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'Forever Marilyn' statue ending two-year hitch in Palm Springs

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PALM SPRINGS — On a bright and breezy afternoon, the continuous stream of tourists queued up on a bustling downtown corner for their moment with Marilyn.

The icon loomed some 26 feet high in a re-creation of that classic image of Monroe in the air-blown white dress. She seemed blissfully oblivious as one person after another posed between her legs, resting a hand on her calf. A few climbed up onto her stilettos.

"It's always like this!" Mayor Steve Pougnet said, standing amid the crowd that had assembled on a weekday afternoon. "She's been remarkable."

She has been in Palm Springs for just shy of two years, but in that time the sculpture — named Forever Marilyn, the work of artist Seward Johnson — has been embraced as something of a symbol of the city, a glamorous throwback to Palm Springs' heyday as a desert playground for Hollywood stars including Monroe, who would sunbathe here.

Forever Marilyn's stay in the city was supposed to end by last June, only to be extended twice. But now she's moving on.

At the end of March, the statue — weighing 34,000 pounds — will be disassembled into half a dozen parts and shipped to New Jersey. There she will join about 150 other works by Johnson on display through September in a 42-acre park.

"She will be, in my opinion, missed immensely," said Aftab Dada, chairman of PS Resorts, the collective of Palm Springs hotels responsible for setting up the statue on an empty corner near a stretch of shops and restaurants. "It's like we are losing part of our family."

The statue, made of stainless steel and aluminum, pays tribute to Monroe's famous scene from the 1955 comedy "The Seven-Year Itch" in which her dress billows up as she stands over a New York City subway grate.

Johnson — an heir of the founders of Johnson & Johnson — is known for sculptures, mostly in bronze, of simple moments in everyday life: a businessman reading a newspaper, a hitchhiker, a man holding an umbrella. He was regarded for his attention to detail, making his pieces as realistic as possible.

Forever Marilyn was no different: Johnson had to use 10 layers of hues with a matte finish just to match her skin tone.

The sculpture made its debut in 2011 in Chicago's Pioneer Plaza, attracting tourists but getting panned by critics. (One newspaper critic sneered at the people taking suggestive photos, saying the piece evoked "the juvenile goofball in many of us.")

She was brought to Palm Springs by the resort group, which raised the money for her move. Initially, Mayor Pougnet said there was some trepidation: Some worried that a statue taller than some of the buildings downtown could be an eyesore.

But once she arrived, many locals boasted that the reaction was much more positive than in Chicago, as if Marilyn had come home. In a way, she had: Monroe's career took off when she was spotted by a William Morris agent as a 22-year-old lounging poolside at the Racquet Club. She vacationed at the Movie Colony with Joe DiMaggio. She owned a home here.

Standing at the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, the sculpture has drawn throngs of tourists who have taken thousands of snapshots. And, Dada said, thanks to a well-placed logo showing up in countless photos, it has been an invaluable source of publicity for the city.

On a recent afternoon, Brian Saunderson stopped by the statue with friends. He had come to Palm Springs to flee snowbound Winnipeg, and he marveled at how Marilyn seemed to fit in with the landscape — "against the hill and the blue sky, absolutely," he said.

"It's a pity to lose her," said Saunderson, a 64-year-old retiree. "Palm Springs was apparently a special place to her."

The piece, which had been lent to the resort group to display, is owned by the Sculpture Foundation, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit to which Johnson donated his collection more than a decade ago. Paula Stoeke, the foundation's director, said its mission requires it to relocate pieces, allowing people around the world to experience them.

"We really, really think Palm Springs is an ideal location," Stoeke said, but "we can't create endless loan situations."

Locales worldwide have expressed interest in hosting Marilyn after September — Singapore, London, Miami and Rome, among them.

But no plans have yet been made, leaving a window for the resort group and the city to negotiate with the foundation to buy the piece. Stoeke said the sculpture has a published value of about $1.8 million.

Since the statue has been in Palm Springs, residents and tourists have gathered on the corner for concerts and screenings of her movies — and even look-alike contests.

And in the days before a crew goes to work dismantling her, the city will assemble around her once again to send her off until, they hope, she comes home to Palm Springs. This time, forever.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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