My weekend with Marilyn
There’s no bypassing Bendigo Art Gallery’s latest blockbuster. Weekenders motoring into town from Melbourne are greeted by an 8m-high, 15-tonne life-like sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, skirts flying, looming over traffic in a corner of pretty Rosalind Park. Who knew she was wearing cottontails? Well, that’s something I discover as I stroll by, en route to the town’s Victorian-era conservatory to see the dahlias.
Part of US artist Seward Johnson’s Icons Revisited series, the giant Marilyn was previously on display in Chicago and Palm Springs, but here she serves as an outsized poster child for a larger celebration of all things Monroe on display at the go-ahead Bendigo Art Gallery. And much of the town has got in on the act.
Across the road from the gallery, Yorkshireman Paul Morris is dishing up a gargantuan “Some Like it Hot” burger, topped with jalapeno peppers, at his recently opened hipster joint, Boris Murgers (Paul is dyslexic and the name is a family joke). But it’s one “bell of a hurger”, using local beef and served alongside an excellent homemade tomato relish and proper fat-cut, triple-cooked chips with the skin on. (There’s also a “Norma Jean’’ burger and rather cheeky JFK hot dog.)
Down the street, Bendigo furniture-maker Jimmy Possum, whose chaises longues feature in the exhibition as elegant props for Monroe’s boleros and fur stoles, has a pretty-in-pink Marilyn window. Three nearby restaurants — Rocks on Rosalind, Wine Bank on View and Mr Beebe’s — have joined to offer a progressive dessert tour while Bendigo Tramways is operating a special evening trundle about town celebrating with music, wine and canapes the little-known friendship between Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald.
Safe to say the arty end of the old gold mining town — centred on View Street, where’ll you find vintage stores and the wonderful SB Libris bookbinders — has been thoroughly Monroed.
Put together in collaboration with 20th Century Fox, and featuring frocks held by collectors in the US, Europe and Australia, this is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Monroe costumes and personal ephemera ever staged and offers a window on to her short life away from the silver screen, her books, childhood photos, even a simple housecoat daubed with chicken motifs worn when she was briefly pregnant.
Curator Tansy Curtin expects the exhibition to be even more popular than the gallery’s 2012 Grace Kelly frock fest, which attracted 150,000 visitors to the regional Victorian city. “Marilyn transcends gender and generation,” she says, “and is likely to have an even broader appeal.”
The diverting exhibition is beautifully put together, featuring costumes, letters and annotated scripts, interspersed with photographs, film footage and movies running on 1960s-era television sets. Many items are very personal but the exhibition manages to avoid any notion of voyeurism; rather, it feels more like a love letter to one of the most famous women of the 20th century.
While the minutiae of Marilyn’s life — a favourite stained sweater, leather travel trunk, even Mexican tiles from the kitchen of her home in Brentwood, California — are intriguing, many visitors will be here for the frocks, and they won’t be disappointed.The first exhibit as you enter is a cracker — the sparkling cocktail dress worn by Monroe when she entertained troops in Korea in 1954 while on honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio. The dress is owned by an anonymous Australian collector.
I’m astonished to discover how tiny Monroe was; her shoes are positively minuscule. It seems quite a sleight of cinematic hand that we generally perceive her as the epitome of curvy voluptuousness. Standout costumes include the gold lame evening gown worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the beaded and sequined silk and chiffon number from The Prince and the Showgirl and a cocktail dress worn in Some Like it Hot, the Australian designer Orry-Kelly mysteriously appliqueing a little heart above her bottom.
That we have access to so many of Monroe’s most personal items is a result of some rather unsavoury hoarding on the part of close friends and acting coaches Paula and Lee Strasberg. When Monroe died in 1962, she bequeathed them most of her possessions on the understanding they would be distributed among her friends. Instead, the Strasbergs put everything into storage in New York where, for decades, rumours swirled about this gilded stash. In 1999, Lee Strasberg’s third wife, Anna, unlocked the vault and auctioned a large collection through Christie’s.
So here we stand in Bendigo peering at the rather sad accoutrements of a life cut short, half-used bottles of makeup, and a copy of F. Matthias Alexander’s Man’s Supreme Inheritance bookmarked at possibly the last page she read before she died on August 5, 1962.
Be sure not to miss the exhibited letters, including one from the studio asking Monroe not to attend the President’s Ball, as she was behind schedule filming Something’s Got to Give. She went anyway, sang happy birthday to JFK and three months later was dead. Monroe would have been 90 this June.
Christine McCabe was a guest of Tourism Victoria.
Clockwise from top, Seward Johnson’s Marilyn Monroe statue in Bendigo; the city’s art gallery; a dress by Australian designer Orry-Kelly worn in Some Like it Hot; a 1958 portrait on display in the exhibition