So this week’s LA Times piece on the iconic 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe statue—Forever Marilyn by Seward Johnson (1930-2020)—due to return permanently to Palm Springs next month, has added fuel to the sudden firestorm of righteousness by detractors who believe it to be “misogynistic.”

For the record… I love the statue, which was briefly located in downtown Palm Springs 2012-2014 before heading off to Chicago.

‘Forever Marilyn’ in Palm Springs, 2012-2014

Palm Springs thrives on its nostalgic Hollywood appeal and connections as playground (and home) to the rich and famous back in the day.

As I wrote in my Palm Springs & Desert Resorts travel guidebook, in the early days “Palm Springs was a privileged playground to the stars. Locals—and the media—looked the other way at the indiscretions of Hollywood idols, who had found a demure hideaway at the foot of the mountains for their wild parties and peccadilloes.” (As actor and future city mayor Charlie Farrell, co-founder of the legendary, members-only Palm Springs Racquet Club, once quipped, “We’d all be in San Quentin, or divorced” if the bedroom antics of the Hollywood stars who stayed at his club were divulged.)

And nowhere else in the world is as fascinated with Marilyn’s legendary beauty, stardom, mystique—and undeniable sex appeal—as Palm Springs. Not least because few, if any, other places have as many connections.

Norma Jean at the Racquet Club, Palm Springs, 1947

Model Norma Jean posed for her first pin-up photos (with photographer Bruno Bernard in 1947) at Farrell’s Racquet Club, where two years later she was “discovered” by Hollywood talent agent Johnny Hyde while lounging around the pool. She later posed nude for Playboy at the Palm Springs Tennis Court Resort (after having been the first nude to appear in the December 1953 inaugural issue, which featured photos taken four years prior by photographer Tom Kelley and purchased by Hugh Hefner, launching both her and Playboy to instant Hollywood stardom). Plus, Marilyn slept at several local hotels, most notably the Mira Loma hotel—today called Palm Springs Rendezvous—where she always stayed in a room now known as “Pretty in Pink.” She eventually purchased a home in the Las Palmas neighborhood (at 1326 N. Rose Avenue); and famously made love with JFK in the dry heat on March 14, 1962, at Bing Crosby’s home (although, alas, at his Rancho Mirage estate at 70375 Calico Rd., not his earlier Palm Springs home at 1011 E. El Alameda).

That’s why Forever Marilyn is an absolutely perfect fit for Palm Springs!

The ‘Pretty in Pink’ room at Palm Springs Rendezvous

I see nothing “misogynistic” about the pop-art statue. (BTW: the detractors are misusing the term, which means “hatred for, or prejudice against, women,” a nonsensical charge to level against the statue and its supporters. Surely they mean “sexist,’ which is equally hollow.) In fact, given the meaning of “misogynistic,” it’s quite obviously the very opposite and reflects an appreciation and love of women. Consider it a homage to femininity!

This whimsical art-piece is not some randy male’s faux interpretation of his sexist ideal. Forever Marilyn perfectly mirrors an actual iconic moment in movie history: the famous subway-grate scene from the Billy Wilder 1954 film The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn’s skirt billows upwards (it was used by 20th Century Fox to generate publicity for movie).

As with that memorable movie moment, Johnson’s larger-than-life representation also perfectly celebrates Marilyn’s sensuality, free-spirit, beauty, and grace.

The iconic moment in ‘The Seven Year Itch’

And if Forever Marilyn—and, by extension, the movie—is to be considered “misogynistic” (or “sexist”), then I guess we’ll have to put into storage Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Manet’s Olympia, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, and Matisse’s Blue Nude. As to all those Greek and Roman marble nude statues hanging around the Smithsonian, The Huntington, and Getty Villa, time to relegate them to the basement too! And while we’re being all puritanical, I guess that lipstick, high-heels, lingerie, butt-tight jeans, and exposed midriffs and cleavage should all be taboo. Shame on Misty Copeland, Beyoncé, Sophia Loren, and any other woman who ever flaunted her sexuality.

Phew! Get over it!

There is no contradiction between one’s support for the advancement of women’s rights, self-determination, and equality, while also honoring their affirmatively self-confident pride in expressing their sensuality and sexuality as marvelous facets of the many wonders of womanhood. Meanwhile, consider that art has never been about being “politically correct”… that principle has been at its core since cavemen (oops, sorry, “cavepersons”) started daubing pictographs. 

Forever Marilyn proved immensely popular during its earlier two-year tenure on the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, adjacent to Marilyn’s star (101 S. Palm Canyon Drive) embedded in the sidewalk in Palm Springs’ own version of the more famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. Back then, “misogyny” didn’t seem to be an issue. The Palm Springs CVB even promoted “Play Like Marilyn” activities in the glamorous style of this legendary star and her party-loving Hollywood cohorts to celebrate the arrival of the new attraction.

‘Forever Marilyn’ at the corner of Tahquitz Canyon Way and Palm Canyon Drive, 2012-2014

The statue’s backers are led by P.S. Resorts, a consortium of local hotels and restaurants that has worked since 2014 to bring it back to where it rightfully belongs as part of the Palm Springs “brand.” They paid $1 million to purchase the statue and bring it home “for life,” according to PS Resorts Chairman Aftab Dada.

A Committee to Relocate Marilyn, led by clothing designer Trina Turk (who has a store on Palm Canyon Drive) and architecture preservationist Chris Menrad, has been formed to fight the plan to locate Forever Marilyn on Museum Way, in front of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Although their battle is not to not place the statue in Palm Springs per se, many detractors want to kill Marilyn off for good! 

One of the statue’s biggest nay-sayers is the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who’s scathing rebuke last week of the decision to reinstall Marilyn in Palm Springs I find to be misanthropic, mud-slinging Fox News-like journalism that, as one Palm Springs resident on NextDoor has said, reflects the same “puritanical, hypocritical faux moralistic standards that ruined the movie for the director Billy Wilder.” If you don’t like the art piece, Mr. Knight, then fine. Just say so, and level your critique on that basis. Don’t twist it into some evil and monstrous entity with such stupid slander as accusing the city council of promoting “the misdemeanor crime of up-skirting,” and of portraying Forever Marilyn as a “”vulgar, misogynistic statue made by a hack artist… of zero achievement.”

“To think that anyone will travel to Palm Springs inspired by a burning desire to get a gander at #MeToo Marilyn’s giant panties is bizarre,” writes Knight, subtly–and inanely–suggesting that it’s appeal is to perverts and pornographers. I recall how in 2012-2014, the statue was indeed a huge promotional draw, bringing many thousands of new visitors to Palm Springs to admire this fantastic and fantastically kitschy piece of art. Given Knight’s own obvious fascination with her panties, one wonders what deep-seated sexual problems or perversions of his own Forever Marilyn, er, exposes! More so, given that she was/is wearing knickers like my grandmother used to wear! These aren’t Victoria’s Secret thong panties!

Marilyn’s grannie-style panties are bared!

(Meanwhile, Knight’s cranky comments remind me of a parallel story: how after I posted a Facebook post linking to a magazine review I’d written of a new hotel in Costa Rica featuring first-of-its-kind all-glass villas with all-glass en-suite showers, I received a call from an executive at one of the world’s leading travel brands–for which I’ve freelanced for twenty years–saying he disapproved of a published photo of the suite featuring me taking a shower with my bare backside to the camera. My response was the same as for Knight: “If you have a problem with a bare backside, then you really have a problem!”)

A quick Google or Instagram search of this adorably Instagrammable art-piece shows that Forever Marilyn appeals equally to women as to men, including grannies who aren’t as uptight as Knight. When the giant statue left Palm Springs in 2014, 2,000 people showed up for the farewell party with city officials plus actress Carol Channing (star of the original Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, based on the 1953 movie with Marilyn Monroe) and local Marilyn impersonater Cat Lyn Day.

Nonetheless, even Louis Grachos, the Palm Springs Art Museum‘s CEO and executive director said he considered the statue “”an unhealthy encouragement of risqué behavior of women.” How so, Mr. Grachos? And do you mean “by” women or “towards” women? (This nonsensical non-sequitur seems like an echo of rabid Bible-thumping Republicans who denounce permitting gay men to teach in schools because it promotes pedophilia! Or as daft as the notion–once used to scare kids off “indecent” behavior–that masturbation will cause blindness!)

Steven H. Maloney, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, echoed Gracho’s sentiment in a letter to the mayor and city council. He then tripped over his own words by stating: “It also fundamentally misconstrues the role of cultural institutions, which is to facilitate a diverse public’s engagement with a rich array of culture and art.” In that case… baloney, Maloney! You’re being hypocritical! Likewise, the critique that the statue “undermines the seriousness of the arts conversations that are part of everyday life for the museum.” Er, again, what? This is the same museum that for years proudly displayed a giant pop-art sculpture of Snoopy in the lobby, and which in 2009 displayed images by controversial shock-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that included of actress Sonia Braga topless. Where was the shock, horror cry of misogyny and sexism then? 

“The aesthetic question of ‘personal taste’ is a common dodge in public art discussions,” Knight disingenuously writes, while lacing his supposedly objectve diatribe against the “”offending sculpture”” with such subjective slaps as “offensive hunk of junk,” “shameful misogynist lark,” and “a blatantly sexist sculpture snickering at women in general [that] is unlikely to be widely cheered as it goes up in a tourist town.”

How wrong you are, Mr. Knight! 

As to local public opinion, I’m following the heated debate among Palm Springs residents on NextDoor, and it’s evident that those in favor outnumber those against. “I’ve missed it being in its old location,” says local TV Travel host Bea Broda, former president of the Society of American Travel Writers. Nonetheless, many “city fathers” who were once in favor have suddenly jumped on the opposition bandwagon out of fear of being considered politically incorrect.

Such is our times!

 

Marilyn Monroe nude by Bert Stern

Lastly, one wonders what Marilyn would have made of it all…

She was a very driven, motivated, and accomplished actress, albeit with a troubled personality. A voracious reader with a keen intellect, she studied history and literature at UCLA between acting stints. She  even considered taking arts extension courses at UCLA to further her love of the arts! Nonetheless, the blonde bombshell clearly delighted in her own sexuality and frequently posed nude without inhibition for such photographers as Bert Stern. 

SHE would be delighted to have her most iconic moment on film recorded in painted aluminum and stainless steel for posterity. SHE would not consider it misogynistic, nor sexist. How could she? I think she’d laugh at the notion.

All that said, I see having Marilyn return to the city where she was discovered as a total win-win for the city. It will become a beloved icon and certainly great PR, despite its detractors.

The only genuine debate, which also rages with threats of lawsuits, is where to put it… but that’s another topic.

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.