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The day Marilyn Monroe came to Warrensburg

The day Marilyn Monroe came to Warrensburg

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On a hot June day in 1949, Warrensburg high school student Alice Whittemore (now Damp) was trying to pass her chemistry Regents exam, despite the distraction of a steady stream of cars passing by the window.

She knew where they were headed: to the new home she had watched being built across from the James Street house where she lived with her family.

In one of those cars was a young, practically unknown starlet named Marilyn Monroe, who came to Warrensburg to help give away a new, fully furnished "dream house" that a popular celebrity magazine was awarding to a young widowed mother named Virginia MacAllister.

Whittemore finished her exam - she passed - and made it up the road in time to join the crowd of several hundred people gathered in front of the house, a modest ranch-style home at the end of a dead-end street.

Monroe's movie career was still in its early stages, with only a few minor roles under her slender belt, but the sponsors of the home already recognized the marketing power of her beauty. She was trotted around the house to coo over everything from vacuum cleaners to nifty appliances like the "Thor Automagic Clothes Washer," all captured on film.

It was a minor and little-known chapter in Monroe's career, but a British fan named Michelle Morgan plans to include the event in a biography she's writing about Monroe. The book, provisionally titled "Marilyn Monroe: Seasons of Life," will cover the icon's entire life, and will be published in the United States and the United Kingdom by Constable and Robinson in July 2007, just before the 45th anniversary of Monroe's death.

Aside from Monroe, other minor celebrities, including Lon McAllister, Don DeFore and Don Buka - all movie actors whose careers were soon eclipsed by Monroe's - attended the giveaway ceremony. Local radio stations and newspapers covered the event.

Dorothy Griffin of Fort Edward was also at the ceremony. Her husband, Lawrence Griffin, now deceased, was president of Griffin Lumber, the Glens Falls company that built the prize home.

"She was cute," Griffin said of Monroe. "I didn't think much of her."

Griffin's husband was asked to pick up Monroe and another young man (Griffin doesn't recall which one) at the train station, she said. He told her that the couple sat in the back and "necked" the whole ride up to Warrensburg.

While Warrensburg locals may have been excited about having Hollywood actors come to town, MacAllister, the winner of the house, was thrilled to have a home of her own.

The contest

Several months earlier, MacAllister read about a jingle-writing contest in Photoplay, a celebrity magazine popular at the time. The grand prize was a new, fully furnished "dream house" in the location of the winner's choice.

MacAllister and her 5-year-old son, Rusty, lived in Warrensburg with her parents following the 1945 death of her husband, a deacon in New Jersey, from polio. A registered nurse, she worked summers at her parents' camp for girls, called Niaweh, and winters as a ski instructor at North Creek.

Lenore Smith of Warrensburg became best friends with MacAllister, then Bleecker, when they both moved to town during high school.

"Virginia was a very clever girl," Smith recalled. "In high school, she was constantly reading magazines."

MacAllister's cleverness paid off when her jingle was chosen from 250,000 entrants into the Photoplay contest.

Upon learning that she had won, MacAllister told the magazine, "I'd like a place, any place near the school in Warrensburg, right in the town. I love the town. It was my husband's last request. A few hours before he died, he asked that I bring up Rusty in Warrensburg. I know that there are many wonderful towns and many wonderful people. But Warrensburg is - well, it's special."

Rusty McDonnell (he and his mother changed their names when she remarried), who is now a stockbroker living in Newport Beach, Calif., barely remembers the giveaway, but has fond memories of Warrensburg and his childhood home on James Street.

"I could probably draw it to scale from memory," he said in a recent telephone interview. "It was a small house."

He recalled Warrensburg as an idyllic small town, where a kindly neighbor often let him watch the "Howdy Doody" show on his television, one of the first in town, and where most everyone knew each other.

"I pretty much had the run of the town," he said. If he didn't show up to dinner on time, his mother only had to make a couple of calls to locate him.

They lived in the house until Rusty was 11, after his mother remarried and they moved to New York City, then New Rochelle. She became a writer, penning numerous paperback novels aimed at "starry-eyed teenage girls," as McDonnell put it, and eventually writing for soap operas, including "Guiding Light" and "The Young and the Restless." She was listed in "Who's Who of American Women" and "Who's Who in the East."

She always made sure Rusty knew that he had once met Marilyn Monroe, he said. About 20 years ago, he ran into Don DeFore at a party in Los Angeles, and mentioned their earlier encounter in Warrensburg.

"He was nice enough to say that he remembered me," he said.

Virginia McDonnell died in Newport Beach on Easter in 1998. Last year, Rusty brought his youngest daughter to Warrensburg for a visit, and they drove past the old house. Little has changed over the years, other than a wheelchair ramp added to accommodate a past resident.

Damp still lives across the street, and often visits with the current resident, Esther Arehart, she said.

"It's a nice little house," Arehart said.

The house may be a little small to be considered a dream house by today's standards, but Damp said it was it was one of the first modern homes on the street.

"Part of the novelty was that it was a pre-cut home," she said. In 1949, during the post-World War II era, such easily-assembled homes were seen as a potential solution to the housing crunch.

For Virginia MacAllister, though, any home of her own truly was a dream house. Rusty said his mother believed her winning may have been the result of divine assistance in her time of need.

"She always thought that it was not an accident," he said.


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