Donna Summer's bedazzled closet and ephemera will go up for auction
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Donna Summer's bedazzled closet and ephemera will go up for auction
Photograph with autograph inscription ("Who's That Lady?"), Italy, [ca May 1977]

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- For nearly a decade after Donna Summer’s death in 2012, her home in Nashville, Tennessee, remained like a shrine to the Queen of Disco’s decadeslong music career.

Beaded gowns that she had worn onstage remained tucked away along with designer pumps in the upstairs closet; ephemera such as an annotated album cover design for “She Works Hard for the Money” were stored downstairs; and in the basement, there was an accumulation of brightly colored paintings, awards and gold records.

Never eager to talk about death, Summer — who died of lung cancer at 63 — had not given directions for what should be done with her possessions, her husband, Bruce Sudano, said recently. It was only in the past few years that Summer’s family was ready to fully comb through her belongings at the Nashville home, many of which will go up for sale at Christie’s next month, the auction house announced Friday.

“You’d go into these spaces and it would be almost a time capsule of your life,” said Brooklyn Sudano, one of Summer’s three daughters.

One of the items up for sale is a silver goblet that Summer often had onstage with her, filled with caffeine-free Pepsi. Brooklyn Sudano remembered that when she and one of her sisters were on tour with their mother in the 1990s, one of their jobs would be to stir the soda inside the goblet to get rid of any bubbles. (“While she’s singing she can’t be burping,” she explained.)

A versatile singer-songwriter whose music spanned funk, dance, rock and gospel, Summer shot to fame in 1975 with the erotic extended cut of “Love to Love You Baby,” followed by the pioneering electronic song “I Feel Love,” whose pulsating club beat can be heard in Beyoncé’s “Summer Renaissance.”

The announcement by Christie’s came shortly before HBO’s release on Saturday of a new family-backed biographical documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano. Chronicling Summer’s rise from a cast member in a German production of “Hair” to an international superstar, the film, called “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” is as much about her personal life as her career, discussing her struggles with depression, physical abuse by a boyfriend, and her chapter as a born-again Christian.

The auction includes glamorous possessions and others that are more mundane. On the glamorous end: a glittering blue and green dress Summer wore in the music video for her 1983 song “Unconditional Love,” a rhinestone-studded dress and bolero jacket that she wore at a concert in 1995, and a collection of the diva’s sunglasses.

As for the mundane — but perhaps intriguing to the most devoted of fans — the sale includes unworn shoes and a dozen unused Louis Vuitton towels.

“There are people in the world who love her,” said Bruce Sudano, who is in charge of caring for her estate. “It felt like we can’t just hoard all of this stuff for ourselves.”

The online sale, which Christie’s expects to garner about $200,000 to $300,000, begins on June 15. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Save the Music Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the auction house said.

One item, a poster for a 1998 concert supporting the nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis, gestures to the history of Summer’s at times strained relationship with LGBTQ fans, many of whom boycotted her music in the ’80s after they had helped to fuel its rise.

The documentary briefly addresses that history, with Summer’s husband recounting how an off-the-cuff comment onstage — “God didn’t make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve,” he recalled her saying — deeply hurt many gay fans. Summer worked to repair her relationship with the fan base, especially after New York magazine wrote that she had described the AIDS crisis as a “divine ruling” on gay people, a report she fiercely denied and ultimately sued over.

The sale also includes about 15 paintings and manuscripts with scrawled lyrics, including for the 1977 song “Now I Need You,” written on stationery from a hotel in Munich, as well as edits in pencil to the lyrics for the hit “On the Radio.”

Brooklyn Sudano scrutinized documents like those while piecing together the HBO film, which she said bolstered her belief that her mother was not a pop star engineered by outside forces, but rather an artist who was deeply involved in creating the hits that made her famous.

“People just saw her as this persona,” she said. “I don’t think that they truly understood that she was an artist and had an active role in creating the Donna Summer that people knew.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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