German exhibit gives an in-depth look at the life of an American icon

A photo of Marilyn from the famous last sitting with Bert Stern, a former Army photographer, in June 1962 is displayed in a camera mock-up at "Marilyn Monroe. Die Unbekannte," or "The unknown Marilyn Monroe," exhibit at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer, Germany.


By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2018

She was a model, a singer and an actress. "Blond bombshell" might have been coined to describe her. She was married to a baseball star and a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright. She was on the first cover of Playboy and supposedly had an affair with an American president.

Her death in August 1962 sparked conspiracy theories on the nature of her demise that persist to this day. But who was Marilyn Monroe?

A new exhibit at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer, Germany, tries to answer the question.

With close to 400 items from her estate on display, “Marilyn Monroe. Die Unbekannte,” or “The unknown Marilyn Monroe,” traces her life from its humble beginnings to its tragic end. Clothes, photos, letters, modeling and movie contracts, checks written by her and even her private telephone book is on display.

Unfortunately, most of the exhibit is in German and only the accompanying catalog has detailed English information.

Most of the items displayed are from the private collection of Ted Stampfer, a German from nearby Mannheim, who has been fascinated by Marilyn after watching “How to Marry a Millionaire” on TV with his sister.

What started with a black leather belt worn by the actress has grown into one of the largest private collections of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia in the world with more than 1,000 items.

The exhibit begins with her death — you see what is supposed to be a newsstand with newspapers announcing that she died — but then runs in chronological order from childhood to stardom to death.

Born in 1926 and christened Norma Jeane Baker, she never knew her father. She lived with her mother on and off and when she had a nervous breakdown, Norma Jeane was sent to an orphans’ home and then moved in with the Goddard family. Grace Goddard, a friend of her mother’s, became her legal guardian.

Photos, letters and sketches from the period are on display.

From here, we follow Marilyn’s life as she marries her first husband Jim Dougherty in 1942 and as she’s discovered as a model by David Conover, an Army photographer. Her first photos appeared in “Yank” magazine.

Clothes she wore — at the time, models often had to furnish their own costumes — as well as photos and negatives are on display, and also books she read, like W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.”

She is still a brunette here, but soon becomes the blonde most people know. Cosmetics, accessories — even her hair curlers are on display.

The next section focuses on her rise to stardom and a living icon.

We see her marriage to Joe DiMaggio in 1954, with clothes and suitcases she took on their honeymoon to Japan and a large photo of Marilyn entertaining U.S. troops in Korea. Moving on, we also see Marilyn with her third husband, Arthur Miller, and living in New York.

The next room is mostly dedicated to Monroe’s most popular film, the 1959 Billy Wilder comedy “Some Like It Hot,” with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

Her home in California — the first and only house she owned — is featured with silverware, plates and kitchen utensils on display. We also see original photos from a Life magazine interview she did in her home.

A Marilyn Monroe exhibit wouldn’t be complete without a nod to her singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in May 1962. On display is a vintage newswire photo of Marilyn on stage singing and a replica of the famous dress she wore. The original fetched $4.8 million at an auction in 2016.

Six weeks before her death, in June 1962, the photographer Bert Stern had a three-day photo shoot with Monroe that has since become known as the Last Sitting. The photos, later published as a book, show a beautiful woman not afraid to show a wrinkle and a blemish or two.

On Aug. 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home, an apparent suicide. She was just 36 years old.

On display is a copy of her will and a video of her funeral.

More than 56 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe continues to fascinate. Did she die of an accidental overdose, or was she murdered by the Mafia or the Kennedys as some conspiracy theories have suggested?

The exhibit doesn’t provide any answers, but it does give a detailed look at the life and times of an American icon.

Twitter: @stripes_photog

Know and go:

Where: The address for the Historisches Museum der Pfalz is Domplatz 4, 67346 Speyer. It is just off Autobahn A61, across from the city’s cathedral. The large Festplatz parking lot is nearby.

Times: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. The Marilyn exhibit has been extended through Jan. 20, 2020.

Costs: Admission for adults is 12 euros (about $14) Tuesday to Friday and 14 euros on the weekend. For children 6 years of age and older admission is 4 euros during the week and 6 euros Saturdays and Sundays. A Generations (family) ticket costs 28 euros for two adults and two children during the week with each additional child paying 3 euros and 34 euros on the weekend with each additional child paying 5euros. Parking at the lot costs 3 euros for the day. The catalog, in English and German and expanded by 80 pages for this exhibit, costs 26.90 euros.

Food: The museum has a café/restaurant and there are restaurants nearby.

Information: The museum’s website is: www.museum.speyer.de. Make use of your day-long parking and visit the nearby Speyer Cathedral. If you go between now and Jan. 6, 2019, you can visit the city’s Christmas/New Year market (closed Dec. 25 and 26).

A 1953 photo of Marilyn Monroe by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The white Capri pants by Jax that she is wearing are on display at the exhibit "Marilyn Monroe. Die Unbekannte" or "The unknown Marilyn Monroe," at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer, Germany.