A battle erupts over the right to market Marilyn
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More than 40 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe's photos are used to hawk everything from T-shirts and posters to coffee mugs and key chains. Now, the late actress is at the center of a bitter legal dispute over who controls the rights to her profitable image.
Licensing her famous poses and pout have made more than $30 million in fees for two of the litigants. They are Anna Strasberg, the wife of Ms. Monroe's former acting coach, and her Indiana-based business partner, a professional peddler of dead peoples' images. Seeking to share in the Monroe spoils are the families of four photographers who snapped famous Monroe pictures, but who have earned far less in licensing fees.
The central issue in four Monroe-related lawsuits, now pending in Indiana, New York and California is seemingly simple: At the time of her death, was the actress a Californian, or a New Yorker? The answer is worth millions.
As the majority owner of Ms. Monroe's rights of publicity -- which permit the licensing of celebrity images for commercial purposes -- Ms. Strasberg insists the star was a Californian. The photographers, who own copyrighted images of Ms. Monroe, have asked the courts to declare that she was a New Yorker. If the photographers prevail, they could potentially wipe out much of Ms. Strasberg's Monroe business.
The reason: unlike copyrights, which are protected by federal law, publicity rights are a creature of state laws, resulting in a legal patchwork. Some states, including New York, refuse to acknowledge or protect the publicity rights of dead celebrities, so they cannot be bequeathed in a will. California does grant postmortem publicity rights, making it possible for heirs to pursue profits for decades.
Ms. Monroe was born and raised in California, and moved to New York to study acting in 1955, seven years before her death of a drug overdose. In New York, she met Lee Strasberg, director of The Actors Studio, a school attended by many famous actors and actresses. Ms. Monroe came to depend on Mr. Strasberg until her death.
In her will, the actress, who died with no spouse or children, left much of her $800,000 estate to Mr. Strasberg. She left a smaller portion to her psychiatrist, Marianne Kris.
In 1967, a young Venezuelan-born actress named Anna Mizrahi auditioned for admission to Mr. Strasberg's acting studio. She was wearing only a black bra and panties, according to the actress Lee Grant, who says she was present for the tryout. The ingenue didn't get in -- she lost out to Jack Nicholson -- but she did get Mr. Strasberg, who was nearly 40 years her senior. The two married in 1967, when Ms. Strasberg was in her late 20s. Ms. Strasberg declined to be interviewed for this article.
Mr. Strasberg went on to create the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which operates in New York and Los Angeles. A shrewd businesswoman, according to those who know her, Ms. Strasberg ran the institute while her husband focused on his teaching. She also had a passion for luxury. "She taught us it was very important to nurture yourself with sensual baths, bubbles, nice smells and good food," says former student Mary Anne Dorward. At her memorabilia-filled apartment on Manhattan's Central Park West, Ms. Strasberg hosted such celebrities as Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and Mick Jagger.
Ms. Strasberg, who is 66, also owns a sprawling home in Los Angeles's ritzy Brentwood section. She regularly attends Hollywood galas, where she is frequently photographed.
When Lee Strasberg died in 1982, the Monroe inheritance passed to his wife. In 2000, she created Marilyn Monroe LLC, which now owns the Monroe publicity rights. She has a controlling interest in that entity; the Anna Freud Centre, a London psychiatric institute that inherited Dr. Kris's stake, owns the rest.
Ms. Strasberg launched her Monroe licensing business in 1982, months after her husband died, hiring Los Angeles lawyer Roger Richman to harness publicity rights. Between 1983 and 1995, Mr. Richman says he struck many lucrative licensing deals. Among them was a Marilyn Monroe boutique at Bloomingdale's New York department store, print and TV ads for Absolut vodka and cosmetics company Revlon Inc., plus an assortment of dolls, T-shirts and coffee mugs.
Ms. Strasberg's business philosophy, according to Mr. Richman: "Keep making money." Court records show Mr. Richman helped Ms. Strasberg to net about $7.5 million over 13 years, a figure he says seems low, though he won't provide actual numbers.
"Anna thinks about and handles" Ms. Monroe's image "from the moment she wakes up," says William Wegner, her attorney.
Ms. Monroe joined a parade of dead celebrities being marketed aggressively. In 2004, Robert F.X. Sillerman paid Lisa Marie Presley $100 million for an 85 percent stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., which licenses Mr. Presley's image and music. Jeffrey Lotman, chief executive of the Los Angeles licensing firm Global Icons, says that after Mr. Presley, Ms. Monroe and James Dean are the most valuable dead-celebrity brands.
The business has caused tension in the Strasberg family. John Strasberg, her estranged 64-year-old stepson who teaches acting in New York, says that he and his late sister Susan were close to Ms. Monroe, but they were disinherited by their father and never received any of the Monroe earnings. "I'm not sure I would want any of it," he says. "I find it fundamentally sad that people who never knew Marilyn continue to want to profit from her, and in the lowest form possible." In a New York surrogate-court filing, Ms. Strasberg said she had been "acquainted" with Ms. Monroe prior to her marriage to the acting coach.
The selling of Marilyn took off in 1996, after Ms. Strasberg dismissed Mr. Richman and hired Mark Roesler, the owner of Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide, to manage the Monroe publicity rights. Described by others in his niche as the king of the dead-celebrity business, the 50-year-old Mr. Roesler began in the early 1980s by hiring private detectives to track down families of deceased stars. These relatives often didn't realize there was money to be made, he says. Among the long-gone celebrities Mr. Roesler currently represents are James Dean and Bette Davis.
To snare Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Roesler guaranteed Ms. Strasberg that he would pay the estate at least $1.1 million in annual licensing fees, according to a former CMG employee. Mr. Roesler wouldn't confirm this number, except to say he has met his guarantees. Court records indicate that from 1996 to 2000, Ms. Strasberg received more than $7.5 million in licensing revenue as a result of her deal with Mr. Roesler.
CMG and Mr. Roesler doubled Ms. Strasberg's previous earnings by offering a blitz of products, including refillable lighters and Monroe-themed casino slot machines. A line of pet clothing, which debuted in February, includes a hot pink dog dress marketed under the slogan "Diamonds are a Dog's Best Friend."
"There are a hundred times more Monroe novelty items than there are (John) Wayne items," says Christine Sovich, a former CMG lawyer who now manages Mr. Wayne's publicity rights.
In 1999, Ms. Strasberg commissioned auction house Christie's to sell many famous items Ms. Monroe left behind, including the sequined gown she wore when she sang "Happy Birthday" to President John Kennedy in 1962. The auction raised $13.4 million, but the sale irked many of Ms. Monroe's fans and friends. Her will had directed Mr. Strasberg to distribute the actress's personal effects to "friends, colleagues and those to whom I'm devoted." Instead, the possessions went to "anyone with the right money," says James Haspiel, who identifies himself as a friend of Ms. Monroe's.
Mr. Wegner says Ms. Strasberg has given part of her Monroe earnings to charity and that some of the profits have been used to fund Monroe-related litigation costs. "For Anna, it's not about the money, it's about preserving Marilyn's image," he says.
The lawyer says that Ms. Strasberg has been selective: One novelty phone featured a likeness of the famous photo of a skirted Ms. Monroe standing on a subway grate. When it rang, a fan blew Ms. Monroe's skirt. Ms. Strasberg called Mr. Wegner in a panic, insisting he stop production on a tasteless product. Mr. Wegner says he reassured Ms. Strasberg that the phone "was not racy and didn't expose" Ms. Monroe's panties. Ms. Strasberg relented.
Now, the greatest threat to Ms. Strasberg's control over Ms. Monroe's image comes from the children of four deceased photographers. Though the lensmen owned copyrighted images of the starlet, they themselves barely profited. But their family members have licensed the Monroe photos to makers of calendars, handbags and even a high-end vintner. Last year, Ms. Strasberg and CMG sued the families in Indianapolis federal court, alleging that some such deals violated Ms. Monroe's publicity rights by excluding Marilyn Monroe LLC from licensing revenue.
The photographers countersued in New York and California, claiming that Ms. Strasberg and CMG have no right to licensing revenue, because Ms. Monroe was a New Yorker, and therefore her publicity rights expired at death.
Joshua Greene, whose father, Milton Greene, shot thousands of photos of Ms. Monroe, worries that the star's image is fading and manufacturers won't enter into licensing deals if they have to pay fees to two sets of rights holders. As evidence, Mr. Greene points to a Japanese collector stamp deal from which he says he stood to earn $70,000. The deal, he says, fell apart when CMG and Ms. Strasberg demanded a piece of the action in the form of high licensing fees. "They are killing the goose that lays the golden egg," he says of his legal opponents.
Mr. Roesler says the stamp deal died because Mr. Greene wanted to accept all the licensing fees himself and then parcel them out.
Three of the four families have a member who gave up a photography career to capitalize instead on his father's Monroe shots. Mr. Greene says he burned out as a magazine photographer and backpacked around the world before restoring and licensing his father's photos, from which he says he has earned more than $1 million over the past decade.
Larry Shaw says he began selling his father Sam Shaw's Monroe photos -- including the one of the starlet atop the subway grate -- after his own photography career faltered in 1987. He says he was making more than $100,000 annually in licensing fees. In 1994, his father and sisters sued him, claiming he stole the photos and wasn't sharing the profits. Mr. Shaw denies the claims. The suit was settled in 2002.
Another litigant, Tom Kelley Jr., gave up his celebrity photography business to take over his late father's studio in 1984. He says he has earned about $300,000 from his father's Monroe photos, getting the most money from a deal struck with the makers of the Marilyn Merlot wine label.
Lawyers for the photographers' families say they will prove that Ms. Monroe's domicile was New York. After all, they say, at the time of her death, she owned an apartment on Manhattan's East Side, where she lived with playwright Arthur Miller until their 1961 divorce. Her will was also probated in New York. Mr. Wegner, for his part, offers as proof of Ms. Monroe's domicile a stone on the porch of the late actress's California home. "Here my journey ends," reads its inscription.
First Published April 10, 2006 12:00 am