Kitschy or crass: Towering Marilyn Monroe statue stirs debate in Palm Springs


For generations, Hollywood celebrities have seen Palm Springs as a glamorous desert escape. And legend has it one of the biggest stars of the 20th century was discovered in that little town: Marilyn Monroe.

The iconic actress was 5’ 5” when she wasn’t wearing heels. But a sculpture of the star that passed through Palm Springs a while back had her at 26 feet tall (with heels). That’s about the height of a three-story house. 

Known as “Forever Marilyn,” the statue by Seward Johnson depicts her in a scene from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”

White dress, billowing skirt, and an indelible image. 

Johnson’s 2011 statue has toured the world, including a two-year stint in Palm Springs almost a decade ago. And now, the desert resort city is going to be “Forever Marilyn’s” forever home. The sculpture became the hotspot of downtown Palm Springs last time she was there. But while some like it hot, others are giving her return a chilly reception.

Hometown story

Palm Springs and the real Marilyn Monroe go way back. Along with apparently being discovered at the famed Racquet Club, she briefly lived in a bungalow in town, and the desert oasis was where a tryst between her and President Kennedy purportedly took place.

Those Palm Springs roots — platinum blonde, of course — run deep. So much so, a tourism group in town has spent $1 million on the towering statue to return it to the desert. 

During “Forever Marilyn’s” first run from 2012 to 2014, she became an early must-have social media backdrop and kept a steady stream of tourists flowing into Nona Watson’s office.

“Almost everybody that came in during that time came in for Marilyn,” Watson says. “They wanted information about her. They wanted to know how she got here, how long she was going to stay. Years after she left, we still got calls.”

Watson is the longtime CEO of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. Just like the throngs of visitors who came to see the giant statue, she too made a point of posing with Marilyn.

Nona Watson says the statue was not only one of the city’s biggest attractions but was something that truly resonated with people. “I think it’s because Marilyn was so loved. Her movies, her persona, her life story — she was very well loved. And I think people connect her with Palm Springs.” Photo by Matt Guilhem / KCRW

“We did staff pictures under her,” recalls Watson. “I’ve done family pictures under her when she was in the Marilyn park. We invited everybody to come and take a picture with Marilyn because it’s just — she’s so big!”

The size of the sculpture makes it novel, but there’s something more to its popularity. It just belongs here, Watson says. She thinks the town’s reputation as a place that welcomes free spirits, and its long connection to Hollywood, line up with Marilyn.

“She fit all that — being a little bit different, being beautiful,” says Watson, as she considers the star’s legacy. “You know, big blonde, big presence, big personality — that’s all Palm Springs.”

With the pandemic waning and the slow summer months on the horizon, the chairman of a local hospitality organization figures Marilyn will give the town’s already nicely humming economy an extra jolt.

“This is the ideal time to jumpstart back our economy, make the people happy because she is a huge attraction, a huge magnet,” says Aftab Dada, a managing director at the Palm Springs Hilton.

He’s also head of PS Resorts, the Palm Spring hotel-lobby group that spent a cool million to buy “Forever Marilyn.” They’ll shell out even more to get her here and assembled. The overhead costs may be steep, but he thinks she’s going to be a net positive for the city.

“I can tell you that she’s going to bring a lot of smiles,” Dada says. “She’s going to bring in a lot of traffic. She’s going to be extremely contributing to our economy, and that’s [what] the name of the game is.”

Aftab Dada, the chairman of PS Resorts, says the organization has been working hard to bring Marilyn back since she departed the desert in 2014. Photo by Matt Guilhem / KCRW

But not everybody is smiling about the statue that depicts that famously blowing skirt and reveals a panty-clad backside.

A misfit

In March, a scathing LA Times article christened the sculpture #MeToo Marilyn. The name was picked up by a petition in April calling to “Stop the misogynist #MeTooMarilyn statue in Palm Springs.” Tens of thousands of people have signed it.

“It’s offensive to be upskirting a 26-foot tall woman, okay,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, a former director of the Palm Springs Art Museum and a spokesperson for the petition effort. “It’s sexist. You know, it’s shocking to me and now I think to 25,000 other people who signed the petition that a few town fathers don’t see the offensiveness of it.”

The statue’s last stint in the city was well before the #MeToo movement shined a glaring spotlight on sexism and sexual harassment. The petition calls the prominent display of this likeness of Marilyn in 2021 “ill-conceived” and “tone deaf.” 

Back in November, when the Palm Springs City Council was weighing where to put the statue, Councilmember Lisa Middleton reflected on its first go-round and said, while not her taste, it’s just something light.

“We in the city are incredibly sensitive to how things are perceived, and the perception on the ground was that this was simply a fun statue that brought smiles to people’s faces,” Middleton said.

You can’t litigate taste. However, you can legally fight the placement of something, and that’s a separate battle being waged against “Forever Marilyn.”

The new downtown park in Palm Springs remains under construction and is slated to open in late summer. Originally, the plan was to place the sculpture on the concrete pad (left side, middle) in the park, but PS Resorts said putting it there would cause tourists to spill into a nearby roadway and wouldn’t offer the same dynamic backdrop as being in the middle of Museum Way. Photo by Matt Guilhem / KCRW

The city plans for her to go in the middle of a new road connecting the Palm Springs Art Museum to the town’s main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. But the museum doesn’t want her posterior roughly 435 feet from its front doors. 

Its outgoing director, Louis Grachos, addressed the City Council in November. He said the location in front of the museum would be especially detrimental to the thousands of school-age children who visit.

“The thought of those kids leaving our museum and having the first thing they see is the undergarments and underwear of this enormous Marilyn sculpture would be highly offensive,” said an impassioned Grachos.

A rendering of what “Forever Marilyn” would look like in its Museum Way location looking towards Palm Canyon Drive from the Palm Springs Art Museum. In a statement, the museum says of the statue: “We feel that it does not represent our values as a fine arts organization nor is it appropriate for the community.” Photo rendering by Mark Davis, courtesy of CReMa

Even though the museum was unenthused about the sight of unmentionables, the City Council — after expressing hesitation about the location — did eventually agree to a temporary, three-year trial run.

“It is kitschy and it does kind of fit Palm Springs to a great degree, and I think it’s worth a go,” said Councilmember Dennis Woods at the time.

Let’s make it legal

A two-foot tall concrete plinth is already in the middle of Museum Way, the roadway that’s going to host “Forever Marilyn.

“It’s called CReMa, the Committee to Relocate Marilyn,” says acclaimed fashion designer Trina Turk, who’s leading the effort to move Marilyn. “And actually, what we want to happen is for her to go back to her long-planned location, which is only 100 steps from where we’re standing in the downtown park that is under construction.”

CReMa leaders Trina Turk and Chris Menrad stand in front of the pedestal in Museum Way that will likely be the Marilyn statue’s home for the next three years. Photo by Matt Guilhem / KCRW

She argues that the Palm Springs Art Museum’s crisp mid-century lines should be visible along Museum Way so you can see the architecturally significant building that was designed by E. Stewart Williams.

“He’s one of the most famous mid-century modern architects who worked in Palm Springs,” Turk says. “And the whole purpose of this street was so that there would be an unobstructed sight line from Palm Canyon Drive to the museum, and Marilyn would block that.”

Her CReMa partner Chris Menrad echoes the sentiment.

“It’s really going to dominate the view, the sight lines of not just the museum, which is historically important, but also our beautiful mountains right behind it,” Menrad says.

While the Palm Springs Art Museum can trace its history back to the 1930s, the main structure of today’s facility was commissioned in 1974 and completed in 1976. The museum is just one of the many notable buildings and homes architect E. Stewart Williams designed in the Coachella Valley. Photo by Matt Guilhem / KCRW

Remember, this is Palm Springs, a city known worldwide for its architecture, so in this town, sight lines and the designed landscape are part of the draw.

CReMa scored an early victory at the end of March and got a temporary restraining order to prevent further work on the sculpture, but a judge tossed that out in early April. The path is clear for construction on the statue to begin ASAP, but Marilyn hasn’t arrived yet, and that means more time to strategize about legal next steps.

“It is a go now, but it’s not here now, and it’s not coming for a while, so we have that time to work things out,” says Menrad.

There’s no business like show business

No matter what, Palm Springs is about to scratch its Marilyn itch after seven years. The statue is definitely coming. PS Resorts hopes to have it in place before Memorial Day. 

Aftab Dada, the head of the organization, is surprised by all this fuss over the statue. He says the kitschy colossus is meant to be the stuff of Instagram, not coffee table books.

On April 30, a protest was held at the Museum Way location near the Palm Springs Art Museum where “Forever Marilyn” is slated to go. The demonstration was a joint venture by the anti-Marilyn factions of CReMa, which argues the statue should be at a different location and is mounting a legal effort to have the placement changed, and the #MeToo Marilyn sect, which primarily takes issue with what they believe to be the misogynist content of the sculpture. Photo courtesy of CReMa.

“She’s an attraction, in our opinion. She’s not an art,” Dada says authoritatively. “And she makes [the] majority of the people very happy. The photos taken, being transmitted all over the world, will do nothing but benefit the city and the residents of Palm Springs.”

For now, it remains to be seen whether “Forever Marilyn” will put the “bomb” in bombshell, or be one more jewel for Palm Springs.