Gene London was a storyteller first as the beloved host of a long-running children's-TV show in Philadelphia, then as curator of an astonishing collection of big-screen costumes worn by glamorous Golden Age idols. Among those whose dresses filled London's shining assemblage: Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Joan Crawford. And on and on it went, a roll call as long as the guest list to party at Frank Sinatra's Farralone home; each one, a star who only grows bigger as the screens get smaller.
So lasting was London's legacy, which included a stint as puppeteer and fashion designer, that when the man born Eugene Yulish died in January 2020 at the age of 88, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a lengthy, loving farewell. The paper ran in its entirety the lyrics to his Cartoon Corners theme song memorized by generations of Philadelphians from 1959 to 1977: "There's lots of stories and songs that you know
Let's ring up the curtain on this show!" It was the kind of tribute usually reserved for bold-faced icons, like the stars who wore the iconic outfits amassed in London's 60,000-piece collection.
"To Gene, the fabric told a story," says John Thomas, London's husband and partner for nearly four decades. "A piece of clothing is made for three minutes on the screen or whatever, but it's custom-made for that person, that actor, for that moment. It's part of the performance. Those costumes told stories. And Gene loved sharing them."
Now that task has fallen to Thomas, who is sharing select pieces from the renowned, museum-exhibited Gene London Collection in Heritage Auctions
' July 16-18 Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction, the most all-star event in the Dallas-based auction house's history.
Among the dresses to be sold this summer are three worn by Marilyn Monroe: the Travilla Polka-Dot Dress she wore in Billy Wilder's 1955 Seven Year Itch, when Monroe's The Girl first meets Richard Sherman's Tom Ewell; Elsie's Signature Pearl-Encrusted Mermaid Gown from 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl; and the ensemble she wore as Cherie in 1956's Bus Stop, her first film after studying at the Actors Studio.
The Bus Stop costume is such a piece of Hollywood iconography London loaned it to Madonna, who can be seen wearing it in a Steven Meisel photo that accompanied the March 1991 Vanity Fair cover story "The Misfit," so named for Monroe's final film. (Speaking of, this sale also features Jean Louis' sketch of Monroe's dress from The Misfits, along with a sketch of her gown from the "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" moment.) Madonna also wore The Bus Stop ensemble on the poster advertising the 1991 documentary Truth or Dare.
"Gene was a storyteller, and Marilyn figured into a lot of those stories," Thomas says. "She was the ultimate gold-standard movie star: born in Hollywood to a hard-scrabble life, a self-made woman. She was vulnerable and a sexual revolutionary; she took us from that puritanical moment in the 1950s and blew it out of the water. And when she did Bus Stop she had a new contract and a new attitude. She said, 'I will choose my own director, my own material.' Gene used these dresses to tell her story."
Monroe, too, tells it herself here: Among London's most prized pieces is a letter Monroe wrote to her acting coach Michael Chekhov, whom she called "the most brilliant man I have ever known" in her posthumously published, half-finished autobiography My Life. She vexed Chekhov, often running late for lessons or skipping them entirely, though she revered him and believed him the man capable of making the world see her as the serious actor she had become.
The letter being sold here is the very one quoted in My Life: Wrote Monroe to her teacher: "Please don't give up on me yet I know (painfully so) that I try your patience. I need the work and your friendship desperately. I shall call you soon."
Shortly after came Bus Stop, about which Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, "Hold onto your chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise. Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop."
Here as well is a self-portrait of Monroe made during her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller something far more intimate and revealing than any photo of her that appeared in Playboy. The work is titled Myself Exercising and was painted in 1956 during production on The Prince and the Showgirl, which co-starred Laurence Olivier, who appeared in the original stage production of Terence Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince. Monroe donated the work to the Actors' Orphanage Fund (now the Actors' Children's Trust), which sold it at a charity auction with Olivier serving as auctioneer and Rattigan as the work's winning bidder.
London bought it from the collector who purchased it from Rattigan's estate, and considered it among his most prized possessions.
"Rattigan displayed it in his home office, his den, for many years," Thomas says. "And my God, what a beautiful thing it is. A miraculous thing! And it's signed 'Marilyn Monroe Miller.' And now it's time for it to move on, to see it go to someone else who will love this amazing thing as much as we have."
Also in this auction, but not from London's collection, is Monroe's hand-annotated shooting script for The Seven Year Itch, an extraordinarily revealing document in which she essentially tells herself how to play the part of The Girl: "Make only little effort ... giving it away - yourself - not keeping anything in myself ... What is the quality of the electricity ... only thru him... there is nothing else any where ... open to him, my destiny to him (help carry the burden)... play the girl open and free, and it shall help me, Marilyn to be free, direct, open, honest, frank, charming - fresh, a twinkle, only morality, nature, a moral child."
Monroe's pieces are accompanied in this event by other iconic garments from London's collection, among them Joan Crawford's blue-and-white short-sleeve gingham dress she wore as the title character in 1945's film noir Mildred Pierce, 25 years ago added to the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. Crawford held a special place in London's heart: They met on the set of The Gene London Show, and Crawford was the first actor to gift him a dress by request, which she had dispatched in a Palmolive box.
"He was very funny, very irreverent," Thomas says. "He had a charm about him. He was a wonderful guy, a truly loving man, and Crawford fell in love with him in a way. They talked on the phone all the time."
From that relationship sprang his love affair with Golden Age Hollywood costumers. He began attending auctions and meeting different collectors and, quite simply, "that's how the collection grew," Thomas says.
It was inevitable that his collection would also include clothing worn by Philadelphia royalty: Grace Kelly.
Also being offered in this auction is the vintage floor-length ivory-silk gown Kelly wore as Princess Alexandra" in 1956's MGM production The Swan. The savvy studio held its release until April 18, 1956 the very day Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in a Helen Rose-designed gown that looked exactly like the one Kelly had worn in The Swan at the new Princess of Monaco's request.
Also being sold is the Christian Dior couture coat Kelly wore in the Oscar-nominated 1977 documentary The Children of Theatre Street, about the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.
Here, too, is one of the most iconic garments of the Golden Age from a film that defines it as much as anything committed to celluloid: Cyd Charisse's crème silk ballet leotard, with the 40-foot chiffon train, worn during the Broadway Melody ballet in 1952's Singin' in the Rain. It's the defining sequence in a film full of magical moments, where Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood figures it all out in a dreamland dance that resonates today as it did 60 years ago.
Thomas is parting with these pieces because it's time, simple as that time to let someone else find the joy in them that Gene London did, time for someone else to share their stories.
"And we don't really own these," Thomas says. "How do you own something as ethereal as this. We don't own it. We share them We pass them on. We do our best while we have them as caretakers. The films are our lasting legacy. That's what we have to share. Nothing lasts forever. But these are part of special moments, and that's what makes them worth acquiring."