Marilyn Monroe was an American actress and model. She became one of the world’s biggest and most enduring sex symbols.
Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, in Los Angeles, California. Monroe’s mother, Gladys Pearl Monroe was mentally and financially unprepared for a child, Monroe was placed with foster parents Albert and Ida Bolender soon after her birth. Gladys occasionally visited her daughter but in 1934 was hospitalised and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Monroe was declared a ward of the state and spent time in orphanages and in foster homes, in some of these homes she was sexually assaulted.
At 16 Monroe decided to escape this by marrying her boyfriend Jimmy Dougherty. A year later, Dougherty enlisted in the merchant marine and was stationed on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. Monroe lived with him, slowly becoming more and more bored of the prospect of being a housewife. After a year, Monroe’s husband was sent to the South Pacific and she began working at the Radioplane Munitions Factory as part of the war effort.
Monroe was discovered by photographer David Conover while working in the munitions factory. He had been sent by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) to take morale-boosting pictures of female workers. Monroe quit her job and began modelling for Conover and his friends, Conover encouraged her to apply to the Emmeline Snively’s Blue Book Model Agency and she was signed in 1945. Monroe dyed and straightened her curly brown hair blonde and began modelling for advertisements and men’s magazines. Monroe was one of the agency’s most ambitious and hard-working models but she dreamt of becoming an actress like Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. In 1946 Snively arranged a contract for her with an acting agency and it was agreed that she would become ‘Marilyn Monroe’. In the same year, Monroe divorced Dougherty, giving her the opportunity to completely focus on her acting.
Monroe’s acting career didn’t take off until the 1950’s. Before her breakthrough she filled her time with acting, singing and dancing classes. She also returned to modelling and had small parts in a few movies. She appeared in six films released in 1950, including a small part in John Huston’s crime drama The Asphalt Jungle which gained her a lot of attention and a performance as Claudia Caswell in All About Eve which impressed both audiences and critics alike. Monroe’s quickly became one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, although many were unconvinced of her talent, instead focusing on her status as a sex symbol and the fact that she favoured revealing outfits at public events.
In 1953, Monroe played a young married woman out to kill her husband with help from her lover in Niagara and a bombshell in the hit film musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe continued to act in successful comedies like, How to Marry a Millionaire, There’s No Business like Show Business and The Seven Year Itch but she was unsure of her own abilities. She suffered from anxiety that occasionally made her physically ill which caused issues with lateness on film sets. After becoming unsatisfied with being typecast as a ‘dumb blonde’, Monroe began studying acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York City. In 1956 she starred in the dramatic comedy Bus Stop which became a box office success, grossing $4.25 million. She received a Golden Globe for Best Actress nomination for her performance. She also married her third husband, Arthur Miller that year and converted to Judaism, which led Egypt to ban all of her films. The media did not understand the marriage, and in one instance the couple were referred to as ‘the egghead and the hourglass’.
In 1959, Monroe starred in Some Like It Hot and her performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Variety called her a comedienne with that combination of sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat”. The film has been voted one of the best films ever made in polls by the American Film Institute and Sight & Sound.
In 1961, Monroe completed her last film, The Misfits which was written by her third husband, Arther Miller. Monroe was unhappy that he had partly based her role on her life and felt it was inferior to the male roles. Monroe was also in ill health, with gall stones and a drug addiction that at that point had become so severe that her make up was usually applied while she was knocked out on barbiturates. At one point, filming was suspended while she spent a week detoxing in a Los Angeles hospital. After filming ended, Monroe and Miller divorced. The film was a box office disappointment and Monroe was criticised for being “completely blank and unfathomable”. She spent the rest of 1961 struggling with her physical and mental health.
In 1962, Monroe made her now-famous performance at John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration, singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” She wore a beige, skintight dress covered in rhinestones, which made her appear nude and rumours circled that she was having an affair with Kennedy. Monroe began filming Something’s Got to Give that year but after repeatedly missing days of filming was dismissed. The studio cited her drug addition, lack of professionalism and the fact that she was ‘mentally disturbed’ as the reasons for dismissing her. Monroe countered the claims by giving interviews to Life and Cosmopolitan and appearing in her first photo shoot for Vogue.
In August, 1962 Monroe was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood home by her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson. Her doctors and psychiatrists stated that Monroe had been prone to “severe fears and frequent depressions” with “abrupt and unpredictable” mood changes, and had overdosed several times in the past, possibly intentionally. The death was ruled as a suicide and attributed to acute barbiturate poisoning.
Monroe has become an icon of American popular culture in the same league as Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse. She is remembered for both her sex appeal and beauty as well as her idiosyncratic sense of humour and sly wit. She famously responded to a reporter who asked what she wore to bed “Chanel Number 5.” She is also remembered for her troubled private life and struggle for professional respect. Hundreds of book have been written about her and she has been the subject of films, plays, operas, and songs. She has influenced artists like Andy Warhol, who created the instantly recognisable screen print of her face as well as musical artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga. She has been named the sixth greatest female screen legend in American film history and the Smithsonian Institution included her on their list of “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”. Variety and VHI had both placed her in the top ten in their rankings of the greatest popular culture icons of the twentieth century.