23 June 2011

On Hollywood Memorabilia And Museums

Unrelated photo of M.D. and Billy Wilder from here
Recently, I read a blog entry about the Debbie Reynolds auction that prompted me to write a lengthy comment. The comment is pending the blog owner's approval, but I want to post it here to initiate a dialogue with all of you regarding the role and responsibility of museums to manage Hollywood memorabilia. I'll edit it to give you all a better understanding because I make a lot of local Los Angeles references and--as you have perhaps already observed--often correct typos and undesirable diction.

Thanks for posting what may be the most comprehensive overview of Debbie Reynolds' collection efforts. I have been seeking such an article since I read about the big auction and failed to find one until I stumbled upon your blog. This situation reminded me of Maria Riva's claim that that she offered her mother Marlene Dietrich's estate as a donation to American film museums (see this video), and when no one showed interest, Riva reportedly sold it to the city of Berlin for $5 million, which subsequently made the Filmmuseum Berlin [note: then known as Deutsche Kinemathek, no?] its caretaker. The contradiction between donation and sale makes me wonder whether Riva acted solely as an altruist, and I harbor similar suspicions about Debbie. Certainly, I wouldn't blame either woman for making money (or, in Debbie's case, attempting to recuperate money) from a Hollywood collection. If it's their property, they have every right to sell it.

On another note related to this blog entry, the contradiction between donation and sale also reminds me that the distinction between culture and commodity can be blurred, which is why I wouldn't consider Debbie's auction items national treasures. Debbie's former possessions have made a cultural impact in films, but they are also the products of profit-driven movie studios, which do not uphold all the criteria of non-profit institutions such as museums. For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) or another local museum to accept Hollywood memorabilia, the following criteria would have to be met: first, the memorabilia would have to promote the museum's mission; second, the memorabilia would have to be affordable; third, the museum would require the staff and space to properly preserve the memorabilia; fourth, these staff and this space would have to be affordable. 

When movie studios such as MGM housed old costumes, they had to deal with the second, third, and fourth criteria, but because they are businesses, they had no obligation to accept the most important criterion, the first one. If a business needs money to stay afloat, it will sell its assets; museums could never ethically follow such a model (although some have, e.g. the Hermitage Museum when its hometown was called Leningrad). Certainly, the memorabilia from Debbie's collection would meet the mission of LACMA and even the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), but I don't know whether any museums in the United States let alone in L.A. have the money, staff, and space to properly preserve items such as costumes—and such an extensive collection as Debbie's was. Only the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum comes to mind as a local option, but I can only say with certainty that they have the staff to care for what Debbie sold. As for financial means and space—I don't know. They thrive on donations—dress and textile as well as financial—which suggests that unless someone donates a multimillion-dollar Monroe gown or donates millions so they can purchase a Monroe gown, they can't afford to play with the big spenders at auctions.

Personally, I would love to see every museum, library, and archive object (Hollywood memorabilia, fine art, cuneiform, what have you) digitized in a high-quality three-dimensional form to maximize their accessibility so that people who might never even have a chance to visit an institution could view and research its holdings, but I know the costs of my dreams are currently nowhere near the reality of any institution's budget.


  1. I completely agree, it would be wonderful if everyone could see these objects online. There is an exhibition on in the UK in Bath of some of Monroe's costumes and possessions which looks interesting.

  2. I enjoyed reading your perspective on this. Debbie's auction was a heartbreaker for me, especially when I learned that most of collection is now headed to Japan and Saudi Arabia. But I don't think it is anything new to hear that Hollywood tends to not be too interested in perserving history. I have also raised a skeptical eyebrow at Debbie's claim, though, that no museums would take or buy her collection. The Ava Gardner Museum in North Carolina said this week that they had raised funds and had offered to privately buy the several Ava Gardner costumes Debbie has in her collection but she refused. She also refused to loan the costumes to them. After hearing that, I thought that certainly many smaller museums, especially those attributed to certain stars in particular (like Ava, Jimmy Stewart's Museum maybe, the Marietta Gone with the Wind Museum, etc) would have eagerly accepted them. But I guess her dream was only to have her own museum. And you can't blame Debbie, as she gets older, for making millions off a collection she paid for herself and paid to maintain and store all these years.
    I am in the group that tends to chide Hollywood for constantly destroying it's history, but at the same time, as you stated, there is staff that needs to be paid and facilities and etc., and who has the money for that kind of thing nowadays.

    Selfishly, I suppose I am just sad that all these items will now never be displayed together where I could have spent a day wandering around looking at them!

  3. Hannah, thanks for that information!

    DearMrGable, thanks for expanding my insight on Debbie's refusals. I didn't articulate myself fully, but I surmised that Debbie (and Maria Riva) had specific conditions before handing such valuable (in a sentimental and monetary sense) collections over to a museum. In fact, the Riva family still act as influential stakeholders in preserving Dietrich's collection, blurring the lines of culture and commodity by actively promoting the Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin while controlling the "Marlene Dietrich" image as a business. As for the destination of Debbie's collection, that's news to me! Again, this situation parallels the one of Marlene Dietrich's estate because--in the NYT article I linked in my blog entry regarding the sale of Dietrich's estate--Peter Riva apparently stated that "an Arab from one of the Gulf states" offered $12 million to build a Dietrich museum "in a desert." Frankly, I don't care where any Hollywood collection is housed in terms of national borders because Hollywood films have made an international impact. Why did you find it heartbreaking that these items are heading to Japan and Saudi Arabia?

  4. I'm new to your blog (we both belong to the CMBA)and my knowledge of Marlene Dietrich is limited to the handful of movies I have seen (I have been meaning to read Maria's book for years now though) but in internet circles I have heard that Marlene's family is VERY protective of her image and quick to have things like YouTube fan tributes, etc. taken down, so it doesn't surprise me that they would be very particular about the museum. Not such a bad thing, especially considering how some classic film stars are used and abused (Fred Astaire Dirt Devil commerical, anyone?)

    And the reason why it breaks my heart that they are going to Saudi Arabia and Japan is selfish: That is so far away from me!!! But I agree, as long as they are being preserved, respected and loved, it doesn't matter where they are.

  5. DearMrGable, I'm glad you're reading this blog because I hope to talk to Dietrich fans, Dietrich admirers, those with merely a slight interest in Dietrich, and even people who despise Dietrich and her work. I will be sure to read and comment on your blog because I could learn a lot about Clark Gable. About removed YouTube videos, I've seen them in the past with a statement about who requested their removal, but it's been so long since I've run into one that I can't remember the exact statement. Was it one of the companies that manages (or managed?) Marlene Dietrich licensing issues (see here)? There are many charming fan-made videos by users such as MarleneXtreme that are not removed, so I hope the Rivas or the people representing them will remain tolerant and continue to let such videos stay, especially because MarleneXtreme has created a Marlene Dietrich YouTube buzz with over 1 million video views.

    By the way, I will miss the chance to see all these costumes at a nearby location. To be honest, though, I have let lots of opportunities slip through my fingers--I really should have tried to attend the auction or a public viewing because I didn't expect these items to stay in the L.A. area. People everywhere still want a piece of Hollywood.

  6. Silver Screen Modiste's blog is excellent - and I've learned much about museum considerations as well as circumstances surrounding the Debbie Reynolds auction here. It seems Debbie has had financial problems off and on over many years and she apparently continues to work to pay the bills even now, at 79. So I can understand why she might want to make as much as she can on her collection. But I'd have preferred that the collection stayed intact and, for strictly selfish reasons, in the U.S.
    On the subject of Dietrich, I hope DearMrGable will venture beyond Maria Riva's book. Though it referenced important personal material of Dietrich's, the book's tone at times verged on the grotesque. My impression was that Riva's feelings about her mother were vastly complicated and conflicted - to the detriment of the quality of the bio.

  7. I must echo Lady Eve and recommend that you read other materials in addition to Maria Riva's book, DearMrGable. In particular, I'd recommend that you follow Riva's bio with Steven Bach's bio, which in fact reverses the order that readers may have read the books when they were first released (Bach's came out a little over a year before Riva's). Bach reveals the identities of many people whom Riva refrained from naming as well as events that Riva shrouded with vagueness. Even though I enjoy Riva book, I see how it can alienate readers. For the LGBT/Queer blogathon posted at CMBA, I will review some possibly homophobic remarks in Riva's book, which initially left me with a vile taste in my mouth only slightly sweetened by the shade that Bach (a gay man) threw at Riva throughout his book.

  8. Joseph, thanks for this insightful post.

    Debbie's collection was probably too vast for existing museum textile collections to take on; I'm not even sure that every costume sold is museum worthy. In the absence of an institution with a mandate to preserve this kind of Hollywood history, private collectors will continue to play an important role.

    Maria Riva's foresight when she sold the items from her mother's estate as a collection, rather than splitting it up, which may have been more profitable, is commendable.

    I can't wait to read your remarks about Maria Riva's book. I agree with you and The Lady Eve that while Riva's book is important, it is can in no way be considered a definitive biography.


  9. missladiva,

    I regret now not emphasizing the role of private collectors. Often, I take for granted that private collectors can and do frequently loan their items to institutions such as museums for research and exhibition. I remember learning the distinction between the Crown Jewels and the Queen's Jewels, the former being U.K. state property and the latter being Queen Elizabeth II's personal property. Thus, Queen Elizabeth II can choose to loan the Queen's Jewels to public exhibitions, as she did for her 80th birthday. There is currently no reason for me to doubt that those who have purchased items from Debbie's auction may also loan their newly-acquired items to museums, and I hope they do.

  10. I don't know why the thought didn't enter my mind when I wrote the above comment, but I could also regard the Crown Jewels and the Queen's Jewels as examples of a cultural fetish-commodity spectrum in addition to examples of the national treasure-private possession dichotomy. The Crown Jewels are fetishes in the sense that some people imbue them historical and cultural value that would make the thought of selling the Crown Jewels abhorrent as it would be commensurate to selling British history. British law also designates the Crown Jewels as a fetishes by prohibiting them from leaving the country. Although I don't know why this law was enacted, I do see a good reason for it: on non-British soil, the Crown Jewels may lose their historical and cultural value to non-British people and may be regarded as mere objects, which can implicitly be bought or sold.

    As for the Queen's Jewels, they may function as fetishes to Queen Elizabeth II being that they are family heirlooms, evoking her family's history. For her, commodifying them by selling them may be an abhorrent thought because they evoke family and personal memories.

    Applying these distinctions between the Crown Jewels and the Queen's Jewels to Debbie and Maria's former collections, I regard them as I regard the Queen's Jewels. I don't know what either woman thought, but their collections would be imbued with personal (and in Maria's case, family) memories, not national history. People may have fetishized Debbie and Maria's former collections, but--in their case--cultural fetish and commodity were quite distinct concepts and thus a dichotomy because--unlike Debbie and Maria--these people had no ownership of these items.

    What interests me now about Debbie's collection is that she capitalized the cultural fetish-commodity issue by allowing her objects to be dispersed in an auction, thus allowing the highest bidders to experience the cultural fetish-commodity experience to which she was privy.

    Maria, however, democratized this experience because she sold her collection to the city of Berlin, thus allowing all Berliners to experience the cultural fetish-commodity experience. Maria's choice sparks in me personal, bigoted feelings that disgust me about myself, but I realize that this is because I would have liked to experience Dietrich's collection within the cultural fetish-commodity spectrum. I will blog about bigotry in the future, but I would like to credit the likes of Marx and Baudrillard for vaguely informing me of the concepts that I appropriated in this comment.

  11. Bravo Joseph to the original post and the comments!

  12. This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw. Thanks for posting this useful blog.
    We all have our favourite film or television series that we never get tired of watching. There is something special about films made in Hollywood that fascinates and intrigues us as viewers. There have been so many good films to come out of Hollywood that the hollywood memorabilia industry is big business. Anything can count as Hollywood memorabilia from film props to movie posters, and lots of people chose to buy and sell memorabilia as part of a fun hobby.

  13. Malheureusement, la chaîne de MarleneXtreme a été censurée en juillet 2011. Ce n'était pas la première fois. Elle est revenue courageusement. Elle avait plus de 1000 abonnés, comment supprimer une chaîne qui donne tant de bonheur ? La plupart des chaînes de fans ne respectent pas les droits, mais faut-il se contenter de celles montrant des chatons ? Irene ne diffuse pas des extraits de films mais réalise des clips originaux. Il n'y a pas de chaîne Marlene Dietrich Official. Sans les fans, Marlene serait ABSENTE de YouTube... L'intérêt de la famille est pourtant que le souvenir de Marlene soit sauvegardé et répandu.

    Je ne condamne pas Maria pour la vente des objets de sa mère au Musée de Berlin. Elle aurait, à mon avis gagné plus d'argent en vendant les objets séparément. Ils ne seront pas éparpillés aux quatre coins du monde, c'est important. J'ai pu voir une partie de la collection en 2003 au Musée de la Mode à Paris, le Palais Galliera. C'était très émouvant de voir le manteau de cygne, les tenues de scène ou de films. L'exposition a eu tellement de succès qu'elle a été prolongée deux mois.

    Ce qui est triste, c'est de penser aux problèmes d'argent de Marlene qui ont empoisonné ses dernières années, alors qu'elle aurait pu vivre sans les menaces d'huissiers et ses interviews écrites vendues à différents journaux pour payer son loyer et ses astronomiques factures de téléphone.

    1. Again, I'll reply in English because many readers will have immediate interest in this topic, but I hope people try to read or translate your comments. What you say in French is much better than what I have tried to say in English.

      I had MarleneXtreme channel in mind when I made reference to YouTube videos with removal notices in the comments here. Since mid-2011, it appears that the family's agents have left YouTube videos alone, which I appreciate given that neither they nor MDCB have shared anything themselves on YouTube. Nevertheless, some fans should realize that they can't trample mercilessly over copyright laws. Recently, I have seen David Riva's documentary on YouTube, which made my jaw drop. Those who post that sort of material are provoking the estate to resume its copyright policing online.

      About that French exhibit, I have seen the catalog a few times, which made me bitter because I can't imagine such an exhibit ever taking place in the United States due to a lack of public interest. I believe that Maria tried to find a place in the U.S. for the Dietrich materials, and I am disappointed that--for whatever reason--those efforts failed. Ultimately, I ought to change my mindset because I should at least be thankful to have seen that catalog and know that others like you had an opportunity to see all those Marlene-related artifacts. I have no right to anything that belongs to another, and I can only be grateful when I at least have some type of access to it.

      As for Dietrich's money problems, I can't find it in my heart to pity her. Some people simply do not know how to manage their finances, and Dietrich apparently enjoyed some unfair privileges for her own lack of fiscal prudence, such as her "free rent" in Paris. Let me clarify my overarching belief, though: If people have such privileges, I expect them to take advantage of their blessings.

  14. Marlene n'était pas une bonne gestionnaire, comme Garbo... Il est difficile de comprendre son refus d'acheter un appartement à Paris, elle en avait largement les moyens dans les années 60-70. Elle a été locataire en fait de deux appartements différents au 12 avenue Montaigne. Elle a dû quitter le premier car il appartenait à des Iraniens qui se sont réfugiés en France après la chute du Shah en 1979.
    Le deuxième était plus petit et moins prestigieux, car les fenêtres donnaient sur l'avenue Jean Goujon et non sur l'avenue Montaigne... Mais l'adresse restait très prestigieuse. Tous les grands couturiers, parfumeurs... y ont une boutique. Marlene a connu des problèmes à cause de sa "logique". Le formulaire des charges à payer était ancien et il fallait payer l'uniforme d'un groom qui n'existait pas et autres anachronismes. Pourquoi payer pour les plantes vertes de l'escalier puisqu'elle ne quittait jamais sa chambre ? Marlene a donc payé ce qu'elle estimait juste en prétendant qu'on essayait de l'escroquer ! Le problème est que les sommes non payées se sont accumulées avec les années. Son propriétaire, un baron belge, a menacé de la faire expulser... Son âge la protégeait, sa légende, et Jacques Chirac, alors maire de Paris, aussi.
    Marlene a été une des femmes les plus payées des années 30, je suis d'accord avec vous, elle a mal géré sa fortune. Bozon raconte qu'elle lui a fait un jour acheter 50 paires de bottes du même modèle, et elle ne les a jamais mises... Marlene était assez amère, elle disait qu'elle s'était "prostituée" en faisant de mauvais films, et qu'elle continuait à le faire avec ses interviews monnayées. C'est terrible comme image de soi-même...

  15. Hello
    I have found original recordings of Marlene Dietrich
    They were made by dutch soundengineer Gerard Theo Bakker (
    It is a set of two records, not an official release but acetates containing a registration of a concert by MD in the Tuschinski Theater in Amsterdam, 1957, they have never been released.
    The labels are not printed but have an index in the handwriting of Gerard Theo Bakker
    After some research I found that the original recordings were made on tape, and that Gerard Theo Bakker made "back-ups" on acetates, considering the livespan of analog tape.
    The original analog tapes are lost and if they would be found, the quality will be extreme poor.
    The sound quality of the acetates however is very good.
    The performance is also good, allthough MD's voice sounds like she had one or two alcohoic beverages too much (-;
    The recordings were found in the trash on the streets of Utrecht, Holland, together with 55 other acetates, with on them recordings of many other artists (Count Basie, Jay Cameron, Cab Kaye, Dutch Swing Coleege band etc etc.)
    I am thinking of putting them up for auction on the internet
    Arjen de Vreede

    1. The first thing that comes to mind is that you should do a mixtape of these recordings and call it "Trash"! It's probably already been done, though!

      Second, I think you should contact the staff of Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin to see whether they'd be interested in acquiring the records. If you don't like what they have to offer, then I guess putting these recordings up for auction online would be a good idea. I'm hopeful that most Marlene collectors would be generous enough to eventually share the recordings on YouTube.

      About the date of this recording, I think it was 30 May 1960, not 1957. She was busy making Witness for the Prosecution in '57. Also, she didn't kick off her world tour until 1959 and almost never strayed away from Vegas or London before that.