Of all the beauty icons in the world, from Aphrodite to Helen of Troy, Marilyn Monroe comes out on top. Although she is a tragic figure, she continues to be admired by millions. Her face is endlessly used in merchandise and sold to the people that wish they could’ve at least lived in the same era as her and be touched by her stardom.
Norma Jeane Mortenson, as was Monroe’s real name, was born in Los Angeles. Her mother was Gladys Pearl Baker (born Monroe) and Marilyn was her third child. Gladys previously gave birth to a boy and a girl that her ex-husband took with him after they divorced – Marilyn learnt about them when she was twelve. Gladys then remarried, but got pregnant by another man, and Marilyn never got to know who her father was.
Gladys gave Marilyn to her foster parents, Albert and Ida Bolender and lived with them for a while in Hawthorne. The couple had other foster children and Marilyn was raised in a strict, God-fearing household. Gladys soon moved to the city for work and visited Marilyn on the weekends. When Marilyn was nine-years old, Gladys took her to a small house that she’d bought in Hollywood, which they shared with another family – the Atkinsons. Only a few months later, Gladys had a mental breakdown, got diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was taken to hospital, where she stayed, on-and-off, for the rest of her life. Gladys’ friend, Grace McKee Goddard, took over the responsibility of Marilyn, who spent the next few years in an orphanage, and changing schools and foster families, after she was sexually abused by Atkinson. When Grace took her back in with her, Marilyn got abused by her husband, Doc, so she moved to their friends and family members, until she almost got sent back to the orphanage. To prevent that, Marilyn married her neighbor, James Dougherty, who was twenty-one at the time while Marilyn was only sixteen. ‘Grace McKee arranged the marriage for me, I never had a choice. There’s not much to say about it. They couldn’t support me, and they had to work out something. And so I got married.’, she said. During her school years, Marilyn was a mediocre student, but she loved to write and took part in her high school’s newspaper. When she got married, she dropped out of school to become a housewife.
Then, in 1943, Dougherty enlisted in the Merchant Marine. Marilyn moved in with his parents and began working at Radioplane Munitions Factory to support herself. In 1944, David Conover, a photographer, visited the factory to shoot morale-boosting pictures of female workers. Soon, Marilyn was modeling for Conover, which got her to move out and divorce her husband, who was against her having a career. She signed a contract with Blue Book Model Agency and dyed her hair blonde. Her first work was mostly done for advertisements and men’s magazines due to her round figure – she wasn’t suitable for fashion modeling. As she was very hard-working and ambitious, she soon got to sign a standard six-month contract with 20-Century Fox. This is when Norma Jean became Marilyn Monroe, with the first name being picked out by her producer, and the last being her mother’s maiden name. Marilyn didn’t have any jobs in the beginning, so she spent her time bettering herself by taking classes of acting, singing and dancing, and observing other colleagues at work.
In 1947, Marilyn got her contract renewed and was given an opportunity to play two tiny film roles – first in Dangerous Years, then in Sudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! She was also instructed to take acting lessons in the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre. She continued with her modeling work, but fell in love with acting so much and was determined to make it as an actress. She tried to meet as many people as she could, and made friends with Sidney Skolsky, a gossip columnist, and had a fling with Joseph M. Schenck, a Fox executive.
Marilyn’s next role was in a play Glamour Preferred at the Bliss-Hayden Theater. Then, she signed with Columbia Pictures, where the producers changed her appearance slightly, bleaching her hair lighter. They also introduced her to her new drama coach, Natasha Lytess, who stayed with her for the next seven years.
Marilyn then shot a musical Ladies of the Chorus, a film that didn’t become a success, which contributed to the fact that her contract at Columbia was not renewed. Johnny Hyde, a vice president of the William Morris Agency, then took Marilyn in as his protégée. He helped her get a role in the film Love Happy. Still modeling, she posed nude for photos taken by Tom Kelley.
Finally, 1950 proved to be a year of success and breakthrough for Marilyn. Another five films were released – A Ticket to Tomahawk, Right Cross, The Fireball, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. Roles in these films brought attention of the wider public to her, and her career was on the rise, getting a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, only days later, Johnny Hyde died, leaving her in deep mourning over him.
One thing led to another, and in 1951, Marilyn was a presenter at the 23rd Academy Awards. Later that year, she got her first full-length profile in Collier’s magazine. She also shot Home Town Story, As Young as You Feel, Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal. Marilyn continued with her studies and took classes with Michael Chekhov and Lotte Goslar. She also became widely popular, having been declared ‘Miss Cheesecake of 1951’ by the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. In 1952 she was named the best young box office personality by the Foreign Press Association. That same year she appeared in Clash by Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, We’re Not Married! and O. Henry’s Full House.
In 1953, Marilyn appeared in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, three of the most significant films of her career. She also appeared, for the first time, on television, in Jack Benny Show’s episode Honolulu Trip. That year she won the ‘Fastest Rising Star’ award by the Photoplay awards, but what was even more important that year was her appearance on the first ever Playboy cover.
In 1954, tired of being typecast, Marilyn declined the role in yet another musical comedy. This resulted in her suspension from the studio. During that break, and after her honeymoon in Japan, Marilyn traveled to Korea to sing songs from her films as a part of a USO show for over 60,000 marines. This lasted for four days. Upon her return home, she got a better deal on her contract with the studio and continued working.
She then shot River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business and, finally, The Seven Year Itch, featuring one of the most famous scenes in Hollywood, of Marilyn standing on a subway grate with air blowing up her skirt.
Wanting to have freedom over her career, she and Milton Greene, a photographer, founded their own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, announcing that she and Fox no longer had a contract together.
In 1955, Marilyn moved to New York, took classes with Constance Collier and learnt about method acting at the Actors Studio, led by Lee Strasberg, with whom she became close. His wife, Paula, became her new mentor. That same year she and Fox came back to being on the same page and signed another seven-year contract.
In 1956, she appeared in Bus Stop and received a Golden Globe for Best Actress thanks to the film. She also shot The Prince and the Showgirl. In 1958, she shot Some Like It Hot, earning her another Golden Globe. In 1959, she appeared in Let’s Make Love and The Misfits.
In 1962, Marilyn received a World Film Favorite Golden Globe award and began shooting Something’s Got to Give. This was also the year she sang Happy Birthday on stage for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration. As she was ill for most of the film’s shooting, she eventually got fired from the production. The film went down in history as being the last Marilyn shot, and has been cut as a forty minute long film.
Marilyn Monroe will be remembered in history as one of the most famous sex symbols of all time, as well as a synonym for pop culture. She was an inspiration for many other artists, during her life, and after she died, with hundreds of books written about her. Elton John wrote a song for her called ‘Candle in the Wind’. She was very aware of her image and she manipulated it, but the question of whether or not she was a dumb blonde in real life as well as on camera, to some, will remain forever unanswered. ‘Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde’, she said and this perhaps proves that her public image is just that – an image. She couldn’t escape it, though, and was mostly typecast to play such blonde girls and explore the stereotypes associated with them.
It is said that Marilyn modeled her looks after Betty Grable, the most popular blonde bombshell of that time. The studios were the ones to instruct her on how to look, but towards the end of her career, Marilyn had full control over her image. She altered her voice to make it sound childish and naïve, and the way her hips moved when she walked got her the nickname of ‘the girl with the horizontal walk’. Her platinum blonde hair became a trend attributed to her exclusively. This all paid off in the beginning of her career but later became an obstruction to her getting into more serious acting.
She also understood the ugly reality of being famous pretty soon. ‘It scares me’, she said. ‘All those people I don’t know, sometimes they’re so emotional. I mean, if they love you that much without knowing you, they can also hate you the same way.’
There are also numerous quotes of her that are often repeated, like the one where she said: ‘No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl. All little girls should be told they’re pretty, even if they aren’t.’
Even though her death had been classified as a suicide by an overdose, there are different conspiracy theories surrounding it, because of the fact that she was linked to J.F. Kennedy, and her house was found to be bugged when the new owners moved into it.
‘I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I never had belonged to anything or anyone else’, Marilyn said.
She was very aware of the solitude the fame brings a person. She suffered from depression, on-and-off, and was afraid she would end up in a mental institution like her mother. At the rise of her career, she became dependent on anti-depressants, that she often mixed with alcohol in order to sleep better. She soon needed drugs to both pick her up and wind her down. She became known for being late to work and unreliable.
But all she ever wanted was a baby, and that was something that just wasn’t happening, as she suffered from endometriosis. She had a few miscarriages and a termination because of her condition.
After her first divorce, Marilyn had numerous relationships with men from the show-business, like Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. In 1952, she met Joe DiMaggio, then a retired baseball player. The couple got married in 1954, only to separate nine months later. ‘I didn’t want to give up my career, and that’s what Joe wanted me to do most of all’, she said. Joe DiMaggio stayed in her life, helping her when she needed help, and was the one to take care of her funeral and arrange fresh flowers to be laid on her crypt for years. In 1955, she became involved with the playwright Arthur Miller, who was being investigated by the FBI for the allegations of communism. Reportedly, FBI also opened a file on her. When Marilyn decided to marry Miller, she converted to Judaism, which resulted in all her films being banned in Egypt. The couple divorced in 1961 and Marilyn moved back to California where she bought a house.
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead by her psychiatrist, behind a closed bedroom door, laying naked in her bed, with a telephone in her hand. She was thirty-six years old.
- My Story by Marilyn Monroe
Written by: Tamara Djordjevic