Just the Right Touch

By introducing a note of modesty, Marilyn Monroe’s gloves actually heightened her come-hither allure

"Diamonds are a girl’s best friend," Marilyn Monroe asserted in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The screen siren might have added that another, less dazzling accessory also held a place in her affections—a pair of gloves, usually opera-length, worn seductively scrunched at the elbow. Whether dancing the night away at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub or attending an opening for one of her 30 films, Monroe was often spotted wearing this ladylike accoutrement. Suggestive contradiction was the name of the game: Monroe’s gloves, invoking a coquettish nod to modesty, were belied by the plunging neckline.

Now, 40 years after her death at age 36, one pair of the actress’s gloves, a recent bequest from an anonymous donor, add spice to the holdings of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). "Decades before stars would not make a public move without the services of platoons of stylists and designers, Marilyn was a truly great stylist," writes Meredith Etherington-Smith, director of Christie’s International, the London-based auction house, in The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe. The gloves, she notes, constituted an important element of the Monroe look. "She had many pairs of immaculate beige kid[skin] evening gloves, and she always wore dramatic and beautifully made rhinestone earrings which cascaded in flashing rivers of light.... All this was carefully contrived to increase the effect of her uniquely luminous quality."

The pair ceded to the NMAH Entertainment Collection are evocative emblems of Monroe’s carefully orchestrated image. Exquisitely stitched in soft white kidskin, the elbow-length gloves bear a faintly detectable blue stain, most likely ink, lightly smudged on the outside of a cuff.

This tantalizing imperfection bespeaks a lost history. Whence the stain? Did Monroe perhaps sign an autograph for an adoring fan wearing these gloves? Scribble observations on a program note? Jot down her phone number for an admirer, even a future husband?

Joe DiMaggio? Arthur Miller?

While the story of the intriguing smudge is consigned to oblivion, there is little doubt the gloves possess symbolic significance as well. They function, says costume historian Shelly Foote of the Smithsonian’s Division of Social History, as a talisman of a vanished era: "Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy were among the last prominent glove wearers. In the ’50s, high school girls at proms or debutante balls would not be caught dead without gloves on. But after the mid-1960s, they would not be caught dead wearing them." (The former first lady might well have taken exception to this linkage to the woman who so seductively crooned "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK—with whom several biographers allege she had an affair—on the occasion of his 45th birthday, in May 1962, at Madison Square Garden.)

These days, Monroe mementos of any kind are among the hottest Hollywood collectibles around. When Christie’s sold off a raft of Monroe’s belongings in New York in 1999, prices exceeded even the wildest expectations. Hundreds of glitzy possessions, everything from necklaces and cocktail dresses to cigarette lighters, were snatched up in a bidding frenzy that grossed some $13.4 million. The flesh-colored Jean Louis sheath, hand-stitched and ornamented with 6,000 beads, worn by Monroe for that presidential birthday fete, went for $1.3 million. (Afterward, the bidder who snared the prize, entrepreneur Robert Schagrin, claimed he was prepared to go to "at least $3 million" for the dress.) As for her gloves, one lot of three pairs fetched $6,900.

The Monroe memorabilia also offer an intriguing, and touching, glimpse of a woman who was more vulnerable and more complex than her besotted public perceived at the time. She was a perfection-obsessed professional who sometimes rewrote her own lines, as her notated scripts attest. She was also an omnivorous reader whose personal library contained the works of authors such as Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. As an actress, Monroe founded her own production company, a bold act of self-assertion in a Hollywood that was indisputably a male preserve.

The provenance of Monroe’s gloves reflects, too, a profound shift in an unexpected arena—industrial America. During the 1950s, most clothing worn in this country was still manufactured on home soil. And most leather gloves were stitched in one corner of upstate New York, near Albany. For some 200 years, from the 1780s to the 1980s, a great deal of America’s leather hand wear originated in a little town christened, appropriately enough, Gloversville.

The town was also home to a young glove cutter who would, several decades before Monroe transformed herself into a Hollywood legend, take over tinseltown. In 1925, Samuel Goldfish, a 43-year-old Polish immigrant who had started out sweeping up leather scraps in a Gloversville workshop, decided to seek his fortune in California. Following a move to Los Angeles, he changed his name to Goldwyn and began a meteoric rise within the ranks of the fledgling film industry, ultimately forming partnerships that would evolve into Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists.

As for Monroe, the tension between style and substance, between glamorous facade and private anguish, increasingly shadowed her days, until she was found dead, a likely suicide, of a barbiturates overdose at her home in Hollywood on August 5, 1962. The seductive image, conjured out of the pearls and silk sheaths, the fur stoles and spiked heels—seems somehow summed up by the pair of gloves, an artifact at once elegant and forlorn of a tragic trajectory. "She could have made it," her ex-husband, Arthur Miller once said, "with a little luck."

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