The film actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) epitomized the Hollywood sex symbol with her provocative clothes, champagne blond tresses, and breathless, whisper-voiced manner of speaking.
Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, experienced a disrupted, loveless childhood that included two years at an orphanage. When Norma Jean, born on June 1, 1926, was seven years old her mother, Gladys (Monroe) Baker Mortenson, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and hospitalized. Norma was left to a series of foster homes and the Los Angeles Orphans' Home Society. She opted for an early marriage on June 19, 1942, and her husband, James Dougherty, joined the U.S. Merchant Marine in 1943.
During the war years Norma Jean worked at the Radio Plane Company in Van Nuys, California, but she was soon discovered by photographers. She enrolled in a 3-month modelling course, and in 1946, aware of her considerable charm and the potential it had for a career in films, Norma obtained a divorce. She headed for Hollywood, where Ben Lyon, head of casting at Twentieth Century Fox, arranged a screen test. On August 26, 1946, she signed a $125 a week, one-year contract with the studio. Ben Lyon was the one who suggested a new name for the fledgling actress— Marilyn Monroe.
During her first year at Fox Monroe did not appear in any films, and her contract was not renewed. In the spring of 1948 Columbia Pictures hired her for a small part in Ladies of the Chorus. In 1950 John Huston cast her in Asphalt Jungle, a tiny part which landed her a role in All About Eve. She was now given a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox and appeared in The Fireball, Let's Make It Legal, Love Nest, and As Young as You Feel.
In 1952, after an extensive publicity campaign, Monroe appeared in Don't Bother to Knock, Full House, Clash by Night, We're Not Married, Niagara, and Monkey Business. After this the magazine Photoplay termed her the "most promising actress," and she was earning top dollars for Twentieth Century Fox.
On January 14, 1954, she married Yankee baseball player Joe Di Maggio. But the pressures created by her billing as a screen sex symbol caused the marriage to founder, and the couple divorced on October 27, 1954.
Continually cast as a dumb blond, Monroe made Seven Year Itch in 1954. Growing weary of the stereotyping, she broke her contract with Fox and moved to New York City. There she studied at the Actors Studio with Lee and Paula Strasberg. Gloria Steinem recalls a conversation with Monroe during that time in which Monroe referred to her own opinion of her abilities compared to a group of notables at the Actors Studio. "I admire all these people so much. I'm just not good enough."
In 1955 she formed her own studio, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and re-negotiated a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. She appeared in Bus Stop in 1956 and married playwright Arthur Miller on July 1, 1956.
Critics described Monroe in the film The Prince and the Showgirl, produced by her own company, as "a sparkling light comedienne." Monroe won the Italian David di Donatello award for "best foreign actress of 1958," and in 1959 she appeared in Some Like It Hot. In 1961 she starred in The Misfits, for which Arthur Miller did the screenplay.
The couple was divorced on January 24, 1961, and later that year Monroe entered a New York psychiatric clinic. After her brief hospitalization there she returned to the Fox studio to work on a film, but her erratic behavior betrayed severe emotional disturbance, and the studio discharged her in June 1962.
Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles bungalow on August 5, 1962, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her side.
Further Reading on Marilyn Monroe
As a subject of biographies and Hollywood exposé, Marilyn Monroe had no equal. More than 20 books have been written on her brief life. Some, like Norma Jean (1969) by Fred Lawrence Guiles, Edwin P. Hoyt's Marilyn: The Tragic Venus (1965, 1973), or Robert F. Slatzer's The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe (1974), investigate her life in detail. Others are memoirs: Marilyn Monroe: Confidential (1979) by Lena Pepitone and William Stadiem is one such volume. Norman Mailer's Marilyn (1973) includes photographs, and The Films of Marilyn Monroe (1964) by Michael Conway and Mark Ricci details her many movies and shows stills as well as review excerpts. A careful overall biography is Goddess (1985) by Anthony Summers. Gloria Steinem's Marilyn (1986) is an insightful account of a tragic life.