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Marilyn Monroe

Biography of the Model, Actress, and Sex Symbol

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of Marilyn Monroe wearing a fur stole around her bare shoulders.

Autographed studio portrait of American actor Marilyn Monroe wearing a fur stole around her bare shoulders. It reads 'Best Wishes, Marilyn Monroe.' (circa 1955)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Marilyn Monroe?

Marilyn Monroe, an American model turned actress, was famous for her seductive blonde persona on and off camera from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Monroe appeared in a number of popular movies, but is best remembered as an international sex symbol who died unexpectedly and mysteriously at age 36.

Dates: June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962

Also Known As: Norma Jeane Mortenson, Norma Jeane Baker

Growing Up as Norma Jeane

Marilyn Monroe was born as Norma Jeane Mortenson (later baptized as Norma Jeane Baker) in Los Angeles, California, to Gladys Baker Mortenson (neé Monroe). Although no one knows for sure the true identity of Monroe’s biological father, some biographers have speculated that it might have been Gladys’ second husband, Martin Mortenson; however, the two were separated before Monroe’s birth. Others have suggested Monroe’s father was a co-worker of Gladys’ at RKO Pictures, named Charles Stanley Gifford. In any case, Monroe was considered at the time to be an illegitimate child and grew up not knowing her father.

As a single parent, Gladys worked during the day and left young Monroe with neighbors. Unfortunately for Monroe, Gladys was not well; she was in and out of mental hospitals until she was ultimately institutionalized at the Norwalk State Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1935. Nine-year-old Monroe was taken in by Gladys’ friend, Grace McKee. However, within the year, McKee was no longer able to care for Monroe and so took her to the Los Angeles Orphanage. Devastated, Monroe spent two years at the orphanage and in and out of a succession of foster homes. It is believed that during this time, Monroe was molested.

In 1937, 11-year-old Monroe found a home with “Aunt” Ana Lower, a relative of McKee’s. Here, Monroe had a stable home life until Lower developed health problems. Subsequently, McKee arranged a marriage between 16-year-old Monroe and Jim Dougherty, a 21-year-old neighbor. Monroe and Dougherty were married on June 19, 1942.

Marilyn Monroe Becomes a Model

With World War II underway, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 and shipped out to Shanghai a year later. With her husband overseas, Monroe found a job at the Radio Plane Munitions Factory. Monroe was working at this factory when she was “discovered” by photographer David Conover, who was photographing females working for the war effort. Conover’s pictures of Monroe appeared in Yank magazine in 1945.

Impressed by what he saw, Conover showed Monroe’s photos to Potter Hueth, a commercial photographer. Hueth and Monroe soon struck a deal: Hueth would take pictures of Monroe but she would only be paid if magazines bought her photos. This deal allowed Monroe to keep her day job at Radio Plane and model at night.

Some of Hueth’s photos of Monroe caught the attention of Miss Emmeline Snively, who ran the Blue Book Model Agency, the largest model agency in Los Angeles. Snively offered Monroe a chance at full-time modeling, as long as Monroe went to Snively's three-month-long modeling school. Monroe agreed and was soon working diligently to perfect her new craft. It was while working with Snively that Monroe changed her hair color from light brown to blonde.

Dougherty, still overseas, was not happy about his wife modeling.

Marilyn Monroe Signs With a Movie Studio

By this time, several different photographers were taking pictures of Monroe for pinup magazines, often showing off Monroe’s hourglass figure in two-piece bathing suits. Monroe was such a popular pinup girl that her picture could be found on several covers of pinup magazines in the same month. In July 1946, these pinup pictures brought Monroe to the attention of casting director Ben Lyon of 20th Century Fox, who called Monroe for a screen test.

Monroe’s screen test was a success and in August 1946, 20th Century Fox offered Monroe a six-month contract with the studio having the option of renewing it every six months.

When Dougherty returned, he was even less happy about his wife becoming a starlet. The couple divorced in 1946.

Transforming From Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe

Up until this time, Monroe had still been using her married name, Norma Jeane Dougherty. Lyon from 20th Century Fox helped her create a screen name. He suggested the first name of Marilyn, after Marilyn Miller, a popular 1920s stage performer, while Monroe chose her mother’s maiden name for her last name. Now all Marilyn Monroe had to do was learn how to act.

Marilyn Monroe’s First Film Debut

Earning $75 per week, 20-year-old Monroe attended free acting, dancing, and singing classes at the 20th Century Fox studio. She appeared as an extra in a few movies and had a single line in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948); however, her contract at 20th Century Fox was not renewed.

For the next six months, Monroe received unemployment insurance benefits while continuing acting classes. Six months later, Columbia Pictures hired her at $125 per week. While at Columbia, Monroe was given second billing in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), a film that featured Monroe singing a musical number. However, despite receiving positive reviews for her role, her contract at Columbia was not renewed.

Marilyn Monroe Poses Nude

Tom Kelley, a photographer whom Monroe had modeled for before, had been after Monroe to pose nude for a calendar and offered to pay her $50. In 1949, Monroe was broke and agreed to his offer. Kelley eventually sold the nude photos to Western Lithograph Company for $900 and the calendar, Golden Dreams, made millions. (Later on, Hugh Hefner would buy one of the photos in 1953 for $500 for his first issue of Playboy magazine.)

Marilyn Monroe’s Big Break

When Monroe heard that the Marx brothers needed a sexy blonde for their new movie, Love Happy (1949), Monroe auditioned and got the part. In the film, Monroe had to walk by Groucho Marx in a sultry manner and say, “I want you to help me. Some men are following me.” Although she was only on screen for about 60 seconds, Monroe’s performance caught the eye of the producer, Lester Cowan. Cowan decided that the pretty Monroe should go on the five-week-long publicity tour. While publicizing Love Happy, Monroe appeared in newspapers, on television, and on the radio.

Monroe’s bit part on Love Happy also caught the eye of major talent agent Johnny Hyde, who soon got her an audition at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer for a small part in Asphalt Jungle (1950). Directed by John Huston, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards. Although Monroe only had a minor role, she still drew attention. Monroe’s successes with Love Happy and a small role in All About Eve (1950) led Darryl Zanuck to offer Monroe a contract to come back to 20th Century Fox.

Roy Craft, studio publicist for 20th Century Fox, advertised Monroe as a pinup girl. As a result, the studio received thousands of fan letters, many asking what movie Monroe was going to appear in next. Thus, Zanuck ordered producers to find parts for her in their films. Monroe played her first leading role as a mentally unbalanced baby sitter in Don't Bother to Knock (1952).

The Public Finds Out About Marilyn Monroe's Nude Pictures

When her nude photos surfaced and threatened her career in 1952, Monroe told the press about her childhood, how she posed for the photos when she was completely broke, and that she had never even received a thank-you note from any of the people who made so much money off of her fifty-dollar humiliation. The public loved her all the more.

Over the next two years, Monroe made some of her most famous movies: Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), River of No Return (1954), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). Marilyn Monroe was now a major movie star.

Marilyn Monroe Marries … and Marries again

On January 14, 1954, Joe DiMaggio, world-famous former New York Yankee star baseball player, and Monroe were married. Being two rags-to-riches kids, their marriage made headlines. DiMaggio was ready to settle down and expected Monroe to settle down as well in their rented home in Beverly Hills, but Monroe had reached stardom and planned to continue acting and fulfilling a recording contract with RCA Victor Records.

DiMaggio and Monroe’s marriage was a troubled one, which reached its boiling point in September 1954 during the filming of the now famous scene in The Seven-Year Itch (1955), a comedy in which Monroe had top billing. In this legendary scene, Monroe stood over a subway grate while the breeze from below blew her white dress up into the air. While excited onlookers whistled and clapped for more, director Billy Wilder turned it into a publicity stunt and the scene was shot again. DiMaggio, who was on the set, flew into a rage. The marriage ended shortly thereafter; the two separated in October 1954, after only nine months of marriage.

Two years later, Monroe married American playwright Arthur Miller on June 29, 1956. During this marriage, Monroe suffered two miscarriages, began taking sleeping pills, and starred in two of her most legendary movies -- Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959); the latter netted her a Golden Globe Award for best comedy actress.

Miller wrote The Misfits (1961), which starred Monroe. Filmed in Nevada, the movie was directed by John Huston. During filming, Monroe became frequently ill and unable to perform. Consuming sleeping pills and alcohol, Monroe was hospitalized for ten days for a nervous breakdown. After the completion of the movie, Monroe and Miller divorced after five years of marriage. Monroe claimed they were incompatible.

On February 2, 1961, Monroe entered Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York. DiMaggio flew to her side and had her moved to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She also underwent gall bladder surgery and after convalescing, she began work on Something’s Got to Give (never completed). When Monroe missed a lot of work due to frequent illness, 20th Century Fox fired and sued her for breach of contract.

Rumors of Affairs

DiMaggio's attentiveness to Monroe during her illness led to rumors that Monroe and DiMaggio might reconcile. However, a bigger rumor of an affair was about to begin. On May 19, 1962, Monroe (wearing a sheer, flesh-colored, rhinestone dress) sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden to President John F. Kennedy. Her sultry performance started rumors that the two were having an affair.

Then another rumor began that Monroe had also been having an affair with the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy.

Marilyn Monroe Dies of Overdose

Leading up to her death, Monroe was depressed and continued to rely on sleeping pills and alcohol. Yet it was still a shock when 36-year-old Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood, California, home on August 5, 1962. Monroe’s death was marked “probable suicide” and the case closed. DiMaggio claimed her body and held a private funeral.

Many people have questioned the exact cause of her death. Some speculate it was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, others think it may have been purposeful suicide, and some wonder if it was murder. For many, her death remains a mystery.

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