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Blond Ambition

Robert Otto's Marilyn Monroe collection includes clothing, jewelry, and a fat stash of never-before-published photographs. He can't wait to share them with the world.

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Robert Otto's Marilyn Monroe collection is not for sale. Not for $1 million or $3 million. "It's not for sale at any price," Otto says. At least not right now. Maybe he'll think about it after "Marilyn: The American Treasure," the exhibit he's organizing, is over. Though its venue and opening date are up in the air (Otto says several Las Vegas hotels have been vying for the chance to host it), its content is not. It will follow Monroe's career from its beginnings in the late 40s to her death in 1962 through work by five photographers (Otto won't say who until the licensing agreements are finalized) and memorabilia from his own cache of more than 1,000 items.

Otto, who describes himself as a "Marilyn Monroe archaeologist," has pursued his interest for more than three decades, denying himself new cars and vacations so he could spend his earnings at estate sales and resale shops instead. And he's thrilled to finally be sharing his finds with the public at large. "As a collector, it's a reflected glory, no doubt," he says. "There is the dollar value, no question, but there is also this passion about Marilyn that I'm sharing with the world."

Surprisingly, you have to look hard in Otto's Gold Coast condo to find glimpses of the blond goddess. There are a few small lighted display cases--one containing collector plates, along with three demitasse cups and saucers that once belonged to Monroe, which Otto acquired for $5,500 at Christie's in 1999. "Outside of my little cousins giving me refrigerator magnets, there are no pictures of Marilyn," he says. "I only have those up because they like to see what they gave Uncle Bob." Looking around his living room, he adds, "Besides, I don't think I could even get it all in here. It would overrun this place."

Instead he keeps his collection in a storage vault at a location he'd rather not disclose. Recently he made a visit to the vault--accompanied by a security guard--to pick up some highlights from the collection to show off. He brought back two tissue-box covers--one mock tortoiseshell, the other clear plastic--from the bathroom and bedroom of the house where Monroe died. "I also have her bathroom scale," he said. He pulled out a pair of large rhinestone earrings. "These are, to me, so Marilyn: big, gaudy, glitzy. They're clip-ons--she did not have pierced ears." Then he disappeared into a bedroom and returned with a garment bag, which he carefully unzipped. "This is the dress that she and her mother bought together for Marilyn to go on interviews to the various studios when she was 18 years old," he said, lifting a heavy black suit with a Made in Paris label out of the bag and laying it carefully on the couch. Purchased from another collector, "it's probably worth in the neighborhood of $50,000."

A gold plastic key chain with the number 624 stamped on it is from the Mapes Hotel in Reno, "where Marilyn stayed during the filming of The Misfits." When the contents of the hotel were sold late last year, Otto was on hand; along with the key chain, he picked up an oyster plate Monroe is said to have used during her stay there. "This was not even something she owned. It was something she ate off of, and she ate off it over 40 years ago!" Nevertheless, after the Associated Press did a story about the plate last November, Otto got more than 900 phone calls--from media, fellow collectors, people selling more Marilyn goods. "The attention was amazing, but what it shows you is that Marilyn is still a story."

Otto, born in Milwaukee in 1946, found himself drawn to collecting at a young age. His first obsession was with Joe DiMaggio: a baseball player himself from grade school through high school, he collected Joltin' Joe baseball cards, autographs, bats, and gloves. It wasn't until his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin (he graduated with a bachelor's degree in history in 1969 and a master's in urban economics in 1971) that he became interested in Monroe. "I got to Marilyn through Joe," he says. "With DiMaggio, you'll find all roads of this guy's life lead to Marilyn." Otto was not a movie buff and recalls having seen only one of Monroe's movies at the time--Some Like It Hot. But, he says, "I had a real entrepreneurial spirit, and I quickly realized the value of collecting Marilyn."

The first item he bought was the premiere issue of Playboy, containing Monroe's infamous centerfold. From there he went on to other magazines that featured Monroe on the cover or articles about her. He acquired many through mail order, but he often visited Chicago, where he shopped at ABC Books on Clark. Throughout his college years the stacks of magazines in his dorm room grew, and by 1975 he'd acquired a copy of just about every Monroe magazine cover ever published.

By then he'd moved to Chicago, and an emotional attachment to his subject had kicked in. "The 70s was a huge decade for Marilyn books, and I read every one cover to cover. The passion set in because you really got to know this woman--or felt you knew her. Maybe it's her aura--photographers talk about that. For me, the lure of collecting her is probably the enigma. There are many, many threads making up the composite Marilyn." Monroe's estate also went into high gear in the 1970s, licensing numerous products that flooded the market. Suddenly Monroe nostalgia was big business.

In early 1980 Otto took a job as a human resources exec at Wells Fargo Bank in Los Angeles, where what he calls "the big collection" began. "In LA it's everywhere. Probably every day after work I was going to antique shops, and on weekends estate sales. I lived in an apartment that was wall-to-wall Marilyn." At a party Otto made the acquaintance of someone who worked at one of the movie studios--"20th Century Fox? Paramount? I can't remember"--and after a few phone calls he found himself being guided through the studio's vaults, which were full of Monroe's costumes and props. "I felt like I was walking through a museum," he says. "The most important part of it was not what was there but from my standpoint it clicks in that I need to get closer now. There's a need to get closer, and jewelry and clothing will get you there."

But there Otto ran into a wall. Monroe had left her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. While some jewelry, clothing, and accessories were obtainable through other sources--Monroe had left a trunk full of clothing behind at an apartment in New York, for example--the bulk of her possessions were simply not for sale. Otto and his fellow collectors waited for the day when Strasberg or his heirs would put the estate up for auction.

Otto moved back to Chicago in 1985. While his pursuit of all things Marilyn continued, he started the small human resources consulting firm he still runs. He searched for Monroe items on his business trips, and his friends and business associates started to pitch in: "To this day people will pick up something for me just in case I don't have it." (While he was telling this story the phone rang, and he jumped up to answer it. When he returned moments later, he said, "That was my caterer, and one of her clients came across a Marilyn Monroe article in Gourmet magazine from 1960, which I don't have. I get this all the time.")

Otto has never married ("I can still hope," he says), but he says that's not due to his fascination with Monroe. "If anything, it's probably enhanced my relationships. I've never had someone say, 'My God, we'd better quit, I can't compete with this.'" In fact, he says, his women friends have been interested in Marilyn's jewelry. On occasion he's let them try on necklaces, earrings, rings. "Women are mesmerized with her clothing, too. They're also into scarves, gloves, hats, and lingerie. They'll look at it but they'll never say, 'Can I put it on?' Clothing's a bit too personal, I think. Too fragile."

"There's a final stage where you move from passion to obsessiveness about your collection," says Otto. He reached that stage in 1991 when he bought a perfume bottle, one of two leaded crystal decanters that once sat on Monroe's dresser, for $5,000. "If you buy what is known as a national piece, other collectors come out of the woodwork." Especially for what Otto refers to as "things she touched--Marilyn DNA."

In order to afford to collect at that level, he had to make some choices: "Sure, I've given up things. Do you want that vacation in the Caribbean or do you want this artifact? Generally I'll take the artifact. But I don't have unlimited funds. You don't go to the bank and say, 'Listen, I got a deal on a Marilyn piece here, I think I need $45,000 today.' Private collectors have ceilings. There's no such thing as 'I gotta have it at all costs--sell the house, sell the car.' That's stupidity." But it's always on his mind. "No matter what is going on, I'm always thinking about adding to the collection. I have been on a bus and seen something of Marilyn and gotten off the bus to walk back that block to make sure that I'm not missing anything. This is beyond passion. But if you want the true collection to be beyond spectacular, that's what you do. You don't want to leave any stones unturned."

In October of 1999 he got the call that he'd been waiting years for: Anna Strasberg, Lee's widow, was putting the Monroe estate on the block. Seats at the auction were mostly filled by lottery, but Otto had a spot reserved in his name. "Christie's said to me, 'What would a Marilyn auction be without Bob Otto?'" He ended up meeting Robert Schagrin, who paid $1.26 million for the "Happy Birthday" dress. Otto, who primarily bought china, was just thrilled to have a look at items he'd heard rumors about for decades.

Earlier that year, on one of his frequent business trips, Otto had found his own Monroe Valhalla outside of Pittsburgh. "I went to this sale because someone said, 'Aren't you the guy that collects Marilyn?' The gentleman said, 'You probably have it all, but maybe if you have time...' There was no question in my mind that I was going to that sale." Otto rented a car and followed the directions he'd been given but was disappointed to find that most of the stuff for sale was sports memorabilia.

"'Where's the Hollywood stuff?' I asked, and the guy gestured. 'It's over there in the back toward the corn.' I went over and he had it all categorized, and there under 'M' were bent posters and some old trading cards. All stuff that you could buy." After examining a poster, Otto tried to put it back in the bin, but something was in the way. "I reached my hand way in the back and there's this envelope. I opened it up and there's probably 60 to 80 negatives which I kinda look through. I can't believe it--I've never seen photos like this of Marilyn. I knew I had pretty rare stuff."

Otto paid $125 in cash for the whole bin, then took his find to a photography studio in Hollywood that specializes in restoring old negatives. The restorer made a test that came out "beautifully--they're absolutely gorgeous. There are shots of Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio walking in front of their home and three or four in the car. They look like paparazzi shots. We have no idea who the photographer is. This is a major surprise for the exhibit.

"This is why you do all of that, why you get off the bus and go back, why there is no thought of not going to a garage sale. This is like a running story that will never end. Whether she's been dead 40, 50, or 100 years, it will always be ongoing. This is the kind of thing that the exhibit will validate for me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Thomas "Doc" Kaminski.

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