Marilyn Monroe Biography
Norma Jeane Mortensen, better known to the rest of the world as legendary Hollywood actress, Marilyn Monroe, was born on 1 June 1926 in Los Angeles, California, USA. She could be considered to be born into the film industry as her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, worked at Consolidated Film Industries as a negative cutter. She was also born into a family that wasn’t shy about rejecting social norms as Gladys was also a flapper, one of a generation of young women who liked nothing more than wearing brash make-up and short skirts and who enjoyed drinking, smoking, riding around in cars and having casual sex.
At the age of fifteen, Gladys ended up married to 24-year-old John Newton Baker and had two children with him, Robert born in 1917, and who died when he was only sixteen in 1933, and Berniece who was born in 1919, before filing for divorce in 1921. Baker took the children with him to Kentucky when he and Gladys divorced and Marilyn would not know she had a sister until she was twelve years old. Gladys married again in 1924 to Martin Edward Mortensen. They divorced in 1928 but not before Gladys became pregnant with Marilyn by another man. It is not actually known who Marilyn’s father was and so sometimes her name is given as Norma Jeane Baker as well as Norma Jeane Mortensen.
Marilyn had a happy and stable childhood, but this was due to the fact that Gladys was prepared to give up the care of her daughter to evangelical Christian foster parents called Albert and Ida Bolender who lived in Hawthorne, a rural town in southwestern Los Angeles County. At first, Gladys lived with them also, but due to work commitments had to move back to the city. She stayed in touch with Marilyn though, often taking her out to see movies at the weekend. The Bolenders wanted to adopt Marilyn, but by 1933, Gladys felt able to cope and she and Marilyn moved into a small house in Hollywood and took in lodgers to help pay the bills.
Unfortunately, in early 1934 Gladys had a complete mental breakdown and Marilyn was made a ward of the state. Gladys never really recovered and spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals and rarely had contact with her daughter with a friend of Gladys’, Grace McKee Goddard taking responsibility for Gladys’ affairs and for Marilyn. Over then next few years Marilyn would stay with several foster families as well as in an orphanage and at one point was sexually abused. Moving around so much also didn’t help with her education as she also moved schools several times. Grace became her legal guardian in 1936 and moved in with her and her husband Doc in 1937, at which point he sexually abused her as well. Her experiences left her withdrawn and she developed a stutter.
Marilyn found a more permanent place to settle when she moved in with an Aunt of Grace’s called Ana Atchinson Lower in September 1938. She attended Emerson Junior High School where she was found to excel in writing, contributing to the school paper. After graduating she went to Van Nuys High School, returning to live with the Goddards in late 1940 due to the elderly Lower’s failing health.
In 1942, Doc was required to move to West Virginia due to his job but it was illegal to take Marilyn with them with the resulting possibility of her having to return to an orphanage. A solution was found though when Marilyn, who had just turned 16, married the son of the Goddards’ neighbour, 21-year-old James Dougherty. The couple existed together for a few months, neither being excited by the relationship until Dougherty joined the merchant marines in 1943. When he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944, Marilyn moved in with his parents.
Later the same year whilst she was working at the Radioplane Munitions Factory, Monroe met a photographer called David Conover who was there to shoot pictures of the women doing their bit for the war effort. Marilyn wasn’t used in any of the official photographs but in January 1945, she started modelling for Conover and some of his colleagues. She defied her husband and his parents, moved out of their house and signed a modelling contract with the Blue Book Modelling Agency. Her figure meant that she was used primarily for men’s magazine shoots and for advertisements rather than fashion and was apparently one of the agency’s most hard-working models.
In June 1946 the owner of Blue Book, Emmeline Snively arranged for a contract with an acting agency and was signed on a standard six-month contract with 20th Century Fox. Her screen test was performed for Ben Lyon, one of the studio’s executives and it was he who decided her stage name should be Marilyn Monroe. Her husband had been against such a career for his young wife and so in September 1946, Marilyn divorced him.
The first few months of her contract at Fox were spent taking acting, singing and dance classes and eager to learn as much as possible, she also spent time watching others perform. In February 1947, her contract was renewed and soon after her first acting roles came along in 1947’s Dangerous Years and 1948’s Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! Unfortunately, when her contract renewal date came up in August 1948, it wasn’t renewed and so she returned to modelling.
She continued to study though and was determined to make it as an actor. She also entertained many influential male film guests and had occasional intimate get-togethers with Fox executive Joseph M. Schenck who persuaded the head executive of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn to sign her in March 1948. The studio worked on her looks, raising her hairline and turning it platinum blonde, but she only made one film for Columbia, Ladies of the Chorus in 1948.
After leaving Columbia, Marilyn Monroe struck up a friendship with Johnny Hyde of the William Morris Agency, and their relationship soon became a sexual one. He proposed several times, but she never said yes. He paid for surgery to improve her jawline with the intent of helping to advance her career, arranging for a bit part for her in the 1950 Marx Brothers film called Love Happy. She also continued to model and posed for a nude photo shoot for Tom Kelley, who shot the image of her that was used in the first issue of Playboy in 1953.
All in all, Marilyn Monroe appeared in six films in 1950 and was starting to be taken seriously as an actress. In the same year, Johnny Hyde negotiated a seven-year contract for her with 20th Century Fox but would die suddenly from a heart attack a few days later, leaving Marilyn devastated. Despite her loss, she carried on and the following year presented the 23rd Academy Awards. She was cast as a supporting actress in four low-budget films receiving some praise from the critics. She was also starting to develop a fan following at this point and received upwards of a thousand letters per week. She dated several men during this time too, including actors Yul Brynner and Peter Lawford, but nothing became serious.
1952 would see things start to become more serious for her though. She was named the ‘it girl’ of the year by Florabel Muir and ‘best young box office personality’ by the Foreign Press Association of Hollywood. Her private life became more serious too when she started dating baseball star, Joe DiMaggio. She also starred in several commercially successful films in the same year, including the drama Clash by Night, and the thriller Don’t Bother to Knock. The other three films she made that year, We’re Not Married! Monkey Business and Full House continued to typecast her in the sexy comedic role though. My the end of the year, Marilyn had started to develop a reputation for being difficult to deal with. She would frequently forget her lines, would demand re-takes and would take breaks to consult with her acting coaches. Her attitude is something which would worsen considerably over the next decade as she would compensate for her low self-esteem and stage-fright, something she never suffered during modelling shoots, by taking drugs and alcohol. Although it has been said that these weren’t the only things she had to deal with whilst on set as she was frequently bullied by directors and was the target of sexism by her male colleagues. By 1956 she had become severely addicted.
In 1953, Marilyn Monroe became a major sex symbol and was starting to make a lot of money for the studios when she starred in three films that year. The first was Niagara, probably her most overtly sexual film, so much so that women’s clubs protested against it. Their protests seemed not to make too much difference at the box office though as it made over $6m. By this time, Marilyn, with the help of her makeup artist, Allan Snyder, had developed what would become the look that everyone now associates with her, the pale skin with dark eyebrows, bright red lips and not forgetting the beauty spot. Her next film didn’t disappoint either, as Marilyn added dumb blonde to her on-screen persona in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which she starred opposite Jane Russell. The film made more than $5 million at the box office, which was twice what it took to make. Her third movie of 1953 was How to Marry a Millionaire, which essentially repeated the successful formula of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The reviews were mixed, but the public seemed to not be able to get enough and flocked to the cinema in droves bringing over $8 million with them to the box office. Monroe finished 1953 in the Top Ten Money Making Stars poll, something she would repeat in 1954 and if anyone was in doubt about her status as a sex symbol up to that point, Hugh Hefner helped to cast such doubt aside when he featured her on the cover of the very first issue of Playboy magazine and also featured her as the centrefold using a nude image of her that was taken in 1949.
By the time these Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had been completed Marilyn was starting to become tired of being type-cast. She was also tired of the fact that her contract hadn’t been improved and was being paid far less than other stars at the time and also had far less say creatively. She refused to work on yet another musical comedy and was suspended by the studio. She immediately went on the offensive and began a publicity campaign to gain support.
On 14 January 1954, she put a stop to all the speculation in the press about the relationship between her and baseball star Joe DiMaggio when the pair got married. They honeymooned in Japan, from where Marilyn travelled on alone to Korea to perform songs for over 60,000 American troops over a four day period. When she arrived back in the States, the studio agreed to lift her suspension and she agreed with them a fee of $100,000 for the next movie called The Seven Year Itch, which features the famous subway grate scene. Filmed on Lexington Avenue in New York and partly designed as a publicity stunt to promote the movie 2000 spectators watched as the air from the subway below blew up the skirt of Marilyn’s white dress and it became one of most famous images of her.
Unfortunately, the dress stunt was the last straw for the relationship with Jo DiMaggio, who was furious about it. His controlling and some believe abusive character led to Marilyn filing for divorce only ten months after they had married.
The Seven Year Itch, made $4.5m at the box office, making it one of the most successful movies of 1954, but the studio didn’t fulfil its promise of paying Marilyn the $100,000 bonus and so she entered into a legal battle with Fox, announced that she was no longer under contract to them and moved to New York where with photographer Milton Greene she founded her own production company called Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). Although she was ridiculed at the time for taking such a bold move, some have since pointed to it as being instrumental in the collapse of the studio system.
After her arrival in New York, Marilyn began taking acting lessons in order to broaden the scope of her performances. She attended method acting workshops at the Actors Studio which was run by Lee Strasberg. Marilyn became a close friend and was considered almost family by Strasberg and his wife Paula and they remained an influence on her for the rest of her life. During this time she continued to see Joe DiMaggio, despite the impending divorce but also dated others including Marlon Brando and playwright Arthur Miller, who in 1955, after Marilyn’s divorce was finalised, separated from his wife. Miller was under surveillance by the FBI for alleged communist sympathies and the relationship with him led the FBI to also open a file on Marilyn. She called the studios born cowards when they advised her to end her relationship with Miller as they feared she would be blacklisted, and continued to see him.
In 1956, Marilyn Monroe announced that she had come to an agreement with 20th Century Fox. She realised that MMP would never be able to fund movies without help and so agreed to a seven-year deal with Fox that would see her paid $100,000 for each of four movies she was contracted to make over the period. Crucially though, she got to choose the projects, directors and crew and for each studio film she made, she also got to make one under the MMP banner. The deal saw a complete u-turn by the press who instead of ridiculing her were now calling her a shrewd businesswoman for standing up to the studios. At this point, she officially changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and on 29 June she married Arthur Miller which also saw her convert to Judaism. The first movie made under the new deal was Bus Stop and was a critical and commercial success and Marilyn also received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
The first independent MMP movie under the new deal was The Prince and the Showgirl which was filmed at Pinewood Studios in England. There were difficulties between Monroe and the film’s other star and director Laurence Olivier. She would turn up late to the set and her drug use was becoming more and more of a problem. The film was released on schedule to mixed reviews in the United States. It performed better in Europe and Marilyn received a BAFTA nomination for her efforts.
During the production of The Prince and the Showgirl, there were rumours that Marilyn had become pregnant but had miscarried. Upon their return to the States she and Miller seemed to be trying to start a family but when she became pregnant in the Summer of 1957 it was found to be ectopic and was terminated. She miscarried again the following year.
1958 saw Marilyn agree to play yet another ‘dumb blonde’ part in Hollywood, partly because of the encouragement to do so by her husband but also because she was to receive ten percent of any profits the film made as well as her normal fee. However, on the set of the movie, Some Like it Hot, problems started almost straight away mainly due to the way in which the film’s director, Billy Wilder wanted Marilyn to play the part of Sugar Kane. Marilyn was frequently late on set and when she was there she wouldn’t remember her lines. She demanded multiple retakes which led one of her co-stars, Tony Curtis to remark that kissing her was like “kissing Hitler.” Her drug use continued to get worse too, yet, despite all this, the film was a huge success winning Marilyn the Golden Globe for Best Actress when it was released in March 1959.
Marilyn took a hiatus after Some Like it Hot but returned in late 1959 to film Let’s Make Love for which she chose George Cukor to direct. The only reason she agreed to the film was because she was behind on her Fox contract having completed only one of the agreed four movies for them. The same problems occurred though and she also had a widely reported affair with her co-star Yves Montand. The film was unsuccessful when it was released in September 1960. During this time Truman Capote had been trying to get her the part of Holly Golightly in the new film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the studio gave the part to Audrey Hepburn instead, fearing Marilyn’s reputation would damage the production of the film.
The next movie Marilyn would make would also be the last she would complete. The Misfits was written by Arthur Miller especially to give Marilyn a dramatic role as the recently divorced Roslyn who befriends three cowboys. It was directed by John Huston and again production of the movie proved difficult. Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller was effectively over and she struggled with the fact that he habitually re-wrote script elements the night before filming. She also believed her part to be inferior to that of the male ones. Her health was failing and her drug habit was becoming worse. Filming had to be halted at one point so that she could spend a week in a detox clinic.
The movie was finished at the end of 1960. Monroe and Miller were granted a quick divorce in January of the following year and in February The Misfits was released to mixed reviews and was also a failure at the box office. However, in recent years, the film has received better reviews and has been called a classic by some.
Monroe was due to film a television adaptation of Rain for NBC but the deal fell through and she spent the first half of 1961 dealing with health problems. She underwent surgery during which her gallbladder was removed. She also spent some time in hospital on a mental ward suffering from depression. She moved back to California in the Spring and for several months she dated Frank Sinatra. In early 1962 she bought a house Brentwood, Los Angeles.
In early 1962, the Golden Globes came along and awarded Marilyn a ‘World Film Favorite’ award and she also began filming a new project called Something’s Got to Give. It was to be an MMP production directed starring Dean Martin and was to be directed by George Cukor, but a few days before filming was due to begin, Marilyn caught sinusitis. Despite several doctors confirming the diagnosis, the studio let it be known that they thought she was faking it in order to put pressure on her to come to work. It was during this time that she also took a break from filming to travel to New York to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. She appeared in a startling dress that received lots of attention as it made her appear naked.
On her return to Hollywood, Monroe filmed a scene for Something’s Got to Give in which she swam naked in a swimming pool. As a publicity stunt, photographers were invited to take photographs during filming and the resulting photos were the first naked photos to be taken of a movie star whilst still at the height of her career. However, following the shoot, Marilyn again took time off due to illness. Fox executives decided they had had enough and fired her, replacing her with Lee Remick. Dean Martin stated that he would only make the film with Monroe though, and so Fox sued him and shut down production. By June though, Fox had started to regret its decision and entered into negotiations to get Monroe back to complete filming. Marilyn knew that her public image was damaged at this point and so undertook a number of publicity ventures where she conducted a number of interviews and also starred in a couple of photo shoots for Vogue. One was a standard fashion shoot and the other one was a nude shoot. Both photoshoots would be published posthumously and were entitled ‘The Last Sitting.”
At around 3 am on Sunday 5 August 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s housekeeper Eunice Murray, who had been staying overnight at Marilyn’s Brentwood home ‘sensed’ something was wrong when she saw a light on in Marilyn’s room but could not get a response from her after she found the door to be locked. Murray made a call to Dr Ralph Greenson, Marilyn’s psychiatrist, who upon arrival found Marilyn dead in her bedroom. He in turn called Monroe’s physician, Dr Hyman Engelberg who officially confirmed her death when he arrived at 03.50.
It was estimated that Marilyn Monroe died between 8.30 and 10.30 pm the previous night. The toxicology report showed that Monroe had several times the lethal dose of barbiturates in her body and several empty bottles of pills were found by her bed. After testimony by psychiatrists and suicide experts and doctors who confirmed that she had overdosed before, possibly intentionally, and finding no evidence of foul play, the Los Angeles County Coroner ruled Marilyn Monroe’s death a probable suicide. Her death was front-page news all around the World and it is alleged that the suicide rate in Los Angeles doubled during the following month.
A small private funeral attended by only close friends took place at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetary on 8 August 1962.
In terms of popularity, Marilyn Monroe is only rivalled by the likes of Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse. She was probably the most photographed person of the twentieth century and the Smithsonian has included her on a list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”. She has been the subject of many films and plays and hundred of books have been written about her and she remains a valuable brand to this day with hundreds of licensed products carrying her image. Her legacy as an actress divides opinion with some believing her on-screen portrayal of the ‘dumb blonde’ was simply a reflection of her true nature whilst others believe her ability to play such a role to perfection proves her skills as an actress. Whichever of these positions is the truth it is hard to believe that Marilyn Monroe’s image and impact on consumer culture will fade anytime soon.