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Lewinsky Doodads Don't Fly

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999; Page E1

Neckties emblazoned with giggling clowns, dancing skeletons and pouncing cheetahs -- Tim Flynn has sold them by the fistful. So he figured he could easily move a few Monica Lewinsky ties and recently ordered half a dozen from a Korean manufacturer.

More than a week ago he put the items up for sale on eBay, the online auction site, hoping to cash in on Monica's book-tour public relations boomlet. Since then, nothing. Not a single bid, not a nibble of interest.

Granted, the $7.89 ties aren't exactly haute couture. They feature a cigar, a brunette who looks only passingly like the former intern and the word "Tabu," an alternate rendering of "taboo," all plastered on a bright-red polyester blend. Still, Flynn is surprised.

"She's a bomb," he grumbled last week from his home in New Jersey. "Everybody thinks Monica is hot, and it's a big fallacy. After a certain amount of time, this stuff is going to be worthless."

Americans followed the scandal, tuned in to the Barbara Walters interview and are snapping up Lewinsky-related books. But Monica memorabilia? Thanks but no thanks, the country is shouting by closing its wallets and pocketbooks tight.

Perhaps the public has had its collective fill of the whole tawdry episode. Or maybe discerning collectors sense Monica tchotchkes haven't a prayer of appreciating. Or perhaps most of the stuff is just too tasteless: How many people really want to spice up their food with Monica Lewinsky's Down on Your Knees Hot Sauce, or admit owning a Monica Bobbing Doll?

Historically, political scandals have rarely been merchandising bonanzas. Most cause few ripples at cash registers, and less-than-gargantuan sums were earned the last time talk turned to presidential impeachment. During Watergate, some anti-Richard Nixon bumper stickers, buttons and a bunch of Tricky Dick watches were sold, though few people got rich off them. A Spiro Agnew watch featuring the former vice president dressed up as Mickey Mouse also did reasonably well.

But marketers had high hopes for the Monica Matter. Jay Leno and David Letterman kept it light enough to be enjoyed at a purely comedic level, and President Clinton is the sort of politician who generates powerful feelings among both detractors and supporters. Plus, the former intern managed to arrive in the national spotlight at an apt moment.

"We were sort of in a celebrity off-season," said Jack Nachbar, emeritus professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "We didn't have the O.J. thing and we didn't have Diana. We were in a dull aftermath with no story."

Experts, however, don't predict a lasting market will develop for Monicana. The whole affair was too farcical, they say, and too unseemly to stir the intrigue and interest surrounding, say, Jackie O or Princess Di.

Don't look for Monica mementos to show up at an august auction house like Christie's any time soon. Or ever, to be more precise. Even if Lewinsky gets back her blue Gap dress and decides to sell it, Christie's is staying away.

"We're an established business, and there are just certain things where you have to draw the line," said Vredy Lytsman, a Christie's spokeswoman. "Even if there were a lot of money in it, we wouldn't do it. It's just unethical."

Certainly, some Monica products have caught on. At Political Americana, a memorabilia store at Union Station, a few high-end items are selling. A big favorite: a $49 set of Russian nesting dolls of bit-part scandal players -- Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers and a pre-nose-job Paula Jones -- along with Lewinsky and Clinton. A companion set of Clinton antagonists, featuring Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.), Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, is even more popular these days.

"In the beginning the stuff we were selling was mostly anti-Clinton," said James Warlick, Political Americana's owner. "In August it changed to anti-Starr and anti-Republican, and it has stayed that way ever since."

Monica's handwriting has also attracted online auction bidders. An apology note she scrawled to her Watergate neighbors fetched $115 on eBay recently. From her book tour of England, autographed copies of "Monica's Story" have been sold online for more than $100.

And the lip gloss Monica sported during her Barbara Walters chat has proved to be a bestseller. The $13 sheer-glaze lipstick, made by a Toronto company called Club Monaco -- what are the odds? -- is flying off shelves here and in Canada.

Tackier collectibles have fared less well but aren't being ignored. Someone parted with $45 for a black-velvet painting of Lewinsky, grinning in her infamous blue dress and sporting a pearl necklace. "This portrait was hand-painted in Tijuana, Mexico, by Jorge Terrones," the eBay description explained.

A Seattle company, MMD Global Marketing Inc., meanwhile, has sold a few thousand Monica yo-yos. For $14.95, buyers get a toy with the president's and Monica's caricature plus helpful hints about tricks like "robbing the cradle" and "around the office."

"I wish the whole incident didn't happen," said Maria Carilao, a ski instructor-turned-yo-yo entrepreneur. "But we do live in America and it's a free-market economy."

Monica indeed has her fans and some of them want a piece of scandal history, even if it won't make them rich. Roberta Keck, an Ohio editor of a weekly newspaper, is bidding for an issue of Hello, a British magazine that published an interview with Lewinsky's family. She has bid $36 on eBay and is willing to go a lot higher.

"She's the perfect anti-pop pop star," Keck said. "She's not the usual underfed, wisdom-of-the-cabala-spouting model-singer-actress type. She's a thoroughly average young woman who screwed up colossally, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was virtually crucified for it."

Well, in that case, a guy named Tim Flynn has a tie he'd like to sell you. Not that he's expecting to hear from eager Monica neckwear buyers, even when he drops his prices in coming days.

"Everybody wants to know, but nobody wants to invest," he seethed. "Monica doesn't sell."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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