Perhaps the single most famous human being ever to live, Marilyn Monroe was and is the essence of celebrity and fame. Yet beyond all the posters and immortal images there lies a real woman of depth, complexity and intelligence - all characteristics which sadly went unnoticed by her fans and of little regard to many of those in her life. Born into an existence of uncertainty and chaos, her life remained so until her very untimely, mysterious end. Though tragic was her death at only 36, her troubled fall quickly became the seed of a legacy that soon surpassed her previous fame, transforming the blonde bombshell into a pop culture icon. No longer just a sex symbol, she became an immortal - forever young, forever glamorous, forever Marilyn.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles in 1926, Marilyn's life of unease began before she had even left the hospital. Though given the name Mortenson on her birth certificate, which was the name of a man briefly wed to Norma's mentally unstable mother Gladys, Marilyn's birth did not coincide with the dates of their marriage. Gladys refused to identify the father of her child. A tangled history of marriages, divorces, rumors and speculation left little indication of who Norma's real father might have been. She was soon given her mother's name, Baker. However, this was hardly the end of the chaos for Norma. Fraught with psychiatric issues, Marilyn's mother eventually had to give up her daughter to foster care. She often returned to her daughter's life during repeated manic episodes, making desperate attempts to take back her child from the foster family looking after her. Norma lived with her mother on and off in her early childhood, but was declared a ward of the state once Gladys' mental instability caused her to be forcibly admitted, laughing and screaming, to a state hospital.
From there Norma bounced around from one guardian to another, enduring orphanages and abusive homes. She faced sexual and mental abuse from those tasked with her care, suffering through years of mistreatment and abandonment from distant relations, family friends and foster parents. At the age of 16, Norma moved into the home of a friend of her mother. It was there Norma met and began a relationship with a neighborhood boy, James Dougherty. When her mother's friend decided to move away without Norma, she encouraged James to marry Norma so that she would have somewhere to live. At first hesitant, he finally agreed and the two were wed in 1942. As WWII ramped up, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines and was sent to Japan. Norma begged him for a baby before he left, fearing he might not return. Dougherty refused. No longer having a bread winner to look after her, Norma took a job at a munitions plant, doing her part for the war effort. Unbeknownst to Norma, this decision was the start of much bigger things in her life.
One day, while doing her job painting plane parts and inspecting parachutes, a photographer working for the US Army Air Corps' movie unit came by her factory to take some photos for the army's female worker magazine, Yank. Norma soon caught his eye and posed for several photographs, none of which were ever published. The photographer suggested Norma investigate becoming a model at The Bluebook Modelling Agency, which quickly scooped up young Norma. Her days of painting plane parts were over. It was at this time Norma dyed her hair blonde, to satisfy the agency's demand for women with lighter hair. Norma soon became one of Bluebook's most successful models, appearing on several magazine covers. However, her new career didn't appeal to her husband, who by now had returned from the war. His dissatisfaction soon led to their divorce and Norma was left to pursue her new career alone.
Norma's proliferation at Bluebook soon attracted Hollywood's attention in form of 20th Century Studio execs who arranged a screen test for Norma. Impressed with her performance and remarking that they had found "Gene Harlow all over again," they signed Norma to a 6-month contract, paying her $125 dollars a week. This was impressive money for the time, but not quite as glamorous as it sounded. Most of her parts were walk-ons and bit parts in musicals. Despite singing and dancing training provided by the studio, her biggest part at 20th Century was a one line performance, consisting of two words. However, it was her time at 20th Century that Norma left behind her birth name. Spending a weekend with a studio exec and his wife, the 3 endeavored to find her a new name. Selecting her mother's maiden name of Monroe, the 3 eventually hit upon Marilyn after a Broadway star of the 20s. Her revamped identity was complete.
Marilyn was released from her contract at 20th Century in 1947. Contracts at other studios followed, though none came with much success. By 1949 Marilyn was struggling to find movie work and was forced to return to modelling. It was at this time that she caught the eye of photographer Tom Kelly, who convinced Marilyn to pose nude. He went on to photograph her spread out in various positions on a sheet of red velvet. She was paid $50 for the spread - the one and only time she received payment for her nude modelling. Marilyn acquired new representation for her movie career and was cast in various small movies which did little for her. However, the experience and contacts she collected with these small parts did earn her a spot in director John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, as a criminal's mistress. Reviews of the film were favorable, garnering her another role in 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE. More smaller roles followed, although her name and face were slowly starting to become recognizable to many important people in Hollywood. Then, just at the cusp of fame, her past threatened to derail everything.
Unknown to Marilyn, a calendar bearing one of her nude photos from years before was featured on a popular calendar in 1952. Though her name was unlisted in the publication, it was believed by many that this was Marilyn. This created a small scandal in the press and a crisis at her studio, who began to search for options on how to resolve the situation. Marilyn came up with the novel idea of simply admitting the truth. Giving an interview describing her desperate need for money at the time, she received mostly sympathy and understanding from a public quickly becoming enraptured by their new screen goddess. Marilyn did her first Life magazine covers in 1952, along with more appearances in prominent films alongside big actors like Cary Grant and Ginger Rodgers. Her role in the 1953 film noir thriller NIAGARA was one of her biggest to date and one of the first films to cement her reputation as a sex symbol. This was one of the first times she appeared onscreen with her famous platinum blonde hair. It was also yet another film that made a spectacle of her sexually-charged persona, for which Marilyn was starting earn a reputation around Hollywood. Numerous provocative appearances, both on and off screen, were starting to raise eyebrows among many more conservative types in Hollywood who found her suggestive demeanor vulgar. While Marilyn always attempted to give her best performance in whatever she did, it was her looks that were getting all the attention. This myopia toward her acting skills became the bane of her career for the rest of her time in Hollywood.
1953 saw Marilyn appear in one of her most successful and well remembered films, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Her performance as the gold-digging showgirl earned her icon status for her rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." This scene went on to be one of her signature screen moments. Though now one of the most successful women in Hollywood, frustration and skepticism over her abilities continued. Even careful observation by her beloved acting coach, Natasha Lytess, earned her only more rebuke from filmmakers unconvinced and unimpressed with her abilities. Her dumb blonde persona seemed to be the only thing anyone was willing to acknowledge. Marilyn later commented of this time "...my dramatic coach...tells everybody that I have a great soul, but so far nobody's interested in it." After another stifled, unsatisfying role in 1953's RIVER OF NO RETURN, Marylin became disenchanted with where she was going in her career. When she failed to show up for her first day of work on the Frank Sinatra film THE GIRL WITH THE PINK TIGHTS, 20th Century Fox suspended her.
It was during this time that Marilyn began to date the legendary Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio, who first saw a photo of her posing with Chicago White Sox players Joe Dobson and Gus Zernial in 1952. He quickly asked for a date with the beautiful young woman from the picture and the two soon became an item. They married in 1954. Though the marriage was widely covered by the press and enthusiastically hailed by the public, it was doomed from the start. DiMaggio's frustration over Marilyn's sexualized public persona soon boiled over in a very tense public confrontation while filming her famous flowing skirt-blow scene from the 1954 film THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH. A quickie Mexican divorce followed soon after, only 9 months after they took their vows. However, the film was a success and gave Marilyn leverage to negotiate more power over the course her career in the following years. Forming her own production company, Marilyn signed to a 4-picture deal with Fox, earning $100,000 as well as a share of the profits for each film. She would also have a hand in the selection of directors and screenwriters for the films she made. Marilyn was now not only an actress and a screen goddess. She was also a businesswoman.
Despite her new powers, Marilyn found herself unhappy with her deal at Fox and frustrated about her reputation as a sex symbol. Her sights were set higher than that. Pulling some strings and dropping some names around professional acting circles in New York, Marilyn managed to get herself enrolled in the prestigious Actor's Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg. It was here that Marilyn battled her severe stage fright and a general shyness that plagued her for much of her career to that date. A determined and observant student, Marilyn demonstrated a surprising skill and intelligence in her studies (it is said she had an IQ score in the 180s, enjoyed the works of Whitman, Tolstoy and Milton, and loved the works of Beethoven). She gradually honed her acting skills under Strasberg's guidance and even managed to overcome much of her stage fright during this time. Strasberg was later quoted as saying of his student, "I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of actors and actresses, and there are only two that stand out way above the rest. Number one is Marlon Brando, and the second is Marilyn Monroe."
Marilyn remarried in 1956 to playwright Arthur Miller, who had been courting Marilyn for some time and played a major part in getting her into The Actor's Studio. Her first film after time under Strasberg's guidance was the 1956 comedy BUS STOP. This marked a notable change in her reception as an actress, earning her much praise from critics and audiences as a whole. The director of the film even championed Marilyn for an Oscar nomination, which she did not receive. She did get a Golden Globe nom out of it and increasing respect in her field. She followed this up with the 1957 film THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL with legendary Shakespearean actor Lawrence Olivier. Olivier himself was greatly impressed with her performance, as were many European film societies who showered Marilyn with several awards for her performance. Now she was finally earning the respect she so desired.
1958 saw Marilyn make one of her biggest hits, SOME LIKE IT HOT starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Though highly successful and earning Marilyn even more critical and commercial success, rumors of tension and personality conflict on the set began to earn Marilyn a reputation as difficult among Hollywood insiders. Frustration over her method acting techniques and unpredictable moods caused much stress for director Billy Wilder. Her costar Tony Curtis compared their love scenes as something akin to "kissing Hitler." Marilyn's bouts of unpredictability increased, as did declines in her health. By 1959 she was under the care of a psychiatrist and was increasingly dependent on medication and alcohol. Her second film under her contract with 20th Century Fox, John Huston's THE MISFITS, was another hit, but was also plagued with difficulties surrounding it's troubled lead actress. Things got so bad that many of the cast were ill by the time the movie was finished shooting. Lead actor Clark Gable even died from the severe stresses Marilyn's behavior was inflicting on everyone working on the film. She and Miller soon separated following the completion of MISFITS, their divorce finalized in 1961.
It was around this time that Marilyn began her infamous relationship with President John F. Kennedy. It is said that the two met secretly at Marilyn's home several times during this period. She was known to have called the White House quite often, wishing to speak with the president, who it is said she desperately wanted to marry. One of her last public appearances was a performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" during Kennedy's birthday celebrations at Madison Square Garden. When Kennedy broke off the relationship, Marilyn began to sink even further into depression. She was briefly institutionalized in 1961, echoing her mother's fate from only a few years before. Medical issues followed, keeping her out of the movie-making business for the rest of that year. After a brief convalescence, Marilyn began work on the third of her 4 contracted films with Fox, ironically titled SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE, during which she posed for several suggestive, partially naked, poolside photos for Life magazine. Her obvious discomfort and unreliability on set become a huge issue, with Marilyn only showing up for 12 of her assigned 35 days of shooting. Fox quickly grew tired of her issues and fired her from the movie, filing suit against her for $500,000. She responded with a publicity campaign, doing interviews and photoshoots for several magazines. Marilyn and Fox eventually renegotiated a new contract, which rescheduled shooting on SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE and earned her an even more lucrative 2-picture deal worth $1,000,000. Marilyn and her future seemed bright, with many more film roles waiting in the wings. It was not meant to be.
Early one August morning in 1962, the LAPD received a call from Marilyn's psychiatrist, saying that she had been found dead in her bedroom, naked and face down on her bed. A later autopsy determined her death a suicide, resulting from acute barbiturate poisoning due to a deadly mixture of chloral hydrate and Nembutal. While conspiracy theories abounded, especially when knowledge of her relationship with the Kennedy's was revealed, no reliable evidence of foul play has ever surfaced. Her reasons for suicide remain unclear, although repeated disappointments in her personal life are the most likely reasons. Marilyn suffered from a growing instability that plagued her during the final years of her life, ultimately making both her work and her personal life unbearable for her. Fear was always her greatest enemy and understandably so. Growing up, she had much to be afraid of. As an actress, her ambition and her fears often clashed, causing her terrible pain in the process. Perhaps all the pressures of being the lusted after screen siren were simply too much for such a delicate creature to bear. In death, she earns more fame and fortune than she had ever known before, with an estate that grosses millions every year. Marilyn's fame spans generations and is effused into all genres of art and pop culture. Yet the real woman and the troubled life she led remains a sad tale, speaking in tragic tones to what might have been.