Quintessential Marilyn--frank, inviting, vulnerable.
On June 1, 1926 baby Norma Jean was born in Los Angeles to an attractive young woman who worked as an RKO film cutter. Mortenson was the name on her birth certificate. Her father abandoned the family before her birth and her mother Gladys took to calling her Norma Jean Baker, the name she would use through childhood, after an earlier lover. She was never sure who her father was and her mother, who battled mental illness kept a parade of men through the house between periods in an institution.
By age six she was being farmed out to relatives and friends with unhappy periods in foster care. Her longest term care giver, a family friend, filled her with fantasies of becoming a movie star. At age nine she began two years of Dickensonian torment in the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home working in the kitchen for 5 cents a week. She was released to yet another foster home.
After a brief turn at Van Nuys High School, she took a job at age 16 at a Los Angeles aircraft plant applying dope to canvas wing covers. She married co-worker James Doughety mostly to avoid being sent to another foster home. He was soon inducted into the service.
What started it all--Mrs. Doughety at the defense plant.
A photographer visiting the plant to document women war workers zeroed in on the attractive girl and suggested that she become a model. Although her first shoot paid only $5, it was enough to get her to quit the plant. Soon she was getting regular work in pin-up and bathing suit pictures, in addition to some commercial work. She was modeling under the name Norma Jean Doughety when photos came to the attention of producers.
In 1946, the same year she divorced her husband in Las Vegas, she signed a development contract with 20th Century Fox, where her name was changed to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe had been her mother’s maiden name. Marilyn was borrowed from Marilyn Maxwell, a second tier Betty Grable. She was given bit parts and promoted with things like being named Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1947. After walk-ons and bits, she was cast in a small speaking part as waitress in the turgid teen melodrama Dangerous Years. Her contract was not renewed, and Marilyn returned to modeling and took acting lessons.
With an I.Q. above 160 Marilyn was always trying to improve herself and yearned to become a serious actress. She also read voluminously, focusing on history, biography, and literature. She felt cheated by her lack of formal education and wanted to be able to hold serious conversations.
She was briefly picked up by Columbia Pictures, where she got the second lead with two songs in the burlesque musical Ladies of the Chorus. Despite personally good notices for this B-picture, Columbia dropped her contract.
In 1949 she appeared in the Marx Brothers’ final feature film Love Happy in a brief role as detective Groucho’s client. By this time, she had changed her light brown hair to a golden blonde and was rooming with another buxom aspiring blonde, Shelly Winters. Her modeling assignments, which that year included the famous nude calendar art shoot that ended up years later as Playboy’s first centerfold, were getting more attention. Despite lacking a studio contract her personal publicist was giving her the standard starlet build-up and she was beginning to get noticed in gossip columns and fan magazines.
1950 was Marilyn’s break out year in two small, but unforgettable appearances—MGM’s Asphalt Jungle, and even more memorably as the bombshell at Margo Channing’s (Bette Davis) party in All About Eve. Her roles were getting bigger and better. She was a war-buddy distraction to William Lundigan as the husband of June Haver in the domestic comedy, Love Nest.
She was second billed, but this movie made her a top star.
In 1953 Marilyn stunned audiences as the mentally ill hotel babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock with Richard Widmark, a role which drew on her own insecurities and demons. The same year she displayed her knack for comedy in Monkey Business with Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant. It was her first performance as a platinum blonde, a shade selected to differentiate her from her aging co-star Rogers. The same year her turn as a murderess in the film noir Niagara with Joseph Cotton was another reminder of her serious acting chops. But it was the busy actress’s role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with her memorable turn as Lorelei Lee made Monroe a true star of the first rank. She capped the year playing a very dumb, bespectacled blonde in the ensemble comedy How to Mary a Millionaire with another predecessor as Hollywood’s blonde bombshell du jure, Betty Grable.
In January of 1954 she married baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio and was soon on a famous USO tour to Korea where the attention of the troops stunned her new husband. The shy and reserved DiMaggio wanted Monroe to quit her career, resulting in a divorce in less than a year, although the pair remained friendly, and DiMaggio famously carried a torch for her even after her death. Wearing mostly tight jeans and plaid shirt, she made Otto Preminger’s western adventure, The River of No Return with Robert Mitchum and the show-biz musical There’s No Business Like Show Business in which she held her own with musical heavy weights Ethyl Merman, Dan Dailey, and Donald O’Connor. Her next film was the comic hit Seven Year Itch remembered for its iconic publicity shot of her white dress billowing around her waist as she stood over a subway ventilation grill.
During filming, there were reports of chronic lateness on the set and other problems began to surface. Always plagued with self-doubt and probably suffering from genetic bi-polar disorder, she also had genuine health problems—a serious gynecological condition, endometriosis, that could be quite painful.
In 1955 Monroe was suspended by Twentieth Century Fox for refusing to make How to be Very, Very Popular and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing because she wanted to break away from her image as a sex symbol. She fled to New York City where she joined Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio to study Method acting. She also began serious Freudian analysis and spent time with the city’s literary set, where she met playwright Arthur Miller. After nearly a year off, she returned to Hollywood and played in the screen adaptation of William Inge’s acclaimed play Bus Stop. This time she finally wowed critics as well as the audience with her nuanced performance as the fragile, innocent sexpot Cheri.
Next up was a trip to England to be directed by and co-star with Lawrence Olivier in The Prince and the Show Girl, where her chronic lateness and her devotion to the Method drove the traditionally trained Olivier nearly to distraction.
Monroe took most of 1958 off to study and spend time with Miller. In 1959 she had her greatest success in a comedy in writer/director Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. With personal acting coach Paula Strasberg on the set, she was a problem and demanded as many as 83 takes before she felt she had “nailed it.” Wilder and co-star Jack Lemon were patient with her, but leading man Tony Curtis was so frustrated that he compared kissing Monroe to “kissing Hitler.”
Monroe’s troubled marriage to Miller was coming unwound with her bouts of depression, angry accusations that Miller did not respect her, and casual love affairs. A liaison with French actor Yves Montand during the making of George Cukor’s musical comedy dud Let’s Make Love was just one last straw in the marriage. Monroe by this time was heavily dependent on sleeping pills and sedatives.
The Misfits, fine dramatic tour de force for the stellar cast, will forever have an aura of doom clouding it after Clark Gable's death. It was also one of Clift's last film, and Monroe's last completed film.
With their marriage already rocky, Miller wrote gift screenplay for Monroe—The Misfits starring Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach directed by John Huston which was shot in 1960 and released in February 1961 following Gable’s fatal heart attack.
Miller and Monroe announced their separation shortly after Gable’s death, for which Marilyn felt guilty. Soon she was hospitalized in a mental institution so stark that a desperate call to former husband DiMaggio got him to drive from San Francisco to retrieve her and help her find another institution.
Monroe wore no underwear and had to be sewn into the tight beaded gown she wore when she crooned Happy Birthday, Mr. President to John F. Kennedy causing a scandal.
Upon release she restlessly became involved with serial affairs including liaisons with Rat Pack leader Frank Sinatra and his pal Peter Lawford, who introduced her to his in-laws John and Robert Kennedy. She had affairs with both, which was an ill kept secret in Hollywood. Monroe created something of a scandal and a sensation when she crooned “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John in a shimmering sheath dress so tight she had to be sewn into it.
These relationships, made public in the years after her death, shaped her legend and fed a thousand conspiracy theories. One conspiracy theory proved to be true—FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had every room of her Hollywood home bugged in an attempt to get damaging goods on the President and/or his boss Bobby, the Attorney General. The super-sophisticated bugging equipment was discovered hidden in the house when it was remodeled in 1972.
Her reputation for unreliability made it hard for Monroe to get parts even at her home studio Fox. They gave her one last chance with the comedy Something’s Got to Give, but production was suspended because of her chronic absences from the set. Footage released later, including a stunning swimming pool scene, revealed that Monroe remained luminous on film no matter her personal demons.
With a genius level IQ Marylin sought out the company of great minds like Carl Sandburg and Albert Einstein--and they reveled in her company.
Despite all of these problems Monroe was in discussions for several projects and was reported in good spirits by friends shortly before her death. In her last days DiMaggio, concerned about “the people she had fallen in with,” reportedly was ready to ask her to re-marry him.
On August 5, 1962, hours after last speaking to DiMaggio, Monroe was found on her bed with the phone in her hand. She was naked, but ordinarily slept without clothes. Several bottles of pills were found. Her personal physician reported that he found the body after being alerted by the housekeeper.
Police found several inconsistencies in various accounts given of her final hours and evidence that the scene had been tampered with, including the laundering of the bed linens and removal of any water glass. Autopsy results indicated death as acute barbiturate poisoning and a likely suicide. Revelations of the Kennedy connections have fueled dozens of conspiracy theories.
Joe DiMaggio left roses at Monroe's crypt every year on the anniversary of her death until he died.
DiMaggio claimed Monroe’s body and arranged her funeral. Famously he left a dozen roses at her mausoleum vault every year on the anniversary of her death. Monroe’s will left 25% of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg and 25% to the Freud Institute for Psychoanalysis.
Her life, death and career have sparked a virtual industry, including over 600 books. Recently Marilyn seems to be everywhere with new books, an award winning 2011 film with Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn, based on her time in England doing The Prince and the Show Girl, the TV series Smash! chronicling the road to Broadway for a Marilyn musical, and Ana de Armas in 2021 in Blonde, the second film version of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized biography.
But back in 1973 Elton John and Bernie Taupin may have summed up Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe’s life best: a Candle in the Wind.