Actress Marilyn Monroe overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the world's biggest and most enduring sex symbols. She died of a drug overdose in 1962 at the age of 36.
Who Was Marilyn Monroe?
Actress Marilyn Monroe overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the world's biggest and most enduring sex symbols. Her films grossed more than $200 million. She is known for her relationships with Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio and, possibly, John F. Kennedy. Monroe died of a drug overdose on August 5, 1962, at only 36 years old.
Monroe never knew her father. She once thought Clark Gable to be her father — a story repeated often enough for a version of it to gain some currency. However, there's no evidence that Gable ever met or knew Monroe's mother, Gladys, who developed psychiatric problems and was eventually placed in a mental institution.
As an adult, Monroe would maintain that one of her earliest memories was of her mother trying to smother her in her crib with a pillow. Monroe had a half-sister, to whom she was not close; they met only a half-dozen times.
Early Life and Education
Monroe was born on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California. Monroe was named Norma Jeane Mortenson at birth (later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker). Growing up, Monroe spent much of her time in foster care and in an orphanage.
In 1937, a family friend and her husband, Grace and Doc Goddard, took care of Monroe for a few years. The Goddards were paid $25 weekly by Monroe's mother to raise her.
The couple was deeply religious and followed fundamentalist doctrines; among other prohibited activities, Monroe was not allowed to go to the movies. But when Doc's job was transferred to the East Coast, the couple could not afford to bring Monroe with them.
At seven years old, Monroe returned to a life in foster homes, where she endured sexual assault on several occasions; she later said that she had been raped when she was 11 years old. She dropped out of high school by age 15.
Monroe had a way out through marriage, and she wed her boyfriend and merchant marine Jimmy Dougherty in 1942, at the age of 16.
Career in Acting
Monroe dreamt of becoming an actress like Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. When her husband was sent to the South Pacific, she began working in a munitions factory in Van Nuys, California. It was there that she was first discovered by a photographer.
By the time Dougherty returned in 1946, Monroe had a successful career as a model. That year, she signed her first movie contract. With the contract came a new name and image; she began calling herself "Marilyn Monroe" and dyed her hair blonde.
At first, Monroe wasn't initially considered to be star acting material. Her acting career didn't really take off until a few years later. With her breathy voice and hourglass figure, she would soon become one of Hollywood's most famous actresses. She proved her skill by winning various honors and attracting large audiences to her films.
Monroe became a much-admired international star despite chronic insecurities regarding her acting abilities. She suffered from pre-performance anxiety that sometimes made her physically ill and was often the root cause of her legendary tardiness on film sets, which was so extreme that it often infuriated her co-stars and crew.
"She would be the greatest if she ran like a watch," director Billy Wilder once said of her. "I have an aunt Minnie who's very punctual, but who would pay to see Aunt Minnie?"
Throughout her career, Monroe was signed and released from several contracts with film studios.
In the mid-1950s Monroe grew tired of bubbly, dumb blonde roles and moved to New York City to study acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio.
By the early 1960s, however, Monroe's professional and personal life seemed to be in turmoil following unsuccessful relationships. Her last two films, Let's Make Love (1960) and The Misfits (1961), were box office disappointments.
"Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered."
— Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe's Movies
During her career, Monroe's films grossed more than $200 million. Monroe's most notable films include:
'The Asphalt Jungle' (1950)
Monroe's small part in John Huston's crime drama The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was her first movie to garner her a lot of attention.
'All About Eve' (1950)
In 1950, Monroe impressed audiences and critics alike with her performance as Claudia Caswell in All About Eve, starring Bette Davis.
In 1953, Monroe delivered a star-making turn in Niagara, as a young married woman out to kill her husband with help from her lover.
'Gentleman Prefer Blondes' (1953)
The emerging sex symbol was paired with another bombshell, Jane Russell, for the hit musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the film, two showgirls travel to Paris and are pursued by a private detective, hired by the father of Monroe's fiancé, along with many other admirers.
'How to Marry a Millionaire' (1954)
Monroe continued to find success in a string of light comedic fare, such as How to Marry a Millionaire, with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. The three women set out to find millionaires to marry in the film, but they find true love instead.
'There's No Business Like Show Business' (1954)
In 1954 Monroe starred alongside Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor in another romantic comedy, There's No Business like Show Business, about a couple whose marriage starts to unravel when the husband (O'Connor) meets a hat-check girl (Monroe).
'The Seven Year Itch' (1955)
Monroe again played the other woman in the 1955 film The Seven-Year Itch, about a faithful husband who's tempted to cheat when his family goes away for the summer.
'Bus Stop' (1956)
Following her stint in New York at Strasberg's acting school, Monroe returned to the screen in the dramatic comedy Bus Stop (1956). She received mostly praise for her performance as a saloon singer kidnapped by a rancher who has fallen in love with her.
'The Prince and the Showgirl' (1957)
In 1957, Monroe starred in The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, who also directed and produced the film. She often didn't show up for filming and her erratic behavior on set created a tense relationship with her co-stars, the crew and Olivier.
The film received mixed reviews and was a box office hit in Britain, but not as popular in the United States. The troubled production was the backdrop for the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Monroe.
'Some Like It Hot' (1959)
In 1959, Monroe returned to familiar territory with the wildly popular comedy Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. She played Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, a singer who hopes to marry a millionaire in this humorous film, in which Lemmon and Curtis pretend to be women. They men, on the run from the mob after witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, hide out with an all-girl orchestra featuring Monroe.
Monroe's work on the film earned her the honor of "Best Actress in a Comedy" at the 1959 Golden Globe Awards.
'The Misfits' (1961)
The Misfits was Monroe's last completed film. Set in Nevada, this adventure drama reunited Monroe with Huston (The Asphalt Jungle); Monroe starred opposite Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. In the film, Monroe falls for Gable's cowboy but battles him over the fate of some wild mustangs.
'Something's Got to Give' (1962)
In 1962, Monroe was dismissed from Something's Got to Give — co-starring Dean Martin — for missing so many days of filming. According to an article in The New York Times, the actress claimed that the absences were due to illness. Martin declined to make the film without her, so the studio shelved the picture.
Monroe is today considered one of the world's most popular icons of sex appeal and beauty, and is remembered for her idiosyncratic sense of humor and sly wit. Once asked by a reporter what she wore to bed, she replied, "Chanel Number 5."
On another occasion, she was asked what she thought of Hollywood: "If I close my eyes and think of Hollywood, all I see is one big varicose vein," she replied.
On June 19, 1942, 16-year-old Monroe wed Dougherty, a 20-year-old merchant marine. Dougherty lived next door to a friend of Monroe's mother; he suggested he could marry Monroe so she wouldn't be sent to an orphanage or another foster home. When they wed, Monroe had just turned 16 and the couple had been dating for just a few months. After Monroe's career began to take off, she sought a quickie divorce in September 1946.
“I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don’t claim to have any insights to her to this day. I knew and loved Norma Jean,” Dougherty later said.
In 1954, Monroe was married to baseball great DiMaggio for nine months. Following her death, DiMaggio famously had red roses delivered to her crypt for the next 20 years.
Monroe's longest marriage was with playwright Miller. They first met in 1950 at a party and later began exchanging letters. They met again when Monroe moved to New York in 1955, and they began an affair while she was still married to DiMaggio. They married on June 29, 1956.
Right away, the couple began having problems. Monroe experienced two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy. After Miller and Monroe had begun working together on what would have been her last film, The Misfits, they divorced on January 20, 1961.
"A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night."
— Marilyn Monroe
JFK's Relationship with Marilyn Monroe
There have also been rumors that Monroe was involved with President John F. Kennedy and/or his brother Robert Kennedy around the time of her death.
On May 19, 1962, Monroe made her now-famous performance at John F. Kennedy's birthday celebration, singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
Moments later, President Kennedy appeared on stage, saying, "I can now retire from politics after having had 'Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way."
Monroe died at her Los Angeles home on August 5, 1962, at only 36 years old. An empty bottle of sleeping pills was found by her bed.
There has been some speculation over the years that she may have been murdered, but the cause of her death was officially ruled as a drug overdose.
Monroe was buried in her favorite Emilio Pucci dress, in what was known as a "Cadillac casket"—the most high-end casket available, made of heavy-gauge solid bronze and lined with champagne-colored silk.
Lee Strasberg delivered a eulogy before a small group of friends and family. Hugh Hefner bought the crypt directly next to Monroe's.
“She was the victim of ballyhoo and sensation — exploited beyond anyone’s means.”
— Sir Laurence Olivier
Monroe did not own a house until the last year of her life, and had surprisingly few possessions. One that she prized was an autographed photo of Albert Einstein, which included an inscription: "To Marilyn, with respect and love and thanks."
In 2011, several rare photos of Monroe were published in a book of photographs by famed photographer Sam Shaw.
In 2017, another book of little-seen treasures made it to shelves in The Essential Marilyn Monroe, with Joshua Greene retouching old photos taken by his dad, Milton Greene, in the 1950s.
Marilyn Monroe's Nude Footage
August 2018 brought the publication of another biography of the screen legend, Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, by Charles Casillo. The book made headlines for its revelation that nude footage of Monroe from a bedroom scene in The Misfits, previously believed to have been destroyed, remained extant.
The footage would have made up one of the first nude scenes of a major Hollywood star in a studio movie; it ultimately was cut out of the film by its director, Huston, but preserved by producer Frank Taylor.