It has been more than 50 years since the passing of Marilyn Monroe. Despite the brevity of her years, dying at the age of 36, the starlet left behind a major imprint on the film industry. She went through life embodying two individuals — Norma Jeane, her birth name, and Marilyn Monroe, her celebrity alter ego. Many biographers have scrutinized the actress’s life, attempting to crack the code of her identity and the circumstances behind her death.
Although Monroe did not have the chance to fully disclose her story, an exhibit at the Hollywood Museum gives the public a look into the actress’s life, both on and offset. The collection is fascinating and provides an intimate glimpse into the life of an icon. Following is a look at one of my past visits.
Welcome to the Max Factor Studio
The Hollywood Museum was formerly the Max Factor studio, named after the makeup artist to Hollywood starlets, Monroe being one. Max Factor opened his studio in 1935 and it was the hot spot for women to get the full beauty treatment, from makeup to hair.
You can feel the glamour and history when you arrive at the entrance, and of course, Marilyn is there to greet the guests! The ground floor contains recreated rooms where celebrities like Lucille Ball got their hair done. There are four separate rooms, each named after a hair color – the blonde room, the brunette room, the brownette room and the redhead room. Each houses photos and memorabilia of silver screen beauties with these hair shades. It is in the blonde room where Max Factor created what would become Marilyn’s signature hair color, forever cementing her as the blonde bombshell.
Getting to Know Marilyn Monroe
The second level of the building features the Marilyn Monroe exhibit. Upon entering there is a display case that has various pictures of the actress and a few magazines from the 1950s with Marilyn gracing the covers.
In the case is the infamous first issue of Playboy which has the nude photos, now known as the Red Velvet shoot, taken of Marilyn before she made it big in Hollywood. Monroe had done the shoot with a photographer named Tom Kelley and the pictures were later featured in calendars. After making it big, the discovery of the calendars and the connection to Marilyn caused concern for her studio. When news broke of the scandalous photo shoot, it made headlines and made Monroe vulnerable to the negative criticisms of her peers and fans.
Instead of brushing it under the rug, Marilyn confronted the matter and explained that she did the shoot to earn extra money. She was a struggling actress trying to get by and people sympathized with her. The August 1952 issue of Time magazine reported that when a brazen individual asked Marilyn if she really had nothing on in these photos, she cheekily replied, “I had the radio on.”
Marilyn did wear clothes, and plenty of them. The wardrobe displayed contains pieces she donned on set and in her private life, and of course they are nothing short of glamorous. William Travilla designed costumes and gowns for many of Monroe’s films and public appearances; she deeply trusted him with making her look good. In a personal letter to Travilla, Marilyn wrote, “Billy dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.”
One of Travilla’s creations was a stunning green gown worn by Marilyn for “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Unfortunately, the scenes where she wears this piece were cut from the film. In the same display case is an orange dress that the actress wore for many publicity shots and magazine cover shoots. There is also the flapper dress she wore as Sugar in “Some Like It Hot.” The photos displayed show Marilyn in the dress with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Marilyn had a taste for fashion and loved looking her best. It’s no secret that her image was important to her and was crucial to the persona she created. Interestingly, the actress gave different numbers for her measurements to people who asked, and her size varies in reports.
Another fashion highlight is the “sexy, black, cocktail wiggle” dress. Despite Monroe being a star, she didn’t own many formal clothes and would often borrow from 20th Century studio’s massive wardrobe closets. This dress, adorned in lace and sequins, is one that she bought and was among her prized possessions. It became a staple as she wore it to several public events and photo shoots.
Another dress on display looks very similar to the black cocktail number but is a deep purple shade. The piece was a floor-length gown that Marilyn insisted on having shortened to below her knees. She wore it in Korea to entertain the soldiers, the primary reason she had length removed from the dress. She wanted to wear something fun and sexy for the boys overseas, and she delivered, putting on quite a show!
One of the more extravagant pieces that screams movie star is the beaver fur coat, which was a gift to Marilyn from her husband Arthur Miller. The interior of the coat is lined with a scarlet satin. Quite luxurious and just the thing to keep her warm, Monroe donned the fur jacket to the cast party for “Let’s Make Love.” When she separated from Miller, the coat became a sleeping blanket for her dog Maf.
Marilyn’s style was not always so over-the-top, and she enjoyed classic, uncomplicated looks. Marilyn would lounge at home in her pink Pucci blouse and wore the silk jersey top in a photo shoot with George Barris. Marilyn adored designer Emilio Pucci and owned many of his pieces. She appreciated his eye for feminine and sophisticated style.
Of course, we cannot discuss the fashion of Marilyn Monroe without mentioning her makeup! Her signature dark eye liner and red lip created the iconic image we recognize today. Her cosmetic kit consisted of face cream, foundation, “pat-a-creme” (the beige compact), face powder, blush, eye liner and lip liner brush. Although she occasionally had makeup artists beautify her, Marilyn took immense joy in doing this herself. She was acutely aware of what flattered her features and what didn’t. This is why Marilyn photographed so perfectly; she knew how to position herself for the camera and closely scrutinized pictures from shoots, discarding ones she disliked.
Other Marilyn Monroe Artifacts
One of the more intimate memorabilia showcased at the exhibit is a drinking glass set that belonged to Marilyn when she lived at her Brentwood house, the last place she would call home. Monroe purchased the set during one of her visits to Mexico and the photograph behind the glasses shows one of these on her kitchen counter top.
Speaking of glasses, an assortment of wines from Marilyn Wines can also be viewed. Every year, the company releases a different collection of wines that have a photograph of the actress on the bottle. The bottles are a fabulous collector’s item. The selection includes Marilyn Merlot, Marilyn Cabernet, Norma Jeane, the Velvet Collection, plus a 2017 Marilyn Monroe Rosé, to name just a few.
During this visit, I had the privilege of meeting Lois Banner, the author of “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.” She was signing copies of her book and I briefly spoke with her about her inspiration for this biography on the late actress. So much has already been written about Monroe, but Banner presents a unique perspective. The author had access to many of Marilyn’s personal archives that had not previously been examined, such as her psychiatric records, and she analyzes the abuse the actress endured throughout her younger years. When I asked her what she was trying to gain from the massive amounts of information on Marilyn, Banner replied that she wanted to solve the code of Monroe’s complicated life. She wanted to bring as many of the pieces of the puzzle together to understand the woman behind Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe Immortalized
Although it’s been more than half a century since her passing, Marilyn’s presence has never been more felt or more strongly alive as it is now. People from all parts of the globe travel to get a glance at her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to pay respect at her grave, to glimpse her ghost at the Roosevelt Hotel, to experience a bit of that Hollywood magic. Marilyn Monroe will never be forgotten and the memory of her will continue to ignite adoration in people.
When I attended the 50th memorial service for Marilyn in 2012, it was noted that she often said, “Hold a good thought for me.” The exhibit at the Hollywood Museum helps to do that.
NOTE: This piece was originally published when I visited the Hollywood Museum in 2013. Information has been updated accordingly.