NEW YORK -- The red stiletto heels were trouble, Russell C. Schalk Jr. could see that. Everybody in Christie's auction house last night could see that. Shoes like this are so much trouble there's a nickname for them that's so rude even the abbreviation can't be printed in a family newspaper.
It gets worse yet: scarlet satin stilettos encrusted with matching rhinestones, designed by Salvatore Ferragamo and maybe perhaps possibly once slipped onto the glamorous, sad, poignant, mysterious and, of course, legendary tootsies of Marilyn Monroe.
How much for this lot, then, eh?
Schalk took the Metroliner up from Baltimore for this, sitting here now near the front of the main auction room with Lord Hindlip, Christie's chairman and the evening's auctioneer, standing behind the big polished wood podium sporting his black tuxedo and his superb British accent, rolling merrily on through the numbers.
Schalk's got the auction catalog on his lap and it must weigh as much as a nice rib roast and is getting more cumbersome by the moment. The book says the shoes are estimated to go for $4,000-$6,000, but those numbers go by before Lord Hindlip can say "Cheerio."
Hours before, Schalk had checked into the Kimberly Hotel down the block from Rockefeller Plaza, then called his people in California -- four men he knows from business, four guys who took Schalk up on his offer to represent them at an extravagant auction of Marilyn Monroe's possessions.
"Quite honestly, I did this on a lark," says Schalk, who is 47 and lives in Baldwin. "I don't sit around and think about what auctions are coming up."
Schalk would otherwise likely be at the office in Timonium, where he works as a regional vice president of Sunbelt Motivation Inc. The Dallas-based company arranges vacations given out by corporations as employee bonuses. And if he weren't there, he'd be on the road, or perhaps at a thoroughly different sort of auction, one where he'd be buying or selling thoroughbred racehorses as president of Raintree Racing.
This is a different kind of auction. Not a horse in sight, for one thing. Just a lot of black clothes, a couple guys in Marilyn Monroe neckties and a woman in a Marilyn Monroe jacket. And, oh yes, a fellow sitting in the middle of the room in a floor-length backless black velvet evening gown and black boa. When he steps down the aisle his back muscles ripple in the soft light of the auction room. All those hours in the gym were evidently well spent.
"Is that the darndest thing you ever saw?" asks Schalk, born and raised in Baltimore in a rather strict Catholic home. He's well-traveled, but such sights you don't often see unless your travel agent happens to be Lou Reed.
The last time he was in New York he was doing the summer tourist thing with his wife and two daughters and stumbled on Christie's auction preview exhibition. It was the last day and he had to check it out, having nursed for years a fascination with the whole Marilyn mystique, if only for her connection with the Kennedys, whom Schalk has long admired.
"My interest is strictly the intrigue of her life," he says. "The mystery that surrounds her life. It's almost like a mystery novel."
The big mystery last night and today will concern the prices, bobbing on some weird sea of myth, desire and speculation. Dead 37 years, Marilyn rises to the stage once more in the form of a parade of dresses, shoes, earrings, lamps, books, scripts, photographs. Even the license for her pet white poodle, "Mafia" is on the block, estimated to go for $800 to $1,200.
The dozens of photographers and TV camera crews, the hundreds of bidders crowding Christie's, the live coverage on TV and the Internet suggest that Marilyn is with us now as ever before: packaged, tagged, sold.
Monroe had willed all these items to Lee Strasberg, her friend and acting instructor. When he died in 1982, Monroe's possessions passed to his widow, Anna Strasberg. For reasons she has declined to discuss publicly, Anna Strasberg, who never knew Monroe, decided it was time to sell the stuff.
Schalk saw the preview exhibition in August, saw this life of glamour and despair unfold in room after room. The last room was dark and there, under a spotlight, pale and shimmering like some specter, was the dress Monroe wore to sing "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in May 1962, three months before she was found dead of a barbiturate overdose in her bedroom.
The "Happy Birthday Mr. President" dress sold for $1,267,500 last night to New York memorabilia dealer Bob Schagrin.
"I went in and got hooked," Schalk says of the exhibition.
He wanted in on the action. He ordered the $95 auction catalog and got approval for a $250,000 credit limit. Then he made a few calls, seeing if anyone might be interested in using him as their agent. He placed a classified ad in The Sun offering to act as a representative at the auction. "Serious inquiries only!" the ad read.
He received about a dozen responses, but in the end no local folks made a commitment to bid. Schalk figures they got the catalog, saw the prices and decided to put their money elsewhere. Just as well. Ten minutes into the auction it's clear the catalog estimates are so far off the bidding you wonder if there's been some mix-up in the exchange rate.
So Schalk has his four clients, two of whom are interested in items being auctioned in the first session last night. The others are looking at less expensive stuff going in the session today. Schalk himself is interested in bidding on some jewelry, figuring he'll donate it to an auction being held in the spring to raise money for Notre Dame Preparatory School, where he serves as a member of the board of trustees and has a daughter enrolled as a sophomore.
Schalk is sitting there with instructions from a Japanese business man in California to bid on Lot 12, a full-length black silk crepe evening dress Monroe is said to have worn while singing to soldiers in Korea in 1954. The catalog estimates its top price at $50,000 and Schalk figures his client won't go much over that.
But 40 minutes before this item even comes up Schalk knows it's a lost cause. The stiletto heels tell him that. The bidding goes easily past the $4,000-$6,000 range, to $10,000, $20,000, not stopping until a winning bid of $42,000, plus the auctioneer's fee.
The auction opened with a Monroe photograph autographed by, among others, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper selling for $78,000, more than five times the top price estimated in the catalog.
The black silk crepe number comes up and the bidding quickly gets to $30,000, $32,000. Schalk doesn't move. He's waiting to see if it might stall at around $50,000. He doesn't move as it gets to $50,000, $60,000 and soars out of range. In a couple more minutes, Lord Hindlip closes the sale at $100,000.
It's the beginning of a disappointing night for Schalk. Things are quickly getting out of hand. A white lacquered baby grand piano, once owned by Monroe's mother, was estimated at $10,000-$15,000. It sells for $700,000.
One of his clients, a fellow in the movie business, was interested in any scripts bearing Monroe's handwritten notes. He said he'd go to $25,0000 on a script of "Some Like It Hot," estimated at $6,000. The bidding slowly goes to $12,000, Schalk counters with $14,000. Challenged with $16,000, he goes to $18,000, then $22,000, then $25,000, then $27,000. It finally sells to a telephone bidder for $48,000.
Ditto the script of "Let's Make Love," which soon goes out of his client's reach, selling for $45,000.
Still, there's another day ahead. Schalk has his eye on a few more scripts, a pair of rhinestone earrings for the Notre Dame auction. Monroe is said to have worn them at the premiere of "The Seven Year Itch" in 1955. They're estimated to go for $3,000-$5,000, but who can know the price of anything, much less the value of anything in this room.
Put it this way: There's a wastepaper basket estimated to go for $200 to $400. Pardon, a "gilt-tooled brown leather waste-paper basket circa 1950s-60s." Schalk looks at this in the catalog and shakes his head in wonder.
"This is what I find mind-boggling," he says. "Somebody's going to buy a wastebasket for 400 bucks."