By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Anything that gets licensed for her sells pretty quickly,” says Michael Marker, shipping supervisor of the Web-sales division of Souvenirs of Hollywood, which operates two stores on Hollywood Boulevard. “Her cardboard standups are very popular.”
The profiteers are not merely souvenir hawkers, however, but people who sell personal items, allegedly owned by Monroe, on eBay or at auction. In 2005, a proposed display of Marilyn Monroe possessions owned by Chicago collector Robert W. Otto was rejected by the Hollywood Entertainment Museum because of questionable authentication. A few months after this rebuff, Otto’s exhibit found a berth in Long Beach aboard the Queen Mary, which hosted a CMG-backed show called “Marilyn Monroe: The Exhibit.” (Neither Otto nor CMG representatives responded to interview requests for this article.)
In a more discerning time, such a high-profile display of 350 personal items that were not accompanied by photographic documentation might have raised eyebrows, but little seems to have been done outside of psychic medium James van Praagh honoring Entertainment Tonight’s request that he “authenticate” the exhibit’s items. The bulk of Monroe’s worldly estate had seemingly been disposed of in two major auctions (the Christie’s 1,000-lot “Sale of the Century” in 1999 and the 288-lot auction by Julien’s in 2005), so where was this new inventory, now appearing on eBay and at the Queen Mary, coming from?
The Queen Mary said it vetted the exhibition, which received the added imprimatur of validation during a shipboard press conference that included Otto, CMG Worldwide’s CEO Mark Roesler, Playboy’sHugh Hefner, and June DiMaggio, who had sold to Otto about 30 items that appeared at the exhibition. At first the show received lots of local soft-news coverage and seemed headed to success. Soon the exhibit’s organizers announced they would extend its stay before moving it to Las Vegas for a planned world tour. What hadn’t been factored into the plan was the appearance of the irrepressible Mark Bellinghaus.
Using a Beverly Hills Courier press credential, Bellinghaus, who had purchased many Monroe possessions through the Christie’s and Julien’s auctions, was alarmed to discover an exhibit scarce on genuine memorabilia but inflated with lots of contemporary kitsch (Marilyn dolls and bottle after bottle of Marilyn Merlot wine) and, worse, fake items. The most prominent of the ringers was a transparent box of Clairol hair curlers purportedly containing strands of Monroe’s hair. However, the curlers, which originated from June DiMaggio’s collection, were soft plastic, whereas rollers used during Monroe’s time were made of wire and nylon bristle. A little research netted Bellinghaus a damning fact: Clairol didn’t begin making these curlers until 1974, a dozen years after Monroe’s death.
Bellinghaus, who owns Christie’s- and Julien’s-authenticated Monroe curlers, says he and Ernest Cunningham were cold-shouldered when they tried to bring this to the attention of the exhibit’s organizers. He also claims that when they went to the Long Beach Police Department their charges were met with shrugs.
Only when Bellinghaus and Cunningham got the ears of local TV-news reporters were the rollers and some other items yanked from the show. More importantly, the exhibit’s credibility in tatters, its organizers cancelled the planned tour.
The exposé has not ended there, however — Cunningham and Emily Sadjady have filed a lawsuit against the Queen Mary, Otto, CMG and others, alleging the defendants knowingly cobbled it together in order to defraud a public that was charged nearly $23 per admission.
“I’ll do anything to stick up for Marilyn,” says Sadjady, who feels a special connection to Monroe.
“When I was 12 years old,” the 63-year-old Sadjady recalls in a brassy East Coast accent, “a voice came into my head and said, ‘You’re going to be Marilyn Monroe when you’re 35 years old.’ ” The Boston native was doubtful, since Monroe was very much alive at the time.
Years later, Sadjady entered show business as an interpretive dancer, moved on to belly dancing and then became a stripper under the name Rita Niles. When she got word that the club she was working at was about to replace its strippers with female impersonators, survival instincts led her to become a female female impersonator by developing a Marilyn Monroe act. She was 35.
Cunningham and Sadjady are not the only ones suing CMG. Earlier last year the descendants of four of Marilyn Monroe’s photographers, including the son of Tom Kelley, who shot the famous red-velvet Marilyn nude, are suing CMG Worldwide to establish that Monroe died a resident of New York state, even though she passed away in California. If the two suits succeed, they will not only break the monopoly that Anna Strasberg and CMG have on Monroe’s image, but could also overturn the right of corporations to own a dead celebrity’s legacy.
Here’s to You, June DiMaggio
At the exact same time of the Queen Mary exhibit, Playboyran a cover package on Marilyn Monroe’s death, excerpting a small portion of Marilyn, Joe & Me: June DiMaggio Tells It Like It Was. This new Marilyn memoir, released last fall, was co-written by June DiMaggio, who claims to be New York Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio’s niece and a close friend of Monroe. She and co-author Mary Jane Popp were interviewed by Lisa DePaulo for the magazine, and both appeared with Hefner at the Queen Mary press conference. When I ask June DiMaggio about the questions raised regarding her contribution to the exhibit, Popp speaks for her.