11. Marilyn’s Magic

11. Marilyn’s Magic

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident

Marilyn’s Magic

We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle.

~Marilyn Monroe

I was under strict instructions not to touch anything — especially not The Dress. But there it was, shimmering and beckoning me from the middle of the room at Christie’s, and the security guard had left for the day.

I was working on a magazine cover story in 1999 about the auction of iconic sex symbol Marilyn Monroe’s personal items. For the story, I’d interviewed many of her friends and co-stars, including actors Eli Wallach, Celeste Holm, and Lauren Bacall.

The night before the auction, Christie’s had given me exclusive and private access to all Monroe’s items to look over — exciting things like clothing and make-up, and everyday items like utility bills, pots and pans, and cookbooks.

And . . . The Dress.

“But don’t touch anything!” the guard sternly warned, before he left. I assured him that touching was way, way out of the realm of possibility.

Marilyn Monroe had worn the flesh-colored, skintight, evening sheath the night she breathily sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in May 1962. Less than three months later, she’d be dead; the following year, so would he.

But with this dress — displayed on a specially constructed, ultracurvy mannequin nearly forty years later — the magic was still alive.

What magic, you ask? I’m talking about that wordless aura a woman has when she understands and revels in the power and beauty of her female shape.

Many years ago, I had sat next to Marilyn’s first husband, Jim Dougherty, at a dinner at the Niagara Falls Film Festival (I got to sleep in the same hotel room she did while shooting the film Niagara) and asked him what about her, in person, made her so sensual.

“She believed she was, she felt it,” he said, describing a memory from the year they lived on Catalina Island when Marilyn, aka Norma Jean, was only seventeen.

“She’d put on a pair of little white shorts and take the dog out for a walk every Saturday at 3 P.M.,” said Jim. “The men in the neighborhood made sure to be outside washing their cars or mowing their lawns at that time every week like clockwork, to watch her slowly walk by.”

She was no skinny-minny, he assured me. Judging by her films, it looks like she fluctuated up and down the same 20 pounds that a lot of women do, but it didn’t seem to bother her so much.

“My husband likes me plump!” she once said of playwright Arthur Miller, when reporters suggested she was getting hefty during the Some Like it Hot era and should invest in a good girdle.

I myself was always grateful for Marilyn’s ampleness of chest and how she walked proudly with her shoulders pulled back. I, too, was ample in that area, and watching Marilyn in How to Marry a Millionaire convinced me to trash my tent-like T-shirts and stop hiding.

In recent years, there has been debate about her actual size. Some fashionistas insist she was a size 16 while others argue that sizing was different back then, and she ranged anywhere from a 4 to a 10, depending on her weight.

Now I looked around me in the auction house. I was alone and surrounded by her clothes. Why not check for size tags? I was pretty brilliant, I thought, until a nearby lime green Pucci blouse and the bulky sweater she wore on the beach in that famous Bert Stern photo proved to be tag-less, and so did a black cocktail dress.

I spied what looked like her driver’s license on a pile of books and picked it up:

Height 5’53/4”

Weight 120 pounds

Hmmmm. How was she so curvy? Or did she bat her eyes at the motor vehicle bureau clerk and fill in the form the way the rest of us do — with the weight we intend to be . . . some day.

I’m talking about that wordless aura a woman has when she understands and revels in the power and beauty of her female shape.

I went back to the black cocktail dress and stood in front of the mannequin. With my hands, I measured the width of her waist and then moved my hands to my own middle to compare the two.

And that’s when I discovered firsthand that Marilyn’s waist was tiny! She was petite! There was no way Marilyn was a size 16 as we know it today — ever.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because sexiness and beauty, as I was learning, had no size. It was something, as Jim Dougherty described, a woman felt in her flesh and bones and soul. It was in the way she walked and what she knew about herself.

Sexy was an attitude.

But while I was there, it didn’t hurt to give my attitude a little boost, right?

The Dress was at the center of the room, and I needed to touch it. Perhaps Marilyn’s attitude was still alive in the fibers of the souffle gauze fabric encrusted with graduated rhinestones embroidered in a rosette motif.

I looked around for video cameras and didn’t see any, so I made my way toward it. Ten seconds was all I needed to reach out, touch The Dress, let my fingers linger for a moment, then pull my hand back. In that time, a montage of black and white news clips and movie scenes filled my brain — Joe DiMaggio at bat and crowds cheering, Marilyn with her white dress billowing on Lexington Avenue, John Kennedy handsome in the White House, and Marilyn singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”

Ten seconds was all I needed to feel the magic. The next day, I watched as The Dress sold for $1,267,500 — the most ever paid for a single item of personal clothing, even to this day. The new owner of The Dress said it was a steal. And now I see in the news that it’s up for auction again.

Unfortunately, a writer’s paltry salary doesn’t allow for a $2 million dollar dress allowance. Maybe this time, I can buy one of her Le Creuset pots or something.

But no matter. When I left Marilyn’s things that night in 1999, I felt like a million bucks. I glided out slowly, with my shoulders back and my hips a-sway more than usual.

I looked like a movie goddess; the night janitor will swear to it.

~Natasha Stoynoff

More stories from our partners