Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for years.
The twentieth century bestowed upon the world the most iconic and influential woman of the entertainment industry: Marilyn Monroe. Her life was short, filled with both blessings and heartaches. At first glance, Marilyn appeared to have it all: wealth, fame, and a timeless beauty. Her demeanor and sultry façade helped mask the tragedies and loneliness that engulfed her life. Through photographs and films, Marilyn Monroe captured the hearts of America, and left an everlasting imprint on the film industry. Despite public perception, Marilyn’s life was anything but perfect.
Norma Jeane Mortensen was born on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, CA. Gladys Baker was little Norma’s mother. She never met her father, so she eventually changed her name to Norma Jeane Baker after being baptized. Gladys was a film cutter at RKO studios, and had given Norma her first glimpse of the movies. Shortly after her birth, Norma was placed in the care of the Bolenders, a neighboring family, while Gladys went back to work. Psychological problems had haunted Gladys and her family for many years.
In July of 1927, Norma was nearly suffocated by her grandmother, Della Monroe, who was later admitted to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, LA County. In June of 1933, seven-year-old Norma was able to move back with her mother, in north Hollywood. In her memoir, the home was described as “…small and empty but beautiful, and it was painted white." They shared the home with an English couple. However, what had seemed like a positive idea spiraled into sadness.
One morning, Norma and the couple were sitting and having breakfast in the kitchen. Suddenly, bangs and screams were heard coming from the stairway. The police were called as well as an ambulance, and the source of the noise pointed to Gladys. She was laughing and screaming hysterically, and was soon taken to the Norwalk Mental Hospital. In the blink of an eye, Norma’s pleasant home life had vanished. At the end of 1934, Gladys was formally pronounced insane. Grace McKee, Gladys’ closest friend, had taken Norma in and supplied her with love and a place to stay. She became her legal guardian.
The seemingly promising situation quickly turned sour, when Grace met and married Erwin “Doc” Goddard. In one month’s time, Norma Jeane was placed in the Los Angeles Orphans Home Society. She was officially an orphan. Throughout this time, Norma was left with an overwhelming desire to be wanted and loved. For several years, Norma moved from foster care to foster care, enduring the hardships that came with it. She was often placed with a family who were given five dollars a week for helping her. It was at one of these homes, that Norma allegedly became the victim of sexual assault.
At the age of nine, Norma was staying with a family who rented from a man named Mr. Kimmel. It was he who had molested her in his bedroom, a fact that no one seemed to believe. When Norma attempted to tell the woman who took care of her about the incident, she replied back with “Shame on you! Complaining about people!" No one listened to what she said. Norma was once again left feeling ashamed and unwanted. This all changed, however, at the age of eleven, when Norma moved in with Ana Lower. She had once said, “There’s only one person in the world I ever loved. That was Aunt Ana."
Norma had physically matured at a much faster rate than most girls. Her body had developed quickly, and she was very curvaceous. This only added to the effects she had on those around her. Boys would constantly follow her, and it appeared as though her voluptuous shape only drew more attention.
When Ana developed health problems, Norma Jeane went back to live with Grace Goddard and her spouse. It was here where she would meet her soon-to-be-husband, Jim Dougherty. News spread that “Doc” Goddard was being transferred to the East Coast. With money low, Norma would not be able to join them. A worried Grace wanted to ensure that Norma would be taken care of, so she arranged for her to be married to Jim. She was barely sixteen, and Jim twenty-one.
The reception was held on June 19, 1942. The newly-married couple had been only on a couple dates, though they knew each other well. Grace could now leave knowing Norma was provided for and was secure. When asked about his marriage to her, Jim Dougherty had said, “She was a sweet, generous and religious girl. She liked to be cuddled." The wedded bliss that followed the young couple did not last long.
In 1944, Jim decided to enlist in the Merchant Marines. Though Norma begged him not to go, Dougherty ultimately ended up being sent to Shanghai. During their time apart, Norma got a job at an assembly line at the Radio Plane Munitions factory. David Conover, a photographer who worked with the army, went to the factory to take pictures. While photographing women helping with the war effort, he spotted Norma Jeane. In an instant, she went from feeling unwanted and misused, to desired and important. This was to be a turning point in her life.
Conover was wowed by Norma, and told her she should apply for a modeling position at the Blue Book Modeling Agency. On August 2, 1945, the nineteen-year-old stood before the agency, the future before her unclear. One thing that was for sure, there was something special about Miss Norma Jeane.
The photos that Norma appeared in by Conover, were distributed in hundreds of U.S Army camp publications, and were the first pictures to be printed of her. Conover had also been the person to introduce her to Emmeline Snively, who was head of the Blue Book Talent Agency. At the time, it was the largest modeling agency in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1945, Norma signed her very first agency contract. Emmeline also was the one to convince Norma to bleach her hair blonde. She had said, “If you ever want to go places, you’ve got to be a blonde."
When Norma decided to model swimsuits, her career skyrocketed. She appeared in a vast amount of magazines, including Laff, Peak, and See, and was posing for top photographers. Norma also did many ‘cheesecake’ shots, which were used for publicity purposes. When Jim returned for a stay from overseas, he was upset with the business his wife was in. He didn’t want her to become a model, yet she was determined to follow her dreams. This disapproval led Norma to file for divorce, which was finalized on September 13, 1946. Norma Jeane was about to enter a new stage in her life.
Norma was introduced to the National Concert Artist Corporation, which soon became her agency. It wasn’t long before they arranged her very first screen test with Twentieth Century Fox in July of 1946. She was offered a standard six-month contract by Fox, with an overall salary of $75 per week. Norma also had the choice to renew the contract after the six months were up. It was Ben Lyon, the head talent at the studio, who told Norma she should change her name. At first, Norma wished to keep the name Jean (leaving out the e).
She had decided upon the last name Monroe, taking it from her grandmother’s surname. Lyon thought her name should stand out even more, and recommended the name Marilyn, after the actress Marilyn Miller. Norma eventually accepted this idea, and the girl once known as Norma Jeane Baker was introduced to the world as Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jeane was no more.
Though her hopes and dreams were big, Marilyn did not face an easy road ahead of her. During her first year under contract, the young actress only had small roles in B-movies. Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay was Marilyn’s primary film. Although, most of her scenes were cut. Dangerous Years was her first speaking role. At the end of her six months, Fox did not wish to renew Marilyn’s contract. Just like that, Marilyn Monroe was out of work.These times were hard, and Marilyn could barely afford to eat. She would pose for photographers in hopes of receiving a few dollars for food and rent.
On one occasion, Tom Kelley, a photographer Marilyn had worked with previously, had called her. He had a job that would pay fifty dollars. The job was to appear nude in a calendar. In a desperate need for money, Marilyn agreed. In her memoir, she had said “People have curious attitudes about nudity, just as they have about sex. Nudity and sex are the most commonplace things in the world." The up-and-coming starlet had no idea just how much that calendar would help launch her career.
While attending yet another Hollywood party, Marilyn was introduced to Joe Schenck, co-founder of Fox. It was he who persuaded Columbia Studios to hire her under a six-month contract in March of 1948. Only a week after signing her new contract, tragedy struck Marilyn. Her ‘aunt’ Ana Lower, had died. A short while after the burial, Marilyn would return back to work at the studios. While working with Columbia, she met Natasha Lytess, a drama teacher. Soon, Natasha would become Marilyn’s close friend and acting coach.
Marilyn landed her first major acting role in the film Ladies of the Chorus. She would play Peggy Martin, a burlesque queen, and was seen as the breakout star of the movie. It was also her first chance she had to sing. The film was produced in only 11 days. Though the movie received good reviews, Marilyn’s contract was once again not renewed. For the second time, she was out of work.
Facing both sadness and depression, Marilyn was soon in for a bit of good luck. While at a New Year’s Eve party, she met Johnny Hyde, a highly influential agent. Immediately Hyde was taken with Marilyn, and saw something special within the blonde bombshell. Soon after, Johnny Hyde became Marilyn’s agent. It was at this point when her career began to take a turn for the better. With his help, Marilyn scored a minor but significant role in the Marx Brothers’ film Love Happy. She also landed a role as a chorus girl in A Ticket to Tomahawk. Johnny and Marilyn had become very close, and by the summer of 1949, he was her full-time agent.
The Asphalt Jungle, directed by John Huston, was Marilyn’s next film. MGM had given her a contract, and she played a small but important character in the movie. Marilyn’s role in the film pushed her into the limelight, and set her up for her next project that would make her a hit: All About Eve.
Marilyn was cast as Claudia Caswell and worked alongside actress Bette Davis in All About Eve. It was released on October 14, 1950 and was highly praised. From that point on, Marilyn worked steadily in films such as Let’s Make it Legal, As Young as You Feel, Monkey Business, and Don’t Bother to Knock. During their relationship, Johnny had begged Marilyn to marry him. He wanted to make sure she was taken care of when he passed on. She would always refuse, stating that she couldn’t marry a man she didn’t love.
A more private factor to this decision was that Fred Karger, her voice coach, wouldn’t marry her. She had been in love with him for a long time. In December of 1950, Johnny Hyde had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Marilyn was deeply saddened and battled a stage of depression following his death. Not wishing to give up on her dreams, Marilyn pushed on. She became friends with Spyros Skouras, president of Fox, and he renewed her contract.
During 1951, Marilyn appeared in insignificant movies for Fox, but in August the studio loaned her to RKO Studios. She would go on to film Clash By Night, which was directed by Fritz Lang. It was her first dramatic role, and was given fine reviews. It was with this performance that Fox noticed the star-quality that Marilyn Monroe held.
In 1952, the nude calendar that had been shot previously by Tom Kelley was distributed in gas stations as well as barbershops across the nation. Someone had recognized the woman in the picture as Marilyn. Fearing the photos would tarnish her reputation, Fox wanted to deny the whole thing. Marilyn, on the other hand, felt it was right to tell the truth and admit to everything. With her explanation and heartfelt apology to journalist Aline Mosby, America felt sympathy, not outrage, towards Marilyn.
It is estimated that as many as four million copies were sold of the calendar. Only two days after the story hit headlines, Marilyn met baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio. He had spotted a publicity photo of her and two White Sox players. DiMaggio also discovered that one of his drinking buddies knew her, and could arrange a meeting. At first, Marilyn was not sure what to think of him. However, after their dinner date, Joe began calling her every night. Before long, a romance blossomed and their highly-publicized relationship was in full swing.
When asked about Joe, Marilyn stated, “I don’t know if I’m in love with him yet, but I know I like him more than any man I’ve ever met." Once again, another potential threat hit Marilyn’s career, and she needed the support of Joe to get through it. Reporters had discovered that she had been an orphan, and that her mother was recovering in a state mental institution. To smooth things over, Marilyn had agreed to an interview with Erskine Johnson. She had explained the situation, and with this statement the public supported the starlet.
Amidst all the media troubles, Marilyn began shooting her next major starring role in Niagara. After the picture, audiences all agreed that Marilyn was truly a star. Shortly after, she went on to make hit films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (also starring Jane Russell) and How to Marry a Millionaire (costarring Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable). Marilyn was voted Best New Actress by Photoplay magazine in 1953. Hollywood couldn’t get enough of her.
On January 14, 1954, Marilyn and Joe were married at San Francisco’s City Hall. They had been a couple for two years prior. It was clear that Joe was uncomfortable with the amount of attention men gave his new wife. Though their love for each other was strong, Marilyn’s sex appeal and fame continuously disturbed their marriage. Many times, the couple would argue about her sultry image and how provocatively she dressed. Joe also wanted Marilyn to give up the movies and become a housewife. All these factors led to the demise of the relationship.
Only nine short months after their blissful nuptials, Marilyn and Joe divorced. The cause of the split was cited as a “conflict of careers.” Despite the fact that their marriage did not last, Joe would remain a close friend to Marilyn for the rest of her short-lived life. Years later, after her death, Joe would have red roses delivered to her grave 3 times a week, for twenty years. His love for Marilyn was evident to all.
Along with acting in the movie River of No Return, Marilyn appeared in the first issue of Playboy magazine, fully clothed. In addition, There’s No Business Like Show Business was being filmed that same year. Despite disputes with Fox and a failed marriage, Marilyn was still thriving in Hollywood. On December 31, 1955, Fox signed Marilyn for a four-picture, seven year contract. She had also taken a hiatus during this time, moving to New York. During her stay, she studied under Lee Strasberg.
All the while, Marilyn began seeing playwright Arthur Miller, and in June of 1956 she was married for the third time. They would come to be known as Egghead and the Hourglass. In the duration of their marriage, Marilyn would experience countless miscarriages that put a strain on their relationship. The losses affected Marilyn both mentally and physically. During 1958, Marilyn filmed Some Like It Hot, which was a nation-wide hit. Sadly, her personal life would hit a flat note, and she would divorce Miller in 1960.
1960 also brought forth the film The Misfits, in which she starred alongside Clark Gable. It would be not only Marilyn’s but also Gable’s final completed picture. During 1961, she would enter hospitals under various names. The reasons for these visits often pointed to her substance abuse and depression. She also deeply feared losing her mind, as so many in her family had. During her final years, Marilyn was also battling a drug addiction. She had been seeing more and more of her analyst, Dr. Ralph Greenson.
Many had speculated that during this crucial point in her life, he was a bit too involved with her. Outside of this, Marilyn became friends with the Kennedy family, especially Robert and John. It is unknown for sure whether or not the affairs took place, but it was learned that Marilyn kept a little black book filled with the conversations that Robert and her had shared. Some say it was this black book that Marilyn had used to threaten them with, likely to cause scandals and uproars.
Something’s Got to Give: Marilyn’s last film was never to be completed. The movie itself was almost shut down due to Marilyn’s fatigue and personal issues. There was also talk of firing Marilyn herself and hiring someone new to replace her. Things continued to get harder for the star.
Perhaps in one of her last highly-publicized public appearances, she was invited to sing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in May of 1962. She arrived late (as she was well-known to do), and serenaded the president at Madison Square Garden. This incident was uncomfortable, due to the numerous speculations of an affair between the two.
Photographer Douglas Kirkland snapped pictures of Marilyn towards the end of her life, once saying “I was in breathing distance of the goddess." Marilyn still had an overpowering affect on people. In her final months, it was seen that Marilyn and her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio were spending more time together. He was helping her through a rough patch, and their friendship seemed to be blossoming once more. Sadly, three months after Marilyn’s performance for the president, the world would be rocked by her death.
On August 3, 1962, Dr. Hyman Engelberg (Marilyn’s personal doctor) gave her a prescription for twenty-five Nembutal tablets. Engelberg and Greenson were working together in order to get the upper hand on Marilyn’s drug addiction. Actor Peter Lawford had invited Marilyn to dinner and when she didn’t show up, he called her. Lawford had been alarmed at her slurred speech. It was reported that he later called Marilyn’s lawyer, Milton Rudin, who then called her home. Marilyn’s housekeeper, Eunice Murray assured him she was perfectly fine. Yet Marilyn’s light by her bedroom remained on, which was odd.
There are many stories as to what truly happened that night. Statements changed multiple times, including the house keeper’s and Marilyn’s two doctors. An alarmed Murray called Ralph Greenson, and it was said they broke into Marilyn’s bedroom to check if all was well. It wasn’t. She was found sprawled out on her bed, the telephone in hand. She had been dead for quite a while. Marilyn was gone.
Her autopsy showed great amounts of both Nembutal and chloral hydrate in her blood system. The final word on Marilyn’s death was ruled as an overdose of barbiturates, though speculation would continue on for many years. Theories ranged from a straightforward suicide, to even murder. A conspiracy theory pointing to the Kennedy’s was also highly discussed. No one knows for sure how this great icon of the twentieth century truly died, but the world mourned the loss of the beautiful and vivacious blonde.
Marilyn Monroe’s funeral was held at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles on August 8, 1962. The funeral was arranged by Joe DiMaggio, as well as Marilyn’s half-sister Berniece Miracle. Joe refused press, photographers, and any Hollywood friends to come as well. He was filled with sorrow over the death of his beloved ex-wife, and even went into hiding after the tragedy. In a statement to the public, DiMaggio once said, “It was Hollywood that destroyed her---she was a victim of her friends.”
Marilyn Monroe remains a legend to this day. Her movies, photographs, and overall sultry demeanor will keep her name living on. It was also her presence alone that truly made Marilyn a star. Her exterior may have exuded sexuality, but inside Marilyn struggled with who she really was. Despite heartache and heartbreak, Marilyn beat the odds and became what she always wanted to be: an actress. Though a tragic demise took her life at the young age of thirty-six, the blonde icon will forever remain in the hearts of all.
“I want to say that the people--if I am a star---the people made me a star. No studio, no person--but the people did.”
— Marilyn Monroe
© 2019 Rachel M Johnson