Marilyn Monroe’s Two Secrets

What I learned about the icon by folding her capri pants.

Marilyn Monroe.
What made Marilyn Monroe such a fashion icon?

Photograph by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

In this season of holiday extravagance, it’s worth revisiting Simon Doonan’s take on Marilyn Monroe’s modest estate, which he helped Christie’s prepare for auction. The excerpt below, originally published in 2012, is from Simon Doonan’s Gay Men Don’t Get Fat.

There was, for many years, a big photograph of Judy Garland by the late, great William Claxton duct-taped to the wall of the Barneys display studio where I worked. In this compelling image, Liza’s highly strung mother is caught backstage wrapped in a towel. Her face is a festival of anguish. One rigor mortis hand claws the air. The other clutches at a bottle of rubbing alcohol which has clearly just been torn from her grasp. Judy is having a preshow meltdown.

Next to this picture is another, taken five minutes later by the same photographer. There is Judy, dressed in a black-sequined number, standing confidently onstage and belting it out to what one can only imagine must have been a sea of frenzied, weeping, and adoring homosexuals.

Needless to say, these images were, over the years, repeatedly defaced. Speech bubbles were added to Judy’s mouth: “L’chaim! “Bring me a chai latte!” etc., etc. Fictitious liquor labels were applied to the bottle of rubbing alcohol. Despite the graffiti, the picture endured, a metaphor for the agony and the ecstasy experienced by creative types like us.

We gays adore a tragic woman. There is a force field around every pill-popping pop sensation which ignites our gay souls and draws us in. The list of iconic tragic chicks who enjoy gay adulation is a long one. From Edie Sedgwick to Maria Callas to Anna Nicole Smith, we inverts have accumulated a cavalcade of tragic, tormented, drug-addled lovelies in our gay hall of fame.

At the turn of the century, I got a unique look at the greatest tragic gay icon of all time. Judy pales in comparison. I am talking about Marilyn.

When Christie’s auction house announced the sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal estate, my interest was piqued. When they called me and offered me the opportunity to design the auction installation, I reached for the rubbing alcohol and began screaming at the top of my lungs.

I have always enjoyed watching Marilyn wiggling and whispering across the screen. I relate to her desire to self-educate. I identified with some of the grimmer aspects of her childhood. Like me, she had done her time in a public orphanage. Like me, she had a lobotomy in the family. The shadow of mental illness hung over her. I know the feeling. I always empathized with her ballsy struggle to replace dismal aspects of her past with a life of glamour.

I remember well the day when M.M. kicked the bucket. It was 1962. I was staying with my toothless, drunken grandfather in Northern Ireland.

Every time he came home from the pub, which was twice a day, he was in the habit of announcing his presence with the phrase, “Guess who’s dead?” Without waiting for an answer, he would divulge the identity of whichever of his old pals had given up the ghost on this particular day. A few days later he would transform his collapsed old face by inserting his false teeth. He wore them only for funerals.

On this particular day the question “Guess who’s dead?” was followed by him plopping the Belfast paper on the kitchen table. MARILYN MONROE DEAD AT 36 screeched the headline. “Poor wee thing!” he said, in a rare burst of tenderness. Later he went back to the pub and got thoroughly obliterated. I would like to think this was in honor of the screen goddess, but since he did this every day, it is impossible to verify.

Little did I know, as I read the details of her untimely death, that I would be fondling her frocks before the century was done.

Upon her death, Marilyn’s personal effects had been boxed up and placed in storage, and there they had remained for 37 years. I was present in the Christie’s offices the day they were unpacked.

Paging Tutankhamen!

Unpacking Marilyn’s possessions was a surreal and extraordinary experience. I touched her Pucci blouses. I folded her black capri pants. I found myself holding crackly, dried-up old shopping bags—JAX of Beverly Hills—filled with stockings, slips, and brassieres. I touched hairbrushes with blonde hairs in them. I sniffed the Mexican wrap sweater she wore in the famous beach photo shoot, and detected a whiff of perfume.

The process of cataloguing and displaying Marilyn’s bits took months. During this time I learned some crazily illuminating stuff about the breathy blond bombshell. Brace yourself for some next-level revelations.

Right away, I discovered that Marilyn was shockingly and unimaginably slender. She was sort of like Kate Moss but fleshier on top. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

When it came to finding mannequins to fit her dresses, I simply couldn’t. M.M.’s drag was too small for the average window dummy. Smaller “petite” mannequins existed, but I could not bring myself to place Marilyn’s iconic garments on these perky fiberglass dollies. The frocks seemed too important and historic. For the public installation I decided to give them the Shroud of Turin treatment.

I laid the dresses in rows on top of angled panels—sort of like bodies after a plane crash—and accompanied them with a photo of M.M. herself in each frock. It worked. There was the black strappy gown she wore in Korea. And there, in the adjacent photo, was M.M. strutting about in front of the troops.

The only exception was the sparkly Jean Louis number Marilyn wore for the Kennedy happy-birthday chanson. For this dress, a custom Lucite mannequin was made.

Let’s return for a moment to that revelation about Marilyn’s size. Prepare to get extremely depressed.

When you look at Marilyn on-screen and—armed with the information I have just provided—you realize that the busty, ample gal brimming over Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot is literally one-third your size, you have every right to become suicidal. If she looks like that—zaftig, almost chubby—what on earth would you look like under similar circumstances?

Conventional wisdom says that the camera adds five pounds. After my Marilyn experience, I would say it’s more like 500 pounds.

This schism, between what one thinks one actually looks like and what one looks like when one is represented on film or in a photograph, is a central issue for the women and gays of today. This is why we, the gays and the girls, make fat jokes all day long.

We live in an age where photo documentation is not just part of life, it is life. Any and all social gatherings are relentlessly filmed and YouTubed and snapped and Facebooked to the point where people do not even feel they exist unless somebody is lensing the moment.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Cameras are not our friends. Photographs are brutal and unkind. They ricochet images in which we look three times fatter than we thought we were. Back in Marilyn’s day it was only movie stars whose lives were so ferociously documented. Now it is every gay and every girl on earth.

As a result we are all striving for a new level of thinness. Now we all desperately want to be camera-thin. This has forced girls and gays to adopt extreme measures. In every office across the country every gal and every gay has a bottle of an alarming bilge-colored beverage at hand.

“I’m on a cleanse” is the mantra du jour.

No gal will walk down the office hallway unless she is wearing skyscraper porno heels that attenuate her entire body into camera-readiness. We have all turned into a bunch of Marilyns.

Before we move on to my next Marilyn revelation, and before anyone takes yet one more unflattering picture of your ass, let me offer you a couple of great posing tips. You cannot stop your drunken pals from taking your picture, but you can minimize the horror with a little fashion insider knowledge.

Tip 1: THURSDAY. Irving Penn, the greatest fashion photographer of all time, allegedly advised his models to say the word “Thursday” right before he snapped his camera. Thursday was his “cheese.” “Thursday” creates a glamorous moue followed by a natural, subtle smile. If some crazy chick lurches toward you with an iPhone, say “Thursday” and hope for the best.

Tip 2: CHIN ON THE LEDGE. Kate Moss has been overheard repeating the phrase “chin on the ledge” while shooting. Kate’s mantra is accompanied by a light neck stretch and a proffering toward the camera of her magnificent bone structure. Kate’s tip will maximize what little neck you have and minimize your chins.

No offense!

And for my second Marilyn bet-you-didn’t-see-that-coming revelation …

Marilyn Monroe was a huge movie star, but she owned diddly-squat. She was not materialistic!

Marilyn’s estate was a bunch of poignant schlock. The auction raised more than $13 million, but not because of any intrinsic value in the numbered lots. There were no Renoirs or Picassos. Her knickknacks were pedestrian. Her cookware was greasy. Her spatulas were bent. Even her Golden Globe was broken.

The majority of her clothing showed surprising wear and tear. She had worn it all repeatedly and there just wasn’t that much of it.

Her jewelry? With the exception of her DiMaggio wedding ring it was a bunch of paste danglers and costume crap.

Shoes? Yes, there were several pairs of black suede Ferragamo stilettos with worn heels. But Marilyn—brace yourself for another shocker—was more into books than shoes. Her poignant desire to cultivate her mind and give herself an education resulted in an extensive library of first editions. Take that, Carrie Bradshaw!

This stunning lack of materialism made me love and respect her more. What do you need in life other than a good book, a few capri pants, and a cotton sundress or two?

Yes, there were a few fur coats. But compared to the gimme-gimme-gimme stars of today whose hangar-size closets are bursting with freebies, she was a total bread-and-water-eating, hair-shirt-wearing, self-denying nun.

Marilyn the enigma. Marilyn the sphinx. Marilyn the gay icon. Will she endure?

According to marketing folks at Christie’s, the M.M. auction was timed to coincide with the turn of the century, after which it was anticipated that her popularity would begin a slow and natural decline. Stop screeching with horror and indignation and remember that exactly the same thing happened to those silent-movie stars, back in the day. In 1920 Mary Pickford—in many ways far more famous and well liked than Marilyn—could not leave her house without hordes of people yanking on her ringlets. Mary who? And when Rudolph Valentino died, there were riots and people killed themselves. Does anybody remember the old kohl-eyed poof now?

I recently rewatched Some Like It Hot. When Marilyn walks down the train platform—her luminescent beauty is showcased in a black tailored fur-trimmed coat with a feather-trimmed cloche hat, and she is clutching her little ukulele case—she is the hippest, most stylish chick in the universe. It’s hard to imagine that the poofs and style addicts of the future will not get a chill when they encounter such loveliness.