Monroe, Marilyn 1926–1962

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Monroe, Marilyn

Norma Jeane Mortensen (or Baker), born on June 1 in Los Angeles, California, was best known by her adopted name Marilyn Monroe, which she used in thirty films over the course of her career. Marilyn Monroe was a superstar and a cinema sex symbol as well as an icon to her gay audience. Her film characters were often sexually naïve or unintentionally desirable, yet she also appeared to be in control of herself sexually, thus embodying both innocence and experience and seeming simultaneously unattainable and accessible. Her personal life was often tumultuous, leading to a popular conception of her as emotionally damaged. Monroe's fans seemed equally divided between those who desired her and those (often gay men) who recognized her unwilling position as a sexual outlaw and found strength in her. Her fame and influence increased after her early death, which was seen as both tragic and an appropriate ending to her status as a sexual commodity. She died in Brentwood, California, on August 5.

Norma Jeane was discovered by a photographer during World War II, and by 1946 she had become established as a model and had appeared in many magazines. In that year she divorced her first husband and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe when she signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Studios. Monroe played a series of uncredited roles until she began to gain attention for small parts in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, both released in 1950. Her first starring role was in Niagara (1953). In 1949 she had posed nude for a calendar; one of the images from that shoot would appear as the centerfold in the first issue of Playboy in 1953, making Monroe the image of midcentury American sexuality.

With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Monroe's rise to superstardom and gay icon status began. Her performance of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" became an instant classic, and its sleek, glamorous staging has been often imitated, most notably by Madonna in her "Material Girl" music video. The camp quality of the film, in which Monroe and co-star Jane Russell are dressed almost as drag queens, as well as its homoerotic subtext, brought Monroe to the attention of gay men. They became and remain a large part of her fan base. In 1954 Monroe married the baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio, a relationship by all accounts sincere but also seemed made for tabloid publicity. During their honeymoon in Tokyo, Monroe made a visit to American troops in Korea; afterward she often said that the outpouring of affection from the soldiers was one of the highlights of her life. The intense public interest in their nine-month marriage is often blamed for bringing it to an end, although the couple remained on good terms, apparently speaking on the phone the day before her death.

The most iconic image of Monroe is from The Seven-Year Itch (1955). The script capitalized on the public's relationship with Monroe, making her character both taboo and accessible, and the film became a box office hit. The slim plot involves a married man whose wife and children have left New York to escape the heat of summer, leaving him alone in an apartment building with his beautiful blond scantily clad neighbor. The film is a series of moments of temptation, including the famous skirt-blowing scene in which Marilyn stands atop a subway grate to feel the breeze.

In 1959 Monroe starred in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The film kept its two male leads in drag and involved gender-bending relationships, cementing the bond that gay men felt with Monroe. It also won her a Golden Globe, one of the few acting awards Monroe would receive in her career. Gay men in particular felt a personal connection to Monroe as a result of her tumultuous personal life. She exemplified many qualities stereotypically associated with gay men: glamour, campiness, and difficulty in forming lasting monogamous relationships. Her multiple marriages and numerous boyfriends seemed to mirror the trajectories of the lives of many homosexuals, and her seeming resilience offered hope to her gay fans that they might also create a kind of success out of personal chaos. Her choice of partners also appealed to gay men, many of whom no doubt would also have liked relationships with a famous sports figure (Joe DiMaggio), a literary giant (Arthur Miller), or a handsome, powerful, and married man (President John F. Kennedy).

Monroe's last husband was the playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote her final screen role in The Misfits (1961). Their marriage ended in the same year, and eighteen months later Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood, California, home. Her death by an overdose of barbiturates was surrounded by controversy. Although it officially was ruled a suicide, many people believed that she was murdered, whereas others contended that it was an accidental overdose. Her last films were plagued with production problems that often were ascribed to her absences from the set, and it has been noted by many people that her death coincided almost exactly with the moment when studios began to feel that her profitability was waning; her life ended when her value as a star began to diminish. Marilyn Monroe is remembered as an actress and a sex symbol, and her name has become synonymous with glamour, beauty, and sensuality as well as lost potential.


Leaming, Barbara. 1998. Marilyn Monroe. New York: Crown.

McCann, Graham. 1988. Marilyn Monroe. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Spoto, Donald. 1993. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. New York: HarperCollins.

                                       Brian D. Holcomb

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Monroe, Marilyn 1926–1962

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