By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“We feel very strongly about Marilyn,” Cunningham says. “It’s as though they’re talking about your mother or sister. They’re calling your mother a whore and a crazy woman, so you have to stand up to defend her. This is a very important mission.”
“I have put up my life savings, my acting money and my inheritance from my father into my collection,” Bellinghaus adds. Then, gesturing to the room, he continues: “But I live with this — this is my life. People ask me, ‘Aren’t you trying to connect yourself with Marilyn Monroe?’ I think that might be a totally stupid and wicked statement . . . I think she chose me.”
What makes a man give up so much? Who are the people Bellinghaus is fighting and how did an insecure movie star become a gold mine long after her death? The answers to these questions involve more than obscure battles fought among collectors and memoirists. They speak to how our celebrity-driven culture and an unquestioning media have created a national audience that believes in anything it sees on television or reads on the Internet.
Forty-five years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains Hollywood’s single most recognizable icon. She is more than a household name, she has become our Eva Peron. Typing her name into a Google search yields more than 2 million Web pages — more than searches for Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi. To appreciate Monroe’s place in our national dream life is to understand her journey from dead star to supernova.
Monroe had played center stage during so many moments of the American narrative: A job at a defense plant recalled the country’s heroic war effort; her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller seemed to wed the democratic enthusiasms of the stadium with the cerebral skepticism of the academy; the appearance of an early photograph of a nude Monroe in the launch issue of Playboy christened a new era of sexual candor. Marilyn Monroe came to signify something to everyone and her end meant more than the death of a movie star. (As Leo Braudy noted in his study of fame, The Frenzy of Renown, Los Angeles County suicides jumped 40 percent in August 1962, following Monroe’s death.)
The posthumous fascination with Monroe began with the appearance of Andy Warhol’s campy silk-screens of the movie goddess, followed by her popularity in the poster-art hierarchy of the late 1960s. Then, when Norman Mailer’s 1973 book, Marilyn: A Biography,linked her death with the Kennedy family, her name became connected to the potent power grid of conspiracy culture — and Monroe’s legend reached critical mass.
Today, an entire hypothetical history has been created in self-published books, Web sites and blogs about exactly how Monroe died or what would have happened had she not died. The mythology runs something like this: Had Marilyn lived a few days more, she would have remarried Joe DiMaggio, held a press conference to denounce the Kennedys and revealed government secrets about UFO research at Roswell, New Mexico. Or, if Monroe had lived out her natural life, John F. Kennedy wouldn’t have been assassinated, the Vietnam War wouldn’t have taken place, there would have been no George W. Bush. If only . . .
At this moment, there are people claiming to be Marilyn Monroe’s children or former lovers, or to have encountered her as a schizophrenic hitchhiker in Nova Scotia. There are also people selling Monroe possessions on eBay whose fakeness is painfully obvious.
“This is going to stay with me forever,” Bellinghaus says of his work exposing Marilyn frauds. “If I get hit by a bus or murdered by some other people —” Here, he pauses. “I got death threats. I changed my number. It was scary sometimes. I have some [window] bars here but you never know — if someone hires a hit man they could easily get me.”
Bellinghaus shows me another garment, this one bearing a possible coffee stain. It is Marilyn’s famous white terry-cloth robe, the one that appears in so many photographs of her, which was found on the floor near her bed the night she died. This time I’m ready for it — I have breathed in the madness.
Separated at Death?
Sherrie Lea Laird remembers sitting in a Las Vegas Denny’s last August, nursing the mother of all hangovers. The 43-year-old singer with a Canadian rock band named Pandamonia had been partying the previous night until 7 a.m. and now, as the sun scalded the sidewalk outside, was trying to get down a late breakfast. Laird had known rougher days, having struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as bouts of homelessness and confinements to mental hospitals following two suicide attempts.
Laird’s life had been full of abrupt change and uncertainty, but as she sat in the diner’s air-conditioned chill she knew one sure thing: She was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. So much so that she was on the last leg of a road trip from Toronto to L.A. so she could appear at the annual graveside memorial for Monroe. She had even brought along a Marilynesque dress whose strap tied behind her neck.
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