Monday, December 8, 2008

Nostalgia under the hammer at Christie’s

Lot 67 — Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe personal wardrobe
An evening stole of black silk jersey trimmed with white fur, from the Marilyn Monroe estate sale, with a photograph of Marilyn wearing this stole (CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2008).

Estimate: £10,000-15,000
Sold: £42,050
Nostalgia under the hammer at Christie’s
by Peter Evans

Involuntary memory is a fickle and mysterious thing, as Marcel Proust discovered when he tasted the tea-dipped madeleine that reminded him of a part of his life he had forgotten, and which launched him on his gigantic, autobiographical masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past.

What did it for me last week – recalling the past, not embarking on a gitantic masterpiece - was not a taste of madeleine but a telephone call. It was from a friend telling me that Pop Culture, a new auction category at Christie’s, was to feature iconic 20th and 21st century material from the world of film and celebrity. The items, she said, would include one of Paul Newman’s motor racing outfits, some classic early 30s portraits of Marlene Dietrich by Irving Chidnoff, plus Marilyn Monroe’s black silk stole, trimmed with white fox fur – and a pair of James Dean’s trousers.

Natalie Wood and James Dean and in Rebel without a Cause.
While not opening quite the same floodgates of nostalgia and memory that surged through old Marcel’s effete body when the ‘warm tea, and crumbs’ of his madeleine, touched his palate, and kicked off the longest reminiscence in literature, the mention of Monroe’s silk stole and James Dean’s trousers caused a bit of a traffic jam down my own memory lane.

When I called Christie’s and learned that Dean’s trousers were expected to fetch between $17, 000 and $21,000 – but, then, they were the trousers he wore in the fight scene with Rock Hudson in George Stevens’ Giant, Dean’s last film before fatally crashing his Porsche on his way to Salinas, California – I recalled a story Natalie Wood told me, not long before her own death by drowning in 1981, about the jeans Dean was wearing the day they first met. (It strikes me, as I recall this story now, the apophthegm that stardom is often glamorous, tragic and short, is nevertheless a cliché exemplified by the lives of these two stars.)

A shade over five feet tall, with a delicate bone structure that made her seem even smaller, and younger, Wood, when I first met her, had played leading roles in a couple of dozen movies, including such classics as Inside Daisy Clover, Splendor in the Grass, Gypsy and West Side Story. She was married – between her two marriages to Robert Wagner – to the English producer Richard Gregson, and living in London’s Pimlico, a district on the racy side of Belgravia. She was always wonderful company with a spirit and a wicked sense of fun that were truly infectious.

We dined at Burke’s club in Mayfair. Decorated with Christiane Kubrick’s brilliantly colored oil paintings, it was the coolest restaurant in London, rivalling the legendary White Elephant – both, like swinging London itself, now gone. That evening Wood, Dean’s leading lady in Rebel Without a Cause, entertained us with stories about her androgynous, sexually ambivalent costar who became, along with Brando, the most enduring male icon of post-World War II American film.
Dean's Porche Spyder after the fatal accident.
Dean had finished Elia Kazan’s East of Eden but the movie had not yet been released when Nicholas Ray cast him in Rebel Without a Cause.

‘Jimmy had been making East of Eden at Warners at the same time I was filming The Silver Chalice with Paul Newman on the next sound stage,’ Wood remembered.
It was Newman’s first film; he played the silversmith who made the cup that Christ gave to his disciples at the Last Supper, and which eventually disappeared.

‘I played a teenage slave girl, Helena, who grows up to become Virginia Mayo,’ Natalie explained. ‘To be honest, I couldn’t grow up fast enough! My God, it was a terrible movie, a terrible role, and I was terrible beyond belief.

‘My hair was dyed blonde to match Virginia’s, but I couldn’t handle the blue contact lenses they made me wear to match Virginia’s baby blues. After a couple of days, my eyes were swollen and hideously inflamed, and I said enough is enough. So in the film my eyes change from blue to my own dark brown and back to blue again when Virginia takes over. Nobody seemed to notice – but Jimmy did. He noticed everything: he said it was the most entertaining bit of the whole film. But it worried me. He told me, “Listen, you got fourteenth billing, for chrissake; start worrying when you get top billing and have to carry the whole goddam movie!”
Paul Newman and Rosemarie Stack. Photo by Ellen Graham from 'The Bad & The Beautiful.'
‘But although Jimmy had been working on the adjoining sound stage when I was making Silver Chalice, we never met until we began rehearsals for Rebel, and it was his ass I saw first. We’d been waiting for him for an hour or more when he finally arrived – by climbing into the rehearsal room backward through a window. It was a very pretty ass clad in a pair of scruffy old jeans held up by a safety pin. Best entrance I ever saw,’ she said.

Later, when Wood confessed to Dean that first impression of him – ‘he seemed totally weird to me,’ she added at Burke’s – Dean told her: ‘You never wear your best pants when you go out to fight for freedom and truth – or,’ he added with sly humor, ‘if you want people to remember you!’

Lot 72 — Marilyn Monroe
A tailored jacket of fine grey wool embellished with deep fox fur collar, the three-quarter length sleeves with turn-up cuffs, lined with slate grey silk; with Christie's lot tag from the auction The Personal Property Of Marilyn Monroe. (CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2008).

Estimate: £4,000-6,000
Sold: £39,650
I wonder what he would have made of the bespoke tuxedo pants (waist 31 ½ in) he wore as Jett Rink in Giant going for a rather disappointing $8,080 – somewhat short of Christie’s high expectations?

But, of course, as Natalie would no doubt have told them, they had the wrong trousers. It would have been quite another story if a pair of Dean’s scruffy old jeans and safety pin had been on the block.

But while the story of James Dean’s trousers is amusing, as well as curiously insightful about the wiles of stardom and price of ancient celebrity, Lot number 67 – Marilyn Monroe’s ‘evening stole of black silk jersey, trimmed with white fur’ – told a more poignant tale. Once draped across the naked shoulders of the most desirable woman in the world, the savagery of its sexuality diminished without her presence, this wisp of outdated fashion seemed only sadly connected with the anguish of Monroe’s final loneliness.

Perhaps that is why the bidders at last Thursday’s London auction, and those on the telephones around the world, went crazy. Expected to go for no more than $26,000 tops, it finally sold for $49,946. Moreover, her tailored jacket of fine grey wool, embellished with a deep fox fur collar, estimated to fetch $10,000 went for more than three times that at $47,008.

It was Pierre Balmain who observed that the trick of wearing mink is to look as though you are wearing a cloth coat. And the trick of wearing a cloth coat is to look as though you are wearing mink. But the woman who claimed that she wore nothing but Chanel No. 5 between the sheets could make anything look good, of course.

Paul Newman’s race driver’s outfit went for $3,232. An early ‘30s portrait of Marlene Dietrich, probably by Eugene Robert Richee, with a guide price of $860, fetched $8,226.

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