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.
Later in the day, Bellinghaus is joined by Ernest W. Cunningham, whose book, The Ultimate Marilyn, is a guide to separating Monroe facts from fantasy. The 68-year-old Cunningham, who walks with a cane, and the peripatetic German actor are united by their determination to confront and uproot what they consider Marilyn fraud and denigration wherever it appears.
“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.
Even in a culture whose media is saturated with stories about celebrity, the paranormal and the occult, it’s hard to imagine Sherrie Lea Laird without the Internet. It was through a Web site that she met Dr. Adrian Finkelstein, a Malibu psychiatrist specializing in “past-life regressions.”
She e-mailed the doctor in 1998, telling him that for years she had been oppressed by feelings that another person was fighting for possession of her mind and body. Eventually Laird believed she was the reincarnation of the actress, whose presence caused Laird to experience crushing chest pains, which Finkelstein diagnosed as pain relived from the moment of Monroe’s death.
Laird and Finkelstein spent the next year telephoning and e-mailing each other. Then, in order to concentrate on her singing career, Laird cut off contact with the psychiatrist until 2005. When she re-established communication, Finkelstein, like Bram Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing, sensed his patient was mentally slipping away, and he flew to Toronto twice to exorcise Laird’s demons. He placed Laird under hypnosis in a darkened hotel room he had booked for the occasion.
There, Laird lay on a Holiday Inn bed and journeyed back in time. Her sepulchral voice barely vented through unmoving lips as she answered Finkelstein’s questions. Sherrie/Marilyn revealed she had been the lover of both John and Robert Kennedy and had sex with then Senator John Kennedy in the back seat of a car, although she admitted that Bobby was more fun in bed. She also relived the asphyxiating final moments of her death, the pain of which prompted Dr. Finkelstein to bring her out of her somnambular state. As an unexpected bonus, he discovered, after also placing Laird’s 20-year-old daughter, Kezia, under hypnosis, that Kezia was the reincarnation of Norma Jean Baker’s mother, Gladys.
Adrian Finkelstein’s office sits in a small Malibu business complex along the Pacific Coast Highway, tucked between a carpet dealer and a foot masseuse. A native of Romania who emigrated to Israel in 1961, Finkelstein exudes a mixture of Old World charm and New Age credulity. As the zoom of coastal traffic swishes outside, Finkelstein explains his belief in Laird’s story.
“There are about 35 known individuals claiming to be Marilyn Monroe,” he says, “but most people claiming to be reincarnated celebrities are crackpots — they are psychotic.” Nevertheless, he says that he immediately believed Laird. For one thing, she didn’t want to be Marilyn Monroe, and for another, she didn’t appear psychotic and she possessed apparent photographic recall of details from Monroe’s life.
There were also what Finkelstein calls “biometrics” — genetic markers passed down from one person to his or her reincarnation that are found in bone structures and physical mannerisms. Equally persuasive, to the doctor’s thinking, was the fact that Laird and Monroe shared the same astrological north-south moon nodes and north-south house moon nodes. If this wasn’t a smoking gun, what was?
Finally, all those coincidences — what Finkelstein calls “synchronicities” — were impossible to dismiss. Sherrie was a singer, while in the movie Bus Stop Monroe had played a singer — whose name was Cherie. Laird had also once been married to a serviceman and so had Monroe, and both women had had an Aunt Anne in their families. Not only that, but Kezia — the reincarnation of Monroe’s mother — had been born exactly nine months after the 1984 death of Gladys Baker. The synchronicities just kept piling up.
Finkelstein, who enjoys physician’s privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, has worked on about 4,000 cases of past-life regression, in which patients, under hypnosis, travel back in time to meet themselves in a previous existence. He says he has encountered himself in 24 previous lives, most notably as a French physician during the reign of Louis XIV. Armed with videotapes of his sessions with Laird, and with transcripts of thousands of phone calls and e-mails, Finkelstein published a book late last spring called Marilyn Monroe Returns: The Healing of a Soul. About the same time, another woman claiming to be Monroe’s reincarnation contacted Finkelstein and sent him a seminude photograph of herself. However, this woman was deluded, he decided — the biometrics just weren’t there. “She was kind of plump,” Finkelstein says.
To the unschooled eye, Laird and Monroe might not appear that similar either, even when Laird wears her neck-strap dress. Still, Laird was surprised when, after her hangover breakfast in Las Vegas, she spoke to a friend in Ottawa while stopped at a gas station. “How do you feel about the news?” the friend asked, and told Laird to pick up that day’s L.A. Times, which featured a 2,050-word Calendar-section story about Laird, headlined “Giving More Life to Marilyn?” Soon, after she drove the 275 miles through desert and mountains to L.A., people would be seeing lots of Sherrie Lea Laird and that Marilyn dress.
Westwood Memorial Park is 2½ acres of lawn, firs and squirrels located at the end of the Avco Theater’s parking-structure driveway. Once an obscure pocket cemetery, the graveyard became many entertainers’ final destination of choice following Marilyn Monroe’s interment in an aboveground crypt. Dean Martin is here, along with Billy Wilder, ?Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood. About a dozen years ago, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner purchased the wall crypt immediately next to Monroe’s, which is covered with kiss imprints. When he is asked about his choice, Hefner, who never met Monroe, sounds every bit the pragmatist.
“That cemetery is very close to the mansion,” he says, “and a number of my close friends are buried there — Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich and Dorothy Stratten. It just seemed the place I ought to be.”
On most days, the cemetery is an island of calm just beyond the trauma of Wilshire Boulevard traffic, but every August 5 since 1982 it has drawn dozens of visitors to the Marilyn Monroe Memorial, an event sponsored by the Marilyn Remembered fan club, which installed a commemorative bench near Monroe’s crypt in the Corridor of Memories.
The club’s founder and president, Greg Schreiner, grew up in Orangeville, Illinois, a town of 500 “near nothing.” His obsession with Marilyn Monroe began as a child. “My parents took me to see Some Like It Hot at a drive-in,” he says. “I became fascinated with this creature on the screen, and I became a collector.”
Today, he owns 10 gowns (including the bottom half of Monroe’s sexy costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and furniture belonging to Monroe, along with her refrigerator. A small room in his home has glass display cases containing pieces of Monroebilia and many Monroe dolls, though he says much of his collection is in storage or in traveling exhibits.
Although the fan club’s Westwood services often draw Marilyn impersonators and people dressed in 1950s-style clothing, last August’s gathering would stick out for Schreiner.
“We’ve dealt with people thinking they’re Marilyn’s children ever since the club has been in existence,” says Schreiner. “We’ve had [such] people show up and most of them are mentally ill. I guess they’re just sick people latching on to Marilyn as an anchor in their lives.”
Schreiner says that as he addressed the assembled fans in the cemetery’s A-framed chapel, Sherrie Lea Laird and her daughter, Kezia, began inching toward the front. As he watched Sherrie and Kezia advance, he recognized a new presence: Another woman, much older than Laird and who also claimed to be Marilyn reincarnated, was advancing from behind him. Suddenly Schreiner was caught in a pincer movement of reincarnated Marilyns.
“I’ve got to speak!” announced the older reincarnate who, according to Ernest Cunningham, had knocked over a couple of wreaths during her advance.
“I’m sorry but this isn’t the time,” Schreiner recalls telling the woman, who then withdrew.
“She was in her 60s,” Schreiner says of the older woman. “You can’t be alive the same time that Marilyn was alive and later be reincarnated!”
Laird and Dr. Finkelstein’s ambitions extended beyond seizing Schreiner’s moment. Now was the time to announce to the world that the star of Niagara had been holed up in Laird’s body since 1963. Their quest did not go well.
“These Marilyn Monroe fans are so fixated on a dead idol, and most of them don’t believe in reincarnation,” the doctor ruefully recalls in the sanctuary of his Malibu office. “They were vicious.”
Laird knew many faces from Monroe’s past inside the cemetery chapel, but these now-elderly friends of Marilyn’s did not in turn recognize Laird, bringing her to tears. Many fans, Finkelstein says, were openly contemptuous. Today, during a telephone call from Toronto, Laird’s voice is completely guileless, her prairie-flat Canadian accent showing no hint of her Scottish origins.
“I attended on my doctor’s insistence,” she says of last August’s ordeal. “I wasn’t really prepared to go there but there was press from Japan waiting for me to show up. Doctor forced me to go up to George Barris.”
A moment of truth came when Laird, Kezia and Dr. Finkelstein cornered Barris, the Hollywood photographer who reputedly took the last photographs of the living Monroe, while the Japanese film crew recorded the historic encounter.
Laird introduced herself to the bewildered octogenarian, believing he would see in her eyes the Marilyn he beheld through his Nikon’s viewfinder so many years ago. Barris listened and stared at Laird. Then he spoke.
“There are many people who look like Marilyn,” Barris finally said to the stranger. “I wish you luck — that’s all I can tell you.” As the crestfallen Laird dabbed her eyes with a tissue, Barris turned to Dr. Finkelstein: “Whatever she wants to be, let her be.”
Although Laird was unknown outside of Internet fan sites prior to her appearance at the Monroe memorial, her reincarnation claim had nonetheless reached the attentive ears of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country and CNN’s Showbiz Tonight, both of which interviewed her and Dr. Finkelstein that week. The pair’s interrogators rolled their eyes on cue and MSNBC brought in media shrink Bethany Marshall to explain psychological delusion, but these appearances, along with the L.A. Times piece, now entered a collective unconscious already tenderized by conspiracy theories regarding Monroe’s death. If the actress had been murdered by the Mafia or the right wing or on order of the Kennedys, why should the possibility of Marilyn’s reincarnation sound far-fetched?
Berth of the Hype
Today, Marilyn in death has become a bigger commodity than Marilyn in life. CMG Worldwide, in partnership with Anna Strasberg, owns the rights to license Monroe’s image and reportedly earns $8 million a year on royalties from companies marketing calendars, posters and T-shirts.
“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, Playboy ran 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.
“We had nothing to do with the Queen Mary exhibit,” Popp says. “Nor did we benefit from the showing in any way. The artifacts obtained from June were given in good faith as to their origin. We had no idea what went on with that — our dedication is to the book.”
Popp says that some possessions belonging to June’s late mother must have gotten mixed up with her Marilyn artifacts.
As with the exhibit, June DiMaggio’s Playboy excerpt of the DiMaggio-Popp book and interview received unfavorable scrutiny. In the interview, DePaulo says June sat next to her uncle on the car ride to Monroe’s funeral. The photographic evidence, however, shows no sign of June anywhere at the funeral — or anywhere with Marilyn Monroe when the actress was alive. June DiMaggio now admits that she hadn’t ridden in a car with “Uncle Joe” to Monroe’s funeral, but had confused that ride with the one to her father’s services.
Hugh Hefner is bluntly honest when asked if Playboy made any attempts to verify June DiMaggio’s claims.
“No. No. No,” he says. “All of it’s obviously self-serving and you just don’t know. Where reality ends and fiction begins, I don’t know.”
Dolores Hope Masi, a 64-year-old owner of a Las Vegas paralegal business, claims that when she was a child in the 1950s, Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, in order to escape the press, would stay overnight at Masi’s family home in Sherman Oaks for several nights a week. Masi says she attended the Queen Mary press conference and introduced herself to June DiMaggio, whom Masi says she doesn’t remember ever being around Monroe or Joe.
“I walked up to her,” Masi says, “and shook her hand and said, ‘Hi, my name is Dolores Hope Masi, do you know who I am?’ She said ‘No,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, either!’?” Masi herself has been the subject of some derision, much of it, not surprisingly, coming from Mark Bellinghaus. Masi, who was interviewed on a softball segment of ABC’s Good Morning America, claims Monroe gave her or her mother 30 to 40 pieces of jewelry and six items of clothing, including studio costumes. Since last year she has been selling low- and high-end reproductions of this jewelry, and will soon start marketing Monroe-gown knockoffs. Masi is also currently negotiating a book deal about her life.
The doubts about June’s veracity focused suspicion on her book’s most sensational claim — that not only was Marilyn Monroe murdered, but that June’s mother, Lee, happened to be on the phone with Monroe at the time the intruders broke into the actress’s home. If this weren’t enough, June, who says she brought a homemade pizza over to Monroe hours before her death, swears her mother told her that Monroe shouted the name of one of her assailants into the phone just before they silenced her. June’s mother, however, supposedly took this name to her grave, fearing for her family’s safety. June says Lee did not even tell her this information.
The somewhat oversized DiMaggio-Popp book fits neatly onto a small coffee table. Written in the same folksy style that graces the back-menu histories of old restaurants, it’s laid out like a scrapbook, with family recipes and many photos of Joe and Marilyn at home with June’s parents, as well as many of June as she struggled to define herself as an actor during the 1940s and ’50s.
While June provides generously candid details about herself (she possessed advanced ESP powers and a 42D bust that Monroe envied), the book is filled with chronological improbabilities. She also claims to be younger than Monroe when she is actually three years older. And she omits the fact that Tom DiMaggio was her mother’s second husband, whom she married when June was 19. There is also the matter of why she doesn’t appear in any photographs with her confidante, Monroe. (June’s only seen once, with what seems to be a napping Joe DiMaggio in a grainy snapshot.)
When reached by phone at her Sacramento home, June sounds every bit convincing as the senior citizen who recalls Monroe as a nearsighted woman-child who visited Tom and Lee DiMaggio’s home without makeup and her hair in pigtails. She sounds equally sincere when explaining why she isn’t pictured with Monroe in any of her book’s photographs that were taken at an aunt’s home.
“I took some of those pictures,” June says, implying that’s the reason for her absence in the pictures showing Monroe and Joe. “And the few pictures that were taken of me with Marilyn, a cousin destroyed.”
“We have done our due diligence with the book as far as authenticating,” Popp says. “It’s not a biography, these are the memories of June DiMaggio.” Popp says she and June are currently in negotiations for a film version of their book.
Popp says that the motive behind revealing that Monroe was mysteriously murdered was to help restore the star’s public image.
“All this time they were saying she committed suicide or overdosed,” Popp says. “It was important for us to say, ‘No, let this woman rest — her life was taken from her.’ I’d be spinning in my grave if all these theories and terrible things were coming up.”
“I wish they would let Marilyn rest in peace,” adds June DiMaggio. “The poor little thing.”
The DiMaggio-Popp book is only the latest in a long line of memoirs that, to put it mildly, strain credulity. The late Richard Slatzer got the ball rolling in 1982 with a book in which he claims to have been briefly married to Monroe. John Baker, a Canadian, took it a step further in his self-published My Day With Marilyn, in which heclaims to have picked up a homeless, schizophrenic hitchhiker in 1984 who was Marilyn Monroe.
Last year, self-described Monroe confidante Jeanne Carmen’s self-published biography, Jeanne Carmen: My Wild, Wild Life As a New York Pin Up Queen, Trick Shot Golfer and Hollywood Actress also appeared. Written by her son, Brandon James, many of the book’s 550 pages recount Marilyn-and-Jeanne I Love Lucy hijinks in which the two women appear as softcore versions of Lucy and Ethel — fun-loving gals who’d spank a naked Jack Benny in a steam room or ogle Rock Hudson scoring a very special hole in one with a younger partner on a golf-course green. Most of the men in Carmen’s book are incredibly endowed and on the make. She seems to have had a Zelig-like presence in Monroe’s life and was even watching from Monroe’s bedroom closet, she asserts, while the actress and her incredibly endowed husband, Joe DiMaggio, had sex.
Brandon James claims his book, written in the first-person voice of Jeanne Carmen, is “an artistic interpretation” of his mother’s life. That statement seems to wink at readers who may wonder about the biography’s improbable geographic details, its lack of hard dates, the fact that Carmen and Monroe pop Valium and Quaaludes before the drugs were even sold, and about why Monroe and others are quoted as using current slang.
When contacted, however, Carmen flatly says, “It’s all true.” And, like June DiMaggio’s mother, she knows who really killed Monroe.
“I guarantee you she did not commit suicide,” Carmen purrs in a Mae West–like voice. “I pretty much know who did it and it would astound you.”
Carmen has enjoyed a late-life, nostalgia-fed celebrity of her own, some of it the result of her alleged friendship with Monroe, some it from her own career as a pinup model and trick-shot golfer in the 1950s and early ’60s. She has appeared at the Marilyn Remembered memorials and as an expert on a 2006 episode of CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery program that kited a list of rumors about Monroe’s death. Carmen’s appearance, in which she claimed that Monroe called her on the night of her death begging Carmen to bring her sleeping pills, was blasted by gossip columnist Liz Smith, who, like many others, accuses Carmen of never having been Monroe’s friend. Carmen acknowledges also getting heat from Mark Bellinghaus, Ernest Cunningham and others.
“All these little, gay guys who have these clubs despise me and they weren’t even born [then]. I was her friend, why are [they] jumping on me?”
Yet Carmen shows no solidarity toward her fellow memoirist June DiMaggio.
“She’s the biggest liar that ever walked the face of the earth,” Carmen says. “I doubt she ever met Marilyn. She came out of the woodwork saying the craziest fucking things I’ve heard in my life.”
Carmen says she will no longer attend the Westwood cemetery memorials, following a confrontation with a stranger there.
“He jumped out from his car dressed in black and said, ‘You knew my father, John F. Kennedy. I’m John Kennedy’s son.’ I shook his hand but I had the feeling he was going to lay a bullet in my head.”
The Feminist and the Fans
“Here I am, one of the founders of second-wave feminism and I’m hanging out with the woman who was Voluptua, who was a Playboy centerfold!”
Professor Lois Banner is taking a break from reading student papers in her cluttered USC office to describe her involvement with the Marilyn Remembered fan club. She teaches “Gender and Sexualities in American History” and “American Lives: Biography and Autobiography in the United States Past” — two courses that entwine history with gender and the study of pop culture, and which discuss Marilyn Monroe. Banner says her students have shown tremendous interest in Monroe, and next fall she will launch a seminar devoted entirely to the movie star.
“It started out as a quest to find out about Marilyn,” she says. “It’s become a very major part of my life and I could not even tell you why. I think I find it a very welcome relief from the academic world.”
Banner’s published works include Intertwined Lives: Passion and Intellect in the Lives of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead and In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. The world of Marilyn studies was unlike anything she’d been used to — it’s not as though the books by June DiMaggio, Jeanne Carmen or Adrian Finkelstein are peer-reviewed. Instead, she found an untamed frontier of pop culture to which she is trying to instill some amount of order.
“I’m very, very involved in the Marilyn community,” she says about Marilyn Remembered. “I learn a lot from going to the club. I like the club. I attend every meeting; my husband goes to the club. I have friends in the club.”
Banner is friends with president Greg Schreiner — with whom she is cataloging papers from boxes of Monroe documents — as well as with Mark Bellinghaus and Ernest Cunningham. She is aware of the collector rivalries and the frauds and questionable memoirists. She refuses to become a collector herself, emphasizing this refusal as though it requires an act of supreme will. Instead, Banner’s ultimate goal is to establish a Marilyn Monroe archive, at either USC or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. This would not be a museum of gowns, bracelets and hair curlers, but a scholarly repository of documents that would fix Monroe’s place in American culture.
“It’s dealing with national consciousness,” Banner says of her Monroe work. “She’s emerging as the greatest female icon of the 20th century and my interest is in giving some cohesion to the Marilyn community,” she adds. “Just as my colleagues study Abraham Lincoln, I study both the mythology and the reality of Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know of any other scholar working on Marilyn Monroe.”
In December, the annual Marilyn Remembered Christmas party was held at Greg Schreiner’s home, a tidy pink-stucco house in Mid City. As Schreiner’s two dachshunds, Lorna and Liza, ran excitedly among the 40-odd guests, club members chatted and helped themselves to buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, raw veggies and homemade eggnog. Lois Banner was there, as was Voluptua (a.k.a. Gloria Pall), whose self-published book, The Marilyn Monroe Party, is a very brief account of her attending a party thrown for Monroe in 1952. At the Marilyn Remembered event, there were lots of Marilyn neckties on display — one man owns three dozen.
Mark Bellinghaus was not in attendance, nor had he any plans to be. He is at bitter odds with some members, particularly those who have not formally joined Ernest Cunningham’s lawsuit against the Queen Mary exhibit.
No club business was conducted this night, whose main event was a white-elephant gift exchange.
“Hey, maybe they’ll be Marilyn’s missing mink cuffs!” someone yells out as a small package containing votive candles is unwrapped.
Early on in its existence, the club could count on speakers who had worked with Marilyn Monroe on her films or who had known her personally. Time, Schreiner says, has taken its toll on this group, and today such appearances are increasingly rare. Death and fading memories are not erasing Marilyn Monroe’s legacy, however, but transforming it into a snowballing myth of sex and violence. Will it make any difference if we ever know if Monroe took her own life or was murdered with a drug enema? Or if she slept with the Kennedys or played big sister to June DiMaggio?
As insignificant as the dubious Monroe memoirs and collectibles may seem to the average person, the ease with which they subtly alter public perceptions of the truth is disturbing. The great paradox of our time is that the more information we have and the greater its accessibility, the less certain we are about historical events that once seemed indisputable. The Internet gives Marilyn fans instant knowledge, but it also spreads the most outlandish claims, and has created an international bazaar of counterfeit memorabilia.
“It may be impossible to stop the fabrication,” admits Professor Banner, even as she tries to build her Marilyn archive of objective truths.
Mark Bellinghaus and Ernest Cunningham will keep fighting those who they believe exploit or demean Marilyn Monroe. Cunningham’s suit, which has been partly financed by Bellinghaus, goes to court this May.
“You say it’s all right for someone to show a hair roller, but where does the fraud end?” asks Bellinghaus. “Where does it become unacceptable? I want to make sure that people in 100, 200, 300 years don’t think Marilyn slept with Elvis — she didn’t.”
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.