We should never again hear anyone declare that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, a size 14 or any other stand-in for full-figured, zaftig or plump. Fifteen thousand people have now seen dramatic evidence to the contrary. Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny.
The 15,000 were the visitors who turned out over eight days to oooh and aaah at the preview exhibit for the June 18 auction of Debbie Reynolds' extraordinary collection of Hollywood costumes, props and other memorabilia.
The two comments heard most often in the crowded galleries were (to paraphrase), "Wow, they were thin" and "It's such a shame. These things should be in a museum."
The two remarks are in fact related.
When the auctioneer's final hammer came down at 1:20 that Friday, the world lost a treasure. The collection Reynolds assembled over 40 years will now be fragmented and dispersed. "It was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country," wrote Christian Esquevin on his Silver Screen Modiste blog, expressing a common sentiment. "We will never see the likes of this collection again."
The movie business has never particularly valued its historical artifacts. Hollywood, notes director John Landis, treats costumes and props as "industrial waste," to be recycled or discarded but not displayed or preserved. It also keeps an embarrassed distance from the enthusiasts who treasure such relics. Unlike, say, science fiction, the mainstream movie industry doesn't embrace cult followings. And Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of institution-building philanthropists.
Despite decades of effort, Reynolds never managed to find funding for the Hollywood motion-picture history museum she envisioned. The collapse of her most recent attempt, a project in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., near Dolly Parton's Dollywood, precipitated the auction. Reynolds has debts to pay.
From a strictly financial point of view, the collection was undoubtedly worth more in pieces than together — $22.8 million for the 587 lots, with a second auction planned for December.
But as a historical record, a costume collection, like a vintage magazine, is more than the sum of its parts. You learn more from considering the group as a whole.
Take the question of Marilyn Monroe's size.
The auction's top-ticket item was Monroe's famous white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch, the one that billowed up as the subway passed. It sold for almost $5.66 million (including the buyer's premium) to an unknown phone bidder. Sharing a rotating mirrored platform with Hedy Lamarr's peacock gown from Samson and Delilah and Kim Novak's rhinestone- fringed show dress from Jeanne Eagels, Monroe's costume was displayed on a mannequin that had been carved down from a standard size 2 to accommodate the tiny waist.
But that's just one dress. Perhaps the star was having a skinny day. To check, you could look across the room and see that Monroe's red-sequined show dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was at least as petite, as were the saloon costume from River of No Return and the tropical "heat wave" outfit from There's No Business Like Show Business.
In fact, the average waist measurement of the four Monroe dresses was a mere 22 inches, according to Lisa Urban, who dressed the mannequins and took measurements for me. Even Monroe's bust was a modest 34 inches.
That's not an anecdote. That's data.
The other actresses' costumes provided further context. "It's like half a person," marveled a visitor at the sight of Claudette Colbert's gold-lame Cleopatra gown (waist 18 inches). "That waist is the size of my thigh," said a tall, slim man, looking at Carole Lombard's dress from No Man of Her Own (a slight exaggeration — it was 21 inches).
At my request, Urban took waist measurements on garments worn by 16 different stars, from Mary Pickford in 1929 (20 inches) to Barbra Streisand in 1969 (24 inches). The thickest waist she found was Mae West's 26 inches in Myra Breckinridge, when the actress was 77 years old.
© 2011 Bloomberg News