Marilyn Monroe, an American actress and model who died at the age of 36, was an iconic sex symbol of the 1950s and 1960s.
Although Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, she was later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker, using her mother’s preferred last name. Her father’s identity remains a mystery. Young Norma Jeane sometimes fantasized that matinee idol Clark Gable was her father, never dreaming that she would costar with him in a major motion picture many years later. Her mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent time confined in a mental institution, leaving Norma Jeane to live with a number of foster families during her childhood. Ironically, one religious couple who took care of her did not allow her to go to the movies.
In 1942, at the age of 16, Norma Jeane was already a high-school dropout and faced being sent to an orphanage because her then-current foster parents could no longer afford to keep her. Instead, she married a neighbor, James Dougherty, who was five years older. During World War II, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines and was sent to the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Norma Jeane worked in a munitions factory in California until a photographer encouraged her to pursue a modeling career. However, her husband did not approve. In 1946, Norma Jeane divorced Dougherty and signed her first film contract with 20th Century Fox.
During her brief initial stint at Fox, studio executive Ben Lyon advised Norma Jeane to change her name. They combined the last name of her grandmother and the first name of Marilyn Miller, a Broadway star of the 1920s, to create her soon-to-be-famous professional name, Marilyn Monroe. She dyed her naturally brown hair blond and won bit parts in a few movies, including The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947, uncredited) and Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948).
Soon she joined Columbia Pictures and appeared in supporting roles, including The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and All About Eve (1950). She signed a new long-term contract with Fox in 1950 and eventually landed her first leading role in Niagara (1953), opposite Joseph Cotten. Her roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) cemented her status as a screen star.
Many were shocked when Marilyn Monroe graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Playboy in 1953, but she had not posed for that cover shot or the nude photos inside. In fact, magazine owner Hugh Hefner had purchased the four-year-old photos from a printing company for $500, eager to capitalize on her fame. The revelation that Monroe had posed nude for a calendar — when she was younger and needed money — only served to increase the public’s fascination with her.
In 1954, Monroe married “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, a center fielder with the New York Yankees. He, like her first husband, was not comfortable with her sexy image. When the iconic scene of Monroe trying to hold down her flowy white skirt while standing over a drafty subway grate was filmed, as a publicity stunt for The Seven Year Itch (1955), DiMaggio was furious. Their marriage ended after less than a year, but they remained friends.
Monroe longed to be appreciated for her talent as well as her beauty, so in 1955 she formed her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). She also began training with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. Strasberg’s method program included therapy sessions, during which Monroe confronted her childhood memories of abuse.
Bus Stop, released in 1956, showcased Monroe’s ability to adopt a new accent. It was her first film appearance since she joined the Actors Studio. In that same year, she married Arthur Miller, a playwright, and announced her retirement. However, in 1957 she costarred with Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, then joined Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. While reviewing the latter film, critic Roger Ebert said that Monroe “has the gift of appearing to hit on her lines of dialogue by happy inspiration.”
Arthur Miller had written a short story called The Misfits while divorcing his first wife, and he later adapted it into a screenplay with Monroe in mind for the female lead. The resulting film, also called The Misfits, would be the last for both Monroe and her coster, Clark Gable. Monroe and Miller grew apart during production and announced their plan to divorce in late 1960. When the film was released, in February 1961, Monroe was newly divorced and battling depression. In the months that followed, she underwent surgeries for endometriosis and the removal of her gall bladder, and she was hospitalized for mental health issues.
In 1962, during the filming of Monroe’s intended follow-up film, Something’s Got to Give, she was frequently unable to remember her lines and often did not appear on set. On May 19 of that year, she attended a birthday celebration for President John F. Kennedy, where she performed a sizzling version of “Happy Birthday” in a dress that was sewn onto her body. Rumors swirled that Monroe and the president were having an affair. In the following month, she was fired from the film and sued by Fox for $750,000. The studio attempted to replace Monroe, but her costar, Dean Martin, refused to continue filming without her. She was rehired, and production was scheduled to resume in October.
On August 5, 1962, Monroe was found dead in her home in Los Angeles. She was 36. Her death, which had occurred the night before, was ruled to be a probable suicide, the result of a barbiturate overdose. However, conspiracy theories involving foul play endure.
Monroe left all of her personal belongings to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. When he passed away, his widow inherited Monroe’s possessions and later sold them at auction. The dress Monroe wore while serenading President Kennedy sold for $1.26 million. Playboy’s Hugh Hefner deliberately purchased the burial vault next to hers at the Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles and was interred there in 2017. Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, sent roses to her grave three times a week for 20 years.
The fame of Marilyn Monroe continues to grow, long after her death. Her image is reproduced on every product imaginable. Younger generations may not be familiar with her movies, which grossed over $200 million, but they know her name and appreciate her beauty.
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BODY OF WORK
“Films: Marilyn Monroe,” The List — https://film.list.co.uk/listings/marilyn-monroe/.
“Marilyn Monroe Credits,” TV Guide — https://www.tvguide.com/celebrities/marilyn-monroe/credits/164373/.
“Marilyn Monroe,” IMDB — https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000054/.
“Marilyn Monroe,” Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe.
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