The Sweet Smell of Excess
“Here, smell this!” Mark Bellinghaus urges in his moderate German accent, handing me a pair of black-and-white checkered pants once worn by Marilyn Monroe. I hold the fabric to my face as though it were the Shroud of Turin.
“Breathe in,” he commands. “Smell that — what do you smell?”
I inhale gingerly, wondering just what it is I’m supposed to be looking for, my face buried in the slacks of a dead movie star.
“Do you smell that? Do you smell that?” Bellinghaus asks excitedly. “It’s from years of storage.”
Now I huff the material and find he’s right — there is a smell. Not the scent of woman or used-book-store mustiness, but the melancholy tang of glamour forever frozen in time. The snuff that dreams are made of.
Bellinghaus also owns the top half of a revealing gown Monroe was supposed to wear for her “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but which was discarded in favor of a more modest dress. He clearly prizes this bejeweled top garment and quietly notes how another collector owns the southern half.
Bellinghaus’ home is a living museum that seamlessly incorporates artifacts once belonging to Marilyn Monroe into its utilitarian décor. There are so many of Monroe’s lighting fixtures, wall hangings, Mexican tchotchkes, paintings and pieces of furniture here that parts of the modest house near Cheviot Hills are exact reproductions of rooms from the Brentwood house in which Monroe last resided. And Bellinghaus has the photos of those rooms to prove it.
Much of Bellinghaus’ impressive collection can be seen on his Web site, markbellinghaus.com, whose reverence for Marilyn Monroe is reinforced by images of flickering votive flames, Merlin the magician and a medieval knight. For the sake of my visit, Bellinghaus has locked out his two dogs, a poodle named Marilyn and a Weimaraner named Monroe. The afternoon sky is hazy and, looking around the darkened living room, it’s difficult to discern where Marilyn’s stuff ends and Bellinghaus’ life begins.
“I had a very difficult time as a child,” Bellinghaus recalls. “My parents put me in a boarding school when I was 6 years old and I felt rejected. When I was 9 I saw a cutout of Marilyn from How to Marry a Millionaire, where she’s in front of those three mirrors and looks so magnificent.”
When it comes to Hollywood memorabilia, there are collectors and then there are Marilyn collectors. After Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose on August 5, 1962, her personal belongings were bequeathed to her estate’s principal executors — Method-acting guru Lee Strasberg, who died in 1982, and his wife, Paula, who had passed away in 1966. Although Monroe’s will had stated that her effects were to be distributed among friends, her belongings were instead kept in storage for decades. Within months of the 1999 death of Susan, Lee and Paula’s daughter, Lee’s third wife and widow, Anna Strasberg, auctioned off Monroe’s possessions for about $13 million through Christie’s. The long-standing presumption is that Anna was waiting for the legal field to clear before making this move. For many Marilyn fans this was a primal act of hubris and greed, a desecration ripped from Greek mythology that supercharged Monroe’s possessions with controversy.
Against his family’s wishes, Bellinghaus, a lithe, boyish 43-year-old, came to Los Angeles in 1995 from Germany, where he had been a successful film and TV actor. He chose L.A. because this is where Monroe lived, and to take acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute — just as Marilyn had done in New York. Los Angeles connected Bellinghaus with Monroe on a spiritual level, but it also revealed to him a disillusioning side of the Marilyn Monroe industry.
“I met Anna Strasberg,” Bellinghaus says. “She introduced herself to me with a big lie. I was wearing an iron-on Marilyn-picture T-shirt. I asked how Marilyn was and she said, ‘Beautiful!’ But she never met her!”
Bellinghaus has put his acting career on hold and devotes all his time and money to two pursuits: collecting Marilyn and defending her against exploiters. Every time a factually dubious Marilyn Monroe book appears on Amazon.com, lengthy and vitriolic e-mail attacks are sure to arrive from Bellinghaus (and to be removed by Amazon.com), whose sarcastic postings run the gamut of online Monroe forums, and even Wikipedia pages. His ultimate goal, he says, is to “liberate Marilyn” by breaking the licensing grip held on most Marilyn Monroe images by CMG Worldwide, the licensing company that owns copyrights on a large inventory of dead movie stars and historical figures, including James Dean, Babe Ruth and Rosa Parks.
“I want to free Marilyn and make her image public domain,” he says. “Some day Marilyn will be bigger than Jesus!” Bellinghaus has already put his money where his faith is by purchasing the domain name ChurchofMarilynMonroe.com.