Who is Marilyn Monroe

Who is Marilyn Monroe

The modern world is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. This all started when she burst onto the scene in the 1950s. She was an American actress, model, and singer famous for playing comedic blonde bombshells in her movies. One of the most enduring sex symbols of the 50s and 60s, she has become a pop culture icon and is emblematic of the era’s sexual awakening. There’s much more to Marilyn than the funny, dumb sex kitten, though.

Early life of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1st 1926 as Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles County Hospital. Her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker had migrated to California at the turn of the century and was originally from a poor Midwestern family. Gladys married John Newton Baker at the age of 15 to his 24 – and they had two children – Robert and Bernice. John was an abusive man which resulted in Monroe’s mother successfully filing for divorce and sole custody in 1923. Baker would kidnap the children soon after and move with them to Kentucky.

Marilyn Monroe as a child with her mother
Marilyn Monroe as a child

Following the divorce, Gladys worked as a film negative cutter at Consolidated Film Industries, one of the leading film laboratories in the area. She went on to marry Martin Edward Mortenson in 1924. But they too separated just a few months later before finally divorcing in 1928. Although Marilyn Monroe’s birth father is unknown, she most often used Baker as her surname.

Although her mother was not financially or even mentally prepared to have children, Marilyn’s early years were stable and happy. Gladys would place her with her foster parents, Albert and Ida Bolender, in the rural town of Hawthorne. Gladys would stay in the evangelical Christian household for six months before she had to move back to the city for work. She did still visit Marilyn at the weekends, though. In 1933, Gladys purchased a small house in Hollywood with a loan from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and moved the then-7-year-old Marilyn in with her.

Marilyn Monroe as a child
Marilyn Monroe as a child

They would share the house with lodgers, actors George and Maude Atkinson and their daughter Nellie. In January 1934, Gladys had a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Following several months in a rest home, she was committed to the Metropolitan State Hospital. She would spend the rest of her life in and out of the hospital with little to no contact with her daughter. Monroe became a ward of the state, and her mother’s friend, Grace Goddard, took responsibility for her.

I was never happy as a child, so it wasn’t something I took for granted. I didn’t grow up as an average, american child. An average child grows up with an expectation of being happy.


Over the next four years, Marilyn’s living situation was unstable and it changed often. For the first 16 months she continued to live with the Atkinsons. She may have been sexually abused at this time – she was around nine years old. She became withdrawn beyond her already shy nature and developed a stutter. In the summer of 1935, she stayed with Grace and her husband Erwin “Doc” Goddard and two other families. After a brief period in September 1935, she was placed in the Los Angeles Orphan Home by Grace. Although the orphanage was a “model institution” and was described positively by her peer group Marilyn felt abandoned.

Encouraged by the orphanage staff who thought she would be happier living with a family, Grace became Marilyn’s legal guardian in 1936. However, Grace did not take her out of the orphanage until summer 1937. Her second stay with the Goddards lasted mere months because Doc molested her. She then stayed for brief periods with relatives and Grace’s friends and relatives in Los Angeles and Compton.

I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim … When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be … Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.

Marilyn monroe

It was her childhood experiences that made her want to become an actor. In September of 1938, she would find a more permanent home with Grace’s aunt, Ana Lower in Sawtelle. She was enrolled in Emerson Junior High School and went to weekly Christian services with Ana. Marilyn was a mediocre student but was an excellent writer and contributed to the school newspaper. Due to Ana’s health problems, Marilyn returned to living with the Goddards in Van Nuys around 1941, It was then that she began to attend Van Nuys High School in the same year.

Marilyn Monroe with her first husband James Dougherty at their wedding
Marilyn Monroe with her first husband James Dougherty at their wedding

In 1942, the company that employed Doc Goddard relocated him to West Virginia. The Goddards were prevented from taking her out of state by Californian Child Protection Laws. Monroe faced having to return to the orphanage – something she was reluctant to do. As a solution to this predicament, she married her 21 year old neighbour and factory worker James Dougherty. This was just after her 16th birthday.

Marilyn Monroe with her first husband James Dougherty
Marilyn Monroe with her first husband James Dougherty

Following her marriage, Marilyn dropped out of school and became a housewife. She and Dougherty were mismatched and she later stated she was dying of boredom during their marriage. In 1943, Dougherty enlisted in the Merchant Marines and was stationed on Santa Catalina Island where Marilyn moved with him.

Early Career of Marilyn Monroe

In April of 1944, Marilyn’s husband James was shipped out to the Pacific where he would remain for most of the next two years. Marilyn moved in with her in-laws and started working at the Radioplane Company a munitions company in Van Nuys. Later on that year, she met photographer David Conover. Conover was shooting morale boosting pictures of female factory workers for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit. Although none of her pictures were used she quit work at the factory in January of 1945. She began to model for Conover and his friends. In defiance of her husband, she moved on her own. Shortly after Monroe would sign with the Blue Book Model Agency in August of 1945.

Marilyn Monroe at the Radioplace Company - shot by David Conover
Marilyn Monroe at the Radioplace Company - shot by David Conover

The agency would deem Marilyn’s figure more suitable for pin-up rather than high fashion modelling. This resulted in her featuring mostly in advertisements and men’s magazines. To be more employable, she straightened her hair and dyed it blonde. According to Emmeline Snively, the owner of the agency, Marilyn quickly became one of their most ambitious and hard-working models. By early 1946 she had appeared on 33 magazine covers for publications including Pageant, U.S. Camera, Laff and Peek. She would often use the pseudonym Jean Norman for modelling.

Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Pageant magazine
Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Laff Magazine

Through Snively’s connections, Marilyn signed a contract with an acting agency in June 1946. Following an unsuccessful interview at Paramount Pictures, she was given a screen-test by Ben Lyon for 20th Century Fox. Darryl F. Zanuck, the Head Executive was unenthusiastic about it. Monroe was signed nonetheless to a standard 6 month contract to prevent her being signed to rival studio RKO Pictures. Her contract period started in August of 1946 and Marilyn and Lyon selected the stage name Marilyn Monroe. The very next month, she divorced Dougherty who was vehemently against her career.

Marilyn Monroe in Dangerous Years
Marilyn Monroe in Dangerous Years
Marilyn Monroe in Scudda Hoo Scudda Hey
Marilyn Monroe in Scudda Hoo Scudda Hey

The first six months at Fox for Monroe was spent in learning acting, singing, dancing and observation of the film making process. In February of 1947, her contract was renewed and she was given her first film roles. Dangerous Years (1947) and Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), however, were both bit parts. The studio also enrolled her in the Actors Laboratory Theatre – an acting school teaching the techniques of the Group Theatre. Monroe would later say that it was her “first real taste of what real acting in a real drama could be, and I was hooked”. Despite being enthusiastic, Fox did not renew her contract in August 1947. Her teachers felt her too shy and insecure to have a future in acting. At this time she returned to modelling. Monroe would also do occasional odd jobs at film studios. These included working as a dancing pacer behind the scenes to keep the leads on point at musical sets.

Marilyn was determined to make it as an actress and continued studying at the Actors’ Lab. She did have a small role in the play Glamour Preferred at the Bliss-Hayden Theatre. Unfortunately this ended after just a couple of performances. To network, she frequented producers’ offices, befriended gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, and entertained influential male guests at studio functions, a practice she had started at Fox. She did also become a friend and occasional sexual partner of Fox executive Joseph M. Schenck, who persuaded his friend Harry Cohn, the head executive at Columbia Pictures to sign her in March 1948.

Marilyn Monroe in Ladies of the Chorus
Monroe in Ladies of the Chorus
Marilyn Monroe in Ladies of the Chorus
Promo shot for Ladies of the Chorus

Her look was modelled after Rita Hayworth in Columbia with her hair being bleached platinum blonde. She started working with the studio’s head drama coach Natasha Lytess who would be her mentor until 1955. Her only film at Columbia was the low-budget musical Ladies of the Chorus (1948) in which she had her first starring role as a chorus girl who is courted by a wealthy man. She also screen-tested for the lead in Born Yesterday (1950) but her contract wasn’t renewed in September 1948. Ladies of the Chorus was released the following month and wasn’t a success.

The breakthrough years of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe in a Pabst Beer advertisement
A shot from the Pabst Beer advertisement
Marilyn Monroe as Mona Monroe - shot by Earl Moran
Mona Monroe by Earl Moran

When her contract at Columbia ended, Marilyn returned to modelling. She shot commercials for Pabst Beer and posed in artistic nudes for John Baumgarth calendars under the name Mona Monroe. Monroe felt comfortable with nudity and had posed topless for other artists like Earl Moran. She became the mistress and protegee of Vice President of the William Morris Agency Johnny Hyde shortly after leaving Columbia.

Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve
Costume test for All About Eve
Marilyn Monroe in Asphalt Jungle
Promotional photograph for Asphalt Jungle

Through him, she landed roles in several small films including two critically acclaimed works – All About Eve (1950) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Despite only having a few minutes of screen time, she gained a mention in Photoplay. According to biographer Donald Spoto she “moved effectively from movie model to serious actress”. In December of 1950, Hyde negotiated a 7 year contract with 20th Century Fox for Marilyn. According to the terms Fox could opt not to renew the contract after each year. He would die of a heart attack just six days later which broke Marilyn’s heart.

This was the time of her first known suicide attempt after Johnny Hyde had passed away. She was seeing him romantically as well as him being her agent. She continued to credit him throughout her life with building her career and jumpstarting her path to fame. Hyde loved Marilyn so much that he wanted to marry her after he had his heart attack. His plan was so that when he died she would be covered financially. She declined as she was not in love with him.

Marilyn Monroe in As Young As You Feel
Marilyn Monroe in As Young As You Feel
Marilyn Monroe in Love Nest
Costume test for Love Nest
Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make it Legal
Costume test for Let’s make it Legal

In 1951, she would have supporting roles in three moderately successful Fox movies, As Young as you Feel, Love Nest, and Let’s Make it Legal. According to Spoto, all three films featured her essentially as a “sexy ornament”. She did, however, receive some praise from critics.

Marilyn Monroe as Miss Cheesecake 1951
Miss Cheesecake 1951
Marilyn Monroe as Miss Cheesecake 1951
Miss Cheesecake 1951

Her popularity with the audience was also rising. She received thousands of fan letters every week and the army newspaper Stars and Stripes declared her “Miss Cheesecake of 1951”, reflecting her popularity with soldiers. In February 1952, she was named “best young box office personality” by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Privately, Marilyn had a short relationship with Director Elia Kazan. It was also at this time that she briefly dated other men including the director Nicholas Ray and actors Yul Brynner and Peter Lawford. In early 1952, she began a highly publicised relationship with retired New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio. He was one of the most famous sports stars of the era.

Marilyn Monroe with Joe DiMaggio at The Stork Club in 1952
A date at the Stork Club 1952
Marilyn Monroe with Joe DiMaggio in 1954
With Joe in 1954

In March 1952, Marilyn would find herself at the centre of a scandal, She had revealed she had posed for a nude calendar in 1949. The studio had learned they were to be released and that she was the model some weeks prior. Together with Marilyn decided to prevent damage to her career that it was best to come clean whilst stressing that she had been broke at the time. This strategy worked and gained her sympathy. This also increased the interest in her films for which she was now receiving top billing. Immediately following the scandal, Monroe was featured on the front cover of Life magazine as the “Talk of Hollywood”. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper declared her the “cheesecake queen” turned “box-office smash”. Three of her movies – Clash by Night, Don’t Bother to Knock and We’re Not Married – were released by Fox shortly after to capitalise on the public interest.

Marilyn Monroe in Clash by Night
Monroe in Clash by Night
Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock
Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock

Despite her newfound popularity as a sex symbol, Marilyn wished to showcase her acting range. She had started to take acting classes with Michael Chekhov and mime Lotte Goslar soon after starting her contract with Fox. Clash by Night and Don’t Bother to Knock showed her in different roles. In the former, a drama, she played a fish cannery worker and to prepare she spent time in a fish cannery in Monterey. She would go on to receive positive reviews for her performance. The latter was a thriller in which she starred as a mentally disturbed babysitter, she was given the part as a test for her abilities. That performance had mixed reviews from critics with some declaring her too inexperienced for the difficult role and Variety blaming the script for the film’s problems.

Marilyn Monroe in We're Not Married
Publicity shot from We’re Not Married
Marilyn Monroe in Monkey Business
Monroe in Monkey Business

Her three other films in 1952 continued with her being typecast in comedic roles that highlighted her sex appeal. In We’re Not Married her role as a beauty pageant contestant was created solely to present her in two bathing suits. When starring in Monkey Business, in which she starred opposite Cary Grant, she played a secretary who is a “dumb, childish blonde, innocently unaware of the havoc her sexiness causes around her”.

Marilyn Monroe as Grand Marshall at the Miss America Pageant parade
Marilyn Monroe as Grand Marshall at the Miss America Pageant parade

For her role in Full House, she appears in a passing vignette as a nineteenth-century street walker, This added to her reputation as a sex symbol with publicity stunts that year. She wore a revealing dress when acting as Grand Marshall at the Miss America Pageant parade and told gossip columnist Earl Wilson that she usually wore no underwear.

During this period that Marilyn would get a reputation as being difficult to work with. This worsened as her career progressed. She was often late or simply didn’t show up. Struggled to remember her lines and would demand several re-takes before she was happy with her performance. Her dependence on her acting coaches also irritated directors. Her work issues have been attributed to a combination of perfectionism, low self-esteem and stage fright.

She disliked her lack of control on film sets. She would never experience the same issues when on photoshoots. This is because she could have more say over her work and could be more spontaneous. She began to use barbiturates, amphetamines and alcohol to alleviate her anxiety and chronic insomnia which made her problems worse. She didn’t develop a severe addiction until 1956. Some of Monroe’s behaviour was also in response to the condescension and sexism of her male co-stars and directors.

The height of the career of Marilyn Monroe

Costume test for Niagara

In 1953, Marilyn would star in three movies and emerged as a major sex symbol. She had become one of Hollywood’s most bankable performers. The first was the Technicolour film noir Niagara, in which she played a femme fatale scheming to murder her husband. By then, she had developed her trademark look with her make-up artist Allan Snyder. With dark, arched brows, alluring eyes, pale skin, clear, glistening skin and a beauty mark, this film is one of her most overtly sexual films of her career. In some scenes, she was only covered by a sheet or towel which shocks audiences. The most famous scene of the film is a 30-second long shot behind her where she walks, swinging her hips.

The falls and Marilyn Monroe are something to see and although she may not be the perfect actress at this point, she can be seductive… even when she walks.


When Niagara was released, women’s clubs protested it as being immoral but it proved popular with audiences. Marilyn would continue to attract attention by wearing revealing outfits. In particular, when at the Photoplay awards in January of 1953 where she won the “Fastest Rising Star” Award. The pleated, sunburst, gold lame dress was nipped in at the waist and featured a deep plunging neckline. This dress had originally been designed by William Travilla for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was barely seen in the film but quickly became a sensation. Veteran star Joan Crawford called the behaviour “unbecoming an actress and lady”.

With Niagara cementing her as a sex symbol and established her look, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the satirical musical also released in 1953 cemented her on screen persona as a dumb blonde. The film focuses on two gold-digging showgirls played by Monroe and Jane Russell. Marilyn’s role was originally intended for Betty Grable who had been 20th Century Fox’s top blonde bombshell in the 1940s. However, Marilyn was quickly overtaking her as an actress who appealed to male and female audiences alike. As part of the film campaign, Monroe and Russell pressed their hands and feet into the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in June. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released shortly after and became one of the biggest successes of Monroe’s career.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
With Jane Russell in Gentleman Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
With Jane Russell in Gentleman Prefer Blondes

In 1953 and 1954, Monroe was listed in the annual Top Ten Money Making Stars. According to Fox historian Aubrey Solomon she was also their greatest asset alongside CinemaScope. Her sex symbol status was cemented further in December 1953 when Hugh Hefner featured her on the cover and as the centrefold of the very first issue of playboy. However, she did not consent to the publication. The cover image was a photograph taken at the Miss America Pageant Parade in 1952. The centrefold featured one of her 1949 nude photographs.

The screen persona and reception of Marilyn Monroe

The 1940s was the heyday for actresses like Katharine Hepburn who were perceived as tough and smart. They had appealed to women-dominated audiences during the war years. 20th Century Fox wanted Marilyn Monroe to be the biggest star of the decade who would draw men to the movies. They also saw her as a replacement for Betty Grable – their most popular blonde bombshell of the 1940s. According to film scholars, Monroe’s star image was created and crafted for the male gaze.

From the very start, she played a significant role in the creation of her public image. Towards the end of her career exerted almost full control over it. She devised many of her public strategies, cultivated friendships with gossip columnists and controlled the use of her images. In addition to Betty Grable, she would often be compared to another iconic blonde – 1930s film star Jean Harlow. The comparison was partly prompted by Marilyn herself, who named Harlow as her childhood idol. She also wanted to play her in a biopic and even employed Jean’s hair stylist to colour her hair.

Betty Grable
Jean Harlow

Onscreen, Monroe’s persona focused on her blonde hair and all of the stereotypes that came with that. In particular dumbness, naivete, sexual availability and artificiality. She would use a breathy, childish voice in her film roles. In interviews she gave the impression that everything she said was innocent and uncalculated. This would be a way of parodying herself in a way that came to be known as “Monroeisms”.

In film, she would usually play the girl who is solely defined by her gender. Her roles were almost always chorus girls, secretaries or models. These were occupations where the woman is on show for the pleasure of men. Monroe started her career as a pin-up girl and was noted frequently for her hourglass figure. She would often be positioned in a scene so that her curvy silhouette was on display and posed like a pin-up in publicity photos. Her hip-swinging walk was also created to draw attention to her body. This earnt her the nickname “The girl with the horizontal walk”.

Off-screen, Marilyn would wear white to emphasize her blondness and draw attention by wearing revealing outfits that showed off her figure. Publicity stunts would often involve her clothing by either being shockingly revealing or even malfunctioning. A great example of this is when a shoulder strap of her dress snapped during a press conference. In press stories, she was the embodiment of the American Dream. Monroe was a girl risen from a miserable childhood to Hollywood starlet. Stories of her childhood time spent with foster families and orphanages were exaggerated and sometimes fabricated entirely. In contrast to Grace Kelly’s upperclass, sophisticated unavailability, Monroe’s working-class roots and lack of family made her appear more sexually available.

Her on-screen persona as a dim-witted but sexually attractive blonde was a carefully crafted and played act. But audiences and film critics believed it to be her real personality. When she wanted to pursue other types of roles and be respected as a business woman this became a hindrance.

The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn’t act. She was far from dumb, although she was not formally educated, and she was very sensitive about that. But she was very smart indeed – and very tough. She had to be to beat the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s. The dumb blonde was a role – she was an actress. Such a good actress that no one now believes she was anything other than what she played on screen.


By appearing vulnerable and unaware of her sex appeal, Monroe was the first sex symbol to present sex and sexuality as natural and without danger, This was in contrast to the femme fatales of the 1940s. Biographer Lois Banner writes that Monroe often subtly parodied her sex symbol and status in her films and public appearances. She also states that the Marilyn Monroe character she created was a brilliant archetype, who stands between Mae West and Madonna. Monroe also said she was influenced by West. She learnt the trick of laughing at the impression of, and even mocking, her own sexuality. She studied comedy in classes by Lotte Goslar, who was famous for her comic stage performances. Goslar also instructed her on sets. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of the many films in which she played the archtypical “dumb blonde”, Monroe had the line “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it” added to her characters script.

Marilyn Monroe was perceived as a particularly American star. “A national institution as well known as hot dogs, apple pie or baseball” according to Photoplay. According to Dyer, Monroe became a household name for sex in the 1950s. Her image also has to be situated in the increase of ideas about morality and sexuality that characterised the fifties in America. Ideas like the Freudian ideology about sex, the Kinsey report and the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963. She is also described by Spoto as the embodiment of the postwar ideal of the American girl. She was soft, transparently needy, worshipful of men and offering sex without demands. Monroe’s contemporary Norman Haskell wrote that she suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but with her it would be ice cream. Groucho Marx described her as Mae West, Theda Bara and Bo Peep rolled into one.

Marilyn Monroe
Jayne Mansfield
Sheree North
Mamie Van Doren
Kim Novak
Diana Dors

Twentieth Century-Fox further profited from Marilyn Monroe’s popularity by cultivating several look-a-like actresses, such as Jayne Mansfield and Sheree North. Other studios would also follow suit and attempt to create their own Monroe’s. Universal Pictures with Mamie Van Doeren. Columbia Pictures with Kim Novak. The Rank Organisation with Diana Dors.

Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and the conflicts with 20th Century Fox

Monroe had become one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest stars but her contract had no been changed since 1950. This meant that she was paid far less than other stars of her stature and was unable to choose her own projects. Any attempts she had made to appear in roles that did not focus on her as a pin-up had been thwarted by Darryll F. Zanuck. He had a strong personal dislike of Marilyn. and did not think she would earn the studio as much revenue in other types of roles. He’d also decided that the studio should focus exclusively on entertainment to maximise profits. He had cancelled the production of any “serious” films after facing pressure from the studio’s owner – Spyros Skouras. At the start of 1954, Zanuck suspended Monroe after she refused to begin shooting on The Girl in Pink Tights, yet another musical comedy.

Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio on a date
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio on a date

This quickly became front-page news and she would immediately take action to counter the negative publicity. With this in mind, she married Joe DiMaggio on the 14th January 1954 at the San Francisco City Hall. They honeymooned in Japan by combining the trip with Joe’s business trip. From Tokyo, Monroe travelled on alone to Korea where she participated in a United Services Organisation Inc (USO) show. She would sing songs from her films for over 60,000 U.S Marines over a four day period. After returning to America, she was awarded Photoplay’s “Most Popular Female Star” prize. She would go on to settle with Fox in March of the same year. She had the promise of a new contract, a $100,000 bonus and a starring role in The Seven Year Itch.

Marilyn Monroe in River of no Return
Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return
Marilyn Monroe in River of no Return
Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business

Otto Preminger’s western film River of No Return was released in April 1954 and was the last film she had worked on before the suspension. She called it a “Z-grade cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process”. It was still popular with audiences. The first film she made following her suspension was There’s no Business like Show Business. She also disliked this film, but the studio required her to do for dropping The Girl in the Pink Tights.

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch
Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch
Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

In September, filming on The Seven Year Itch began with Marilyn starring opposite Tom Ewell. In it, she plays a woman who becomes the object of her married neighbour’s sexual fantasies. Although it was shot in Hollywood, the studio decided to generate advance publicity and buzz by staging the filming of a scene. This famous scene features Monroe standing on a subway grate with the skirt of her white dress being blown up by the air. This was filmed on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and lasted for several hours and attracted almost 2,000 spectators. This scene became one of her most famous. The Seven Year Itch became one of the biggest commercial successes of the year after being released in June 1955.

This publicity stunt would put Marilyn firmly on international front pages but it also infuriated DiMaggio which led to their divorce. Their marriage had been troubled right from the start by his controlling attitude and jealousy – and, he was also physically abusive. In October 1954, she filed for divorce after just nine months after they wed.

In November 1954, when filming for The Seven Year Itch had completed, Monroe left Hollywood. She moved to the West Coast where she set up Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) with photographer Milton Greene. This is an action that is now called instrumental in the collapse of the studio system. At the time she stated she was tired of the “same old sex roles”. She stated in no uncertain terms that she was no longer under contract to Fox as the studio had not fulfilled its duties such as paying her the promised bonus. The kicked-off a year long battle with Fox in January 1955 which resulted in Monroe being ridiculed by the press. The situation was also parodied in Broadway play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. Jane Mansfield, who was known for looking like Marilyn, plays a dumb actress who starts her own production company.

After founding MMP, Monroe moved to Manhattan, spending 1955 studying acting. Monroe took classes with Constance Collier and attended workshops on method acting at the Actors Studio, run by Lee Strasberg. She grew close to him and his wife Paula. She took private classes at their home due in part to her shyness and soon felt like a part of the family. She replaced her old acting coach Natashe Lytess with Paula, and the Strasbergs remained an important influence for the rest of her career. It was at this time that she also started to undergo psychoanalysis. Strasberg believed that actors needed to confront their emotional traumas and use that in their performances.

Even during the divorce process, Monroe and DiMaggio continued their relationship. She also dated fellow actor Marlon Brando and playwright Arthur Miller having being introduced to the latter in the early 1950s by Elia Kazan. The affair between Miller and Monroe became increasingly serious after October 1955. He separated from his wife and her divorce from DiMaggio was finalised. The studio kept urging her to end it. At the time Miller was being investigated for allegations of communism. He had also been subpoenaed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee but Marilyn refused. It was this relationship that led to the FBI opening a file on her.

Marilyn Monroe, her critical acclaim and marriage to Arthur Miller

Marilyn started 1956 with a bang – by announcing her win over 20th Century Fox. The opinion of the press had changed. Time called her a shrewd business woman. Look predicted that the win would be “an example of the individual against the herd for years to come”. As a contrast to her career, her relationship with Miller prompted negative comments. These included Walter Winchell’s statement – “America’s best-known blonde moving picture star is now the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia”.

Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop
Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop

In March, Monroe began filming Bus Stop, her first film uner the new contract. She plays Chérie, a saloon songstress whose dreams of stardom are complicated by a naive cowboy who falls in love with her. For the role she learned an Ozark accent, chose costumes and make up that lacked the glamour of her earlier films and provided deliberately moderate singing and dancing. Broadway director Joshua Logan agreed to direct the film, despite initially doubting her acting ability and knowing her reputation for being difficult. Filming took place in Idaho and Arizona, with Monroe technically being in charge as the head of MMP. She would occasionally make decisions on cinematography and with Logan adapting to her lateness and chronic perfectionism. The experience changed his opinion of her for the better, with him comparing her to Charlie Chaplin in her ability to combine comedy and tragedy.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller at their wedding
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller at their wedding

On June 29th of the same year, Monroe and Miller wed at the Westchester County Court in White Plains, New York and two days later they had a Jewish ceremony at the home of Kay Brown – Miller’s literary agent. With this marriage, Monroe converted to Judaism, which led Egypt to ban all of her films. Due to her status as a sex symbol, and his as an intellectual, the media saw their union as a mismatch with Variety even going as far as headlining the event as “Egghead weds Hourglass”.

Bus Stop was released in August 1956, and became a critical and commercial success. The Saturday Review of Literature said that her performance “effectively dispels once and for all the notion that Monroe is merely a glamour personality” and Crowther proclaimed “Hold on to your chairs everybody, and get ready for a rattling surprise. Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress”. She also received a Golden

In August, filming began for MMP’s first independent production – The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios in England. This was based on a 1953 play by Terrance Rattigan it was to be directed and co-produced by Marilyn’s co-star Laurence Olivier. The production was however complicated by conflicts between him and Monroe. Olivier had also starred and directed the stage play and angered her with the patronising and sexist statement “All you have to do is be sexy” and demanded that Monroe replicate Vivien Leigh’s stage interpretation of the character. He also disliked Monroe’s acting coach Paula Strasberg always being present on the set. In retaliation to this, Marilyn started to turn up late deliberately and later stated “If you don’t respect your artists, they can’t work well”.

Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl
Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl

Marilyn would also have personal issues during the production. She became more dependent on pharmaceuticals and during this time Miller and Monroe became pregnant – this ended sadly at six weeks due to an ectopic pregnancy. Monroe was devastated and attempted suicide shortly after. Miller found her after she had taken too many barbiturates. He quickly called a doctor who promptly came and pumped her stomach. He would go on to save her life from suicide three times.. She and Greene also argued about how MMP should be run. Despite the difficulties on and off set, filming was completed on schedule by the end of 1956. The Prince and the Showgirl received mixed reviews on its release in Jun of 1957 and was unpopular with American audiences. European audiences received it better where she was awarded the Italian David di Donatello and the French Crystal Star awards as well as being nominated for a BAFTA.

After returning to America from England, Monroe took a hiatus for 18 months to concentrate on her family life. She and Miller would split their time between NYC, Connecticut and Long Island. In mid-1957 she had an ectopic pregancy and a miscarriage a year later – these infertility issues were more than likely linked to her endometriosis. She was also hopsitalised – albiet briefly – following a barbiturate overdose. Monroe and Greene still couldn’t settle their disagreements about MMP, so Marilyn brought his share of the company.

Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot
Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot

In July 1958, Monroe returned to Hollywood to star opposite Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot. Initally she considered the role of Sugar Kane another “dumb blonde” stereotype, but accepted it following encouragement from Miller and the offer of 10% of the film’s profits on top of her standard pay. The film’s difficult production has since become legendary. Marilyn demanded dozens of re-takes, and did not remember her lines or followed direction when acting. Curtis would famously say that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler” due to the number of re-takes.

Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot
Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot

Monroe would privately liken the production to a sinking ship and commenting on her co-stars and director saying “why should I worry, I have no phallic symbol to lose”. Many of the problems on set stemmed from her and Wilder – who also had a reputation for being difficuly – disagreeing on how Monroe should play the role. She angered him by asking to alter many of the scenes, which in turn made her anxiety and stage fright worse, and its suggested that she deliberately ruined several scenes to act them her way.

In the end, Wilder was happy with Monroe’s performance saying “Anyone can remember their lines, but it takes a real artist to come on the set and not know her lines and give the performance she did!” Some Like It Hot was another critical and commercial success on its release in March of 1959. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress and prompted Variety to call her “a comedienne with that combination of sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat”.

The decline and personal difficulties of Marilyn Monroe

Monroe took another hiatus after Some Like It Hot and returned in late 1959 when she starred in the musical comedy Let’s Make Love. George Cukor was chosen by Marilyn herself to direct and husband Miler re-wrote some of the script which she considered to be weak. Marilyn accepted this part solely because she was behind on her filming schedule contract with Fox. Delays were caused by her frequent absences from set. During filming she began an extra-marital affair with co-star Yves Montand, which was reported widely by the press and used in the film’s publicity campaign.

Marilyn Monroe in Lets Make Love
Marilyn Monroe in Lets Make Love

Let’s Make Love was unsuccessful on its release in September of 1960. Crowther described Monroe as appearing “rather untidy” and “lacking the old Monroe dynamism”, Hedda Hopper called the film the “most vulgar picture Monroe’s ever done”. Truman Capote lobbied for her to star as Holly Golighty in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the role went to Audrey Hepburn over fears that Marilyn would complicate the production and cause trouble.

Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits
Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits

The last film she would complete was John Huston’s The Misfits, which Miller had written to provide her with a dramatic role. In it, she plays a recently divorced woman who becomes friends with three aging cowboys, played by Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. The filming in the Nevada desert ran from July to November 1960 with once again, tensions on set. Monroe and Miller’s marriage was effectively over with him beginning a new relationship with Inge Morat, a set photographer.

Monroe disliked that he had based the role partly on her life and thought it inferior when compared to the male roles. She would also struggle with Miller’s habit of re-writing lines at the last minute just before filming was about to start. She was also having health issues – she was in pain from gallstones and her addiction to drugs was so severe that her make up usually had to be applied whilst she was still asleep under the influence of barbiturates. In August, filming was halted for her to detox for a week in hospital. Despite these problems, Huston would state that when Monroe was acting she, “was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness”.

Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits
Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits

Monroe and Miller separated after the film wrapped, and in January 1961 she obtained a divorce in Mexico. The Misfits was released a month later and failed at the box office and had mixed reviews. Variety complained of frequently “choppy” character developement and Bosely Crowther said Monroe was “completely blank and unfathomable”. In the 21st Century it has recieved more favourable reviews.

She was due to star in a television adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain for NBC but the project fell through as the Network didn’t want to hire Marylin’s director of choice – Lee Strasberg. Instead of working at the start of 1961, she spent the first six months of it struggling with various health issues. It was at this time that she had her gallbladder removed, underwent surgery for endometriosis and spent four weeks hospitalised due to her depression. Ex-husband Joe DiMaggio helped her and they rekindled a friendship. She also dated his friend Frank Sinatra for several months. She moved back permanently to California in 1961, purchasing a house in Los Angeles in early 1962.

In Spring of 1962, Monroe returned to the public eye and recieved a “World Film Favourite” Golden Globe Award and started shooting a film for Fox. Something’s Got to Give was a remake of 1940’s My Favourite Wife and was to be co-produced by MMP, directed by George Cukor and co-star Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse. Days before filming was due to start, Marilyn caught sinusitis. Ignoring medical advice to postpone the production Fox began production as planned in late April.

Marilyn Monroe accepting her "World Film Favourite" Golden Globe
Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s
Marilyn Monroe wearing Pucci at home in the 60s

Over the next six weeks Monroe was too sick to work, but despite confirmation from multiple doctors, the studio alleged publicly that she was faking in an attempt to pressure her to work. On the 19th May 1962, she took a break from filming to sing the infamous “Happy Birthday Mr President” on stage at President John F. Kennedy’s early birthday celebrations in Madison Square Garden in New York. That is of course where she wore the attention grabbing, rhinestone encrusted, skin-tight gown that made her appear as if she was wearing nothing. This trip had irritated Fox Executives even more – they had wanted her to cancel it.

In the film “Something’s Got to Give” Marilyn would swim naked in a pool for one of the scenes – to generate publicity, the press were invited to take photographs which were then published in Life. This would be the first time that a major star had posed nude when at the height of their career. When Monroe was on sick leave again for several days, Fox decided that they could not have another film behind on schedule – especially when the costs to produce Cleopatra kept on rising. It was then, on June 7th that Fox fired her and sued for $750,000 in damages. After being replaced by Lee Remick, director Martin refused to make it with anyone but Marilyn. This resulted in Fox suing him too and shutting down the production. The Studio went on to blame Monroe for the demise of the film and spread negative publicity about her – even alleging that she was mentally disturbed.

Marilyn Monroe in somethings got to give
Marilyn Monroe in somethings got to give
Marilyn Monroe in somethings got to give

Later on in June, Fox made a u-turn and regretted their hasty decision. They re-opened negotiations with Marilyn and settled on a new contract. This included re-starting production of Something’s Got To Give and a starring role in black comedy What a Way to Go! (1964) which was released later on in the summer. There were also plans for her to star in a biopic of Jean Harlow. She also began to repair her public image, engaging in several publicity ventures. These included interviews with Life and Cosmopolitan and her first photoshoot for Vogue. For the Vogue shoot, she and photographer Bert Stem collaborated on two series – one a standard fashion editorial and the other a nude shoot. Both were published posthumously with the title “The Last Sitting”.

The Death and Funeral of Marilyn Monroe

During her final months, Marilyn lived in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Her housekeeper Eunice Murray was staying with her overnight on the evening of 4th August 1962. In the early hours of thr 5th August at 3am she awoke and sensed that something was wrong. Light was pouring underneath the door of Marilyn’s bedroom but Eunice was unable to get a response. Upon trying the door she found it was locked. She then called Monroe’s pyschiatrist, Ralph Greenson. He arrived shortly after and broke into the bedroom through a window to find her dead. Monroe’s physician, Hyman Engelberg, arrived at 3:50am and pronounced her dead at the scene. Just before 4:30am the LAPD were notified.

Marilyn Monroe wearing a shirt
Marilyn Monroe in the 60s

Marilyn had died between 8:30 and 10:30pm on August 4th. This was 35 years and one day after her grandmother had been committed to a hospital on August 4th 1927 for mental disturbances. The toxicology report showed that the cause of death was acute barbiturate poisoning. Although empty medicine bottles were found next to her bed, the possibility of accidental overdose was ruled out as the dosages in her body were several times over the lethal limit.

The Los Angeles County Coroners Office was assisted in their investigation by the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Team who had expert knowledge on suicide. Monroe’s doctors did state that she had been prone to severe fears and frequent depressions with abrupt and unpredictable mood swings and that she had overdosed several times in the past – possibly intentionally. Due to those facts and the lack of any indication of foul play, deputy coroner Thomas Noguchi classified her death as probable suicide.

Monroe’s sudden death made front-page news across the United States and Europe. According to Lois Banner, the suicide rate in Los Angeles increased in the month after she died; the circulation rate of most newspapers expanded that month”. The Chicago Tribune reported that they had received hundreds of phone calls from members of the public requesting information about her death. French artist Jean Cocteau commented that her death “should serve as a terrible lesson to all those, whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars”. Former co-star Laurence Olivier said she was “the complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation”. Bus stop director Joshua Logan stated that she was “one of the most unappreciated people in the world”.

On August 8th 1962, Marilyn Monroe was laid to rest at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery at a private funeral attended by those closest to her. The service was arranged by Joe DiMaggio, her half sister Berniece Baker Miracle, and Monroe’s business manager Inez Melson. Hundreds of spectators crowded the streets around the cemetary. Monroe was eventually entombed at Crypt No.24 at the Corridor of Memories.

The legacy of Marilyn Monroe

According to The Guide to United States Popular Culture, Monroe’s few rivals include the likes of Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse as an icon of American Popular Culture. No other star has inspired such a wide range of emotions – from lust to pity, from envy to remorse. Art historian Gail Leven stated that she may have been the most photographed person of the 20th century, and The American Film Institute has named her the sixth greatest female screen legend in American film hosstory. The Smithsonian Institute has included her on their list of 100 Most Significant Americans of all time and both Variety and VH1 placed her in the top ten in their rankings of the greatest pop culture icons of the twentieth century.

Marilyn Monroe modelling
Marilyn Monroe in the heyday of her career
Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s at home

Hundreds of books have been written about Marilyn Monroe. She has been the subject of a large number of films, plays, operas and songs and has influenced artists and entertainers like Andy Wahol and Madonna years after her death. Remaining to this day, a valuable brand; her image and name is licensed for hundreds of products and has been featured in advertising for brands such as Max Factor, Chanel, Mercedes-Benz and even Absolut Vodka.

Her neverending popularity is tied to her conflicting public image. On one side she endlessly remains a sex symbol, beauty icon and one of the most famous stars of old Hollywood. On the other, she’s remembered for her troubled private life, unstable childhood, struggle for professional respect and her death and the conspiracy theories that surround it. She is also written about in terms of gender and feminism with writers falling into one of two camps. Some view her as the victim of the studio system of Hollywood. Others stress her proactive role in her career and her participation of her on-screen and public persona.

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