Biography of Marilyn Monroe: Model, Actress, Sex Symbol

Marilyn Monroe
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Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean (Mortenson) Baker; June 1, 1926–Aug. 5, 1962) was an American model turned actress famous for her seductive blond persona on and off camera from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Monroe appeared in a number of popular movies but is also remembered as an international sex symbol who died unexpectedly and mysteriously at age 36.

Fast Facts: Marilyn Monroe

  • Known For: Model, pinup, actress, international sex symbol
  • 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: The Misfits, Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire
  • 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: "But if I'm going to be a symbol of something I'd rather have it sex than some other things we've got symbols of."

Grows up as Norma Jeane

Monroe was born as Norma Jeane Mortenson—later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker—in Los Angeles, California to Gladys Baker Mortenson, whose maiden name was Monroe. Although no one knows the identity of Monroe’s biological father, some biographers have speculated it was Gladys’ second husband, Martin Mortenson, though they were separated before 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 considered to be 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.

Nine-year-old 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 at the orphanage and then lived at successive foster homes. It is 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. They were married on June 19, 1942.

Becomes a Model

With World War II underway, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines in 1943 and shipped out to Shanghai a year later. With her husband overseas, Monroe found a job at the Radio Plane Munitions Factory. She was working there when she was “discovered” by photographer David Conover, who was photographing females working for the war effort. Conover’s pictures of Monroe appeared in Yank magazine in 1945.

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

Hueth’s photos of Monroe caught the attention of Emmeline Snively, who ran the Blue Book Modeling Agency, the largest agency in Los Angeles. Snively offered Monroe a chance at full-time modeling as long as Monroe attended Snively's three-month modeling school. Monroe agreed and was soon working diligently to perfect her new craft. While working with Snively, Monroe changed her hair color from light brown to blond.

Dougherty, still overseas, wasn't happy about his wife modeling.

Signs With a Movie Studio

By this time, several photographers were taking pictures of Monroe for pinup magazines, often showing off her hourglass figure in two-piece bathing suits. Monroe was such a popular pinup that 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 optional renewal every six months.

When Dougherty returned, he was even more unhappy about his wife becoming a starlet. The couple divorced in 1946.

Leaves Norma Jeane Behind

Until this time, Monroe had been using her married name, Norma Jeane Dougherty. Lyon helped her create a screen name. He suggested the first name of Marilyn after Marilyn Miller, a popular 1920s stage performer, while Monroe chose her mother’s maiden name for her last name. Now all she had to do was learn how to act.

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 "Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!" (1948), but her contract wasn't renewed.

Monroe began receiving unemployment benefits while continuing acting classes. Six months later, Columbia Pictures hired her at $125 per week. She was given second billing in "Ladies of the Chorus" (1948), which featured Monroe singing a song. Despite positive reviews, her contract at Columbia wasn't renewed.

Poses Nude

Tom Kelley, a photographer whom Monroe had modeled for before, had been after Monroe to pose nude for a calendar, offering her $50. In 1949, Monroe was broke and agreed to pose. Kelley sold the nude photos to Western Lithograph Co. for $900 and the calendar, Golden Dreams, made millions.

In 1953, Hugh Hefner would buy one of the photos for $500 for his first issue of Playboy magazine.

Gets Big Break

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

Her bit part also caught the eye of major talent agent Johnny Hyde, who soon got her an audition at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a small part in "Asphalt Jungle" (1950), directed by John Huston, which was nominated for four Academy Awards. Although Monroe had a minor role, she still drew attention.

Monroe’s performances, including a small role in "All About Eve" (1950), led Darryl Zanuck to offer her a contract to return to 20th Century Fox. When Roy Craft, the studio publicist, advertised Monroe as a pinup girl, the studio received thousands of fan letters, many asking what movie Monroe would next appear in. 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).

Nude Photos Surface

In 1952, publicity about her nude photos surfaced, threatening her career, Monroe told the press about her childhood, how she posed for the photos when broke, and that she never received as much as a thank you note from the people who made so much money off her $50 humiliation. The public loved her all the more.

Over the next two years, Monroe made some of her most famous 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). Marilyn Monroe was now a major movie star.

Marries Joe DiMaggio

On Jan. 14, 1954, Joe DiMaggio, a former New York Yankees baseball star, and Monroe were married. As two rags-to-riches kids, their marriage made headlines. DiMaggio was ready to settle down, but Monroe had reached stardom and 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" (1955): Monroe, who had top billing, was standing over a subway grate when a gust blew 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. They separated and were divorced after only nine months of marriage.

Marries Arthur Miller

Two years later, Monroe married noted American playwright Arthur Miller on June 29, 1956. During this marriage, Monroe suffered two miscarriages, began taking sleeping pills, and 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.

Then Miller wrote "The Misfits" (1961), which starred Monroe. Filmed in Nevada, the movie was directed by John Huston. During filming, Monroe frequently became ill and unable to perform. Consuming sleeping pills and alcohol, Monroe was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Following the completion of the movie, Monroe and Miller divorced after five years of marriage. Monroe claimed they were incompatible.

On Feb. 2, 1961, Monroe entered Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York. DiMaggio flew to her side and had her moved to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She also underwent gall bladder surgery and, after convalescing, began work on "Something’s Got to Give," which was never completed.

When Monroe continued to miss work due to illnesses, 20th Century Fox fired her and sued for breach of contract.

Rumors of Affairs

DiMaggio's attentiveness to Monroe during her illnesses triggered rumors that they might reconcile. However, a bigger rumor emerged. On May 19, 1962, Monroe, wearing a sheer, flesh-colored, rhinestone dress, sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden to President John F. Kennedy. Her sultry performance started rumors that the two were having an affair. Another rumor began that Monroe was also having an affair with the president’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Dies of Overdose

Monroe was depressed and continued to rely on sleeping pills and alcohol. Yet it was still shocking when the 36-year-old Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood, California home on August 5, 1962. The coroner called Monroe’s death a “probable suicide” and the case closed. DiMaggio claimed her body and held a private funeral.

Questions remain about the cause of death. Some speculate it was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, others believe it was suicide, and some wonder if it was murder.


Decades after her death, Marilyn Monroe's name and her story remain familiar to a broad range of people. Although to some she will always be the pampered, curvaceous, dumb blonde, those who knew her described her as intelligent, and her personal library was said to include books by Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. Novelist Truman Capote, a close friend, referred to her as "very, very bright."

As she became well known, she had the star power to attract big-name co-stars such as Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift in "The Misfits" and Laurence Olivier in "The Prince and the Showgirl."

Given her humble beginnings, it's difficult to ignore the results of her hard work and ambition. In addition to her acting credits, late in her short life she formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, which co-produced "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Warner Bros.