David Gainsborough Roberts Monroe collection interview: 'Marilyn is probably the best investment'

Part two of this interview will follow next week...

If ever a collector was born to collect, then it's David Gainsborough Roberts.

David was raised in Margate by self-made wealthy parents who collected brass, swords and firearms among other things. But it was a remarkable gift from David's grandmother which gave him the collecting bug: a 6 x 4 wooden fragment from Nelson's HMS Victory...

David Gainsborough Roberts began
his Marilyn collection 20 years ago

Finding himself at odds with the public school system (which he later described as "brutal") and his often overbearing working class father, David's early aspirations to become an actor gave way to several years as a promoter in the no-less brutal world of professional wrestling.

A period working for his father's merchant bank, Hardy Roberts & Sons, and a stint as a music promoter (for illustrious clients including 1960s rockers The Kinks) followed. Yet it was a fateful Christie's auction in South Kensington, 1991, that would change David's life forever...

Fast-forward to 2011, and David today owns the largest private owned collection of Marilyn Monroe's film costumes and personal gowns. He also has fascinating and intimate items hinting at the vulnerable and self-destructive personality behind Marilyn's glamourous facade.

And, if you are near Bath, UK, between March 12 and October 30, you'll be able to witness David's stunning collection for yourself. The collection is being shown at the American Museum in Britain to mark the institution's 50th Anniversary.

Paul Fraser Collectibles was among those lucky enough to be granted an interview with David in the run-up to the 'Marilyn - Hollywood Icon' exhibition. Below, we exclusively quiz the collector behind the most authentic Marilyn exhibition ever to have appeared in the UK...

The first piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that you bought was at a Christie's auction in South Kensington, 1991 (sold alongside clothing worn by Madonna and Jimi Hendrix). How did your fascination with Marilyn begin?

I think basically because I've always been interested in history - the only subject I was ever any good at at school was history! And, in my younger days, I was an actor at a repertory. So I've always been interested in the theatre and cinema, and [collectibles] caught my eye from there.

I was buying certain Hollywood stuff - not with any idea of buying Marilyn - when, in 1991, I bought her dress from [1954 movie] There's No Business Like Show Business. The sale became such a big smash hit. It got in the papers and everybody seemed to be talking about it.

There was a near-riot in Christie's when I bought it, and the model and I became good friends. That was how it started: April 29, 1991. It was a day that changed my life - and goodness knows I had no intention of it doing so.

When I got back to Jersey, my mother said: "I don't know what you've been doing, but the phone won't stop ringing!"

The pink ‘wiggle’ dress worn by Marilyn
in publicity stills promoting Niagara
(1953) – her first major role estab-
lishing her ‘blonde bombshell’ image

And I said: "Honey, forget about it. Seven days from now, nobody with be interested in me and that will be the end of that, and we can get back to our ordinary boring lives." And I'm the afraid the last 20 years has rather proved me wrong on that...!

What kind of collectibles were you buying prior to winning the Marilyn dress in 1991?

I've got a lot of cigarette cases, that was a big sort of thing at the time. Rita Hayworth, a beautiful one of her's, Humphrey Bogart's, and items of Vivien Leigh and some jewellery of Mae West ... a compact of Jean Harlow's... So all sorts of things.

And, I've just remembered, I've got a Stetson hat of John Wayne's. I bought it from Christie's, I think it was about $2,000. But I don't know what they're worth today [actually, it could be worth closer to $£4,950 ($7,990)- Ed]. Well, they all seem to be going up in value...

You've mentioned Rita Hayworth and Vivien Leigh. Marilyn was probably the 'ultimate star' among all of them. Why, from your point of view, does Marilyn continue to hold so much fascination among collectors?

I think because it was a rags to riches story. It was a story that was just so interesting. Remember: this girl was born of a mother who, unfortunately, was diagnosed schizophrenic [when Monroe was still a child] and spent most of her life in institutions.

When you look into Marilyn's history (or Norma Jean Mortensen as she was born) both her mother Gladys's parents died in mental institutions, unknown [with] scant education. It wasn't the greatest start in a life to becoming the most famous film star, probably of all time.

Let's face it: the most famous sports star in America [Joe DiMaggio, Monroe's husband 1954-1954], the most famous playwright in the world [Arthur Miller, married to Monroe 1956-1961] and then to have an affair with the most powerful man in the world [President John F Kennedy]...

Not bad for a girl with a schizophrenic mother, brought up in foster homes and orphanages. So i think that's always been of a great interest. Also, that Marilyn died hopelessly in debt, on her own in a rather grotty little bungalow. So ... rather tragic.

What have been your recent successes as a collector?

In this last month, I bought a photograph of Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal [the Sixties party girl whose affair with married War Minister John Profumo is said to have helped bring down the British Government] once owned by Christine Keeler herself. She had an exhibition in Cork street.

I also bought a letter from Christie's auction house written by Captain Lawrence Oates who, of course, went down with [Captain Robert Falcon] Scott in the Antarctic, signed by Scott. Obviously, Scott himself had gotten frostbite and couldn't write [the letter himself] at this time.

The reverse of David’s jacket, to
whom the torch of Marilyn’s legacy
has been passed

So I've got that, and also a couple of things related to Marilyn [and] Doctor Ralph Greenson ... the man that gave her the pills, basically, that killed her. A receipt there for $15,000. And a letter from Patricia Newcomb, her press agent, telling Marilyn that Joe DiMaggio was in town and wanted to see her. That's rather interesting...

Back to the subject of items going up in value: would you recommend Marilyn Monroe memorabilia as an investment?

Yes, she's probably got to be, of all the film stars. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn have got to be the best. I mean, there is a dress coming up which is something I would like in my collection. Though I don't think I'll ever be able to afford it, because it's too much!

It's the white dress that blows up over the grate in The Seven Year Itch which, of course, terminated her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. It is the most famous film dress, probably of all time anywhere. It's owned by Ms Debbie Reynolds, the film actress.

I know Debbie well and, whenever I ask her about how much it is, she says "millions". So I think that's going to come up for millions. [Although] I think Debbie probably got it for 10 bucks, knowing her!

When you think about the "Happy Birthday, Mr President" dress... Christie's rang me up and I said, "What ... you're going to be talking about $100,000 here?"

And they said: "Oh I think we're going to be looking for more than that, David..." Well, it went for a million-and-a-quarter.

And some things in the 1999 sale [by Christie's of the collection of Monroe's legendary acting coach, Lee Strasberg]... Cups and saucers, silly little things from her kitchen down for 100 bucks, went for 5,000 bucks.

So, there's been enormous interest in film stars in general. It's a very, very good investment - and Marilyn is probably the best investment in the world.

Things going up in value can also mean they're no longer obtainable, out of the reach of a lot of people...

Well, that's absolutely right. I've got 20 of them [Marilyn's dresses] and some of them I paid as little as little as £6,000 pounds for. Things have gone up just so much, a lot of antique things.

I have a friend from Christie's [and] that just came up the other day: "Oh I remember you buying that Winston Churchill picture from me. What did you pay, David, $20,000?"

Stage costume with built-in boned
leotard worn by Monroe in There’s
No Business Like Show Business

"Yes," I said. "I paid $25,000. What would it be worth now?" He said: "Put a nought on it, David... And double it."

Oh well, I don't want to sell it anyway. But it's nice to know.

I once read a quote from you, where you said "I collect, I don't sell..."

That's right - I don't sell anything. I've had to build four rooms onto my house in Jersey to get the stuff in! And I always say that, if I had a wife and children, I couldn't afford it and I wouldn't have the space for it.

No, I'm afraid to say, I just horde the stuff - and just get more and more all the time. I suppose there must come a time when I'm going to think about where it's going to go after I've gone. I'm not thinking along those lines just yet! But, no, I never sell anything.

With many of Marilyn's close confidents, like Ralph Roberts, deceased, responsibility for Marilyn's legacy has in many ways been passed onto you...

Well, that's it. Ralph Roberts, who was a good friend of mine (no relation), and I spent hours and hours talking. He gave me things, and he'd say this and he'd say that and give me little innuendos ... and I'd ask stuff about murder and this and that.

I remember saying to him: "Ralph, Marilyn's last message [before she died] was supposed to be for you. But how would you know it was Marilyn? It was a bit garbled...."

And he said: "David, do you think this is the first garbled message I got from Marilyn? Do you think I don't know Marilyn's voice, garbled or otherwise? Of course I knew," he said. "It used to be awful for me because she'd fall asleep on the phone...

"Because Marilyn liked champagne and she'd have some pills." Towards the end of the conversation with her, Ralf used to say: "Hon', how much have you had to drink?"

And she'd say "Rafe [his nickname], I've had three glasses of champagne and two of those white pills and one of those green ones..."

He said: "It would tie up my line, David, all night long! I'm a masseur and an actor and I needed the work!" So after a while, he'd say [to Marilyn]: "Honey, you're getting hazy - hang up on me."

How can you be sure that a Marilyn item is authentic?

It's not as easy to fake as some people might think. It's no use having someone come up saying, "Oh hello, I have Marilyn Monroe's knife and fork." Oh yeah, was it...? I mean, the Strasberg sale in 1999 had a lot of her stuff and, of course, it was owned by the Strasbergs and they vouched for it.

Auction houses are very pedantic about what to sell. A lot of people say, "Oh, they'll sell anything." No they won't. It's the thought that they're going to get a bad reputation - they're not going to risk it.

Marilyn’s mother also appears in the
expo – in this photograph of 13 year
old Gladys Pearl Monroe (1902-1984)

I've been at some auctions where they've said: "David, we think this is genuine. We think this is [Old West lawman] Wild Bill Hickock's gun - but we can't really prove it. But we know it is real." And I said, "Yeah, I've got that feeling about it [too]."

But, if you can't prove it, then you've got to have something in writing. That's why, with a lot of the small stuff I've bought of Marilyn's, I bought from Ralph Roberts. He was one of the only 14 people to go to her funeral, one of her closest friends. So if Ralph told me that was it, that was it.

When collecting Marilyn Monroe's memorabilia, what should collectors look out for?

They must look out for the provenance, where it has come from. And do look out for the costumes that are ... well, they're not fakes, but they are sort of 'duplicated'. There was a Marilyn Monroe exhibition recently that got around England and none of them are original.

I've had to say this over and over again: this [the American Museum in Britain's 'Marilyn - Hollywood Icon' exhibition] is the first time that Marilyn has been presented in England at this exhibition - there are no fakes here, there are no duplicates.

Every single costume that you see there, Marilyn Monroe actually wore. I think that only one doesn't have a photograph of her wearing it. Of course, with the film ones it's very easy to find out, because usually they've got a tag number in the back with the number that the studio has put in [matching] the studio records.

Also there are so many experts today. So many textile experts who'll say, "No, no that's wrong that's wrong, they'd never [have] used cotton like that... You didn't use those sort of threads in those days" - that sort of thing. So it's not so easy to fake.


Next week: David reveals more from his years of collecting Marilyn Monroe's collectibles, and discusses his interest in Mafia and macabre memorabilia...

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