Monroe, Marilyn (1926–1962)

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Monroe, Marilyn (1926–1962)

One of the last stars of the Hollywood studio system and the most enduring of American cultural icons, whose appeal and allure have extended far beyond her brief life. Name variations: Norma Jeane Mortonson or Mortensen; Norma Jeane Baker; Norma Jean Mortonson. Born on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California; died of a drug overdose on August 4, 1962, at home in Los Angeles; daughter of Gladys Baker Mortonson (also seen as Mortensen) and possibly C. Stanley Gifford (a salesman); married Jim Dougherty, on June 19, 1942 (divorced 1946); married Joe DiMaggio (the baseball player), on January 14, 1954 (divorced autumn 1954); married Arthur Miller (the playwright), on June 29, 1956 (divorced January 1961); no children.


(bit) Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (1948); (bit) Dangerous Years (1948); Ladies of the Chorus (1948); Love Happy (1950); A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950); The Asphalt Jungle (1950); All About Eve (1950); Right Cross (1950); The Fireball (1950); Hometown Story (1951); As Young As You Feel (1951); Love Nest (1951); Let's Make It Legal (1951); Clash by Night (1952); We're Not Married (1952); Don't Bother to Knock (1952); Monkey Business (1952); O. Henry's Full House (1952); Niagara (1953); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); How to Marry a Millionaire (1953); River of No Return (1954); There's No Business Like Show Business (1954); The Seven Year Itch (1955); Bus Stop (1956); The Prince and the Showgirl (1957); Some Like It Hot (1959); Let's Make Love (1960); The Misfits (1961).

In the years since her premature death, Marilyn Monroe has become an American icon: scores of books, including biographies, essays, poems, and thinly veiled fiction, have been published about her life; calendars, postcards, and glossy coffee-table collections of photographs abound; and the inspiration that her persona seems to offer writers and artists shows no sign of fading. Though she was not the most beautiful of women, her absolute ease in front of the camera, combined with a childlike eagerness for affection and apparent innocence, made her into one of the world's biggest movie stars, and with her platinum-blonde hair and abundance of curves she remains, to many, the embodiment of female sexuality.

Her life was lived, however, not as a goddess, but as a human being who endured more than her share of suffering. She was born Norma Jeane Mortonson in 1926, and her life-long emotional instability had its roots in her earliest infancy, when her mother boarded her with another family at birth. Gladys Baker Mortonson , who at 24 was separated from her second husband, paid the Bolender family five dollars per week to care for the baby so she could keep her job at a film lab. The Bolenders were said to have treated her as one of their own, but they were harsh and strict and prone to punishing even their own children with a razor strop. Gladys compounded the problem by not allowing the Bolenders to adopt her baby and by insisting that Norma Jeane not address them as mother and father. The weekly visits by the woman she called mother only served to confuse the child.

Gladys Mortonson had her own problems. Her two children from her first marriage had been taken away from her, apparently by their father; she never saw them again. Neither of her husbands was Norma Jeane's father. His identity has never been established definitively, although he may have been C. Stanley Gifford, a suave salesman at the film lab with whom Gladys was deeply in love. He disappeared from her life after the birth of her daughter.

When Norma Jeane was six, Gladys, by working double shifts and borrowing money, managed to realize her dream of buying a white bungalow in Hollywood. For a short time, she made a happy home for her daughter. They had a second-hand piano, and the English couple to whom Gladys rented out most of the house taught the little girl to dance and sing, treats she had been deprived of in the intensely religious atmosphere of the Bolender home. Grauman's Egyptian Theater, where children were admitted for a dime, was nearby, and Norma Jeane spent hours watching Clark Gable, Joan Crawford , Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers . In 1934, however, Gladys' recurrent depression worsened, and one day seven-year-old Norma Jeane returned home from school to find that her mother had been taken to the hospital. Gladys would remain in mental institutions for most of her daughter's life.

The English tenants kept Norma Jeane in the house as long as they could, and brought her along when finally they were forced to move to furnished rooms. When they returned to England, a close friend of her mother's, Grace McKee , found a family who wanted to adopt the eight-year-old. That family was about to move to New Orleans, however, so one of Gladys' coworkers volunteered to adopt her instead, so she could stay in Los Angeles. Gladys refused both offers. McKee became Norma Jeane's legal guardian, but she was reluctant to take the girl into her own home because she had recently married a man with three children. Thus, in 1935, Norma Jeane entered the Los Angeles Orphans' Home. Although objective reports indicate that she was not treated poorly, the experience was terrifying, and the two years she spent in the orphanage would loom large in her adult psyche and haunt her for the rest of her life.

In 1937, McKee removed her from the orphanage, and Norma Jeane spent several months with foster families. One expected an inordinate amount of work from her, and the other included an alcoholic father. McKee was forced to take her into her own home, but after several years (according to the adult Monroe) McKee's husband, Doc Goddard, came into Norma Jeane's bedroom one night while drunk and kissed her. She told her story to McKee's aunt, Ana Lower , and "Aunt Ana" promptly took the precocious 14-year-old into her own home. Thus began what Monroe always remembered as the best year of her life, her first and best taste of unconditional love.

This, too, did not last. When Goddard decided to move his family to West Virginia, McKee, apparently believing that she needed to find a more permanent home for her charge, suggested to her neighbors that their 20-year-son Jim Dougherty marry Norma Jeane. They agreed, as did their son, who worked as both an embalmer at a funeral home and a night-shift fitter at Lockheed. McKee first thought it necessary for Norma Jeane to explain her illegitimacy to her fiancé; Monroe later said that was the first time she realized that her parents were never married and that the name Mortonson belonged to her mother's second husband. (Her mother's first husband had been a man named Baker, which for some unknown reason was the last name Norma Jeane used at school.)

The wedding was held on June 19, 1942, soon after she turned 16 and reached the legal age to marry. Dougherty, who later wrote a book about his life with Monroe, claimed that while she started out as a hopeless housekeeper and cook, he was otherwise quite happy with his young wife. Monroe told a different story: "I was a peculiar wife…. I liked boys and girls younger than me. I played games with them until my husband came out and started calling me to go to bed." Nonetheless, she did find in Dougherty a certain security; she called him "pop" and might have made him her sanctuary forever had he not joined the Merchant Marine in the war year of 1943. During his first year of service, he was posted at Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast, and Monroe, who had dropped out of high school, accompanied him there. The following year, however, he was sent overseas, and she returned to work at an aircraft factory, where an army photographer came by one day on assignment for Yank magazine. He took notice of the shapely 19-year-old and hired her as a freelance model. Within a year, she had appeared on the covers of over 30 magazines, and as her modeling career took off she became increasingly ambitious and increasingly cool to Dougherty during his leaves. On one such leave, Norma Jeane informed him of her new resolve: she wanted to be an actress.

Gloria Steinem">

It is the lost possibilities of Marilyn Monroe that capture our imaginations. It is the lost Norma Jeane, looking out of Marilyn's eyes, who captured our hearts.

Gloria Steinem

In the summer of 1946, Dougherty paid a last visit to his wife to deliver their final divorce papers. He found her radiant, and she told him that just a few days earlier she had been offered a contract at $125 per week with Twentieth Century-Fox. (The studio's interest had been piqued after its executives spotted some suggestive, but not nude, photos of her in "girlie" magazines.) The studio, she added, had changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, but she apparently had some say in the matter: Monroe was her mother's maiden name. Though she had bleached her brown hair blonde—white was always her favorite color, to the point of obsession—she would never relinquish the high-pitched, childlike voice that would become her trademark.

For nearly the next eight years, Monroe focused almost exclusively on her career. Despite her impoverished, Depression-era childhood, her motivation was not to accumulate wealth or goods but to improve herself. She was insecure about almost every aspect of her person, especially her lack of education. She wanted more than anything to be both a movie star and an actress, to be famous and to deserve that fame. What little money she had was spent on books and acting lessons, while she wore the same two spotlessly clean dresses over and over. When she had a bit of money she would eat at drugstore counters, and when she had less, she ate peanut butter in her rented room. She had many escorts, for varied reasons, as well as several long-term liaisons with rich, older men; at least one of these, the agent Johnny Hyde, was eager to marry her—and, at 30 years her senior, make her a very rich widow—but she declined. Although she later told several people that sometimes she had accepted small sums of money in exchange for sex when she was desperate for pocket change, many who later took a close look at her life were surprised that she made a point of never using her sexual charms for financial gain. Indeed, she often bragged that she had never been a "kept" woman.

As a fledging starlet in the last years of the Hollywood studio system, Monroe had no say over her early roles in such films as Dangerous Years and Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (both 1948). Fox fired her after one year, in a move that was never explained, and she subsisted on modeling jobs until she was signed to a contract with Columbia. It, too, brought her only a few bit parts, but she had no intention of giving up: "My God, how I wanted to learn! To change, to improve! I didn't want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act. With the arc lights on me and the camera pointed at me, I suddenly knew myself…. I spent my salary on lessons. I bought books to read. I sneaked scripts off the set and sat up alone in my room reading them out loud."

Monroe's contract with Columbia lapsed. Unemployed, she posed nude for $50. Those famous photographs, released as a calendar, have since gone on to net the calendar company a cool $750,000; when asked by the press several years later to explain why she had posed, she replied simply, "I was hungry." Her life was looking particularly grim when she won a small part in the Marx Brothers' Love Happy (1950), the first film to capture her characteristic, and very sexy, walk. The publicity tour that followed attracted a good amount of attention from the press and the public.

A bigger break came that same year, when she was 24, with John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a film about thieves and a jewel heist that still stands as one of the best of its kind. Her role as the young mistress of an aging criminal brought her good notices, but it did not lead to the kind of work she wanted. Monroe had switched back to Twentieth Century-Fox, and although she did receive a small part in All About Eve (1950), the enormously popular film starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter , the studio gave her no other memorable roles. Still, for an actress who had logged less than 50 minutes of screen time, Monroe had become something of a star. Her easy appeal had not been lost on magazine editors, either; she had become the "pin-up girl" of choice and, in 1951, appeared on the cover of Look magazine.

One of her escorts that year was Elia Kazan, already an acclaimed director (and husband of Molly Day Thatcher and father of four children). As many of the men in her life did, he actively tutored Monroe, in his case about art and literature and, especially, politics; Kazan had been a member of the Communist party, and Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt for Communists was gathering steam. In December 1950, he had introduced her to Arthur Miller, America's most celebrated playwright. Despite Monroe's ongoing affair with Kazan, and the fact that only a few days before she had swallowed a handful of barbiturates in despair over the death of agent Johnny Hyde—her third of numerous suicide attempts, by her own count—she felt an immediate attraction to the married Miller.

Monroe next made a dozen "B" movies in rapid succession, most of them forgettable, although her work as a deranged baby-sitter in Don't Bother to Knock (1952) impressed Anne Bancroft , the actress who starred. The year 1953, however, served as a breakout, with her classic performance as Lorelei Lee, the quintessential not-so-dumb blonde golddigger, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This frothy Howard Hawks-directed adaptation of Anita Loos ' comic novel showcased Monroe in clinging gowns and lavish furs (and, briefly, a tiara around her neck), and featured her breathily singing, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Marilyn Monroe was a movie star. Later the same year came How to Marry a Millionaire, with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall , a romp—although a sex romp, to be sure—that allowed her to show her considerable talent. During the filming of the movie, Grable, the World War II pin-up girl extraordinaire and once the highest-paid woman in Hollywood, reportedly told Monroe, "Honey, I've had it. Go get yours. It's your turn now." Unlike previous reviews, which had concentrated mostly on her face and figure, reviews for How to Marry a Millionaire consistently praised Monroe's gift for comedy.

During that hectic year, Monroe had been seeing Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees baseball player and national hero; for much of that time, he had been one lover among many, and not one of the most exciting. Conservative and aloof, he wanted a wife but no part of Hollywood life, and that may have become his strong suit for Monroe, who once described Hollywood as "a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul." Despite numerous signs of trouble (many sources agree that he was possessive and jealous), DiMaggio had increasingly become her safe haven from press and studio obligations. Her next film was Otto Preminger's River of No Return (1954), with Robert Mitchum. On January 14, 1954, shortly after shooting was completed, Monroe and DiMaggio were married in a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall. Some 500 people, having heard of the spur-of-the-moment proceedings, gathered outside. She was 27; he was 39.

Their two-week trip to an isolated cabin in the California mountains was perhaps the highlight of the union; immediately afterward, while on a very public "honeymoon" in Japan, the couple were already fighting over her revealing clothing and the attention she attracted.

During the first seven months of her marriage to DiMaggio, Monroe stayed away from Hollywood. This proved to be a smart career move; no longer indifferent to her charms, or to her box-office potential, Twentieth Century-Fox was eager to have her back. She went straight from the set of There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), a musical tribute to the songs of Irving Berlin that also starred Ethel Merman, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray, to that of the hugely successful The Seven Year Itch (1955). Directed by Billy Wilder, this comedy was the story of a family man tempted by the sexy upstairs neighbor who moves in while his wife and children are away, and produced the famous photograph of Monroe standing over a subway grate while her dress billows upward. But just nine months after her wedding to DiMaggio his jealousy proved too great, and the unhappy couple divorced amid reports of private investigators, clandestine lovers and terrible fights.

In December 1954, just as pre-release word of mouth about The Seven Year Itch was catapulting her into Hollywood royalty, Monroe put on a black wig and, under the name Zelda Zonk, flew to New York City. She had been persuaded to make the move by Milton Greene, who would become her new agent. He and his wife took her into their Connecticut home and, as others had before them, tried to help her sort out her life. Amy Greene took her to see dress designers and gynecologists (Monroe suffered from severe menstrual pain, due to what was later diagnosed as endometriosis; she also had had numerous abortions, 13 by the time she was 29, which had done considerable damage to her uterus). This was one of several times she "adopted" an existing couple or family, moving in with them and accepting help, much as an orphan would do. In some cases, though not with the Greenes, she would make romantic advances to the man, thus spoiling the familial relationship.

As Monroe began to feel more confident on the East Coast, she moved into New York City and began to study with Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio, home of "Method" acting and the training ground for some of the best American actors of the era. Lee and Paula Strasberg soon became another surrogate family (their daughter Susan Strasberg , who had recently won rave reviews for her performance on Broadway in the title role of The Diary ofAnne Frank , would later write the book Marilyn andMe: Sisters, Rivals, Friends). In February 1956, Monroe ended her year of self-imposed exile and returned to Los Angeles to make Bus Stop, based on the William Inge play. In anticipation of a hit, Time magazine put her on its cover in May, and predicted a glorious future for an already shining star. The report was not quite accurate; although she had made 24 films in the first seven years of her career, during the following, and final, seven years she would complete only five.

However, Bus Stop (1956), the first of those five, lived up to expectations. This story of a weary singer with a past and the naive young man who falls in love with her, in which Monroe sings a memorable version of "(That Old) Black Magic," proved a hit. Director Joshua Logan, who at first had been reluctant to hire her, became a convert: "I had no idea she had this incandescent talent. She made directing worthwhile. She had such fascinating things happen to her face and skin and hair and body as she read lines … she was inspiring." Critic Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that she had "finally proved herself an actress."

For months, Monroe had been telling people she had fallen in love with Arthur Miller, who had written both The Crucible and the one-act version of A View From the Bridge since the pair had met in 1950, and whose own marriage to Mary Slattery Miller had recently failed. She also had an affair with actor Marlon Brando that year, but in June 1956, in White Plains, New York, she and Miller interrupted a judge at dinner to marry them in an impromptu ceremony. Monroe had just turned 30; Miller was 40. It would prove to be her lengthiest marriage, lasting three and a half years.

Soon after, the couple spent several months in London while Monroe filmed The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), a period piece with Sir Laurence Olivier that also co-starred Sybil Thorndike and would prove to be moderately successful. Monroe's new marriage was off to a shaky start: her long battle with insomnia could no longer be fought successfully with sleeping pills, and, according to her business partner Milton Greene, she was up all night and drinking gin by morning. By November 1956, Monroe and Miller were back in New York City, at a new apartment on East 57th Street. They were very much in love, but there were troubles. In 1957, Miller was convicted of contempt of Congress by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for refusing to name names (the conviction would be overturned the following year by the U.S. Court of Appeals). That same year, Monroe suffered a tubal pregnancy. The couple's response was to retreat to a Connecticut farmhouse. Although she delighted in playing the role of a country gentlewoman there, the failed pregnancy was the beginning of a downward spiral. As much as she loved Miller, Monroe was probably incapable of sustaining the kind of mature love that a successful marriage requires. She kept up her suicide attempts and her relationships with other men, and she was dramatically inconsistent in her fervent attempts to establish domesticity—doting on Miller's every want one day and leaving a roomful of dinner guests waiting the next.

In the summer of 1958, Monroe returned to Los Angeles to film Some Like it Hot, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as wanted men hiding amongst an all-woman orchestra. Director Billy Wilder, comparing the shoot to an airplane ride, said, "We were in mid-flight—and there was a nut on the plane." Monroe was drinking, cursing, unable to remember her lines, and arriving at dusk for late morning calls. But the film, which is now universally regarded as a comedy classic, received rave reviews, as did Monroe for her work as Sugar Kane; even Wilder conceded, "She has a certain magic that comes across, which no [other] actress in the business has."

Her next film was 1960's musical comedy Let's Make Love, which co-starred the French matinee idol and singer Yves Montand and boasted a cast including Tony Randall, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly and Milton Berle. During filming Monroe and Miller lived in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel next door to a bungalow shared by Montand and his wife, actress Simone Signoret , and Monroe's marriage disintegrated as she carried on an affair with her costar. Around this time Miller decided to turn one of his short stories into his first screenplay, with a sizeable role for his wife. The Misfits, released in 1961, is a brooding tale set in the American West, concerning a woman in the middle of a divorce who falls in love with another man. That other man was played by longtime star Clark Gable, whose movies she had watched as a child. "What the hell is that girl's problem?" asked Gable (who died one week after filming was completed). "Goddamn it, I like her, but I damn near went nuts waiting for her to show." Director John Huston calculated that Monroe was taking up to 20 sleeping pills a day, topped off with vodka or champagne. In the mornings, her makeup artist often would do his work while she was still flat in bed. Monroe treated Miller harshly on the set, humiliating him, fighting with him, and kicking him out of her room. After filming was finished in November 1960 and the couple returned to New York on separate flights, Monroe announced that the marriage was over.

The Misfits was not well received by critics, and neither was Monroe's work in it. She spent 1961 in and out of hospitals, first for mental problems and then for gynecological and gall bladder surgeries. She saw her latest psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, almost every day.

It was during this difficult period that Monroe apparently became acquainted with recently elected President John F. Kennedy (to whom she so famously sang "Happy Birthday" in a flesh-colored dress) and his brother Robert Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general. The complete truth of these relationships, which have been the subject of much speculation and a number of books, is out of reach, but it is almost certain that the relationships did exist. John F. Kennedy is known to have had an active sex life outside of his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy , and there is little reason to think that his relationship with Marilyn Monroe—whatever the number of times they actually may have met—meant much to him in emotional terms. His brother was different. By 1960, Bobby Kennedy had been married to Ethel Kennedy for ten years and had seven children. Monroe is one of the few women, and possibly the only one, to whom he was linked outside of his marriage. Reports of friends and acquaintances indicate that theirs may well have been an important, emotional bond.

At any rate, in the last year or two of her life, a special, secret man—she referred to him as "the General"—loomed large in Monroe's conversations with friends. It was an otherwise terrible time: she was drinking champagne all day and taking too many sleeping pills, was often disoriented, and had no meaningful work to occupy her time. She received a role in George Cukor's Something's Got to Give, a film she hoped would save her sinking career, but it ended in disaster when she was fired from the picture in June 1962, one week after her 36th birthday.

Two months later, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead of a drug overdose in her Brentwood bungalow. (It is generally accepted that she had died on the evening of August 4.) While the world mourned, only 24 people were invited to her private funeral arranged by Joe DiMaggio, who had been hoping for a reconciliation; at least one biographer claims that Monroe had already purchased a wedding gown for their remarriage. Although the press and public were stunned by the sad ending to Monroe's life, they were perhaps not entirely shocked, and her death was accepted as a suicide brought on by personal and professional despair.

In the months and years that followed, however, a number of people began to suspect that the circumstances of her death were more complicated than the accounts of suicide had suggested. Among the theories that have circulated are that Monroe was murdered by the Kennedys (or people in their employ) to save them from embarrassment, and, alternately, that she was murdered by political enemies of the Kennedys (specifically, Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa) to cause them embarrassment. Because of inept and insufficient police work at the time of her death, these theories are impossible to disprove. Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose of barbiturates, but it is possible, although not probable, that she did not give herself the last dose. (The coroner's report, which has caused much controversy, noted that there were no pill capsules in her stomach, and also that there was no syringe in the house.) Writer Anthony Summers, after a thorough investigation for Goddess, his book about Monroe, concludes that although the Kennedys and their brother-in-law Peter Lawford were almost certainly involved in a cover-up of the murky details of her death (manipulation of phone records, etc.), that cover-up appears to have been an attempt to keep secret the Kennedy involvement in her life, not in her death. Summers also notes that her overdose might well have been an accident, in the sense that Monroe probably had little notion of the number of pills she had taken that day.

No matter what the events of the final day of her life, an international luminary had died young. In the decades since, Marilyn Monroe's presence in popular culture has only grown, aided by artists and writers as diverse as Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Susann , Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Joyce Carol Oates , Elton John and Madonna . Her life and death have taken on the dimensions of an American myth, and her indelible image remains nearly ubiquitous; in that sense, she is very much alive. Happiness may have eluded her, but celebrity certainly did not.


Mailer, Norman. Marilyn. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.

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

Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn. NY: Henry Holt, 1986.

Summers, Anthony. Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. NY: Macmillan, 1985.

Zolotow, Maurice. Marilyn Monroe. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1960.

suggested reading:

Gregory, Adela, and Milo Speriglio. Crypt 33: The Saga of Marilyn Monroe—The Final Word. Birch Lane, 1993.

Guiles, Fred Lawrence. Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe. Paragon.

Leaming, Barbara. Marilyn Monroe. NY: Crown.

Monroe, Marilyn, et al. My Story. NY: Cooper Square Press, 2000 (rep. ed).

Rosten, Norman. Marilyn: An Untold Story. NY: Signet, 1973.

Slatzer, Robert. The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe. NY: Pinnacle, 1974.

Elizabeth L. Bland , reporter, Time magazine

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Monroe, Marilyn (1926–1962)

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