Who Owns Marilyn Monroe’s Estate? Beneficiaries, Value & More

Marilyn Monroe may have been gone for more than 60 years, but to Authentic Brands Group, she’s alive and well.

The actress and model — who redefined glamor and sex appeal in her heyday — died of a drug overdose in August of 1962 at the age of 36, but her legacy lives on. Since 2011, the year Authentic purchased an 80 percent stake in her intellectual property, sales of product with her name on it have grown fourfold to $80 million in global sales.

And with the 100th anniversary of her birth fast approaching — she was born June 1, 1926 — those numbers are expected to grow substantially as the Authentic promotional juggernaut shifts into high gear.

Although Authentic also owns the rights to the estates of a number of celebrities including Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe was the first. “Marilyn was the first celebrity brand that we’ve owned 100 percent of, and it really kind of set the tone for how we were going to be in this business,” said Dana Carpenter, executive vice president of entertainment for Authentic.

In 2011, Authentic teamed with NECA, a global media and entertainment company, to acquire the majority stake in Marilyn Monroe LLC from Anna Strasberg, the third wife of the late Lee Strasberg, the acting coach who was like a father to the actress. Upon her death, Monroe left the bulk of her estate to him. Authentic’s purchase price, sources said at the time, was between $20 million and $30 million.

“Anna Strasberg was very cautious about how she wanted Marilyn’s legacy to be protected,” Carpenter said. “Originally, we were only able to acquire 80 percent, but we proved to her over time how we respected and trusted and were going to take care of the brand, and eventually we were able to acquire the remaining 20 percent.”

In 2011, apparel represented 56 percent of overall sales of Marilyn Monroe-related product, followed by 10 percent of her name, image and likeness, 8 percent alcohol, 6 percent art and the remainder spread between home goods, stationery, accessories and games.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Sam Shaw © 2024 Sam Shaw Inc /Courtesy of RMG

But by last year, the mix had shifted significantly. The largest percentage was now intimates, which represented 26 percent of sales, followed by NIL with 23 percent, jewelry with 12 percent, health and wellness with 7 percent, beauty with 4 percent and apparel down significantly to just 6 percent.

Carpenter explained: “We did a lot of clean-up on the brand. When we first bought it, it wasn’t fashion apparel. It was a lot of graphic Ts and things like that, which are important to the business, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t very strategic. We’ve now taken a much more thoughtful approach to how we build Marilyn as a brand and really want to make sure that not only is her name important but also her power as an influencer and an endorser for other partnerships.”

Carpenter said one of the most important and longest-standing partnerships is with Chanel No.5. Monroe, who famously said in the 1950s that she wore the fragrance to bed, is still one of the faces of the scent. At Authentic, this falls into the NIL category, Carpenter said.

Earlier this year, Tiffany & Co. used handwritten letters from Monroe as well as Audrey Hepburn and others in its windows for Valentine’s Day. Her quote: “I think love is the most important thing that can happen to you.”

Other recent partnerships included a Coca-Cola pop-up, which was inspired by the 1957 photo of Monroe stopping traffic in New York to grab a hot dog and a Coke.

“All of those things are super important to keep her as part of the cultural conversation,” Carpenter said. “And they also give us some halo for the existing branded businesses that we have.”

Although many of the potential customers for these products weren’t even born before Monroe died, Carpenter believes there are several reasons for her longevity. “There are very few people that can hang on the way that Marilyn has,” she said. “There are two sides to her, which I think has made her incredibly relevant. Obviously, the image of her as a beautiful actress in Hollywood — she had some incredible films, she was a Golden Globe winner, she had a ton of achievements in her lifetime. But I think the other part of her, which for us is incredibly important today, is that she was also an entrepreneur.”

Carpenter said Monroe challenged the studio system in the 1950s, a time when it wasn’t necessarily an accepted practice. “Actresses were under contract, and there was really no negotiation there,” she said, “but Marilyn was one of the few people to use her voice and speak up. And those are really important traits that don’t necessarily get equal recognition.”

On top of that, Monroe still brings a lot of joy and lightness to her brand with her message and her words. “We like to use that as a way to connect with current consumers,” Carpenter said. “It’s really important to have her continue to be relevant for that next generation.”

And it appears to be working. Carpenter said there are around 16 million social media followers for Marilyn Monroe — more than 60 percent of which are between 18 and 34. Females account for 72 percent of her followers.

“That gives us a really strong pipeline of fans and consumers who continue to be interested in what she had to say, and what she continues to say through the projects that we’ve been able to associate her with,” Carpenter said.

In addition to Chanel, other successful partnerships for Monroe include beauty and cosmetics brands that offer modern interpretations of her signature red lipstick and strong brows, she said, including Max Factor, Wet & Wild and Revolution Beauty. “She is consistently strong in that space.”

Then in apparel, Authentic has partnered with everyone from Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana to Forever 21 and Uniqlo. “That gives her a really strong, versatile appeal that crosses generations, price points and distribution channels,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter admitted that when she started working on the Marilyn Monroe brand, she was surprised to find that so many young people could relate to the actress. “But I quickly learned that the truth and heritage of a person of Marilyn’s caliber resonated, regardless of age. She was a self-made woman and brought herself up in the Hollywood system. Nobody handed anything to her. She was an incredibly hard worker and was always on a quest for self-improvement. She owned over 400 books and was a voracious reader. And these are things a lot of people can identify with. It’s our job as the protector of her legacy and her story to make sure people continue to know that.”

From a business perspective, Carpenter said intimates — lingerie, sleepwear, hosiery — represent the biggest part of the business today. Graphic Ts that can be sold at department stores, off-pricers and mass merchants are also strong, and accessories and home goods are gaining in importance.

Monroe’s reach also goes beyond the U.S. borders. Carpenter said her resonance is strong in Europe and Latin America and Authentic recently launched dedicated social media handles for her in China. A footwear and handbag collection just launched in Poland with a local retailer and there are a couple of eyewear collaborations in Chile. “There’s definitely a global appeal for Marilyn in all of those different territories.”

Looking ahead two years to Monroe’s centennial, Authentic is formulating a plan to “celebrate her in a 360-degree manner,” Carpenter said. “We’ll obviously do amazing and fun projects from an apparel and merchandise perspective — that’s kind of a given. But the 100th really gives us an opportunity to celebrate her in a bunch of different ways, whether it’s through the arts, events, books, gallery exhibitions. We’re working on a couple of content projects right now. We really want to be able to show that she was more than just this beautiful woman that was in over 30 films, she really was able to permeate the culture on a variety of different levels. And I think our celebration of her going into the 100th is really going to be our way of kind of giving back to that story for her.”

Because Marilyn Monroe was the first of Authentic’s celebrity brands, she also set the strategy for the company’s other labels including Elvis and Muhammed Ali. “They’re unique entities, but the premise is the same in terms of the immense respect we have for their legacy and what each brought to the cultural conversation.

“We are very fortunate to have three incredibly diverse icons that sit in our portfolio that continue to build new fans and new generations,” she added. “And I know we’re not even close to being done with them — there’s still so much more we can do.”

With Marilyn Monroe’s sales already approaching $9 million annually, Carpenter believes “the sky’s the limit” on how large that number can grow.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Milton H. Greene © 2024 Joshua Greene/Courtesy of RMG

“One of my favorite things about Marilyn is, is that she was the second woman ever to start a movie production company, which is something that I don’t think she gets a lot of credit for. That was almost 70 years ago. And when you think about what is currently happening in the cultural conversation, for her to be a majority stakeholder in a business, at that particular stage in her career, is just so transformative. We’re now having conversations with different types of female-led businesses and female entrepreneurs, to attach that story to, because we think Marilyn helped set a course that new female entrepreneurs are able to take advantage of — and for us, that’s incredibly important.”

Carpenter said Authentic’s content team in Los Angeles is also pitching projects to tell other parts of her story. “We’re actively looking at different forms of content, whether that’s scripted or unscripted, short form, long form — there’s just such rich storytelling there.”

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