Written by: Craig Paul Nowak with response by Jimmy James
The photo I chose was the best representation of Marilyn Monroe I could find. I consulted a few friends. We all agreed, it was a great image of Marilyn. Production began. I had spray paint. I cut some stencils. Seven layers later I was ready. Painting commenced.
The air in my kitchen was thick as smog. A reddish brown hue settled on the furniture. Several weeks passed. At the same time I was completing a set of self portraits in the same way; 40 Marilyns, 40 self portraits, a handful of sexy lips, some Betty Boops, and an abstract side project. The number 40 was a coincidence. It just so happened that I missed breathing without the scent of aerosol in the air, and I was packing to move to Italy.
|Craig Paul Nowak stencil self portraits|
The stenciled self portraits made sense. The lips were contrived, the Betty Boops were a friend's painting that I agreed to help with, and the abstract side project had real genuine breakthrough potential. Regardless, everything remained crated or boxed, safe and sound back in my Detroit storage along with 100s of other works of art, that is, everything except for the Marilyns.
I loved the Marilyns but didn't know what to do with them. They were the only art that came to Italy in my suitcase alongside my button ups and suit vests. The person who requested I make them took the four that she commissioned. A wonderful man who visited my studio fell in love with five and bought those before they were packed, while the rest sit here on my shelf in Milan staring back at me as I type this thought.
I posted a selection of the Marilyns on Facebook to assess my audience's reaction. It was good, lots of support, a few nibbles, definite possibility and overwhelming positivity. Then I tagged them under the name Marilyn Monroe. Facebook connected the images to her page and now everyone could see my art. The sky turned black.
One woman, a diehard fan, jumped at the paintings saying, "That's not MM." This one is definitely not MM!"
I was upset, but I let it ride. My first thought was, "An artist's interpretation of an icon is as much, if not more of an accurate representation of her than the careless butchering of her name by reducing it to a pair of meaningless initials." It seemed like a foolish battle to feed, so rather than making it fat, I chose to starve the argument.
A few days later, the onslaught returned. "That's not Marilyn. That's Jimmy James!"
"Jimmy James?" I thought to myself.
Finally, a lead! This, I must investigate! If one thing can be said about me, it's that I hold integrity above all else. If I say that the woman I painted is Marilyn and it turns out to be someone else, then I will correct my statement and redirect my initial purpose accordingly. This woman will become the focus of these paintings. They will no longer be titled Marilyn in Glasses and will instead reference Jimmy James, that is, if Jimmy James is a real person.
At first, my search came up dry, only one Pinterest post alluding to an optical campaign for L.A. Eyeworks photographed by Greg Gorman, but nothing else. I delved deeper, googling variations on all of these clues and still could not find the image in question. Eventually I discovered the entire set of ads from the campaign, and I went through them one by one, still no Marilyn. The photography style was similar, but the words that embellished the images uniformly throughout were not on the image I used, an image I found on a website paying homage to Marilyn's magnificence. I felt confident holding tight to a shred of hope that my accusers were wrong. "Whoever this Jimmy James is, she isn't who I painted," I thought. But then it happened.
Scrolling along the top header of Jimmy James' own website; there she was, the image I used to paint Marilyn Monroe, complete with L.A. Eyeworks campaign logo and slogan. It said, "A face is like a work of art. It deserves a great frame." I was stunned. I clicked on the image. Below it there was an explanation stating why she was not in circulation like the others in the campaign.
I laughed. What was I to do? The story was priceless. Here I am, an artist, painting an image of a Marilyn impersonator thinking it's the best image of Marilyn I could find. I devote time and energy to it. I fall in love with it. It makes me smile. My friends and clients also fall in love with it, then boom... She's not Marilyn.
As I'm explaining the mix-up to a friend, the story begins to intrigue me. It intrigues me so much that I decide it - the story - is in fact, the silver lining. What was once little more than a set of attractive Marilyn paintings is now a living breathing work of art overflowing with dialogue.
Of course I want to share this happy accident with someone who can appreciate it so I seek out Jimmy James, the one and only Jimmy James, the woman beautiful enough to impersonate Marilyn Monroe and fool a group of appreciators.
I found her website and emailed her manager. I found her facebook and emailed her. In the email I deliberately typed "Ms. Jimmy James" this is what happened. "Ms. Jimmy James" bla bla bla will you accept a painting as a gift to show my appreciation, and will you give one to Mr. Greg Gorman too? Read, revise, read, edit, approve, read once more to be safe, smile, nod, click *SEND*.
After the message cleared from the screen I saw it, what I hadn't seen before, another ad. This one also appeared to be Marilyn, only instead of her having glasses on, she was nude, presumably, laying on the ground with nothing more than a fur blanket to cover her remarkable body. She sprawled out across the page all in white; white blanket, white background, white floor, white body. Below her were three words written in big bold black letters. I clicked the ad. "MR. JIMMY JAMES" Again I laughed, only this time it was a boisterous gut shaking laugh!
"MR.!" it said.
You know that feeling you get when you're reading a story and somehow you never see the twist until it smacks you right in the center of your unsuspecting face? It all takes place exactly as the writer wished it would. Well I had that feeling times ten. It never occurred to me that Jimmy James - two blatantly masculine names "Jimmy" and "James"- were the combined name of one MAN, a very pretty and very convincing Marilyn, but still, a man...
"Bravo!!!" I thought to myself, "bravo!".
|One of 40 "When Greg Shot Jimmy" paintings|
Jimmy James wrote this in response:
Dearest Craig Paul Nowak,
I am so honored and flattered that you found me. You're work is so beautiful!
Yes it's true, that image of Marilyn Monroe is really me - Jimmy James. It was shot by the famous photographer Greg Gorman in Los Angeles, CA around 1990 for the l.a. Eyeworks ad campaigns.
The ad appeared only ONCE in the 20 year anniversary of INTERVIEW Magazine with Ziggy Marley on the cover. Greg Gorman and l.a. Eyeworks were threatened with a lawsuit from the Monroe Estate Lawyers. They were forbidden from ever showing the ad anywhere into perpetuity -- to cease and desist the ad.
I retired from performing as Marilyn Monroe in '98. There were too many obstacles against me during my Marilyn Years ('83-'98). I became exhausted. I could not fight for it anymore. After doing shows, tours, tv appearances etc...for about 17 years, I felt it was finally time to let her go. As I like to say, "I think I did Marilyn longer than she did Marilyn."
During my Marilyn years in the mid 80s to mid 90s the world, in general, and the show business industry itself, was kind of close minded to a man in a dress - especially a man doing it as well as i was doing it. I felt I never got the respect I deserved for my special recreation of Marilyn. I was relegated to being a "look-a-like" - not an artist. I was a "female impersonator" - not an actor. Oh well...I tried my best.
Don't get me wrong, I had a spectacular and exciting career. The ride was fun! But I also had many monumental obstacles, legal and stereotypical obstacles that were too hard for me to overcome. While my l.a. Eyeworks campaign was being shut down into perpetuity by the Monroe estate lawyers, RuPaul's campaign was in full force. No one was shutting him down. Why? Because he OWNED his own likeness and image. The MM lawyer argued with me that I didn't own Marilyn's image or likeness for advertisements. Even though the ad contained a disclaimer stating it was "Jimmy James."
I never considered that my loving and respectful tribute to Marilyn was going to turn against me one day -- but it did. What once garnered me attention, accolades, sold out shows, tv appearances (I sang live, no lip sync) etc... was now dimming the lights right before my eyes.
I continued touring successfully in the clubs despite the fact that a certain nasty Monroe lawyer threatened to sue me for a percentage of all my club dates. This was very hurtful. It damaged my spirit and zest. I was beginning to realize that this venture was never going to take me very far. My Marilyn act was doomed.
One of my last triumph (as far as my Marilyn years were concerned) was making an appearance on a giant billboard in the middle of Times Square where I was featured as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland & Bette Davis with Supermodel Linda Evangelista for a clothing campaign (1996). After that I played Marilyn for a couple more years. The LAST time I portrayed her was for my music video "Who Wants To Be Your Lover" (1998). I was done. It was over.
I retired Marilyn from my repertoire in 1998 and I never looked back. I have no regrets. During the Marilyn Years I amassed a very large archive of my Marilyn work. I'm working on a documentary of my 'Marilyn Years' to express the tragedy and triumph behind the boy who became Marilyn Monroe.
I still tour with my one man show of Voices. In 2007 I wrote, recorded and released a world-wide dance club hit entitled "FASHIONISTA" from my original album JAMESTOWN. The single climbed to the top of the BILLBOARD Dance charts. The song has been licensed to film and television. I own this music. Nobody can take this away from me.
In 2012 Greg Gorman and l.a. Eyeworks threw caution to the wind and unearthed the 22 year old photo now published in his new book 'FRAMED.'
It's now 2014 and the times have changed. People's attitudes towards a "man in a dress" have changed. The lawyers who represented Marilyn's estate seem to be no longer. But alas I don't wear dresses anymore. Been there - done that. Don't wanna do it again. It was a moment in time that will never be repeated.
What sweet revenge that an artist discovered and painted so many versions of this lost and forgotten image. An image that for 22 years was forced to be locked away and hidden into perpetuity.
Marilyn Monroe was a great artist who still to this day is bringing out the artist in so many of us.