Biography of Marilyn Monroe, Model and Actress

Marilyn Monroe
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Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean Mortenson; June 1, 1926–Aug. 5, 1962) was an American model turned singer/actress whose career spanned the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Monroe appeared in a number of what are now considered classic films prior to her unexpected death at age 36.

Fast Facts: Marilyn Monroe

  • Known For: Model, pinup, actress
  • Also Known As: Norma Jeane Mortenson, Norma Jeane Baker
  • Born: June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California
  • Parents: Gladys Baker Mortenson; father unknown
  • Died: Aug. 5, 1962 in Brentwood, California
  • Education: Attended Van Nuys and University High School in Los Angeles, California; dropped out at 15
  • Selected Films: "Some Like It Hot," "The Seven Year Itch," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "How to Marry a Millionaire," "Bus Stop," "The Misfits"
  • Awards and Honors: Three Golden Globes, star on the Holly Walk of Fame
  • Spouse(s): James Dougherty (m. 1942–1946), Joe DiMaggio (m. 1954–1955), Arthur Miller (m. 1956–1961) 
  • Notable Quote: "I don't mind living in a man's world as long as I can be a woman in it."

Early Life

Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson—and later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker—in Los Angeles, California to Gladys Baker Mortenson (née Monroe). No one knows the identity of Monroe’s biological father, but some biographers speculate it was Gladys’ second husband, Martin Mortenson, although they were separated prior to Monroe’s birth.

Others have suggested Monroe’s father was a co-worker of Gladys’ at RKO Pictures named Charles Stanley Gifford. In any case, Monroe was regarded as an illegitimate child and grew up not knowing her father.

As a single parent, Gladys worked during the day and left her daughter with neighbors. Unfortunately, Gladys was not well; she was in and out of mental hospitals until she was institutionalized at the Norwalk State Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1935.

At age 9, Marilyn was taken in by Gladys’ friend Grace McKee. Within the year, however, McKee was no longer able to care for the girl and took her to the Los Angeles Orphanage. Monroe spent two years there and then lived in a succession of foster homes. It's believed that during this time, Monroe was molested.

In 1937, 11-year-old Monroe found a home with “Aunt” Ana Lower, a relative of McKee’s, where she had a stable home life until Lower developed health problems. Subsequently, McKee arranged a marriage between 16-year-old Monroe and Jim Dougherty, a 21-year-old neighbor. The two were married on June 19, 1942.

From War Bride to Model

In 1943, as America's involvement in World War II gripped the nation, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines. He shipped out to Shanghai one year later. With her husband overseas, Monroe took a job at the Radio Plane Munitions Factory, where she was discovered by photographer David Conover who was taking pictures of women working for the war effort. Conover’s shots of Monroe appeared in Yank magazine in 1945.

Impressed by what he saw, Conover showed Monroe’s photos to commercial photographer Potter Hueth. Hueth and Monroe struck a deal: Hueth would take pictures of Monroe, however, she'd only be paid if magazines bought her photos. This arrangement allowed Monroe to keep her day job at Radio Plane and model at night.

Hueth’s photos of Monroe piqued the interest of Emmeline Snively, the head of Blue Book Modeling Agency, the largest modeling agency in Los Angeles at the time. Snively offered Monroe a chance at a full-time modeling career—with the proviso that Monroe must attend Snively's three-month modeling school classes. 

Monroe agreed and was soon working diligently to perfect her new craft. While under contract to Snively, Monroe changed her hair color from light brown to blonde. Dougherty, who was still overseas, wasn't happy to learn about his wife's new line of work.

The Transition from Modeling to Movies to Marilyn

By this time, several photographers were taking pictures of Monroe for pinup magazines, often showcasing her hourglass figure in two-piece bathing suits. Monroe became so popular, her picture could be found on the covers of several pinup magazines in the same month.

In July 1946, her photos attracted the attention of casting director Ben Lyon of 20th Century Fox who called Monroe for a screen test. In August, 20th Century Fox offered Monroe a six-month contract with an option to renew every six months.

After Dougherty finished his tour of duty and returned stateside, he became increasingly frustrated by his wife's new career. The situation eventually came to a head and the couple divorced in 1946.

Until that time, Monroe had been using her married name, Norma Jeane Dougherty, professionally. It was Lyon who helped her come up with her now legendary screen name by suggesting she take the first name of popular 1920's stage performer Marilyn Miller. Monroe adopted her mother’s maiden name for her surname, and the alliterative Marilyn Monroe was born.

Career Struggles and Scandal

Earning $75 per week, 20-year-old Monroe attended free acting, dancing, and singing classes at the 20th Century Fox studio. She appeared as an extra in a few movies and had a single line in the highly forgettable "Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!" (1948). When Monroe's initial six months were up, her contract wasn't renewed.

Monroe began receiving unemployment benefits and continued taking acting classes. Six months later, Columbia Pictures hired her as a $125-a-week contract player. Monroe was given second billing and a featured role in "Ladies of the Chorus" (1948) but despite positive reviews, her contract at Columbia wasn't picked up.

In 1949, Tom Kelley, a photographer who'd worked with Monroe previously, offered her $50 to pose nude for a calendar. Monroe, who was broke, agreed to take the job. Kelley subsequently sold the shots to Western Lithograph Co. for $900. The calendar, "Golden Dreams," made millions.

In 1952, word of Monroe's nude photos surfaced, threatening to ruin her career. To combat the negative publicity, Monroe told the press about her troubled childhood. She revealed that she'd posed for the photos when she was destitute, and never received as much as a thank-you note from the people who made so much money off her $50 humiliation. (In 1953, Hugh Hefner bought one of the photos for $500 and published it in his first issue of Playboy magazine.)

Big Break

When Monroe got wind that the Marx brothers needed a blonde for their new movie, "Love Happy" (1949), she auditioned and got the part. The role called for Monroe to sashay by Groucho Marx in a sultry manner and say, “I want you to help me. Some men are following me.” Although she was only on screen for 60 seconds and was paid, according to Marx, $100, Monroe’s performance caught the eye of the producer, Lester Cowan, who decided that Monroe should go on the five-week publicity tour for the film.

Her bit part was also noted by major talent agent Johnny Hyde, who wrangled an audition for her at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a small part in "Asphalt Jungle" (1950). The film, directed by Oscar-winning actor/director/screenwriter John Huston, was nominated for four Academy Awards. Although Monroe had only a minor role, it was a memorable one.

Monroe’s performances, including a small but juicy turn in the Bette Davis classic "All About Eve" (1950), led studio executive Darryl Zanuck to offer her a contract to return to 20th Century Fox. When studio publicist Roy Craft capitalized on Monroe's image as a pinup girl, the studio received thousands of fan letters, many eagerly wanting to know what Monroe's next film appearance would be.

Sensing a potential box-office goldmine, Zanuck ordered producers to find parts for her. She played her first leading role as a mentally unbalanced babysitter in "Don't Bother to Knock" (1952). Over the next two years, Monroe made some of her most memorable movies: "Niagara" (1953), "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), "River of No Return" (1954), and "There’s No Business Like Show Business" (1954).

Marriage to Joe DiMaggio

On January 14, 1954, legendary New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio and Monroe tied the knot. As two rags-to-riches kids, their marriage made headlines. DiMaggio was ready to settle down, but Monroe, who was set on a career and also had professional commitments, planned to continue acting while fulfilling a recording contract with RCA Victor Records.

DiMaggio and Monroe’s troubled marriage reached a boiling point in September 1954 during the filming of "The Seven Year Itch," which was released the following year. Monroe, who had top billing, was standing over a subway grate when a gust blew the skirt of her white dress into the air while excited onlookers whistled and clapped.

Director Billy Wilder turned it into a publicity stunt and shot the legendary scene again. DiMaggio, who was on the set, flew into a rage. The couple separated and were divorced after only nine months of marriage.

Career Transition and The Actors Studio

Monroe was now a major movie star, but with the exception of "Niagara," in which she'd played a cunning murderess harkening back to classic noir films such as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) and "Double Indemnity" (1944), she was beginning to chafe at the limited range of roles she was being offered by the studio.

Not content to be seen as merely a pretty face attached to a voluptuous figure, Monroe set her sights on becoming a serious actress. In 1954, at odds with her studio contract and seeking more control of her career, Monroe formed her own production company. The following year, she moved to New York City and enrolled at the prestigious Actors Studio run by Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula. The three formed a strong bond and a sometimes troubling symbiotic relationship that endured for the remainder of Monroe's life.

On the plus side, Monroe's acting talents were honed and refined under Strasberg's tutelage. Critics generally agree that her performances were more powerful and nuanced thanks to the training she received.

On the downside, Lee Strasberg was accused of playing on Monroe's insecurities and exerting a Svengali-like influence over her both personally and professionally. For a time, Monroe actually moved into the Strasbergs' Manhattan apartment, and when she did return to her film career, Paula notoriously accompanied her on every movie set—much to the dismay of directors including Laurence Olivier and George Cukor whose artistic sensibilities did not mesh with Method Acting.

Marriage to Arthur Miller

Monroe's third marriage took place on June 29, 1956, when she wed noted American playwright Arthur Miller. Monroe converted to Judaism in order to marry Miller, who was of Polish-Jewish descent. (Monroe’s 1922 edition of the prayerbook, “The Form of Daily Prayers: According to the Custom of the German and Polish Jews" sold at auction in 2018 for a total of $26,250. In 1999, a copy of “A Union Prayer Book for Jewish Worship” with the name “Marilyn Monroe Miller” inscribed on its cover sold for $19,250.)

During her marriage to Miller, Monroe suffered two miscarriages and once again turned to sleeping pills to cope with her emotional turmoil. She also starred in two of her most legendary movies: "Bus Stop" (1956) and "Some Like it Hot" (1959). The latter netted her a Golden Globe Award for best comedy actress.

Miller wrote the screenplay for "The Misfits" (1961) as a vehicle for Monroe. The film re-teamed Monroe with director John Huston and co-starred legendary leading man Clark Gable and fellow Actors Studio alum Montgomery Clift. ("The Misfits" marked the final screen appearances for Monroe and Gable; Clift died of a heart attack five years later in 1966 at age 45.)

During filming in Nevada, Monroe's frequent illnesses held up production. Monroe's condition was exacerbated by the consumption of sleeping pills and alcohol. She was eventually hospitalized for what was then termed a "nervous breakdown." Monroe and Miller ended their five-year marriage after the completion of the film.

Downward Spiral

On February 2, 1961, Monroe was admitted to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York. DiMaggio flew to her side and had her moved to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where in addition to psychiatric treatment, she also underwent gall bladder surgery and lost a substantial amount of weight as a result. DiMaggio's attentiveness to Monroe during her illnesses triggered rumors that the couple might reconcile.

Near the end of April 1962, Monroe was scheduled to begin shooting "Something’s Got to Give," a film comedy helmed by veteran director George Cukor and co-starring Dean Martin and Wally Cox. Due to a serious sinus infection, Monroe was unable to report for work, so Cukor was forced to shoot around her as much as he could.

Despite her illnesses, on May 19, 1962, Monroe, wearing a sheer, flesh-colored, rhinestone-studded dress, sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at a Madison Square Garden Gala for President John F. Kennedy. Her sultry performance sparked rumors that the two were having an affair, followed by a subsequent rumor that Monroe was also having an affair with the President’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

When Monroe returned to California to resume shooting "Something's Got to Give," her health had not improved. Further prolonged absences from the set led 20th Century Fox to fire her and file suit for breach of contract. While she was eventually rehired, the film was never finished.

Death

Monroe's reliance on sleeping pills and alcohol has been documented, yet it was still shocking when the 36-year-old was found dead in her Brentwood, California home on August 5, 1962.

The coroner's death certificate lists Monroe's cause of death as "acute barbiturate poisoning, ingestion of overdose" (later determined to be a combination of Nembutal and chloral hydrate, a knockout drug commonly known as a Mickey Finn). After an autopsy, Monroe's body was released to DiMaggio and a private funeral was held.

Conspiracy Theories

The death of Marilyn Monroe has spawned its own fertile mythology. While the coroner labeled her death a “probable suicide” and closed the case, there was no definitive proof that Monroe took her own life. Some sources close to the actress contested the finding.

The question of whether or not the actress ingested the drugs has been a topic of debate since, according to the autopsy report, no trace evidence of Nembutal was found in her urine. (Had she swallowed a sufficient number of pills to result in an overdose, it's argued that the coloring from the capsules should have been evident.)

According to John W. Miner, one of the members of the autopsy team, relevant evidence including Monroe's stomach contents, organ samples, and pertinent smear materials went missing and were never found. He concluded, however, that the high concentration of narcotics in Monroe's liver suggested that the fatal dosage had been delivered via suppository rather than ingestion. So while some speculate Monroe died from an accidental overdose, others believe she was murdered.

One scenario suggests Monroe was silenced to stop her from revealing intimate information on her alleged liaisons with President Kennedy and his brother Robert; another posits her death was an organized hit by the mob. In this version, Robert Kennedy was said to have been with Monroe in the hours prior to her death. Framing him for her murder would derail the escalating war against organized crime the Attorney General was waging, however, the scene was supposedly sanitized by government-sanctioned cleaners before RFK could be implicated.

While several sources have "confessed" to participating in the hit, there's no conclusive proof to support such claims. The events of Monroe's final hours will likely remain a mystery, however, those who believe she was murdered say the missing autopsy evidence points to a well-choreographed coverup.

Legacy

Decades after her death, Marilyn Monroe's incandescent performances along with her personal backstory continue to captivate the public's imagination. The iconic picture of Monroe standing over the subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch"—ironically the last straw in her troubled marriage to Joe DiMaggio—is easily one of the most recognizable images in the landscape of modern popular culture.

Along with Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor, Monroe is one of the most prominent "delebs" (a term coined by the entertainment industry in connection with deceased celebrities whose estates continue to generate substantial revenues after the celebrity has passed away) in the world.

With the aid of CGI (computer-generated imagery), in 2011 Monroe appeared in an ad alongside Grace Kelly, Marlene Deitrich, and Charlize Theron for Christian Dior's perfume J'Adore. Three years later, Chanel No. 5 tapped Monroe as their celebrity spokesperson—this time, thanks to archival footage, and more accurately, since Chanel No. 5 was Monroe's signature scent—five decades after her death.

But there's more to Monroe's legacy than just the licensing of her image and a catalog of classic films. One of a cadre of mid-century zaftig screen sirens that included Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, as she matured, only Monroe was able to shatter the stereotype of "dumb blonde" by reinventing the trope as something more complex and three-dimensional—a human being worth knowing.

Monroe's humanity and vulnerability are two traits cited by film historians that clearly come across in a number of her most memorable film portrayals. In addition to her undeniable allure, the "little girl lost" quality she never fully outgrew onscreen is ultimately what many believe makes Monroe's performances magnetic, irresistible, and ultimately enduring.

"Goodbye, Norma Jeane
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name
"And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would've liked to known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did"
—From "Candle in the Wind" by Elton John, 1973

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