit her dresses, I simply couldn’t. M.M.’s drag was too small for the average window dummy. Smaller “petite” mannequins existed, but I could not bring myself to place Marilyn’s iconic garments on these perky fiberglass dollies. The frocks seemed too important and historic. For the public installation I decided to give them the Shroud of Turin treatment.
I laid the dresses in rows on top of angled panels—sort of like bodies after a plane crash—and accompanied them with a photo of M.M. herself in each frock. It worked. There was the black strappy gown she wore in Korea. And there, in the adjacent photo, was M.M. strutting about in front of the troops.
The only exception was the sparkly Jean Louis number Marilyn wore for the Kennedy happy-birthday chanson. For this dress, a custom Lucite mannequin was made.
Let’s return for a moment to that revelation about Marilyn’s size. Prepare to get extremely depressed.