Yet in that short 16 year period, and that handful of films, she became, not just a popular movie star, but an international icon, a huge celebrity and the most famous woman on the planet. She became the personification of the allure and glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age.
She was a high achiever. After starting out as a photographic model she became Playboy Magazine's first "Sweetheart of the Month" in December 1953. At 168, Marilyn's IQ was significantly higher than average and she used her intelligence to the full. She was a clever and much underrated actress and her comedic abilities were shown in such classic films as 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and 'How to Marry a Millionaire'. She won a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the classic 'Some Like it Hot' in 1959.
In 1999 the American Film Institute ranked her at number six in their list of Greatest Female Stars of All Time.
BiographyMarilyn was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles. She was baptised with her mother's maiden name Norma Jeane Baker as her mother's husband, Edward Mortenson, had deserted her before Norma was born. She never knew who her biological father was, and she had a half brother and half sister from her mother's first marriage.
Foster HomesThere is no doubt that young Norma Jeane's childhood environment was extremely unstable and certainly contributed to the emotional problems she experienced later in life. Her mother, Gladys, worked at RKO studios as a film cutter, but she had psychological problems and spent several periods in a mental institution. Gladys was not prepared for looking after her baby daughter and placed her in a succession of foster homes. She did eventually reclaim Norma and tried to look after her but had another mental breakdown, which the young Norma witnessed, and the child was declared a ward of the state, at which time she moved in with family friend Grace McKee.
Grace had a fascination for the then extremely popular blonde star, Jean Harlow, and she and Marilyn would regularly go to watch Harlow films. This was the start of Marilyn's lifelong interest in movies and movie stars. In 1935 Grace married and became Grace Goddard and Norma was again placed in a succession of foster homes. During this time she was allegedly abused, both emotionally and sexually.
When Norma was 12, in 1938, Grace sent her to live with one of her aunts, Ana Lower, in Von Nuys, Los Angeles County. Norma spent three happy years there and later described this as the most stable period of her childhood. Her aunt, however, developed serious health problems and in 1941 Norma moved back to live with Grace and her husband.
First Marriage, Jim DoughertyNorma Jeane met Jim Dougherty, the son of a neighbour, in 1941 when she was 16 and he 21. When Grace learned that she and her husband would be leaving Los Angeles for the East Coast she encouraged the couple to marry to avoid Norma Jeane having to return to foster care. So, after dating for 6 months, Norma and Dougherty married in June, 1942.
By all accounts, the marriage was not unhappy although Monroe later claimed she was 'bored', but within a year Jim had joined the Merchant Marine and in 1944 was posted to the South Pacific. His young wife went to live with Dougherty's parents and joined millions of other women helping the war effort when she started working in the Radioplane Munitions Factory inspecting parachutes and spraying airplane parts with fire retardant.
Modelling CareerAfter a few months, 'Yank' magazine sent a photographer, David Conover, to get shots of women working and making a contribution to the war effort. After using Norma for the shoot he encouraged her to sign up with the local Blue Book modeling agency and she began to get more and more assignments. She was a natural photographic model. The camera loved her fresh faced good looks and within two years she was in a full time modelling career with over 30 national magazine covers to her credit.
Hollywood BeckonsNorma's world was expanding and she began to take acting and singing lessons. She renewed her interest in the work and methods of stars like Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. Her modelling fame reached the ears of Ben Lyons, then a talent scout for Twentieth Century Fox, who arranged a screen test for her. On her husband's return in 1946 she had to choose between career and marriage. She and Jim were divorced in June 1946 and two months later she was signed by Twentieth Century Fox to her first studio contract. At Lyons' suggestion she changed her name, borrowing Marilyn from Marilyn Miller with Monroe being her mother's maiden name.
During her Fox contract Marilyn appeared in 2 minor films, 'Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!' and 'Dangerous Years', both in 1947 but after 6 months she returned to modelling when her contract was not renewed. It was at this time that she did the nude photographs which later were to become so famous.
She was given another 6 months contract, this time by Columbia and she appeared in 'Ladies of the Chorus' in 1948, again without making any noticeable impact. She was still just another attractive Hollywood starlet. Again her contract expired but now she found an ally, the powerful agent, Johnny Hyde. He encouraged her to regularly bleach her hair platinum blond and with his help and grooming she re-signed with Fox and began to get bigger parts, mainly supporting roles which required young attractive girls and then meatier roles in important films. She appears, for instance, in 'All About Eve' and John Huston's 'The Asphalt Jungle' both in 1950, which were both acclaimed by the critics and are still regarded as classics today.
Marilyn's image as a sex symbol was beginning to blossom and Hyde negotiated a seven-year contract for her with 20th Century Fox. Hyde died of heart failure in 1950. Rumour had it that he and Marilyn had been having an affair but she always denied it. By now her career was gathering a momentum of its own and she did not unduly miss Hyde's guidance. She appeared in a number of minor movies in the early 1950's and her name remained prominent when she was one of the presenters at the 23rd Academy Awards ceremony.
Hollywood SuperstarShe kept busy and in 1952 she appeared in two movies which brought out her hitherto hidden, comedic abilities: 'Clash By Night', starring Barbara Stanwyck, and 'Monkey Business' with Cary Grant. It was in the following year, however, that she made the leap into superstardom.
During 1953 she appeared in 3 high quality movies, all of which were praised by the critics and public alike. Firstly in the thriller 'Niagra', she played a sexy but unstable woman who plots to murder her husband, and she followed this with a leading role two top drawer comedies: 'How to Marry a Millionaire', with serious Hollywood competition in the form of Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable and then 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' co-starring fellow sex symbol Jane Russell, and in which Marilyn gives her famous rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". Marilyn generated enormous publicity from these movies and she was voted the Best New Actress of 1953 by Photoplay Magazine.
She also garnered a lot of publicity of a different kind when Playboy magazine published in its very first issue in December 1953, the nude photos which had been taken of Marilyn 6 years earlier. Contrary to expectation when she explained in interviews her situation at the time of having no money and no family to turn to, she gained a lot of sympathy and her reputation was actually enhanced. At 27 years old Marilyn had risen to the very top and she was now the most famous actress in Hollywood.
Second Marriage, Joe DiMaggioJoe DiMaggio was 37 when he met Marilyn in early 1952. He was a legendary sporting figure in America after a successful baseball career with the New York Yankees. They married in January 1954 but the couple did not have a smooth transition into married life. During their honeymoon Marilyn travelled alone for 10 days to Korea where she performed for 13,000 American Marines.
The following year, when Marilyn was filming 'The Seven Year Itch' the famous scene where her skirt gets blown upwards was witnessed by a large crowd and DiMaggio, a possessive man, showed his displeasure in a public argument with her. His jealousy and her fame and sexpot image created a constant tension which caused the marriage to crumble. They divorced in October, 1954, after just nine tempestuous months. Despite this DiMaggio retained a lifelong love for Marilyn and they remained on friendly terms.
In March 1954, Marilyn appeared in the musical 'There's No Business Like Show Business', with Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor, but the movie was mauled by the critics and they particularly disliked Marilyn's performance. The poor reviews reinforced Marilyn's growing realisation that she needed greater control over her career and how she was portrayed on screen. She was tired of being typecast as the fantasy sex object. 'The Seven Year Itch' which was completed in early 1955 was really just a variation on the same theme, where Marilyn appears as a seductive neighbour who tempts Tom Ewell while his wife is away on a vacation.
Marilyn realised that she could earn far more money if she broke away from 20th Century Fox. At this stage of her career she was being advised by photographer Milton H. Greene, whom she had met when he photographed her for 'Look' magazine. Greene gave up his job in 1954, then mortgaged his home to help finance Monroe through this difficult time.
She moved to New York and began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and continued her studies throughout 1955. In 1956, she took another giant step towards independence when she signed a completely new contract with 20th Century Fox. In it, her newly formed movie company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, would make four films for Fox over the next 7 years at vastly improved financial terms for Marilyn, and more importantly, she would be free to work for other studios if she wished, and had the right of veto on any script or director of whom she did not approve.
The new company began with 'Bus Stop' in 1956 for which she earned both critical appreciation and a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and, the following year, 'The Prince and the Showgirl', co-starring Sir Laurence Olivier.
Third Marriage, Arthur MillerMarilyn had begun dating the playwright, Arthur Miller, in 1955 and, although the balding, 41 year old intellectual and the 30 year old glamour goddess were an unlikely pairing, the two hit it off immediately. They wed on June 29, 1956 after Marilyn had converted to Judaism and Miller accompanied Monroe to England for the making of 'The Prince and the Showgirl'.
Working with Marilyn proved difficult for Laurence Olivier. She had started her practice of turning up on set late or not at all, which would be a continuous feature of her remaining films. The movie struggled at the box-office although Marilyn received favourable reviews for her performance.
After she and Miller returned home, Marilyn discovered that she was pregnant, but it was an ectopic pregnancy, and she miscarried. This created an unbearable strain on the marriage and the slow decline in Marilyn's mental state can be dated from this time.
'Some Like It Hot'In 1959 she enjoyed the biggest success of her career, starring with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's comedy 'Some Like It Hot'. Although Wilder publicly criticised Marilyn for her lateness and general difficult behaviour on set he also praised her brilliant performance in the movie. She was awarded a Golden Globe for best actress in musical or comedy and the movie was a resounding commercial success, and was nominated for five Academy Awards.
Downward SpiralDespite this success, Marilyn's mental state was rapidly becoming more fragile. She was growing increasingly dependant on 'uppers' - pills to wake her up - and 'downers' - pills to put her to sleep. She had another miscarriage during the shoot and her relationship with her husband was deteriorating. During her next film, the very average 'Let's Make Love' in 1960, she had a much publicised affair with her co-star Yves Montand, which further put strain on the marriage.
For her next movie, 'The Misfits' the part of Roslyn Taber had been written especially for Marilyn by Arthur Miller. During the shoot she showed all her, by now, tiresome histrionics, clashing frequently with co-stars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift and publicly clashing with director John Huston. During the shoot she was treated in hospital several times for depression.
By this time she and Miller were barely on speaking terms and when the movie was completed they divorced, in January 1961, after four and a half years of marriage. A year later Miller married again, to one of the photographers assigned to cover the making of 'The Misfits'. The movie was poorly received and did badly at the bos-office. Ten days after completion of the movie Clark Gable died.
Marilyn's world seemed to be falling apart and she drifted further into drink and drugs dependency. She returned to Hollywood to begin work on a new picture titled 'Something's Got to Give' co-starring Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse, but her erratic behaviour made it impossible to complete the movie and she was dismissed after turning up for work on only 12 out of 35 days of production.
In May, 1962, during one of the weeks she was unable to perform on the movie she gave one of her most famous public appearances, singing 'Happy Birthday, Mr President' at a televised birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy.
DeathMarilyn died three months later, on August 5, 1962. Her body was discovered at her home in Brentwood, California by her housekeeper, lying face down on her bed. She was completely naked and had a phone in one of her hands. Empty bottles of pills were littered around the room. The official cause of death was suicide from "acute barbiturate poisoning".
Her funeral was arranged by a devastated Joe diMaggio, as Marilyn's mother was still institutionalised. She was buried in Los Angeles' Westwood Memorial Park in the Corridor of Memories. On that day, many thousands of mourners lined the streets to grieve and pay their respects to the Hollywood icon and world movie legend. For many years after her death Joe DiMaggio put fresh roses at her memorial site.
There has been much speculation about her death with much focus on her alleged affairs with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert. We shall never know the truth, as fact and fiction have been so interwoven that they are virtually impossible to separate. In her death, as in her life, Marilyn's legend and mystery live on.
Marilyn Monroe Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
Marilyn Monroe Filmography
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (uncredited)
You Were Meant for Me
Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!(uncredited)
Green Grass of Wyoming (uncredited)
Ladies of the Chorus
Home Town Story
As Young as You Feel
Let's Make It Legal
Clash by Night
We're Not Married!
Don't Bother to Knock
River of No Return
There's No Business Like Show Business