When she died, Marilyn Monroe left her belongings to her father figure Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio, whose actress daughter, Susan, was a trusted friend and confidante to the star. Drawing on Susan's unpublished memoir, PATRICIA BOSWORTH -who experienced firsthand the heady days when Monroe, Richard Burton, and Peter O'Toole orbited the Strasberg household-examines how that legacy, including a fabulous pearl necklace, became entangled in the breakdown of a family
This is a true story. It all happened ... and it's proved to me that life is really stranger than fiction-that nothing is too wonderful or terrible to be true. -From Confessions of a New Age Heretic, an unpublished memoir by Susan Strasberg, left unfinished at her death.
On October 27 and 28, 1999, Christie's held a noisy, highly publicized auction of Marilyn Monroe's personal belongings, "a veritable time capsule of a great Hollywood icon," according to Nancy Valentino, a senior vice president at the auction house. Valentino estimated that the take from the Monroe auction would fall somewhere between the $5.7 million raised by the 1997 sale of dresses worn by Princess Diana and the $34.5 million earned the year before from the auction of Jackie Onassis's things. As it turned out, Marilyn's stuff brought in $13.4 million.
The approximately 1,000 items sold included 20 pairs of Ferragamo stilettos (slightly sweat-stained at the heels), rainbow-colored Pucci shifts, Maximilian furs, lace bustiers, baby-doll nighties, and furry mules. There was a gold Magnavox television, a set of gilt lighters from Frank Sinatra's Cal Neva lodge, and the platinum-and-diamond wedding ring Joe DiMaggio gave Marilyn. The star's temporary driver's license went for $145,500 and an anonymous bidder paid $80,000 for the certificate Marilyn got when she converted to Judaism. "All these things reflect Marilyn's vulnerability," Nancy Valentino said. "Vulnerability was part of Marilyn Monroe's irresistible appeal." Some of the relics had a haunting quality: an open compact half full of crumbling pink face powder, a strand of blond hair clinging to a hat. Then there were the poems Marilyn scribbled to herself: "I'm lucky to be alive," read one. "It's hard to figure out when everything I feel hurts!"
One wondered how Monroe would have reacted. There was something creepy, almost obscene, about selling a celebrity's personal belongings to strangers. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times bluntly called this "stuff of fame" phenomenon part of our "vulture culture."
Marilyn Monroe died on August 4, 1962, at the age of 36, "of acute barbiturate poisoning," according to the Los Angeles coroner. She left all her clothes and personal effects to her friend and mentor Lee Strasberg, the famous director of the Actors Studio.
When Strasberg passed away in 1982, his third wife, Anna Mizrahi Strasberg, inherited everything. The vivacious, auburn-haired former actress had never known Marilyn Monroe, and she has never explained why she decided to auction off all the star's belongings. (Anna Strasberg declined to be interviewed for this story and said that questions submitted to her about its content contained information that was false.) Monroe's will stipulated that Lee Strasberg "distribute these, in his sole discretion, among my friends, colleagues and those to whom I am devoted." Until Anna Strasberg assumed responsibility for the estate, however, Monroe's things had been in storage for years-"in white coffin-shaped boxes," curator Meredith Etherington Smith wrote. Everything had remained in pristine condition except for the sober little black dress Marilyn had worn when she announced her engagement to Arthur Miller. The moths had chewed it to bits.
Anna Strasberg was not present at the auction, so she didn't hear the gasps and applause when the glittery, formfitting, flesh-colored gown Marilyn had worn when she sang a sultry "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden went for $1.26 million. The dress was purchased by Robert Schagrin, co-owner of the New York shop Gotta Have It!, which specializes in pop-culture memorabilia. "Marilyn Monroe is one of a few international icons who will transcend time," Schagrin says. "Along with Elvis, Babe Ruth, and the Beatles, she is always a great investment for collectors. She's just gonna increase in value."
Ten months before, Schagrin had had what he calls a "really weird experience.... I mean, I had never had somebody die in my arms before-right after I made one of the most important sales of my life!" On January 21, 1999, he had an 11 a.m. appointment with Susan Strasberg, Lee's daughter, who long ago had become the youngest star on Broadway when, at 17, she electrified audiences with her luminous performance as Anne Frank. "I'd just sold Susie's most treasured possession-Marilyn Monroe's necklace of vintage pearls-and I had the check for $100,000 in my pocket," he recalls. "I was delivering it to her that morning. The pearls were one of the greatest artifacts my partner and I had ever purchased; we sold them to Mikimoto, who'd made them back in 1954. Marilyn got the pearls in Japan when she was on her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio."
In 1957, Marilyn gave the pearls to Lee Strasberg's second wife, Paula, who was her coach at the time. Susan inherited them when her mother died. She had kept them for 32 years, but when she needed money to pay bills and help out her daughter, Jenny, she asked Schagrin to sell them for her. "I got Susie the buyer Mikimoto right away," Schagrin says. "'I'll never forget what you did for me,' Susie told me. She seemed so happy, so relieved."
For several years, the 60-year-old actress had been writing and teaching and living off and on in a borrowed apartment on Central Park South which belonged to her close friend the actress Tanya Lopert, who spent much of her time in Paris. Schagrin says he would occasionally visit Susan in the apartment. At first he didn't realize how ill she was. She never talked about her condition, although she mentioned traveling to San Francisco for treatment with a healer, and she didn't discuss her precarious financial situation. "Susie was a very proud woman, a beautiful human being. She put a good face on everything," he says. Schagrin had sold one other item for her, in early 1998, when she first came into his shop to talk about the pearls. It was a pen-and-ink drawing Marilyn had done on Fire Island in the summer of 1955 and given to Susan.
In the course of his visits to the apartment on Central Park South, Schagrin had met some of Susan's friends, including the actress Cynthia Adler and the teacher Geraldine Baron, as well as the hairdresser John Patrick, who was one of her intimates. He'd often cut and shape Susan's hair when she didn't feel like going out, and they would gossip together. A maid, Mildred Smith, was there every day to shop and clean and cook. "You're all part of my crazy family," Susan would say with a laugh. Occasionally she and Schagrin would have tea, and she would tell him about her daughter, Jenny, who was 32 and lived in Los Angeles. They were very close and spoke on the phone several times a day.
During her conversations with Schagrin, Susan would often refer to the ups and downs of her career: her triumph as Anne Frank; her disastrous romance with Richard Burton; the biker movies she had made with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda during the 1960s; her travels to Australia, Japan, Africa, and India. For the past 20 years she'd been on a spiritual journey that totally engrossed her. She was writing about it, she said. Her earlier memoirs, Bittersweet and Marilyn and Me (about her close friendship with Monroe), had both been best-sellers.
She did not tell Schagrin that in the new book she was trying to resolve once and for all the terrible pain and disappointment she felt toward her father for disinheriting her and her younger brother, Johnny.
Strasberg had left everything to Anna and their two young sons, Adam-Lee and David-Lee; he had not left Susan a single memento, not even the gold toothpicks she had given him or the long silver spoon she'd bought him for the coffee ice-cream sodas he loved to make with pineapple syrup. "Actually," she wrote in her unpublished memoir, "I hadn't expected anything major for myself in spite of the fact that I'd given my father so much money over the first thirteen years of my career."
Susan recalled how Lee had said to her, "Don't worry, Jenny will be taken care of like the boys." He promised that over and over again, Susan wrote, yet there was no mention of Jenny-his only granddaughter-in his will. "He had adored Jenny," Susan wrote. When friends told her she'd been naive and too trusting, she would cry, "It must have been a mistake!"
An irony not lost on Susan was "that a good part of [my father's] estate was 75% of Marilyn's estate." The troubled star had assumed that Lee Strasberg would "care for her, protect her in death as he had tried to do," Susan wrote, "if unsuccessfully in life. Now she would be in the hands of people who had never known or loved or respected her as she so desperately wanted. Marilyn Monroe, who was not so unreasonably paranoid about strangers, now belonged to them."
Later, according to her memoir, a lawyer friend of Strasberg's confided to Susan, "Lee cried when he changed his will." (Through her spokesman, Peter Browne, Anna Strasberg maintains that she did not know the will had been changed until she heard it read in the lawyer's office.)
Susan did not tell Schagrin any of this. When she spoke of her father, he says, it was in glowing terms: he had a "jeweler's eye for discovering talent"; he nurtured talent, revered talent; he said that talent is not only something you are born with but also what you allow yourself to experience and perceive. But Susan did admit to a rivalry with Marilyn Monroe after she moved to New York to study acting with Lee at the Actors Studio and became a virtual member of the Strasberg family. "My dad treated Marilyn Monroe more like his daughter than me," Susan would tell Schagrin, and then she would laugh her beautiful, sad, melodious laugh.
Schagrin says that when he put the check for $100,000 in his pocket that morning he was looking forward to seeing Susan smile when he gave …