Venus de Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe At Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

Monroe was smaller in person than on screen. Sunset Boulevard / Corbis

One of the many stories that garland the legend of Marilyn Monroe is that the blonde actress used to have her shoes made with one heel half an inch shorter than the other, to give her that distinctive wiggle. But on the evidence of the many pairs of shoes exhibited at “Marilyn,” the fascinating exhibition currently running at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence, Monroe’s fabulously seductive walk was all her own work. The Florentine shoemaker made the star’s shoes for many of her most famous movies, including a pair of red stilettos covered in Swarovski crystals that made every female visitor to the exhibition swoon with envy. The heels are both an identical four inches high.

Ferragamo once wrote that the “women who come to me can be divided into the Cinderella, the Aristocrat, and the Venus ... Venus is usually a great beauty, of glamour and sophistication, yet under a glittering exterior she is often a homebody, loving simple things.”

Monroe, who wore a size 6, was definitely in the Venus category. The opening image of the exhibition is a black-and-white clip from Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits, which was written for her by her third husband, Arthur Miller. She is dancing, silent and alone in a wooded glade, barefoot in a black dress. She is still at the height of her mature beauty, the hair a little longer than the ingénue curls of Bus Stop, and her figure just a shade more voluptuous—the camera, as ever, adores her, but it can’t help revealing Monroe’s inner sadness. Like that other famous blonde, Diana, princess of Wales, no amount of fame and adoration could fill the void left by an emotionally stunted childhood.

The exhibition constantly plays up the slightness of Monroe’s physical reality against her extraordinary screen presence. In the exhibit’s largest room, there is a screen playing clips of Marilyn’s most famous movie moments: as Sugar emerging through the smoke of the railway station in Some Like it Hot; as Lorelei Lee singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in pink satin with a chorus of men in white ties; as the unnamed girl in a white dress in The Seven Year Itch who stands over a subway grating when the train passes underneath, feeling the wind that blows up her skirt.

In the same room the curators display the original outfits that Monroe wore in those films. Many of these costumes—the pink satin column dress she wore for Gentleman Prefer Blondes and the gold lamé plunging halter neck she wore for There’s No Business Like Show Business were designed by the Hollywood designer William Travilla, who clearly understood how to showcase Monroe’s extraordinary assets. Although she seems voluptuous on screen, in reality Monroe was petite, only 5'3" inches tall in her stockinged feet, 5'7" in her Ferragamo heels, with a 23-inch waist. The dresses have been lent by collectors from all over the world, and it is the first time that so many of Monroe’s effects have been gathered in one place.

One dress that isn’t here in the original, because it is too fragile to be exhibited, is the dress that Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, at Madison Square Garden in 1962. That dress, made of sheer nude chiffon covered with rhinestones, is the screen goddess made flesh. The exhibition has the clip of her singing to the president, with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and we can see how the dress makes her look both naked and sparkling. It was one of her most seductive performances: the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called it “making love to the president in direct view of forty million people” (the event was televised) but it was to no avail. Rumor has it that Kennedy ended the affair and three months later, Monroe was dead, 50 years ago this month.

The way that Monroe fits into a tradition of tragic heroines who died for love is explored in the exhibition—there are references to Dido, La Dame aux Camellias, Cleopatra, and Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s novel in a translation by Francis Steegmuller, with an illustration by Gavarni on the cover, was in the small personal library that Monroe took with her everywhere. Eerily prescient is the picture that photographer Bert Stern took in Monroe’s final photo shoot, of Marilyn’s face in a rictus mask of abandonment surrounded by glitter and pearls. The curators, Sergio Risaliti and Stefania Ricci say that “the framing of her face, which has become a tragic mask, shows us a woman in sexual ecstasy, a Gorgon, a lifeless doll, a modern Ophelia.”

mariylns-dresses-ov20-2dnary The exhibition features Monroe’s most memorable outfits—lent by collectors from around the globe—for her movies and magazine shoots. Courtesy of Museo Salvatore Ferragamo

The curators have chosen to represent Monroe’s death not with a CSI-type analysis of the evidence, but through the images and poetry of the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Alongside Pasolini’s poetry there is an installation of Marilyn’s deathbed with its twisted white sheets, evoking her potent cocktail of Eros and Thanatos.

The last room of the exhibition seeks to show the close connection between Marilyn and the Renaissance culture that had its birthplace in Florence. We are shown Stern’s famous picture of Marilyn standing on the beach wearing a cardigan, her bare legs slightly crossed, alongside a reproduction of Botticelli’s La Primavera—the most famous painting in the nearby Uffizi gallery. Side by side, you can see real parallels between the two blonde Venuses rising from the sea. There is also the Roman marble bust of the dying Alexander, which the photographer Cecil Beaton drew upon in his quest to represent the “spiritual intensity” of Marilyn’s face. We are shown parallels between images of Monroe and the sensuous nudes of Canova and Boucher. There is an extraordinary pairing of Tom Kelley’s famous Playboy nude of Monroe against a red satin background and the penitent Magdalene by the 17th-century Florentine painter Francesco Furini, both women holding a similar pose and an air of languid sensuality.

It is this final room that is the raison d’être for hosting this exhibition, dedicated to an American Venus, in the former cellars of the Palazzo Spini Feroni, supported by the Florence’s city council. As the exhibition’s catalog says, Monroe “has become an icon that does not just belong to America but to the entire world, and is linked to our Renaissance culture in such a particular and distinctive way.”

There is another consideration too. Upstairs in the Ferragamo boutique, it is possible to buy limited edition handmade replicas of the high-heeled pumps that Ferragamo designed for the star, with a special half-wood half-metal construction that made them comfortable in spite of the extreme thinness of the heel. The glamorous Russian sales assistant reverently brings out replicas of the red crystal-studded shoes that Marilyn wore in There’s No Business Like Show Business. It turns out that my 11-year-old daughter shares a shoe size with Monroe, and as she slips them on and starts to take teetering steps across the thick pile carpet, I ask the Russian what the secret is to walking in Marilyn’s shoes. “You must start young,” she says, “and practice every day of your life.”

Daisy Goodwin is a novelist and TV producer.

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