Thanks for the Memories, Marilyn

A souvenir album featuring images from the star-studded gala for John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962 will soon go under the hammer at RR Auctions as part of an extensive archive of memorabilia relating to the former president. The sale ends on January 23, with a starting bid of $1,000 for the album, although auctioneer Robert Livingston hopes that this private collection, with an estimated value of $1.5 million, will be sold as a single lot.

Marilyn, ‘Meng Lu’ and the Asian-American Dream

The Chinese-American author Meng Jin, whose debut novel Little Gods is published this month, writes about Marilyn’s influence for Vogue today.

“While Jin Ge is my legal and formal name, my family calls me Mengmeng, a pet name chosen by my mother, after the American actress Marilyn Monroe, known in Chinese as Meng Lu. Mengmeng is an almost absurdly soft complement to Golden Ax: Meng means ‘dream.’ My mother named me after Meng Lu for one reason only: She wanted me to be beautiful …

I knew little about Marilyn Monroe and didn’t care to know more, wrapped up as she was in the confounding model of womanhood that was my mother. Perhaps I resented my mother, not just for imposing a standard of beauty on me but for picking an impossible one: Did she really believe her skinny Chinese daughter could grow up to be a blonde bombshell? It wasn’t until years later, when I stumbled upon an image of Monroe in Vogue, with a bright-orange X over her naked body, that I began to wonder about the woman behind the famous face. Was the image my mother idealized as constructed as the immigrant’s idea of the American dream?

After all, ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a fiction. Norma Jean Baker, a wholesome brunette, was born to a schizophrenic mother and an unknown father and spent her childhood in and out of California orphanages and foster care. When her legal guardian moved out of state, she married at 16 so that she wouldn’t have to return to an orphanage. Eventually she divorced her husband to pursue modeling and acting, bleached her hair, and took a more memorable name.

My mother didn’t know any of this when she named me Mengmeng. In a way, my mother’s ignorance was Monroe’s own doing. The actress was so talented at reinvention that she disappeared into her own image. But [Bert] Stern’s photograph, taken in 1962, just weeks before she died from a barbiturate overdose at the age of 36, hints at the layers between fiction and reality … she had asked to see the images before they went to print. She returned them half destroyed: with bright X’s over the ones she did not like … For Marilyn, the desire to be seen was perhaps never closer to the desire to disappear.

Of course, my mother’s obsession with beauty was never just about beauty. When she left her hometown at 15, she was ridiculed for her country clothes, her accent, her field laborer’s dark skin. In Shanghai, where city folk looked down on outsiders, she’d tried hard to blend in. Her preoccupation with fashion was also part of an effort to erase the peasant girl she no longer wanted to be. In many ways, immigrating to America was the culmination of her self-creation.

It was also the beginning of many years of hardship. In Shanghai, my mother was a practicing physician, but in America she had to start over as a lab tech and research assistant, eventually redoing years of grueling residency. My parents raised me on students’ salaries while sending money back to their families in China. We lived below the poverty line; somehow, my mother had won a new life where she was once again the poorest of the poor. Meanwhile, her heavy accent and unfamiliarity with societal norms meant she had to work twice as hard to prove herself. Again she studied the ways of those around her: how Americans dressed, how Americans talked, how Americans laughed easily with people they barely knew.

But wasn’t this what she wanted all along? Assimilation, the process of becoming an American, assumes, to some extent, the erasure of who you were before. This is what I see in the photograph and the X: an act of obliteration that is simultaneously an act of creation.

For Norma Jean—perhaps for many of us—the drive to become oneself is inescapably intertwined in the dissolution of that same self.”


Mystery Solved: Marilyn on New Year’s Eve, 1948

This stunning photo is part of a set taken by Peter Stackpole for LIFE magazine during a party at the Beverly Hills home of producer Sam Spiegel on New Year’s Eve, 1948, posted on Twitter. Marilyn was still a long way from stardom, having only two bit parts and a lead in a B-movie (Ladies of the Chorus) to her name. It is thought that Spiegel invited her as a pretty starlet, probably at the instigation of Marilyn’s well-connected friends, John Carroll and Lucille Ryman, who were managing her career.

Among the guests were some of Hollywood’s biggest names: James Mason, Glenn Ford, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Shirley Temple, Danny Kaye were among them, as well as George Sanders (Marilyn’s future co-star in All About Eve), his wife-to-be Zsa Zsa Gabor, and four of Marilyn’s future directors; John Huston, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, and Otto Preminger.

Huston wanted to test Marilyn for We Were Strangers (1949), but Spiegel vetoed it, opting for the more bankable Jennifer Jones instead. The director would later give Marilyn her breakthrough role in The Asphalt Jungle (1950.)

In the photo shown above, Marilyn wears the strapless gown seen in her brief appearance in Love Happy (1949), and a separate set of photos taken by J.R. Eyerman for LIFE in 1949, showing her rehearsing with vocal coach Phil Moore. She had also worn the dress in March 1948, during her performance in Strictly for Kicks, a revue staged at Twentieth Century Fox. Notably, she was one of the only female guests at Spiegel’s party not wearing any jewellery (suggesting that for Marilyn, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ was just a song.)

Two other photos from the party (found by another fan on the Getty Images website) show Marilyn dancing in a crowd, and chatting with Spiegel.

Here’s Marilyn with Spiegel again; plus another dancefloor photo with Marilyn to the left, Danny Kaye in the middle and George Sanders on the right (possibly with Zsa Zsa!)

Another photo shows Marilyn dancing with her former beau, musician Fred Karger. Their stormy romance, which began on the Ladies of the Chorus, was coming to an end, but Marilyn remained close to the Karger family for the rest of her life. Interestingly, his watch may have been Marilyn’s Christmas present to him, which took her two years to pay off. She left her name off the engraving so his next girlfriend wouldn’t know it came from her.

It has been said that Marilyn met agent and lover Johnny Hyde that night (although photographer Bruno Bernard has claimed they were introduced a few months later, in Palm Springs.) I haven’t found any photos of him with Marilyn at the party; however, he can be seen in the photos shown above. (They would be snapped together at another New Year’s Eve party a year later.)

And finally, here’s the LIFE article about the party, although Marilyn isn’t featured in it. In 1957, Peter Stackpole would photograph Monroe again at the peak of her fame, with husband Arthur Miller at the ‘April in Paris Ball’ in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.)

Thanks to Everlasting Star

Eve’s Misfit Marilyn in the FT

Seven years after Eve Arnold’s death aged 99, Josh Lustig looks at her photos from The Misfits in today’s FT Weekend magazine (sold with the Financial Times.)

“Unlike many photographers who spent time with Monroe, Arnold was rooted firmly in documentary and photojournalism … Arnold’s photographs are striking for the way she captures these legends of the silver screen as lonely, troubled individuals. She strips away their movie stardom and reveals them as fragile, vulnerable. Even when photographed together, everyone seems to inhabit their own world, disconnected from one another, lost in the desert.”

The Female Lens: Marilyn and Eve

While reviewing The Female Lens, a New York exhibition of contemporary works for White Hot Magazine, art critic Anthony Haden-Guest recalls a shining past example of women photographing women…

“As a beginner magazine writer, back in the Golden Age of Magazines –  and, yes, I want those caps! – I got to know some terrific photographers and Eve Arnold was one of them. Arnold, an American in London with hair swept back into a no nonsense look, was with Magnum, which was a photographer’s sect as much as a major agency, and she once shared memories of working conditions during the austere post-war years, such as a big shoot for Life magazine, who allotted her just six rolls of film. Is it a false memory that the subject was Marilyn Monroe? Arnold did indeed shoot the filming of the John Huston movie, The Misfits, bonded with the actress and produced a book. Just why did this show prompt these memories? Because Arnold made it clear that she had an advantage on such a shoot, a situation which involved both chance and intimacy, a single word: Trust.”

Marilyn at Bonham’s, From London to New York

Marilyn will be featured in two separate auctions in different locations, hosted by Bonham’s, this Tuesday, December 17. Firstly, vintage magazines and photographs by Andre de Dienes, as featured in Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair, the 2012 exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery curated by Terence Pepper (and reviewed here), will go under the hammer in Knightsbridge as part of an Entertainment Memorabilia sale. And this 1954 portrait of Marilyn during filming of The Seven Year Itch, taken by Elliott Erwitt, is among the lots on sale in New York, as part of A Wonderful Life: Photographs From the Peter Fetterman Collection.

UPDATE: The NPG archive was sold for £1,785, and the Andre de Dienes photo of Norma Jeane ‘on the road’ fetched £2,040 in London on Tuesday. In New York, however, the Erwitt portrait went unsold.

Vaccaro, Rizzo and the Marilyn Connection

Tony Vaccaro began his career in photography while serving in the US Army on the battlefields of Europe during World War II. Aged 97, he is now the subject of an HBO documentary and a new retrospective, Tony Vaccaro: La Dolce Vita, at the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s telling that along with Pablo Picasso, Marilyn heads up the impressive list of celebrities he photographed, though she appears not to be featured in the exhibition.

The photo shown above right, taken in Canada during filming of River Of No Return, has been attributed to Vaccaro by the QNS website. (Canadian photographer John Vachon was also present at the shoot, as featured in his book, Marilyn, August 1953: The Lost Look Photos.)

One of Marilyn’s last photo shoots is also mentioned in connection with an ongoing Paris retrospective, Willy Rizzo: Pop! Once again, though, it’s unclear if Marilyn is featured in the exhibit, other than in a 1996 photo taken at the home of supermodel Stephanie Seymour, with Andy Warhol’s iconic portrait adorning the wall.