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Memorabilia | Weekend Chat

Marilyn, Before Stardom

Photographs of Monroe from the 1949 'Red Velvet' session go on the auction block tonight. The negatives and rights to the images could fetch $1 million.

March 22, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He doesn't like to brag, but if pressed, Ventura photographer Tom Kelley will admit that he once snuggled in Marilyn Monroe's lap.

It happened when he was a boy and the not-yet-famous blond returned to his father's Hollywood studio to sign autographs after posing for a series of nudes that would help rocket her to stardom.

The most famous of the images to come out of the so-called "Red Velvet" session, shot by glamour photographer Tom Kelley Sr., was used as the centerfold in Playboy magazine's inaugural issue.

Tonight, the younger Kelley will put up for bid the five other images from that 1949 shoot during an auction to be held simultaneously at Butterfields in Los Angeles and online by its parent company, EBay.

In addition to the world-famous photos of Monroe lounging against a blood-red curtain, Kelley will auction off the intellectual property rights to the images--negatives, copyrights and Monroe's signed model's release.

Bidding is set to start at $700,000, but many expect the final sales price to exceed $1 million because the high bidder will win the right to use her name and likeness for trade and advertising purposes.

Question: How has your life changed since you decided to put these images on the auction block?

Answer: The worldwide communication has been astounding. I've gotten letters and postcards and e-mail, of course, from hundreds and hundreds of people who absolutely loved the Marilyn images, but who also loved my father's work. I've been very proud to answer the communications from people saying, "Yeah, he was a heck of a guy."

Q: I've heard different stories about how that session came about. What's the real story?

A: My father had noticed a minor traffic accident on Sunset Boulevard. There was a good-looking girl involved, so he pulled right over--he had an eye for the ladies--and helped her out, lent her a little money and got her on her way. That was Marilyn. He didn't realize it at the time but he had handed her a business card, and Marilyn, as a model, came into the studio and was used for a couple of jobs before he asked if she'd be interested in posing nude. He had ongoing assignments for cheesecake-type calendars and anyone who would qualify in terms of physical shape, he would ask.

Q: We're talking 1949. That kind of work couldn't have been widely accepted at the time.

A: Photography studios take a wide range of assignments and this was a source of income. Interestingly, developing film was a problem. It was very difficult to process the film of a nude figure at Kodak, which was the processing company, so my uncle (Bill Kelley) had to bring a bottle of scotch down to the night man to get him to run this film.

Q: What happened after the photos were developed?

A: My understanding is that the calendar company basically sat on them for a year or so. When they began to hear the name Marilyn Monroe, it rang a bell and they immediately began to publish the calendars. If Marilyn had not gone into a film career and created the subsequent media furor, the calendar probably would not have been published.

Q: So this helped her career?

A: The photos were definitely controversial, but she actually used that to her advantage. When asked at the time what she had on, she said, "The radio." That was pure Marilyn. At the time they were published, Marilyn's career had gone up three levels and there was quite a stir to obtain Kelley Studio calendars. I think my father knew at that point that these were pieces that would have lives of their own.

Q: Did your father shoot any other celebrities?

A: The studio has in its archives something on the order of 300 to 400 other movie stars. I'm talking big, big stars like Lana Turner and Carole Lombard. I don't remember a lot of them, I was too young.

But I do remember being used in some of the shoots. One gentleman who stands out is Leo Carrillo (who played the sidekick in the TV series "The Cisco Kid"), whose role was the bandito-type guy, with a bandoleer across his chest and a gun on this hip and a gun on that hip. I had to pose with this guy and every time I looked up at him, he scared me to death. These were world-famous stars, but none of them have had the power that the Marilyn images have had.

Q: Any others?

A: I do remember Lucy. My parents were friendly with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. They used to go down to their Malibu beach house and pal around. I didn't know her as Lucille Ball, of course. I just knew her as a slightly crazed redhead.

Q: Your father passed away in 1984. What are your feelings about putting this part of his legacy up for bid?

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