No other person in the 20th Century has made such an unforgettable impression on the popular culture in America like Marilyn Monroe. Some reduced her as being merely a sex symbol, but a mere sex symbol would never have been able to capture the hearts of millions like she did. The essence of Marilyn Monroe lies much deeper into our consciousness than many can understand. She was the epitome of the glamour girl, a shimmering starlet, a pin-up whose beguiling beauty mesmerized both men and women alike. Far beyond her exterior gloss however, was a woman, strong but fragile, a little girl, sweet yet precocious, and the girl next door, as simple as they come, but hiding behind her own very real problems.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson (later changed to Baker by her mother) on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California, she would spend most of her early life separated from her mother. Her mother, Gladys Mortenson, was a film-cutter at RKO, and suffered with mental illness her entire adult life. Due to her inability to handle the demands of child-rearing and desiring a better way of life for her child, she sent Norma away to live in a sequence of various foster homes. When she was nine years old she was sent to an orphanage, where she lived for two years before moving to the home of her final foster family.
When she was just sixteen years old she married a young man by the name of James Dougherty. She took a job in an aircraft factory, and shortly after James joined the military. Young and vibrant, she was a beautiful girl with a coppery blonde hair color, warm, laughing blue eyes and naturally good looks. It was during her time at the factory that she was discovered. A photographer was taking pictures of women making contributions to the war effort and snapped a photo of Norma. The photographer was so impressed with her that he asked if she could do some more modeling for him. Within two years, she had quit her job in the factory to continue modeling and to pursue a career in film. Her and James divorced that same year.
Marilyn lands her first film
Landing her first film contract with 20th Century-Fox in 1946, she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, bleached her hair blonde and was paid the sum of $125.00 a week. Her stage name came from actress Marilyn Maxwell’s first name and her Grandmother’s last name Monroe. Her first film role was in the 1947 Betty Grable vehicle, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, but by the time the film was edited Marilyn’s bit part only made it as far as the cutting room floor. The roles she would play over the next several years would be small, but would give her time to develop her acting craft. Then in 1950, she was offered a small role in the John Huston film The Asphalt Jungle. Although it was a small part, it was influential and helped her with her next small role in All About Eve with Bette Davis. Twentieth Century-Fox was impressed with their young starlet and signed her to a seven year contract.
She played in a variety of films working her way up to top billing when Fox gave her the lead role in Niagara, a film about a scheming wife with a plot to murder to husband to run off with her lover. The film made Marilyn an overnight success and Fox exploited their sexy star in her next film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with brunette bombshell, Jane Russell. Between these two films, Marilyn Monroe secured star status and was awarded her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1954, shortly after Niagara and Gentlemen, she married baseball star Joe DiMaggio. While she loved Joe immensely, he was not interested in the glamorous lifestyle and wanted Marilyn to quit acting. Their marriage, lasting only nine months, ending in divorce under grounds of “career conflicts.”
Quickly becoming a box office draw she was cast opposite Fox’s other leading queen, Betty Grable in How To Marry A Millionaire. While the film drew more rave reviews for Grable and co-star Lauren Bacall it peaked the movie audience’s interest in Marilyn. Her next role was The Seven Year Itch, opposite Tom Ewell and would showcase her talent for comedy. Despite the fact that she had become Fox’s reigning queen on the lot, Marilyn was becoming bored with her “light roles” and began demanding more complex roles. When she didn’t appear on the set for the filming of The Girl in Pink Tights or How To Be Very, Very Popular, and was suspended from the studio.
Marilyn moves to New York
She moved to New York and began studying at the Actors Studio under the direction of Lee Strasberg and entered into psychoanalysis to understand more about herself and her childhood. She formed her owned production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and produced (although uncredited) her own film, Bus Stop. Achieving critical acclaim for her transformation in this dramatic role, she then shocked the world with her third marriage to playwright Arthur Miller. Her next film, also produced (an uncredited) by her company was The Prince and The Showgirl starring opposite Laurence Olivier. While filming in Britain, fighting between her and Miller became very frequent and she began a dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs. The Prince and The Showgirl was not as successful as all hoped it would be and Marilyn took the year off.
In 1959, Marilyn came back with the smash Billy Wilder hit film, Some Like It Hot, starring opposite of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Brilliantly funny, the film once again showed Marilyn in fine form. Meanwhile her relationship with Miller was deteriorating and she felt the very real loss of two miscarriages.
The next year, she appeared in the Cukor Film, Let’s Make Love opposite Yves Montand. Her declining marriage sunk her further into depression and she engaged in an affair with her co-star. The Miller-Monroe marriage ended in divorce on Jan. 20, 1961. But, during that same year, she starred in what would be her last completed film, The Misfits, which was written for her by Miller. Starring opposite of Clark Gable, the film would also be his last, he died of a heart attack shortly after the completion of the filming. A poignant story, making so many connections between the demons and hurdles Marilyn herself faced in her own life, she was able to prove that she was indeed the fine actress she longed to be.
In 1962, Monroe was named “World Film Favorite – Female” by Golden Globe and allegedly began an affair with President John F. Kennedy, whose 40th birthday party was made legendary by Marilyn’s rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” She was dropped from the production of the film Something’s Got to Give due to her chronic lateness and drug dependency, and she went into seclusion in her Los Angeles home. Her career at a standstill, the studios unwilling to take a chance on their volatile actress, she once again sunk into depression.
On August 5, 1962 she was found dead in her Brentwood home, officially a victim of barbiturate overdose. She was only 36.
Although her time on this earth was short, she made an impact that has yet to be paralleled by anyone, and has left behind a legacy so powerful that she will not be forgotten.