Singer Mariah Carey – who has referenced Marilyn in numerous videos, performances and photo shoots, and named her daughter Monroe in 2011 – is one of the world’s most famous MM fans. In this first extract from her new autobiography, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, she tells the story behind her purchase of Marilyn’s famous piano for $662,500.
“The first chapter of Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography, My Story, is entitled ‘How I Rescued a White Piano.’ In it she writes about her mission to find her mother’s 1937 baby grand piano.
Gladys Monroe Baker, mother to Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson), was in and out of psychiatric institutions all her life … During one of Gladys’s rare healthy periods, she and little Norma Jeane lived together for a few months in a small white house near the Hollywood Bowl. The most prized possession in their modest abode was a baby grand piano. When her mother’s illness reared its ugly head again, dragging her back into darkness and into another institution, the few furnishings and the piano were sold off.
After Norma Jeane’s transformation into Marilyn Monroe The Movie Star, she spoke very little of her childhood, her mentally ill mother, or her unknown father. And though Marilyn had made herself into a radiant icon, I imagine there was a piece of her still searching for an interrupted childhood, longing for her mother to be whole. I see how the piano must’ve become a symbol of a time when she and her mother were together in relative peace and harmony. Pianos are elegant, mystical and comforting – from them simple tunes and majestic compositions can spring forth and fill a dismal living room, a concert hall, or even a shack with joy and glory.
Marilyn went on a mission to find her mother’s piano. As the story goes, while still a struggling model and actress, she found and purchased the piano at auction and kept it in storage until she was able to move into a home of her own. It accompanied her to all her residences. One of its final homes was the lavish Manhattan apartment Marilyn shared with her third and final husband, renowned playwright Arthur Miller, where she custom-coated the instrument in a thick, shiny-white lacquer to match the apartment’s glamorous, angelic decor – ‘a world of white,’ as her half sister, Berniece Miracle, called it.
‘My happiest hours as a little girl were around that piano,’ Marilyn said. I imagine when your childhood was fraught with insecurity and fear like Marilyn’s and like mine, the romance of those lost happy hours is extremely valuable. I understood why she searched for, bought, stored, and cared for the piano – so much that I rescued it at auction at Christie’s in 1999. It is a treasure and my most expensive piece of art. And now, Marilyn Monroe’s white baby grand piano is the centrepiece, the pièce de résistance, of my own glamorous Manhattan penthouse. Marilyn was my first vision of a superstar that I could relate to, on an almost spiritual level.
We did without a lot of things when I was young, but what my mother couldn’t live without was a piano. We always had a piano, and I had many happy and formative hours around it with my mother … It was at the piano where I would sit and make up little tunes of my own.”