This week in 1962 the beautiful film star, Marilyn Monroe, died. As the exact details of her death are still shrouded in mystery, so is much about her life.
What is known for sure is that she was born on 1 June 1926 and was first named Norma Jean Mortenson, Mortenson being the married name of her mother, Gladys, at the time of Marilyn’s birth. Gladys divorced Mortenson within a couple of years, and changed her daughter’s surname back to Baker, the surname of Gladys’ first husband. However, both Mortenson and Baker were used interchangeably throughout Norma’s childhood. Norma had a sister and a brother from her mother’s first marriage, but their father had taken them back to his home state of Kentucky when he and Gladys divorced so she really didn’t have a lot to do with them..
The identity of Norma’s father is not known. Historians have speculated that it might have been Charles Gifford, someone with whom her mother worked and had an affair; Raymond Guthrie, a film developer; or even Martin Mortenson himself. If Gladys knew for sure, she wasn’t telling and as an adult, Marilyn tried to find out, without success.
Marilyn’s childhood was difficult, to say the least. She was first placed in foster care at only a few weeks old and didn’t move back to live with her mother until she was aged seven. However, when Marilyn was 12, her mother had some sort of breakdown and was subsequently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals, and Marilyn was fostered, then sent to an orphanage, then back to foster care. The details are unclear – some reports say she was in the orphanage for nine months, others for two years. I’m not sure why the records are so bad, but it all adds to a shroud of mystery about Marilyn’s life.
As an adult, Marilyn told friends that she had been sexually abused as a child, by which time it was too late for any DNA evidence, and probably, in those days, for any kind of investigation. Some of Marilyn’s biographers dismiss these claims, others think that they were true. Personally, after all the recent scandals we’ve had in this country with Jimmy Saville et al, I’m going for true. It explains a lot about her to me – her insecurities, her need for love, etc.
Marilyn started her working life in a factory, the Radioplane Munitions Factory. The US was involved in the Second World War by this time, and at the end of 1944, the US Army Air Force sent photographers to get pictures of young (and, presumably, pretty) young women who were supporting the war effort. One of the photographers advised Marilyn to join a modelling agency, so she did. She joined the Blue Book Modelling Agency, died her dark hair blonde (because that’s what they wanted) and went on to become one of their top models.
At this stage, she was not Marilyn. She was still Norma Jeane Dougherty (she had married Jim Dougherty when she was just 16). Her foster father’s job was to take him out of state, but as, at the time, she was too young to be allowed to leave, it was suggested that she and Jim marry so that she wouldn’t have to return to the orphanage. Whether they were “an item” or not before the wedding is just another thing about her life that is not clear. Jim went on to join the Merchant Marine and Norma/Marilyn moved in with his parents, then started work at the factory, so at least she had some security for a short while.
Back to the modelling, where the public facts of her life are clearer. She was so successful that she caught the eye of an executive from 20th Century Fox, Ben Lyon, who arranged a screen test for her. It was he who, after some other suggestions, changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, Monroe being her mother’s maiden name. In her early days in the film company, she didn’t have any speaking parts in films, she just appeared as an extra, but she went to acting, dancing and singing classes, along with all the other actors new to the company. She worked hard to become a good actress but it just wasn’t happening for her. By 1947, she had been released from her contract with 20th Century Fox. I bet they kicked themselves for that later.
In 1948, she joined Columbia Pictures on a six-month contract, where she met the woman who was to be her acting coach for several years, Natasha Lytess. She was given a major part in Ladies of the Chorus. The film didn’t do well, and Marilyn left Columbia. When she couldn’t get acting work, she returned to modelling and did her one and only stint of paid nude photographs.
Marilyn’s film career started to pick up after signing with an agent, and she appeared in The Ashphalt Jungle, and later, All About Eve. Her agent got her a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. He also got her to have the second of minor surgeries to improve her appearance. In 1951 she started a course in literature and art appreciation at the University of California, whilst still appearing in small parts in four films. She also appeared as a presenter at the 23rd Academy Awards. This is clearly not a woman without a brain, or any ambition.
Things had the potential for a nosedive again the following year when when two of her nude photographs appeared in calendars and the press speculated that they might be her – the changes to her physical appearance were enough to cause a doubt. Fox wanted to cover it up but Marilyn suggested that she admit that they were her but she’d only done it because she had had absolutely no money at the time. She was interviewed resulting in upswell of sympathy for her. One of the photographs was published in Playboy, making Marilyn the first Playmate of the Month in 1953. Marilyn’s appearance and the heavy publicity invested in it by the editor, Hugh Hefner, made the fairly new Playboy Magazine a huge success, and we all know where that took Hefner, don’t we?
Marilyn was photographed and appeared in Life magazine and later, in Experiences magazine, where her childhood story – or a version of it, at least – was told. A celebrity was born. The public was captivated. At about this time, she started to date Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player. She had small parts in a few more films, coming to the notice of various influential men, until she appeared in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, opposite Jane Russell. Marilyn stayed late on set every night to perfect her routines, but was usually late on set the following day. This was not, as might be supposed, because of drink or drugs, it was her stage fright. She and Russell had become friends, so Russell got in the habit of escorting Marilyn on set on time.
This film was the start of things getting big for Marilyn. When the film premiered, she and Jane Russell pressed their hands and feet in the wet concrete outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, something lots of stars did in those days. The song Diamond’s are a Girl’s Best Friend became synonymous with her. The film was a huge success grossing more than twice its production costs. A number of films followed, including How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch. She was upset with Fox when Daryl F Zanuck refused to screen test her for a film he was making, The Egyptian, and cast her in River of No Return instead. Marilyn felt that this was less than even a B movie and when she was given a part in The Girl in Pink Tights, she failed to turn up on set and was suspended by Fox. Her co-star, Dean Martin, was also suspended because he refused to act alongside anyone else.
Marilyn married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954. They travelled to Japan together, for DiMaggio’s business, and after publicing saying that he was her business now, she then travelled onto Korea to perform for over 13,000 Marines over a three-day period. When she returned to Hollywood in March, she kissed and made up with Fox and went onto appear in There’s No Business Like Show Business, which was a complete flop, and received dreadful reviews. As it turned out, Marilyn hadn’t wanted to appear in this film and had only done so because she’d been promised a part in The Seven Year Itch if she did.
This turned out to be one of her most well-renowned film roles – it’s the film in which she is seen with her skirt blowing as she stands over a subway air vent. Husband Joe DiMaggio was present and somewhat irritated that the scene was re-shot time after time. It caused a row between him and Monroe and two weeks later, they announced that they had separated. They divorced later in the year.
Marilyn refused parts that she considered to be inferior and left Hollywood. She set up her own production company in whose name she signed a new contact with Fox in which she had to make four films over a seven-year period, but she had the right to reject any script, director or cinematographer to whom she did not approve.
Marily started seeing the playwright Arthur Miller, whom she was later to marry. She next appeared in the film Bus Stop, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. Her next film was The Prince and the Showgirl, which also starred, and was directed by Laurence Olivier. Marilyn’s performance received accolades by critics as well as the Italian equivalent of an Academy Award and a BAFTA nomination.
She had a couple of years away from Hollywood, but returned in August 1958 to appear in Some Like it Hot, which was nominated for six Academy Awards and which was a resounding success, but director Billy Wilder said the Marilyn was “totally unpredictable” during filming, he never knew whether she would be cooperative or obstructive, and she rarely arrived on set on time.
Marilyn agreed to appear in Let’s Make Love, which was not a resounding success. At about this time, Marilyn’s health began to suffer – her psychiatrist thought she was taking too many drugs, he also observed that everything in the marital garden was not rosy. At about this time, Miller had written a story which became a screenplay for The Misfits, which was largely filmed in the Nevada desert. Marilyn was ill much of the time, and unable to act. She was rushed into hospital in the August. When she returned to the film set, she and Miller spent much of their time arguing. A number of the other stars, including Clark Gable, reported illness during the making of the film. Within a few days of returning home, Marilyn and Miller announced their separation and Clark Gable died of a heart attack.
Marilyn became more dependent on drink and drugs, and after her divorce was finalised, she voluntarily entered a medical facility for three weeks, the exact reason is not clear, but she was unable to work for the remainder of the year. Having already had two miscarriages, she had surgery to deal with a blockage in her Fallopian tues and then another operation on her gallbladder.
In May 1962 she attended President John F Kennedy’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden, where she sang her famous rendition of Happy Birthday whilst filming Something’s Got to Give. As she had only turned up for work on 12 occasions out of 35 days, she was dismissed and the studio started a lawsuit against her.
Marilyn was found dead at her home on 5 August 1962, aged 36. The inquest found that she had died from acute barbiturate poisoning resulting from “probable suicide.” That may or may not have been the case. The fact is that she had had affairs with both Robert Kennedy and John F Kennedy (he is reported to be the last person she called before she died).
There have been theories that the CIA or Mafia were involved in her death. Either is possible as a result of her relationship with the Kennedys (Bobby was having a head-to-head with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and was relentless in his fight against organised crime). Even some of those who do not fall in to the category of conspiracy theorists think that she not did not commit suicide, but we will probably never know now. Just another one of the mysteries in her life.
© Susan Shirley 2015