Monroe, Marilyn (1926-1962)

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Monroe, Marilyn (1926-1962)

In 1962, at age 36, and after completing only 29 films, Marilyn Monroe died, leaving a legacy as one of the most recognizable movie stars and powerful cultural images in American history. White-blonde hair, seductively lowered eyelids, skin-tight glittery gowns clinging to her hourglass shape, and a cultivated habit of purling her shoulders just as her face broke into a demure smile constituted the inimitable Monroe presence, one exuding idealized femininity and sexual thrill. The epitome of desirability, Monroe was the sex symbol who also suggested vulnerability and a childlike desire to please. After working with her in 1949's Love Happy, Groucho Marx declared, "It's amazing. She's Mae West, Theda Bara and Bo Peep all rolled into one." Novelist Norman Mailer, who never met her but penned a book-length tribute titled Marilyn, described her as "fed on sexual candy." This mixture of carnal allure and naivete emanating from a full-figured woman with the whispery voice of a girl created the distinctive contradiction integral to Monroe's success and the force of her image. Monroe claimed she never cared about money, saying, "I just want to be wonderful."

Marilyn Monroe's death increased her popularity by nearly incalculable measure, and in her untimely end lies another key to her iconic status. Her screen personality suggested a "bad girl" in the bedroom but also a weak child-woman requiring protection from male predators. When she died from a self-administered barbiturate overdose, it seemed an unlikely and unjust finish for a star of her magnitude. Her shocking death only reinforced this vulnerable aspect of Monroe's appeal. The gossip surrounding her death and the famous men then involved with her—including President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy—only whetted the public appetite to know more of her, to see more of her, to feel as if it understood who she really was. She shared this afterlife with other celebrities who died tragically. Actor James Dean was killed in an automobile crash in the desert in the 1960s after famously proclaiming he aimed to "die young and leave a beautiful corpse." Like Monroe's, his image continued to haunt poster shops and post card stands decades later. The mythos of a dazzling life burning at both ends until finally extinguishing itself has proven endlessly fascinating to an American culture obsessed by youth. Also like James Dean, Monroe was a natural before a photographer's lens. While movie acting frightened her and she developed the unconscionable work habits of arriving hours late to a set and requiring countless takes to deliver even minimal lines, in front of a still photographer she was magic. Her face appeared transparent to mood and yet managed to withhold something, too, making each picture of her unique.

She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926 in Los Angeles, California, to a single mother struggling with mental illness and a travelling salesman who would not claim her. Traded in and out of orphanages and foster homes, her early childhood was defined by emotional neglect and sexual abuse at the age of eight. She would later lie about her childhood, claiming she was an orphan to hide the fact of her mother's institutionalization. As her own insecurities and episodes of severe depression mounted in nearly direct proportion to her fame, the image of her mother's instability haunted her. She never met her father and pretended that he was movie star Clark Gable. Her inauspicious roots may not have signaled her future celebrity, but her early experiences being shuffled off to the movies did. As many other film stars from the studio system era in Hollywood would report, movie-going cultivated in Monroe a driving desire to join the privileged, shining faces, and outsized personalities of the silver screen. As she later put it, "I told myself a million times that I was an actress because that seemed to me something golden and beautiful."

In 1942, at age 16, Norma Jeane (now going by Norma Jean Baker) agreed to marry Jim Dougherty, a few years her senior. Marriage spared her further sexual abuse at the hands of older men and alleviated the obligation of family friends to care for her. Dougherty joined the merchant marines, departed for the war, and Marilyn found employment at the Radio Plane munitions plant. There a photographer discovered her during a shoot to promote women working for the war effort. Her then-brunette good looks so struck him that he helped her win a modeling contract. Shortly after establishing her modeling career, Norma Jean peroxided her hair, divorced Dougherty, and set her sites on a movie stardom at age 20. In 1946, the head of new talent at 20th Century-Fox rewarded her with her first contract and renamed her Marilyn. She chose Monroe after her grandmother's last name. Norma Jean's transformation from hard-working plant employee to model and then starlet Marilyn Monroe, dependent on the connections and business acumen of men to further her career, would prove representative of further struggles. Just as her celebrity connoted a contradiction between naïve and assertive sexuality, Monroe also represented a woman who, freed from domesticity by WWII, did not know how best to exploit her own raw talents and fierce ambition. Monroe was shrewd and helpless both, involving herself repeatedly with men like talent agent Johnny Hyde to score movie auditions then turning down studio-offered scripts in search of better parts. As her career evolved, she became a committed student of "The Method," a theory of acting she learned at the feet of Lee Strasburg, head of the famous Actor's Studio in New York where other acting luminaries like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift also honed their craft. Her longing to step out of the mold the studios forced upon her and her use of the Method to do so positioned her stardom in a time of limbo. The studio system was eroding yet its imprint on Monroe's image remained lasting. Monroe both fought for attention any way she could get it and resented the static and demeaning stereotype of her movie roles, saying, "A sex symbol becomes just a thing and I hate that—but if I'm going to be a symbol of something, I'd rather have it be sex."

After appearing in small parts in films including Love Happy (1949) and All about Eve (1950), Monroe broke through to celebrity status with starring roles in three 1953 features—Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire. By the end of the year, American film distributors voted Monroe the top star of 1953. She also won Photoplay magazine's Gold Star Award for the fastest-rising new star, and fan letters poured in at the rate of five thousand a week. While her fame ultimately transcended the 1950s, its birth was firmly rooted in conventions of that post-war period. Monroe compares to 1950s stars Lana Turner, Kim Novak, and Janet Leigh. Their round and shapely figures exemplified the 1950s sex symbol and contrasted significantly with the more streamlined and diminutive style of the 1940s star represented by Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert or the slim, statuesque figures of Gene Tierney and Lauren Bacall. Breasts shaped like missiles—also a dominating aspect of the image of Monroe's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star, Jane Russell—announced themselves in the 1950s style of dress: tight sweaters, cinched waistlines, poofed skirts, soft-shouldered jackets. Dubbed the "New Look" by Life magazine, late 1940s and 1950s women's fashions reacted against war-time clothing by accentuating women's secondary sex characteristics, thereby reinstating pre-war images of femininity. Halter-tops like the one Monroe made famous in 1955's

The Seven Year Itch helped signify the more revealing era. In a famous scene, she stands atop a subway grate while the train whooshes beneath her, blowing up her full skirt around her waist while she tries in vain to hold it down. Bending over, she flashes her cleavage as the halter-top both harnesses her chest and allows its exposure. Though the final version of the Billy Wilder-directed classic includes only a brief shot of this sequence, film footage of the shoot resurfaced after the movie's release and has been memorialized in countless billboards and shop windows throughout the world.

Marilyn Monroe's voluptuousness placed her in a league with female stars of the late 1930s like Mae West and Jean Harlow. Her exuberant style of femininity and sex appeal descend directly from the screen image of Clara Bow, who also displayed a combination of sexual aggressiveness and wide-eyed, harmless energy in her embodiment of the 1920s "flapper." In 1958, Monroe posed for a series of photos relating her to previous screen sirens, including Bow, 1910's Hollywood vamp, Theda Bara, and 1940s exotic, Marlene Dietrich. Unlike these screen images of daring sexuality, Monroe's image also depended on affability. She represented maternal availability and plentitude to a country recovering from the horrors of war, while her comic personality represented harmlessness, a mother who would not exact punishment or even hold men to any standard other than the limits of their own desire. Her role as Sugar Cane in 1959's Some Like It Hot is one of her most definitive. In it she plays a sexy woman so bubble-headed she doesn't notice that co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are men pretending to be women to escape from the mob. Monroe's ability to portray "dumb" while also projecting awareness of her affect on audiences was part of her acting style. She laughed at herself in these "dumb blonde" parts but as former roommate Shelley Winters said of her, "If she'd been dumber, she'd have been happier."

Her two marriages subsequent to Dougherty reflected her battles to define herself on her own terms. In 1954, her fame incipient, she wed American baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio, uniting two American figures of growing mythic stature. Lasting only nine months, the marriage collapsed in the face of Monroe's continued hunger for acting success and DiMaggio's possessiveness and inability to accept her Hollywood image as sex symbol to millions of other men. In 1956 she married esteemed playwright Arthur Miller in the wake of the 1955 birth of her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, founded to provide her the serious, dramatic parts Hollywood studios refused her. Marrying the intellectual Miller appeared to stem from her deep-seated need to be taken seriously, to be valued for more than her comic portrayals as an empty-headed vessel for male sexual fantasies. As she implored one reporter toward the end of her life, "Please don't make me a joke." The marriage to Miller failed under the weight of her enormous psychological and emotional needs, and her increased reliance on prescription drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of miscarriages, insomnia, and crippling stage-fright. Miller wrote The Misfits, the 1961 John Huston-directed film that led to box office disappointment but offered Monroe the last serious role of her career.

In 1948, her film contract dropped for renewal, she returned to modeling to support herself. During this time she agreed to pose nude for a photographer who had long pestered her to do so. She claimed to have made $50 from the shoot. As would recur frequently in her professional tenure, the photographer made thousands of dollars from the initial sale of the pictures and the company that produced the calendar made millions. Threatened with scandal after their later release in the early 1950s, Monroe confessed to posing for them. "Sure I posed. I needed the money." The public embraced her honesty, rewarding her calculated risk. The nude calendar photos, taken in 1948, appeared in the December 1953 debut issue of Playboy magazine. Exploitation of this type was a constant in her career. Laurence Olivier, her co-star in 1957's Marilyn Monroe Productions-backed The Prince and The Showgirl, said of her death: "Popular opinion and all that goes to promote it is a horribly unsteady conveyance for life, and she was exploited beyond anyone's means."

By the late 1990s, over 300 books had been published about her, and Marilyn Monroe's likeness had retained astounding staying power to sell consumer goods. Marilyn Monroe dolls, plates, ashtrays, magnets, T-shirts, ties, life-sized cut-outs, paintings, posters, martini glasses, coffee cups, postcards, lingerie, and songs proliferated in the consumer realm, including an appearance on an official U.S. government-issued stamp in the mid-1990s. In a famous 1980s modified rendition of Edward Hopper's 1941 painting, Nighthawks, three indistinct figures at a café counter at night are replaced, in defiance of history, by Hollywood icons Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. Post-modern artist Andy Warhol also immortalized Monroe in his famous silk screen of her image duplicated to evoke a negative strip of film. Her serialized face captures the essence of Monroe as the star-turned-commodity.

—Elizabeth Haas

Further Reading:

Baty, S. Paige. American Monroe: The Making of a Body Politic. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

Haspiel, James. Marilyn: The Ultimate Look at the Legend. New York, Holt, 1991.

Mailer, Norman. Marilyn: A Biography. New York, Grosset &Dunlap, 1973.

Monroe, Marilyn. Marilyn—Her Life in Her Own Words: Marilyn Monroe's Revealing Last Words and Photographs, edited by George Barris. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing Group, 1995.

——. My Story. New York, Stein and Day, 1974.

Morley, Sheridan, and Ruth Leon. Marilyn Monroe. Stroud, Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997.

Smith, Matthew. The Men Who Murdered Marilyn. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn. New York, Henry Holt, 1986.

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Monroe, Marilyn (1926-1962)

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