My week­end with Mar­i­lyn

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRIS­TINE Mc­CABE

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

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