By Susan M. Kelly
Born to an absentee father and a
mentally impaired mother, young Norma Jean Mortenson seemed destined for a life
of hardship and obscurity. Though the lonely little girl would grow up to
become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood history, she remained a
lost child at heart, struggling to find acceptance and a place in the world,
right up until her tragic end.
Norma Jean came into the world on June
1, 1926, the daughter of Gladys and a father who left his wife two months before
their daughter was born. Gladys gave her daughter the last name of a man she
had dated before Norma’s father and she grew up Norma Jean Baker, a shy, quiet,
confused little girl. Gladys was in and out of mental institutions throughout
Norma’s childhood, forcing the girl to be taken into foster care and, at nine,
into an orphanage.
Upon leaving the orphanage, the 16 year
old Norma married 21 year old James Dougherty in 1942. The marriage was
ill-fated, ending in divorce just four years later, by which time Norma was
working as a model. It was then that she made what would become a fortuitous
decision when she bleached her naturally dark hair blonde. Shortly thereafter
some publicity shots came to the attention of RKO pictures chief Howard Hughes,
who offered her a screen test. An agent suggested she sign with the bigger and
more prestigious 20th Century Fox instead and she was inked to a six
Upon signing with 20th
Century Fox, Norma Jean was urged to change her name to something more marquee
friendly and at the suggestion of the studio, she was christened Marilyn
Monroe. She began her career with bit parts in films such as “The Shocking Miss
Pilgrim” (1947) and “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” (1948). Her initial performances
didn’t impress and 20th Century Fox declined to renew her contract.
She briefly went back to modeling and attended acting school before being picked
up by Columbia Pictures, where she was cast as Peggy Martin in “Ladies of the
Chorus” (1948), a role which allowed her to showcase her musical skills. The
reviews were favorable for Marilyn, though not for the film itself, but she was
dropped by Columbia nonetheless and returned to modeling.
In 1949 she posed for what would become
arguably the most famous pin-up calendar shot of all time and would eventually
become the first ever centerfold for Playboy magazine. The following year,
Marilyn finally managed to find her niche in Hollywood, receiving excellent
reviews for her work in “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) for MGM and “All About Eve”
(1950) for Fox. Though small, her roles in both films would endear her to
audiences as the ditzy but sexy blonde bombshell.
Over the next few years she appeared in
a steady stream of films including “Love Nest” (1951), “Don’t Bother to Knock”
(1952) and “Monkey Business” (1952). In 1953 she was cast as scheming showgirl
Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, a film which featured her now
trademark performance of “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend”. The same year,
made headlines when she married New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio.
The union of the beauty and the quiet superstar seemed something out of a
Hollywood script but unfortunately for Marilyn it too was ill-fated, lasting
only eight months.
By the time she met and married
DiMaggio, Marilyn had become a genuine box office draw and she continued to
stretch her acting muscles with roles in “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953) and
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954). In 1955 she made another
trademark appearance in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), as she famously stood on a
subway grate while her dress was blown up around her by a passing subway train.
Her status as the object of desire for millions of movie goers, particularly
men, was now complete, yet something of the lost, lonely girly still remained in
Marilyn. She longed to prove herself as a serious actress and to that end she
studied with renowned acting coach Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New
She emerged from her studies and
immediately gave a powerful performance in “Bus Stop” (1956), winning critical
acclaim for the role. The same year she married for the third time, to
playwright Arthur Miller. On the heels of her success in “Bus Stop”, she flew
to Britain to film “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957), which proved to be a
flop. Exhausted, Marilyn took a year off before returning with yet another
brilliant comic turn opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot”
(1959). The film was a smash and Marilyn appeared to be on top of the world
professionally, but her personal demons were quickly catching up to her.
She would appear in only two more films,
“Let’s Make Love” (1960), and “The Misfits” (1961), a powerful drama written for
her by Miller and directed by the legendary John Huston. Though her performance
was a success her behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. Marilyn and
Arthur Miller divorced later that year, leaving her once again alone, afraid and
horribly insecure. Though she was cast in “Something’s Got to Give” (1962), her
increasing absenteeism forced 20th Century Fox to fire her. She
withdrew to her Los Angeles home, where she would be found dead of an apparent
drug overdose on August 5, 1962.
Though her image as the ultimate blonde bombshell
continues to live on, the burden of insecurity, instability and isolation took
Marilyn Monroe far too early. She spent her short life trying desperately to
fit in and wanting only to be loved and through her indelible performances and
her incomparable image, she has finally found a home in the hearts of millions
Susan M. Kelly is a
freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Watch for her profiles in
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Marilyn Monroe Pages:
A Tribute to
Marilyn Monroe -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site
Marilyn Monroe's Official Web
site -- Marilyn
Monroe's official Web site welcome page with links to her biography, movies
page, pictures and much more.