An appraiser’s perspective of an icon’s written words
by Martin Willis
I was recently involved in a very large appraisal and worked with a team of appraisers having varied specialties. It was my job to appraise the entertainment collection which included a vast amount of Marilyn Monroe artifacts, images and correspondence. To protect the client who owns the collection, I cannot get into too much detail in this blog, but I would like to express the experience of it all. I do not consider myself an expert on Marilyn Monroe, but I certainly know a lot more than I did before I took on this project.
When I think of Marilyn, I see those bedroom eyes, her signature mole above her lip and her platinum colored hair. She had a refreshing beauty that was timeless. This coming June 1, she would’ve been 86 years old and on August 5th, it will be the 50th Memorial Anniversary of her demise. Because of this Memorial and growing intrigue, her letters, signed photos and artifacts such as her belongings & apparel are becoming increasingly in demand. A good example of this phenomenon was the famous Subway Dress at the Debbie Reynolds Auction last year which sold for $4.6 million.
Marilyn Monroe had very distinct handwriting, it was actually quite beautiful and I do believe that it would be very difficult for someone to forge a letter. Of course there are people that are fairly good at forging her signature, but a letter would almost be impossible.
When you read letters that people like Marilyn wrote, you can almost feel as though you’re getting to know that person. A letter is but a conversation with the emotions written down on paper. We are such a paperless society these days and that is good for the trees. Perhaps someday emails may have value for the same reason as the handwritten word. I am not really sure how you would sell an email at auction though, but someone will figure that out without a doubt.
The letters I read of hers’ began with a very young Norma Jeane Baker, the innocent teen of only 16 years old (soon to marry). They spanned all the way up to her last years nearing her premature death. How did Marilyn Monroe die? We may never know what really happened; there are certainly a lot of conspiracies out there which always seems to happen when an icon like her passes away. There were some very strange circumstances, there is no question about that. All that information can be found throughout the internet and in books. Some of the information is perhaps accurate, but you certainly cannot believe everything you read. The bottom line is, I believe she died sad and very alone.
Reading Marilyn Monroe’s letters was a very moving experience for me. There are a lot of things that I read that I would never repeat in respect for her. However, I can attempt to tell you my opinion of the person behind those beautiful eyes and signature mole. Marilyn was very sweet, lonely, vulnerable and maintained a sense of humor. Because of that vulnerability, I do believe a lot of people took advantage of her. They took advantage of her both in the entertainment business and in her personal life. In reading some of the letters that people wrote to her, (sometimes known people), it was pretty clear that they were just using her for what she was, not who she was. The same thing goes on today and probably always will.
Conversely, there were many people who really loved her and cared for her. Such a person as ‘Aunt Ana’ (Grace McKee Goddard) who was Norma Jeane’s legal guardian. There were many very caring and thoughtful letters between the two and other relatives as well. There were also many old friends that tried to remain in touch with her through her successes and changes.
For the most part, Marilyn seemed like she was lonely, even when she was extremely famous. She put pen to paper describing how the fame made her feel that way. She was also searching for something to fill a void that could never be filled. I believe she was haunted by her troubled youth and it left a lasting effect. She tried various things that obviously did not work and there was notation of her seeking professional help. This included a letter to her from a Rabbi who was suggesting solutions. He also made the following statement: “The next time we meet, let’s make sure there is no alcohol involved.”
I got to examine some of her 20th Century Fox contracts which were very interesting. She started out making only $125 per week, I believe that was around 1949. As I kept reading later contracts with 20th Century Fox, you could see how her demand increased greatly and she was making serious money near the end. I also found note of her name change which was described on 20th Century Fox letterhead. “Norma Jeane Dougherty will now be referred to as: “Marilyn Monroe”, from here on out.” One of the letters that was fascinating to me is when she wrote the Fox studio president telling him that she was very upset that Frank (Sinatra), was making more money than her. There were also a few letters of discontent from 20th Century Fox about her not showing up for certain events. I personally think that she was trying to make a statement by this.
Another interesting letter that I can talk about was written to her from her first husband, Jimmy Dougherty who she married at sixteen years old. As a merchant marine traveling the world and out to sea, he mentioned that he was going to miss her 20th birthday, as well as their anniversary. Since he had not heard from her in two months, he threatened her in the post script saying “no letters, no souvenirs.” This was at the tail end of their marriage in 1946.
Her childhood unpublished pictures that I viewed showed what appeared to be a happy Norma Jeane. However, there was a lot of turmoil as her father abandoned her and her mother was mentally ill. She was impoverished, placed in foster homes and in an orphanage for two years. I couldn’t help but look at those images and wonder what she would have thought if she could have looked ahead in time.
In closing, I came to like Marilyn when I read her written thoughts and struggles. She was extremely sensitive, sometimes a little sneaky, damaged, vulnerable, sweet and caring. She was not just an icon, she was a person walking this earth, breathing this air with human faults like we all have. She lived a lifetime in her short years and will be remembered young & beautiful. Elton John’s lyrics come to mind: “your candle burned out long before the legend ever did.”
Norma Jeane’s candle burned out in early August of 1962. The legend Marilyn Monroe lives on ~ frozen in time with her signature mole above the lip. ◊