Testifying in a trial to determine who owns a letter handwritten by Marilyn Monroe, the widow of the actress’ former mentor told a judge Monday she never sold the correspondence or consented to it being auctioned.
Anna Strasberg, who was married to one-time Monroe acting coach Lee Strasberg until his death in 1982, said the correspondence — dubbed a “letter of despair” in a New York Post article — belongs to her. She said she wants it back from the buyer who paid $130,000 last year as the highest bidder through Calabasas-based auctioneer Profiles in History.
“I am telling you, somebody took it and sold it,” Strasberg said during occasionally testy cross-examination by Profiles attorney Robert Enders.
However, the future of the case became uncertain late in the day when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin, who is hearing the trial without a jury, said he may have no basis for finding liability on the part of Profiles. He said he was unaware until today’s testimony that Profiles never owned the letter and that the auctioneer instead acted as the selling agent for yet another private individual who bought the letter in 1996.
“I’m completely surprised by this,” Fruin said.
Strasberg’s attorney, Bradley Mancuso, told Fruin he explained during a previous hearing that Profiles attorneys have refused to identify either the 1996 or the 2013 buyer, and that he had no choice but to proceed with the case against the auction house. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the current owner lives in another state and the person cannot be sued in California.
Fruin ordered the attorneys back to court Wednesday to discuss a future course of action.
Strasberg, who once served as administrator of the Monroe estate and has a collection of the actress’ memorabilia, sued Profiles in History in May 2013, saying she learned the month before that the letter was missing from her collection after the New York Post article was published. She said she inherited the writing from her late husband.
In the letter, Monroe says she is “lost” and that she cannot “get myself together” because of problems with maintaining the concentration necessary to be a successful actress.
“My will is weak but I can’t stand anything. I sound crazy but I think I’m going crazy … It’s just that I get before a camera and my concentration and everything I’m trying to learn leaves me,” Monroe wrote. “Then I feel like I’m not existing in the human race at all.”
According to her court papers, Strasberg thought the handwritten letter was with other Monroe memorabilia, locked in a filing cabinet at home.
The letter was bought via the Internet and sold by Profiles in History.
The buyer is not a party to the case. Strasberg’s attorney, Bradley Mancuso, said that if his client wins at trial, there may be a second legal step needed to get possession of the handwritten letter if the buyer does not relinquish it.
The purchaser lives in another state, but Fruin said he believes he has jurisdiction over the letter because it was auctioned in California.
Enders told Fruin the consigner who provided the letter to the auction house said he got it from a member of the housekeeping staff at the Hotel Bel- Air in the 1970s and that it was a draft of a letter never sent to Lee Strasberg.
Asked by Enders if she can corroborate her claims to ownership of the letter, Strasberg acknowledged she never made a police report, filed an insurance claim or listed it in an inventory of former Monroe belongings. But she said the fact it is missing is sufficient.
“If I don’t have it, that’s documentation enough,” she said.
Strasberg said she donated some of Monroe’s property over the years for auction, but that it usually consisted of shoes and other items that people in need could use.
Strasberg downplayed Monroe’s tone in the letter, saying it is common for people to say they are “going crazy” without meaning it. She also said her late husband told her it was not unusual for actors to complain about concentration problems.
Strasberg said she took great care after Monroe’s death to protect her image, including stopping commercial uses of her likeness on toilet paper and condoms.
Strasberg, who wants unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, became heir to her husband’s estate, including the Monroe letters, when he died in February 1982 at age 80. Today would have been Lee Strasberg’s 113th birthday.
His widow is 75 years old and lives on the East Coast. They wed in 1968.
Strasberg said she met Monroe a few times, including once during the actress’ visit to the United Nations, where the plaintiff worked at the time as an assistant to the agency’s cultural director.
Strasberg, a former actress who had roles in two films with Sophia Loren, is the godmother of Drew Barrymore.
Monroe died in Brentwood in August 1962 at age 36 of acute barbiturate poisoning. The coroner’s office listed the death as a probable suicide.
— City News Service
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