Despite being separated in age by nearly a half century, Marilyn Monroe and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sandburg were close.
Their unlikely friendship became forever memorialized in a series of intimate black-and-white photographs taken during a 1962 party they both attended. It was in the Beverly Hills home of a Hollywood producer of the last movie in which Monroe was ever cast.
Those pieces of history are going on the auction block in Las Vegas Saturday, part of a fire sale by the financially struggling Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation.
The Springfield-based organization tasked with acquiring Lincoln artifacts for the presidential library and museum in Illinois’ capital is $9.7 million underwater. That’s after it took out loans more than a decade ago to obtain a stash of memorabilia from Lincoln collector Louise Taper.
Included in that acquisition were several relics related to Monroe, who was a big Lincoln enthusiast herself. She also had an infatuation with Sandburg, a native of downstate Galesburg who wrote perhaps the definitive biography on the nation’s 16th president.
The foundation has chosen to part ways with a dress that Monroe owned and a bust of Sandburg that she displayed in her home. Also up for sale: seven photographs by photographer Arnold Newman that captured a series of affectionate interactions between Monroe and Sandburg at the 1962 party.
“The material is out-of-scope and being auctioned in order to pay down the debt associated with the purchase of the Taper collection, which is one of the world’s premier collections of Abraham Lincoln’s personal effects,” Dr. Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Lincoln foundation, wrote in an email.
More artifacts may be sold down the road.
“After [today’s] auction is final we will begin the process of preparing for the possible auction of other items from the collection in order to retire the debt associated with the purchase,” Knorowski said.
The form-fitting, three-quarter-length wool dress that Monroe owned is expected to generate between $40,000 and $60,000, according to Las Vegas-based Julien’s Auctions, which is handling the sale.
The black terra cotta bust of Sandburg figures to bring in another $20,000 to $30,000, and each of the seven black-and-white photos are valued at between $2,000 to $3,000.
But it’s those photos that are perhaps the most thought-provoking.
When they were taken by Newman, Sandburg was just two weeks past his 84th birthday. Monroe was 35 and a year removed from her second divorce.
“Here they were: the great poet, biographer of Lincoln, talking to … I mean, two icons together, and I said, ‘This, I gotta photograph,’” Newman said in a 2006 PBS documentary.
One of his pictures shows Sandburg tenderly cradling Monroe’s head on his right shoulder. Another has the pair sipping champagne together on a couch. And in yet another, they appear to be slow-dancing.
They almost look like they could be in love.
But it was also a dark time for Monroe. “She was so troubled, she no longer could really work. Look at that, that’s a sad woman,” Newman said of his photographs.
Monroe would be fired from her movie gig due to chronic absenteeism, and she would be found dead of an apparent pill overdose later that year.
“I’m looking at these photographs, and they’re photographs I’ve not seen before,” said Martin Nolan, executive director for Julien’s Auctions. “She definitely had a very close relationship with Sandburg and a great appreciation for him.”
In a July 1962 interview with LIFE magazine, the last she would ever give, Monroe talked about fame and her desire to be accepted — a desire Sandburg seemed to fulfill.
“You could meet Carl Sandburg, and he is so pleased to meet you, and he wants to know about you, and you want to know about him,” she said. “Not in any way has he let me down.”
There are different accounts as to when they first met in Hollywood, but it’s clear they were friends for at least the last two years of Monroe’s life.
In September 1962, less than a month after Monroe died from a drug overdose, Sandburg spoke about his relationship with her, describing Monroe as having “a mind out of the ordinary for show people.”
“She was not the usual movie idol. There was something democratic about her. Why, she was the type who would join in and wash the supper dishes even if you didn’t ask her. She would have interested me even if she had no record as a great actress,” he said.
The photographs of Monroe and Sandburg show her radiating warmth — even intimacy — and the old man soaking it up.
“There’s a real intimacy there, and you wonder what his wife may have said or any wife may have said,” said Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, a business where Sandburg once occasionally visited.
“How was a man, Carl Sandburg, or anyone else, not to feel that draw and feel an intimacy with her right then and there?” Weinberg said.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.