Monday 23 May 2022

Who is the mystery woman on The Tattooed Lady?

Photo by Simon Liddiard

Yesterday was the seventh birthday of my art work The Tattooed Lady! She made her debut on the 22nd May 2015 as part of the launch exhibition at HOME Manchester and since then has appeared at other art events dispensing temporary tattoos (you can find out more about her on this blog). As a birthday treat I thought I'd explore the history of the mysterious woman whose photo I used as inspiration for the painted section of my penny arcade machine and share her dark and forgotten story. She was an enigma to me until recently, but her story is unforgettable.

So get comfortable, take a deep breath, and read on as we explore the tumultuous history of a tragic showgirl star...

A tale of love and regret:

As one of the stars at the Ziegfeld Follies, Imogene was riding a wave of notoriety and fame. She had become one of it's most popular showgirls, sparkling and shimmying every night in her Erte costume and her effervescent personality could be felt far beyond the stage.


The columnist Mark Hellinger had once quipped, "Only two people in America would bring every reporter in New York to the docks to see them off. One is the President. The other is Imogene "Bubbles" Wilson." Frequently spotted around town in the best restaurants and night clubs, she had earned a reputation as a party girl and how the press adored her! 'Bubbles rhymes with troubles' yelled the headlines!

It was 1922, and Imogene was a jazz baby living as a fashionable and daring young thing. Yet she had arrived in New York under very different circumstances just a few years earlier. 

A small and thin child with few belongings, Imogene had made the long journey from Kentucky to the Big Apple to live with her older sister Mabel. She had chosen to leave behind the foster home that her father had put her in after her mother had died, and in doing so had changed the course of her life. 

Aren't you going to dance? by Arthur William Brown

By 13 Imogene was already a beautiful girl and began to work as a model for magazine illustrator Arthur William Brown. Word must have got around about her good looks as Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr soon came calling and put her in his musical revue. He dubbed her 'Bubbles' due to her irrepressible nature and gave her a featured role in the show catapulting her into stardom.

By 1924 everyone's favourite showgirl was to begin a highly publicised affair with fellow Vaudeville act Frank Tinney. A popular black face performer, Frank was successful, older and very married. He must have made quite a glowing impression on the teen but shared a condescending attitude with others stating, “Sure I have a wife, a mortgage and an appendix, but why should I bring these things up and spoil a pleasant evening?”
Unfortunately for Imogene, Frank was also a heavy drinker and over the length of their relationship she would often turn up for work with bruises where he had hit her. Things reached a head when Frank found her alone in her apartment with a newspaper reporter and assuming the worst beat her so badly that she afterwards attempted suicide.

Later the newspapers reached a frenzy when 'Bubbles' Wilson appeared in court to press charges against Frank Tinney. She showed her bruised belly where he had kicked her and claimed he practiced his boxing on her lithe frame. Even Imogen's maid testified that Frank was a heavy drinker and was often violent. She herself claimed he had 'chastised' her and caused injury.

Despite all this, a grand jury refused to indict Tinney on assault charges and he went on to tell the press that Imogene had fabricated the whole thing as a publicity stunt. Already known as a free spirit and party girl, it wasn't a far stretch for the 1920's general public to also paint her as a deviant and liar. 

Ziegfeld was not impressed by Imogene's 'cheap' behaviour and fired her, feeling that her reputation would be bad for the show and the morale of his performers. This was in spite of the fact that his own personal doctor had inspected her injuries himself and declared “this girl looks as though she had been struck by an automobile.”
Even with her bruises and losses, Imogene was still infactuated with Tinney and in a move to get his attention that only cemented her delinquent image, she threw a 'suicide party' and swallowed heaps of sugar pills in front of her guests. After an ambulance was called and news of this hit the papers, Tinney beat her once more.
It seemed nothing could deter Imogene from her addiction to this toxic relationship. After Tinney announced he was leaving for an stint on the English vaudeville circuit the two reconciled and she boarded the ship to see him off before his departure. She told the waiting reporters that Tinney was, 'the only thing in my life. I know it, you know it, so why should I beat around the bush?'. She cried as the ship sailed away.

The next month she too was sailing, heading to Europe to appear in a French revue. It was not long however until she hopped across the Channel back to Tinney. He had begun to drink again and shortly after their reunion Imogene was once more black and blue. In early 1925 they finally split up for good when Imogene was tempted away to star in German films. When later asked about her affair with Frank she claimed she had only been 14 when it started, and it had been, 'a nonsensical mixture of fights and laughs, and half and half'.

On a side note; When Frank Tinney returned to New York his reputation had been tainted and his reception was less than glowing. Many of his friends abandoned him, his career floundered and his wife having divorced him wanted nothing more to do with him. Soon ill health and debts overtook his career and he faded from the limelight.

Back in Germany, it was a different tale. Imogene was now known as 'Imogene Robertson', and making a genuine go of things. For the next two years she starred in several films and received good revues earning her around $1500 a week. This led producers in Hollywood to take interest and offer her American projects, but she turned them all down. In Europe, while her life was still chaotic, she was at least free of her dubious past.
However, when Joseph Schenck of United Artists offered her a lucrative contract to return to the USA and work for him, she finally relented. The press took a huge delight in retelling her scandalous history prompting some women's groups to protest against her making films in America, while well known prude William H Hayes also expressed his dislike of her return. As a way to distance 'Bubbles' links with her past United Artists relaunched her career under a new screen name, Mary Nolan.

Under United Artists Mary starred in a just two films before moving to Universal Pictures. Here she played opposite such Hollywood elite as Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore and made such an impression on movie goers that she became a sought after starlet making $3000 a week. By 1929 she was once more riding high and had earned a lead role in the drama 'Shanghai Lady' playing a former prostitute and opium addict embarking on a respectable love affair only for her sordid life to catch up with her.
In reality it seems Mary likewise couldn't contain her still in-suppressible nature and she fell in love once more. This time the object of her affection was none other than legendary 'Fixer' and all round shady character, the executive and producer Eddie Mannix. If his status as the man who covered up Hollywood's crimes and disgraces by nefarious means wasn't enough, he was also, like Tinney before him, very married.

Mannix used his connections to push Mary's career and got her work with MGM on the film 'Desert Nights', while rumours flew that he also forced the star to undergo an abortion. Not long afterwards he abruptly ended their relationship. 
Mary, never one to handle a break up well, threatened to tell his wife about their affair which sent Mannix into a rage beating her into unconsciousness and hospitalising her for six months where she underwent 15 operations to repair the damage he had inflicted to her abdomen. It was during her recovery that Mary was prescribed morphine for pain relief and it was rumoured she became addicted to the drug. The next year while being treated for severe sunburn, nurses gossiped of finding needle marks up her arms.
In 1930 while making the movie 'What Men Want', Mary got into an argument with the film's director when she complained that she was the only cast member not to receive a close up. She was first banned from the set then fired altogether. After threatening to file a lawsuit against them, Universal bought her contract and possibly encouraged the hearsay about her temperamental behaviour and alleged drug use around Hollywood cutting her chances of ever getting work with another major studio.
From here on Mary worked on bit parts and supporting roles in low budget films for Poverty Row studios and in another attempt at love she married a stock broker named Wallace T McCreary. One week before their nuptials he lost $3 million on bad investments. With his remaining money the couple opened a dress shop, 'The Mary Nolan Gown and Hat Shop' but it went out of business within months. The couple were sued by creditors and ex employees seeking their wages. When giving a statement on proceedings, Mary said, 'They hound me because they remember a naughty Imogene Wilson. Don't they know that the side of me... vanished?' The next year Mary filed for bankruptcy and divorced McCreary, she was 24 years old.

Over time Mary's name was seen in the papers again when in 1935 she made an ill judged decision to file a lawsuit against her former lover Eddie Mannix for the physical abuse that had contributed to her career's downfall. She asked for $500,000 in damages. Predictably Mannix, an old hand at manipulating events to turn his way, stated that the claims were made in an attempt to resurrect her flagging film work. He further went on to discredit her and ruin her reputation by leaking negative stories about her sex life and many abortions, and he even sent a private eye to her home to threaten her with arrest for possessing morphine.

Now, shunned by Hollywood and making a shaky living back on the vaudeville circuit, Mary's life was punctuated by an arrest for an unpaid dress bill and several stays in hospitals for an attempted overdose and  'severe nervous strain'. Eventually upon her release she changed her name to Mary Wilson and got a job managing a bungalow court.
In 1948, Mary decided to write her memoirs  titled, 'Yesterday's Girl', with the help of the writer John Preston, but they remained unfinished. Suffering from malnutrition and residing in a small Hollywood apartment she was found dead at 42 from an overdose, the cause of which was never decided.
In her short life Mary blazed a trail across the entertainment industry burning brightly and very fast. It seemed that even with her talent energy and beauty, she was drawn to terrible relationships with awful men which took hold of her and kept her in a state of self destruction. With little to no support or understanding from the machine that had fed off her fame, she was left as an outsider and remembered as a dream that once was. Despite all this she is known to have said, 'I've had a beautiful life. I've tumbled into the most beautiful life in the world. I'd never change it'.

Thursday 5 May 2022

This is not OK

So, it happened. After gossip and Chinese whispers abound in the Marilyn online community, the rumours turned out to be true. Kim Kardashian had indeed turned up to the Met Gala wearing Marilyn Monroe's actual Happy Birthday dress.

Instagram and Twitter, the papers and news channels were, and still are at the time of writing, all abuzz. The IT girl of contemporary popular culture has forever indelibly linked herself to one of the world's most famous female icons and indirectly set a dangerous precedent for the treatment and preservation of historic artifacts hereafter.

It seems that with enough money, anything can be bought and one has to wonder just how many noughts were added to the number offered to make Ripley's Believe It Or Not, the current owners of the dress, even contemplate such a move. 

In one fell swoop they have allowed not just the fabric of the dress but the fabric of it's history to be changed forever. Kardashian might have told the press that she had been worried about fitting into it because it couldn't be altered, but the moment it touched her body it was changed. It might always be the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to JFK but it is now also a 'costume' that was hired out to a reality TV star so she could borrow it's original owner's legacy for a photo op.

One of the many debates online has been that other items of Marilyn's wardrobe have been worn by different people over the years but not caused the same stir, and indeed this is true. Suzie Kennedy one of the most successful of the Monroe look-a-likes has modeled items worn by Marilyn including personal belongings and film costumes.

Suzie Kennedy in the Some Like it Hot dress

Even in her own lifetime, outfits associated with Marilyn were commandeered by other stars for public events. The famous gold lame gown by William Travilla, for instance, which we are so used to seeing on Marilyn was also worn by Jayne Mansfield, Betty Grable, Jean Craine and Marilyn Maxwell.

Yet there is a major difference in the case of the Happy Birthday dress being worn by another woman. While all the other garments associated with Marilyn are still special and unique, they are nowhere near as culturally significant as the gown she chose to wear to sing to the President. A gown that has direct provenance to Marilyn as the woman who commissioned it and up to now, last wore it. It is globally recognised and represents a moment in American history that elevates it to national treasure status.

The dress last worn in 1962 is made from a delicate fabric, no longer produced, called 'Souffle' and it is hand sewn with thousands of crystals. Ripley's have stated that the gown was not spoiled during the Met Gala event, yet Kevin Jones the curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising says different,

'Whenever you move, something is giving way, even if you can't see it. Under a microscope it would show all these little splits. And over time that would be a big problem'

Conservators have also cried out at the video of Kardashian trying on the dress at Ripley's where it is literally pushed and dragged up her legs, the handler brushing his gloved hands over the crystals in rapid motions to lever the fabric over a body that it wasn't meant to fit.

Marilyn commissioned the Jean Louis design specifically asking for a dress 'that only Marilyn Monroe could wear'. It was constructed using layers of sheer fabric coloured to match her skin tone. Each panel was placed and fitted to Monroe's body to give her the appearance of being nude but for the sparkling crystals. Despite rumours that she had to be sewn into it, the dress really was skin tight and resulted in the zip tearing the fabric moments before Marilyn went on stage to perform. A last minute fix saw a seamstress sewing up the tear while Marilyn wore the dress, forever embedding the legend that she was stitched into it into popular culture. The tear however does illustrate how delicate the fabric was even when the dress was new. 
In museum conditions the 60 year old dress is displayed on a muslin dress form in a temperature controlled case with low lighting to preserve it's fragile state. Seeing Kardashian forcing her own shape into the gown is wince inducing, and despite her claims to have shed 16 pounds in three weeks thanks to a crash diet and sauna suits in order to get it to fit (this is a whole other concerning issue that should not have been promoted to her impressionable fans) there was no way the slender garment would fasten over her huge backside, a feature almost as big as her ego. The museum helpfully used an already existing tie to keep the dress in place where the zipper could not be done up
Note the gap large across the bottom where the dress cannot be closed

This pretty much sums up Kardashian for me. She turned up on the red carpet literally clothed in another woman's glory. She might have been wearing the most expensive dress ever sold (Ripley's paid 4.8 Million dollars for it), but her ass was still hanging out the back of it. She could hide it with a fur stole all she wanted, but there is no amount of money that could buy her the class or talent of Marilyn Monroe.

Now the dress has had Kardashian's body oil and sweat pressed into it, it's been wondered by many Marilyn fans whether it will still hold the same value. It had been, up until this week, a direct link to Marilyn herself. It was her dress, and whether literally or figuratively it held her DNA, for this reason it should have been sacred. Yet Kardashian's massive sense of entitlement gave her free reign to do as she liked and we have lost a link to the past.

Worse still is that there was a perfect replica (made to fit) that was worn for the actual gala, meaning that the real dress, paraded on the red carpet, need never to have been worn at all. It takes an extremely selfish and ignorant person to do what Kardashian chose to do.

In her last interview, Marilyn asked the reporter just before he left not to make her into a joke. It was important to her that people saw her for the actress she was and the actress she aspired to be. Marilyn had worked hard all her life. She was ambitious and ground breaking. She had so much potential left in her, who knows what she may have achieved. It sickens me to see her legacy being tried on for personal gain and general entertainment. 

Despite her claims to the contrary, Kardashian does not respect the dress or what it stands for, she does not respect or care for Marilyn Monroe, she only cares for her own self aggrandizement. All those who condone her actions, including Ripley's Believe It Or Not and even the Marilyn Monroe Estate are more interested in the financial gain the publicity will bring them. 

It is up to those who really do value history and Marilyn's place in it to continue championing her and remembering who she was and what she did. For me there is only one Marilyn Monroe, a multi faceted fascinating woman who can never be imitated or replaced though some may try.