Born Norma Jeane Mortenson June 1, 1926, Norma Jeane was not her mother, Gladys’s, first child, but she was the only one in her care at the time. Norma Jeane’s father is unknown as her mother would never reveal his name. Norma Jeane was raised by foster parents as a baby, though her mother also lived with them. Feeling strong, Gladys bought a small home for herself and for Norma Jeane and they lived there happily for a time. Gladys had tried her hand at acting but was now working at a movie studio as a film negative cutter. She was schizophrenic and had a very bad crack up, leaving her permanently hospitalized and Norma Jeane back in foster care. She bounced around from home to home, even spending time in an orphanage.
As a ward of the state she was sexually abused. She married just days after her 16th birthday as a way of avoiding going back to the orphanage, a factory worker named James “Jim” Dougherty. It wasn’t a love match and though she wasn’t unhappy, she wasn’t happy either. The two had little to say to each other, but Norma Jeane dropped out of high school and seemed to enjoy being a housewife. In In 1943, Dougherty enlisted in the Merchant Marine. When he went over to the Pacific a year later, she moved in with his parents and went to work for the war effort at the Radioplane Munitions Factory.
The Munitions Factor was oddly where she was discovered. David Conover, taking ‘morale boosting’ photos of female workers came across her dark curls and brilliant smile. He persuaded her to defy her husband and her in-laws: she moved out and became a model. Her voluptuous body unsuitable for fashion modelling, she was featured instead as a pin-up in men’s calendars and magazines. She was told to straighten her hair and dye it blonde to be more employable.
Paramount Pictures didn’t want her, and 20th Century Fox wasn’t bowled over either, but signed her to a standard contract just to keep rival RKO from getting her. She was given the name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and in 1946 divorced Dougherty, who was against her having a career. She took acting, singing, and dancing classes, but had only a couple of roles with almost no lines between them. After the end of 2 terms, the studio dropped her. But the guy she was sleeping with, a Fox executive, persuaded someone over at Columbia to give her a try, and eventually they did, styling her after Rita Hayworth. Her hairline was raised by electrolysis (!) and her hair lightened even further, to platinum. She starred in a low-budget musical called Ladies of the Chorus, which was released to no fanfare. She had an affair with her vocal coach, who paid to have her overbite corrected. Her contract was once again not renewed.
She then was taken under the wing of Johnny Hyde, vice president of the William Morris Agency. They too had an affair, though she repeatedly refused his marriage proposals. He paid for a silicone prosthesis to be implanted in her jaw, and for a nosejob.
Finally, a breakthrough: she appeared in six films that were released in 1950. She had bit parts in Love Happy, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Right Cross, and The Fireball. She had minor roles in a couple of critically successful films as well: John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, and Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. Her 5 minutes of screen time in The Asphalt Jungle merited a mention in Photoplay, and that moved her from model to actress.
Based on this success, Hyde negotiated a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox for her in December 1950 but died of a heart attack only days later, leaving her devastated. Despite her grief, 1951 was a big year for her. She presented at the Academy Awards, and had supporting roles in 4 films: Home Town Story, As Young As You Feel, Love Next, and Let’s Make it Legal. She played the same role in each: sexy arm candy, but The New York Times called her “superb” and the Los Angeles Daily News called her “one of the brightest up-and-coming [actresses].” She dated director Elia Kazan and had brief affairs with Nicholas Ray, Yul Brynner, and Peter Lawford.
A scandal broke involving nude photos she’d posed for in 1949, broke and needing money (she got $50). This should have derailed her career but Fox got on top of it by having her reveal it in an interview, stressing her dire financial straits. This not only gained her public sympathy but cemented her status as a sex symbol. She followed it up with a very revealing dress as the Grand Marshal at the Miss America Pageant parade, and by telling gossip columnists that she wore no underwear. Joe DiMaggio saw pictures of the “it girl” and insisted they go out. She tried a couple of meatier roles that year: a fish cannery worker in Clash By Night, and a mentally deranged babysitter in Don’t Bother To Knock. Her other roles were more typecast: a beauty pageant contestant in We’re Not Married! served as an excuse to film Marilyn in not one but TWO bathing suits; a dumb blonde secretary opposite Cary Grant in Monkey Business; and a prostitute in Full House.
Monroe had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ on set – being late, or not showing up, not knowing her lines, demanding re-takes. She depended heavily on acting coaches: she was a perfectionist with low self esteem, a bad combination in Hollywood. She was also terribly bullied and harassed by directors and male colleagues. This is when she started using barbiturates and amphetamines.
In 1953 she starred in Niagara, in a hyper-sexualized role: a 30-second long shot of her swaying hips while walking away was used in a lot of promotional material. She and her makeup artist had perfected her look: dark arched brows, pale skin, wet-looking red lips, and a beauty mark. She showed up at the Photoplay awards to accept the “Fastest Rising Star” award in a skin-tight gold lame dress that prompted Joan Crawford to describe her behaviour as s “unbecoming an actress and a lady.” Her next movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, would clinch her on-screen person as the “dumb blonde.” That role was supposed to go to Betty Grable, Fox’s previous blonde bombshell, but Marilyn had eclipsed her. How To Marry a Millionaire was more of the same, and a huge box office success.
Hugh Hefner featured her on the cover and as the centrefold in his first issue of Playboy; he used a photo from that Miss America Pageant on the cover, and one of her 1949 nude photos as the centrefold.
Monroe was listed in the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll in both 1953 and 1954, but note: money making, not money earning. She was a great asset for Fox, but still under contract, she wasn’t making much. She couldn’t even choose her projects. When she refused to do yet another “dumb blonde” comedy, the studio simply suspended her, in early 1954. This was front page news, so to counter the bad publicity, she married her sweetheart, Joe DiMaggio. The honeymooned in Japan (a business trip for him) and from there she traveled alone to Korea, where she performed in USO shows for the troops. By the time she got back to Hollywood in February she was picking up Photoplay’s “Most Popular Female Star” prize. She settled with the studio in March; she got a new contract, the starring role in The Seven Year Itch, and a bonus of $100,000. To generate buzz for this movie, they staged a filming of a scene on Lexington Avenue in New York. You know the one: she’s standing on a subway grate with air blowing up her white dress. She did that for several hours, attracting a big crowd with lots of professional photographers. The stunt infuriated DiMaggio, and they split just 9 months after marrying.
When filming wrapped, Monroe decided it was time to go to battle for control over her career and left Hollywood for the East Coast. She and photographer Milton Green founded their own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, which would later be called “instrumental” in the collapse of the studio system. She was “tired of the same old sex roles. I want to do better things. People have scope, you know.” She went to court about her contract with Fox, asserting the studio had not fulfilled its duties, such as paying her the promised bonus for The Seven Year Itch. The press brutally ridiculed her for this move, and she was parodied in Itch screenwriter George Axelrod’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, about a Monroe lookalike (played by Jayne Mansfield) dumb blonde actress who starts her own production company.
Divorce proceedings didn’t mean she stopped sleeping with DiMaggio, but it did mean she also slept with Marlon Brando, and with a playwright she met through Kazan – Arthur Miller. Things between them heated up when her divorce went through and he left his wife, but this also meant the FBI opened a file on her. The studio panicked and begged her to end the affair, fearing she’d be blacklisted. She would not.
She and the studio came to an agreement: she would do 4 films for them in 7 years, be paid $100K for each, be allowed to choose her project, her director, and her cinematographer, and would be free to make a film with MMP for every film she did for Fox. Suddenly the press was calling her a “shrewd businesswoman.”
She married Miller, and converted to Judaism (Egypt then banned all of her films). She chose to do Bus Stop next, earning respect from her director, and legitimizing herself as an actress and box office success despite its departure from her sexy comedies. She won a Golden Globe for her performance. For MMP she did The Prince and The Showgirl, with Laurence Olivier starring and directing. He’d originated the role on the stage, opposite Vivien Leigh. Monroe and Olivia clashed on set: he wanted her to take Leigh’s lead, and condescendingly told her all she had to do was “be sexy.” Her drug use escalated; she miscarried during filming. She took an 18 month hiatus to concentrate on marriage but had two more failed pregnancies.
She came back to Hollywood in 1958 to star in Some Like It Hot. There were problems on set but it was a box office smash and it earned her another Golden Globe. She did Let’s Make Love for Fox yet, and it was kind of a flop, despite Miller re-working the script. She had an affair with her co-star Yves Montand, which was publicized for the movie’s sake. Awkward. This means that when Truman Capote lobbied for her to star in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, he was overruled, and the part went to Audrey Hepburn instead.
Miller wrote a dramatic role for her in The Misfits, which would reunite Monroe with director John Huston. She played Roslyn, a divorcee who befriends 3 aging cowboys, played by Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift. Monroe and Miller were basically finished, and he was already moving on. She didn’t love the role, which she felt inferior to the male ones. It was a difficult production, with her drug use so serious that she had her make-up done while “asleep” on barbiturates. Production was halted for a week while she detoxed. It was the last film she would ever complete.
When filming wrapped, she got a quickie divorce from Miller. The movie was not a success at the box office, though more recently it has earned critical respect. In 1961 she had surgery for her endometriosis and a cholecystectomy, and spent 4 weeks in hospital, including a sting in the psych ward for depression. DiMaggio helped her out, and she dated Frank Sinatra for a while. In 1962 she was back on set for Something’s Got To Give, but came down with sinusitis, delaying production. Despite having several doctors corroborate the illness, Fox alleged publicly that she was faking. In May she sang Happy Birthday to JFK at Madison Square Garden. Back at work, the studio invited photographers on set for a scene in which she would swim nude. The photos were published in Life magazine, a major shift from the studio’s earlier policy about nude pics. But when she got sick again, Fox fired her from the movie and sued for $750 000 in damages (they were barely afloat making Cleopatra, which was way overbudget). Fox told the press that she was mentally unstable. Of course Fox quickly realized this was a stupid idea and re-opened negotiations to get her back onboard the film. She tried to repair her image by posing for a Vogue photographer – those photos would be published posthumously in a spread called The Last Sitting.
Monroe was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood home by her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson on August 5, 1962. The housekeeper had woken up during the night and when no one answered when she knocked at Marilyn’s door, she summoned the doctor. Her death was ruled a suicide, the drugs in her system several times over the lethal limit. Joe DiMaggio arranged her funeral service.
Marilyn Monroe: never dumb, and not even actually blonde. She was, and is, an icon, and never stopped being magical on screen.
What’s your favourite Marilyn moment?