Price of fame: The unseen letters that reveal the real Marilyn Monroe

From iconic movie costumes to personal letters, the world is about to witness the biggest Marilyn Monroe auction ever. And it’s all on show in Ireland from today. Vickie Maye meets the man behind the auction.

A tube of used Revlon lipstick in ‘Bachelor’s Carnation’ dated 1947; two Mercury dimes, to call a cab, or a friend; eight Philip Morris cigarettes; a mirror, comb, face powder.

They all sat in the gold, jewelled ‘minaudiere’ evening case, its velvet accompanying pouch with a secret compartment for cash and a house key, to be worn around the wrist. Norma Jean Baker’s wrist.

In 1947 she was a 21-year-old model and aspiring actress, just beginning the transformation to Marilyn Monroe.

For decades the accessory, used lipstick intact, lay abandoned in a storage box, part of the Lee Strasberg estate.

Price of fame: The unseen letters that reveal the real  Marilyn Monroe

After her death, with no spouse, no real family to speak of, she left everything to her renowned acting coach.

The fragments of her life filled six storage units, and another walk in wardrobe in the Strasberg home.

Monroe threw nothing away; truth be told she was a hoarder. Every receipt, every chequebook stub, every doodle in hotel-headed notepaper was kept unopened.

But not forgotten.

Martin Nolan had Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday (on June 1 this year) in his sights for a very long time.

His LA-based auction house, Julien’s, is the go-to destination for stars with memorabilia to off load (these guys are the big guns, working with everyone from Cher to Michael Jackson in Neverland).

They’d already held two auctions of Monroe pieces, and Nolan wanted to do it all over again, to mark what would have been her birthday.

There were two people he needed to make it work. And so, for 12 months, he set about courting them. The first was the Lee Strasberg estate. Monroe’s personal effects lay with them.

The second was Jersey-based collector David Gainsborough-Roberts, a Monroe obsessive.

In 1988, long before there was money to be made from celebrity memorabilia, he bought the dress Monroe wore in Bus Stop (above). His collection of movie costumes kept growing and growing — all up he spent maybe $250,000.

Today they are worth potentially millions.

He would never sell, he said, and from time to time the dresses would go on show in Jersey.

Nolan knew if he had them both on board, he’d have the biggest auction the world had ever seen.

“We drank a lot of champagne with David,” Nolan laughs, sitting in the London Design Centre where the Monroe auction pieces have been on public display (it opens at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons today).

Price of fame: The unseen letters that reveal the real  Marilyn Monroe

Talking to Nolan, you aren’t surprised both parties played ball and agreed to the auction.

He’s passionate, enthusiastic, larger than life, genuine — and his Irish charm couldn’t have hurt either.

The Athlone native left his civil service job in Ireland and moved to New York on a lottery visa.

Nolan worked as a bellboy, trained as a stockbroker and met Darren Julien, who had just left Sotheby’s to create Julien’s.

Nolan couldn’t resist. For the second time in his life, he left a secure job and took a gamble on a brand new career.

It paid off.

Years later he would be cataloguing Neverland, just weeks before Michael Jackson’s death.

Monroe, though, was always the biggest draw.

Gainsborough-Roberts decided it was time to let his collection go, to bring it to a wider audience. And the Strasberg estate was of the same mind.

And so Nolan found himself in New York last January, with six storage units roof high with boxes, furniture, paperwork.

In the Strasberg home there was another room full of Marilyn’s effects.

A team of five cataloguers, and three ‘superfans’ spent the next five months pouring over the contents. They are still searching, still verifying letters for authenticity - the final print catalogue for the November auction will not appear until September.

The movie costumes are the instant eyecatchers.

The slinky, sexy Some Like It Hot dress, the Bus Stop bustiere; the Showgirl dress. You are struck

by her tiny frame; her petite 26” waist. But it’s when you move deeper into the exhibition, read the letters she wrote, the notes she scribbled, it’s a snapshot of a troubled soul.

A chequebook stub written the day before she died to her housekeeper. 

Price of fame: The unseen letters that reveal the real  Marilyn Monroe

The crayon drawing, ‘View from a Night Table’ that shows a bedside locker with a book of poetry — and a tumbler and prescription pills. The drawing of a champagne glass, for “the morning after”. 

“Alone! All alone!!!!” she writes in one notebook.

 “I feel like I’m not existing in the human race,” she says in a letter. 

“Why do I start to feel suddenly depressed? Where does it come from?” and later she concludes, “Make the effort to be aware... to stop the chain react before it gets started... consciously making the effort.”

Nolan brings the collection to Newbridge today, before it moves to New York and a cruise on the Queen Mary 2 (he tells us one Paris museum was quite offended it wasn’t offered to them).

“I’m not just bringing it to Newbridge because I’m Irish,” he laughs. “William Doyle has created a world class museum.”

It’s full circle really, he adds. William Doyle’s Museum of Style Icons began with one Hepburn dress, to put Newbridge on the map. Nolan rang to see if his museum could house a visiting Monroe exhibition.

Doyle set yes — and had two months to build one. Today Hepburn is joined by classic pieces from Princess Diana to Grace Kelly. And now it’ll temporarily be home to never seen before Monroe’s pieces, before the 800 lots go to auction in November in LA. 

The sale isn’t just for the big league either, he explains — at the last auction one of her hangers was expected to sell for $25 to $50 (though it did reach over $1,000).

It’s the biggest auction of his career — and these unseen documents have the potential to rewrite her history, he says. A very conservative estimate puts the sale at $3m-$4m — but that isn’t even close.

This is Marilyn Monroe, after all. “It’s hard to believe she was just 36 when she died,” says Nolan, “all that she did in those years.

“She’s been frozen in time.”

The Monroe exhibition opens at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons today.


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