Marilyn’s JFK dress under the hammer of an Irish auctioneer
An Athlone native will soon conduct the world’s biggest sale of Monroe memorabilia
THAT dress: Martin Nolan of Julien’s Auctions and William Doyle of Newbridge Silverware examine Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday Mr President” number, on display at the Museum of Style Icons and up for auction in Los Angeles. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds
Pure Marilyn: the slinky red dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) and the green satin one-piece from “Bus Stop” (1956).
This month an Irishman will conduct the biggest auction ever of personal items belonging to Marilyn Monroe, including the legendary “naked” dress she wore to sing Happy Birthday to US president John F Kennedy in Madison Square Garden less then three months before she died.
The Los Angeles event is drawn from the estate of Monroe mentor Lee Strasberg, Jersey-based collector David Gainsborough Roberts and the late financier Marty Zweig. It includes everything from movie costumes and jewellery to letters, gifts and documents, down to recipes, kitchen implements and even used cosmetics.
“Marilyn was a hoarder and kept everything. Growing up and having so little, these things were her constants,” says Martin Nolan, originally from Kiltoom, Athlone, and now executive director and co-owner of Julien’s Auctions. The LA “auction house to the stars” is famous for its sales of rock and entertainment memorabilia and the personal property of celebrities.
For the Monroe auction, Nolan spent more than a year going through six huge storage units from the Strasberg estate. Monroe left everything to Strasberg, who founded the Actors Studio, and in 1999 his daughter put more than 500 items up for sale.
Among them was the Happy Birthday gown, which was sold on the first night to Zweig for a record $1.2 million, the most ever paid for a single personal item of dress. It originally cost $1,475 (a huge amount in 1962), which Monroe paid for herself.
The current sale also includes some 40 other dresses, including a sheer black and sequin number from Some Like It Hot; a pink linen halter wiggle dress from Niagara; a green satin one-piece from Bus Stop; and a bias crepe evening dress worn to the premiere of The Rose Tattoo. There is also jewellery, handbags, fur coats and stoles.
Other notable items include a red alligator jewellery case that originally belonged to Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio (he used it as a briefcase), a first-bound edition of third husband Arthur Miller’s plays dedicated to her, and a record album from Truman Capote. Of the 15 pairs of shoes, five are Ferragamo.
The Monroe event is the latest for Nolan and Julien’s. Recent auctions include Cher’s jewellery, furs, furniture, costumes, art and cars, which realised $3.5 million, items owned by Michael Jackson (more than $5 million), and a drum kit from Ringo Starr (a record $2.2 million).
Other items to go under recent hammers have belonged to Bette Midler, Jimmy Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Pelé. Julien’s Auctions’ clients include Dior, Patek Philippe, Ferragamo, Pucci, Piaget and Newbridge Silverware.
It’s a long way from the Irish civil service to auctioning Marilyn Monroe memorabilia in Beverly Hills, but Nolan’s career has taken many interesting turns since he left home nearly 30 years ago. One of a family of seven, he worked in Teagasc (then An Foras Talúntais) while earning a commerce degree. In 1987 he headed to Sydney, where he landed a job with Digital Equipment Corporation (now Hewlett Packard).
Nolan returned home a year later, but after receiving a Donnelly visa – one of the successful few of the 19 million applications from 36 countries – he moved to New York and began his American career as a bellman in the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue.
“I learnt so much there, more than I could have done anywhere else,” Nolan recalled during a recent visit to Dublin accompanying the Monroe dress on its only viewing in Europe. “I became a bell captain and then doorman and met, among others, Margaret Thatcher, James Brown, Sylvestor Stallone, Oprah Winfrey and Mohammed Ali.” He particularly remembers the enormous size of Ali’s hands.
The young Athlone lad then decided to train as a stockbroker, working from 8-8 but paid only for 9-5. “I was treated like a dog because you were a trainee, but I learnt so much again. I was pitching Euro Disney stock and Guinness.” He later worked for JP Morgan and then wealth managers Merrill Lynch.
The Julien connection
It was while with Merrill Lynch that Nolan met Darren Julien, the Indiana entrepreneur who founded Julien’s Auctions. They became friends.
“He was 36, had four employees then but no sense of finance, and was dating Barbara Streisand at the time,” Nolan says. “If she worked with you, you had to be doing something special. It opened a lot of doors.” He resigned from Merrill Lynch in 2005, joined Julien’s and has overseen its steady expansion ever since.
Success has brought its rewards. These days he lives in Santa Monica, has homes in London and New York, and occasionally comes to Ireland to visit his mother Kitty. What he loves most about his work is the travel, the people “and most of all the stories – like the one around Monroe’s dress”.
Those intrigued by celebrity mementoes are often dismissed as culture vultures, but Nolan says the fascination with celebrity has grown exponentially in recent years.
“People feel that they know celebrities through social media,” he says. “I started in 2005, and the growth of interest and desire to own or see, be involved with, touch or experience three-dimensional items – as opposed to paintings – has expanded because people can relate to a piece of jewellery or a dress and the stories around them. They can visualise the person wearing it.”
The star of the Monroe auction undoubtedly will be the Happy Birthday dress, all souffle gauze and 2,500 rhinestones, which is expected to net several million dollars.
“At 54 years, it is still in such good condition and as fashionable today as it was then,” Nolan says. “About 10,000 people came to see it in 1999 and it has been in private hands until now. Though there is interest from private collectors all over the world, I would hope that it goes to a museum, where it can continue to be on public view.”
Marilyn Monroe’s Happy Birthday dress has been on display at the Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge, Co Kildare, its only viewing in Europe. The final day of viewing is Sunday, November 6th (newbridgesilverware.com/mosi). The Monroe auction will take place on November 17th-19th in Los Angeles (juliensauctions.com).