Taking It on Blond Faith

Times Staff Writer

Jill Adams of Tujunga, who runs a Marilyn Monroe fan website called forevermarilyn.com, groaned as she recalled the time her mother tried to surprise her with a pair of the late actress' shoes, size 9.

"Clearly, they weren't her shoes," Adams said. "Marilyn wore size 7. The person who sold it to her admitted it wasn't Marilyn's size but said her feet sometimes swelled. My mother got taken for over $700."

If the collectibles market is to be believed, Monroe either signed, wore, owned or saved thousands of items -- clothing, lingerie, jewelry, shoes and hats -- that continue to sell for a pretty penny.

But there are only so many items Monroe could have possibly amassed before she was found dead of a drug overdose at the age of 36 on Aug. 5, 1962. What's more, Monroe wasn't much of a clotheshorse, says Ernest W. Cunningham, author of the book "The Ultimate Marilyn." Despite her glamorous image, Monroe "was known to wear bluejeans and sweatshirts most of the time. When she went to premieres or parties, she would go to the [20th Century] Fox wardrobe department and pick something out," he said. "If you look at many photos of her at parties, you can recognize the same dresses over and over."

Allegations of fraud, such as those lodged against a Long Beach exhibit of Monroe memorabilia, rarely get the attention of law enforcement. More often than not, it's buyer beware in the Wild, Wild West of Marilyn memorabilia.

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The allure of Monroe, more than four decades after her death from sleeping pills, is still powerful.

Forbes.com recently published a survey titled "Highest-Earning Dead Celebrities," which compared the money the celebrities' estates earn annually from sales of licensed books, recordings, coffee cups, posters and advertisements, among other things. Monroe ranked seventh -- the only woman in the top 13 -- with earnings of more than $8 million a year. Elvis Presley ranks No. 1, at $45 million a year.

The official Monroe website, marilynmonroe.com, has received more than 2 billion hits since its inception about seven years ago, according to those who run the site on behalf of her estate. A signed 9-by-14-inch photo of the actress can command as much as $40,000. And in the last three months of 2005, EBay auctioneers sold more than 35,000 items identified as authentic Monroe memorabilia. By comparison, just over 40,000 Xbox video games -- the Christmas season's hot toy -- were sold on the site during the same period.

The value of Monroe collectibles skyrocketed in October 1999, sparked by the headline-grabbing sale of the sequined, flesh-colored dress she wore to serenade President Kennedy on his birthday in May 1962, just three months before her death.

The dress came from a trove of authenticated items that had been collecting dust in a Manhattan warehouse for years. They had belonged to her estate, which was inherited by Anna Strasberg from her husband, the late Lee Strasberg, who was Monroe's acting coach and confidant. Christie's auction house had placed an estimated value on the items of $2.5 million to $3 million.

Instead, the cache brought in $13 million.

"The market hadn't seen memorabilia like this," said Kathleen Guzman, a Christie's senior vice president at the time. "These were Marilyn's. These were things she chose to keep and she kept them close to her heart. You can't put a price tag on some of that stuff."

New York collector Pete Siegel and a partner bought the sequined dress for $1.26 million. He said it continues to be one of their best investments. "I can tell you we've been offered, numerous times, a heck of a lot more than double what we've paid for it." He noted that the dress, which is not for sale, is being kept for now by a private collector in "a beautiful apartment" in Manhattan.

In contrast to the dress, whose authenticity is proved in part by the grainy black-and-white news footage of Monroe wearing it at Kennedy's birthday bash, much of the memorabilia being bought and sold today requires a leap of faith.

The Internet has been flooded in recent years with items Monroe purportedly left behind while visiting friends and co-workers, including studio hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff; Monroe's personal makeup man, Allan "Whitey" Snyder; her personal secretary, May Reis; and Elaine Barrymore, the former wife of actor John Barrymore. All are now dead, making it nearly impossible to verify the "certificates of authenticity" that accompany items sold outside the oversight of her estate.

"About seven or eight years ago, items suddenly started appearing from 'Elaine Barrymore,' " recalled Greg Schreiner, an avid collector and a longtime member of the Los Angeles-based Marilyn Remembered fan club. "Clothing, jewelry, shoes, hats. All items that she said Marilyn accidentally left at her home when she was visiting. At first you think, 'OK, maybe.' But when it started getting into the 200 and 300 items, you have to go, 'Wait a minute.... ' "

Roslyn Herman, a New York dealer in antique toys, dolls and movie star memorabilia who knew Elaine Barrymore for 17 years, said she was convinced that the items personally auctioned off by Barrymore were authentic but agreed that fakes were now making their way into the market under Barrymore's signature. "Someone is forging her name," she said.

There are also questions about the authenticity of hundreds of items said to come from the actress' foster sister, Eleanor "Bebe" Goddard. Schreiner, who was a close friend of Goddard's, said he was going through her papers after her death in February 2000 when he discovered letters suggesting that Goddard and a New York collectibles dealer were scheming to sell fake Monroe memorabilia.

In a letter dated April 23, 1996, Goddard advised the dealer to place tissue paper between the folds of a garment and then use a piece of cotton to "very lightly" dab Chanel No. 5 perfume -- reportedly Monroe's favorite -- on the tissue.

Schreiner said he never told police about his suspicions but said he later confronted the dealer and warned him to stop.

Controversy also surrounds a birthday card Monroe is said to have made for Kennedy. The card, which sold at auction recently for $78,000, includes a 9-by-12-inch watercolor of a long-stemmed red rose. "Happy Birthday Pres. Kennedy from Marilyn Monroe" is scrawled at the bottom of the card in blue ink. But skeptics ask: Why does the card carry two more puzzling inscriptions? In black ink are the words "Happy Birthday, Marilyn," followed by "June 1, 1962" -- the actress' birth date -- and "My best wishes, Marilyn." Could it be the card was actually given to Monroe and the Kennedy inscription was added later, to boost its value?

Darren Julien, whose West Hollywood auction house sold the card, harbors "no doubts whatsoever" about its authenticity. Guzman, the former Christie's executive, said the card is "an enigmatic piece," but she confirmed that it came directly from Monroe's estate and said the signatures were "exactly the same style and signed almost exactly the same way" as other items in the estate.

One of the more unusual items to come on the auction block is a gold Rolex the actress purportedly presented to Kennedy at the 1962 Madison Square Garden gala at which she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." Stamped in gilt letters on a burgundy red leather cushion at the bottom of the watch case are the words "Happy Birthday Mr. President." At the bottom of the case was a paper disk with a red, hand-colored border and the following verse:

A Heartfelt Plea

on Your Birthday

Let lovers breathe their sighs

And roses bloom and music

sound

Let passion burn on lips

and eyes

And pleasures merry world

go round

Let golden sunshine flood

the sky

AND LET ME LOVE

OR LET ME DIE!

Before the watch was auctioned for $120,000, Bill Panagopulos, founder of Alexander Autographs in Cos Cob, Conn., wrote a detailed account for would-be bidders about the watch's origin. The watch apparently ended up with Kennedy's White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell, who is now dead, and later found its way to an English pawnbroker who caters to the rich, according to Panagopulos. The auctioneer disclosed that he had hired a private investigator in an effort to determine if it was a forgery.

"Everything about the watch was right -- the serial number, the engraving, the $5,000 antique gold box it came in," Panagopulos recalled. "Had the watch had rock-solid provenance, it could easily have sold in excess of $1 million. But with the provenance that was available at the time the watch sold, it still fetched a final price of $120,000 plus premium." He noted that "nobody has come forward since then to say anything negative about it."

There are plenty of theories about how to spot an authentic Monroe signature -- and each new one has the potential to spur fraud.

Adams, of forevermarilyn.com, said she was watching the TV show "Antiques Roadshow" a while back when an expert appraiser on the show insisted the actress almost always signed her name in red ink.

"That is absolute rubbish," Adams said. "The next day on EBay, there were over 50 autographs in red ink of Marilyn Monroe. They cited the 'Antiques Roadshow.' It drove us mad."

Clark Kidder, author of the book "Marilyn Monroe: Cover to Cover," whose expertise on Monroe's handwriting is often sought by collectors, said the actress almost always signed her name in black ink. "Occasionally one can be found in red or green or pencil," he said.

Her signature "evolved as she aged," Kidder added. "When she was younger, it was real legible and should always have a distinct right slant to it and loopy Ms. The 'l-y' in Marilyn almost appears as a figure 8. As she aged, she signed her name in a flurry and a rush."

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There are few ironclad ways to prove that an item belonged to Monroe. Dealers often rely on photos of Monroe wearing a particular piece of clothing or jewelry to help determine whether a piece is authentic. After all, she was one of the world's most photographed women.

A lack of such photographic evidence became an issue last spring when the Hollywood Entertainment Museum was preparing to showcase an exhibit of Monroe memorabilia owned by Chicago collector Robert W. Otto.

After unpacking the crates, museum president and founder Donelle Dadigan became concerned that the collection did not come with photos.

"I couldn't put any of the pieces together -- how she would have worn it, where she would have worn it," Dadigan recalled. The museum also was baffled to find that Monroe's shoes came in varying sizes, from size 5 1/2 to 8 1/2 .

"That really got us jumping up and down, feeling someone was trying to pull a fast one on us," said museum attorney George G. Braunstein.

The museum canceled its exhibition, but Otto's collection moved on to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where tickets to the Marilyn exhibit go for $22.95 each. The exhibit is open through April 15.

Otto told The Times in November that he doesn't have many photos to go along with the clothing, jewelry and other accessories that make up the displayed collection because these were not the kinds of items that the actress wore to photo shoots, premieres and parties.

"This is really a private, up-close tour of Marilyn, and it's kind of devoid of those big, splashy gowns and big movie pieces," Otto said at the time. "If you look at the stuff, it's a private collection, a personal collection."

Otto's attorney, Richard Harris of Chicago, insisted the collection is authentic and added that he has the documentation to prove it.

Not so, says Mark Bellinghaus, a Los Angeles-based collector with his own Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. He and Cunningham, the author, are equally convinced that some items in the collection are fraudulent. The bulk of it is said to have come from a relative of Monroe's onetime husband, Joe DiMaggio. But DiMaggio's longtime attorney, citing the baseball great's well-known penchant for privacy, said he would have never given away Monroe's belongings.

Cunningham and Bellinghaus' suspicions weren't enough to convince the Long Beach city attorney's office, which declined to open an investigation of the Queen Mary exhibit. The Long Beach Police Department also turned down a request to look into the matter. (Law enforcement is loath to wade into such controversies. But some experts estimate that as much as 50% to 90% of the $1 billion-a-year memorabilia market involves fraudulent goods.)

Bellinghaus, whose own Monroe collection includes furniture she had purchased for her Brentwood home, said he's not giving up and calls his investigation into Otto's collection "the most important mission in my life to date."

Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG Worldwide Inc., the Indianapolis-based company that licenses the names and likenesses of 250 celebrities, including Monroe, said he remains absolutely convinced that Otto's collection is authentic and has appraised it as being worth $8.75 million. He said he's not at all surprised by the allegations of fraud.

"You always have jealous fan club members and collectors who question such things," Roesler said. "It goes with the territory."

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