Known for: celebrity and actress, sex symbol, “blonde bombshell”
Dates: June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962
Occupation: movie actress
Also known as: Norma Jeane Baker, Norma Jean Baker, Norma Jean Mortenson, Norma Jean Mortensen
Religion: Convert to Judaism
Marilyn Monroe, whose name was Norma Jean Baker in childhood, was born to Gladys Mortenson, a film technician, whose husband, Edward Mortenson, deserted the family. Norma Jean’s natural father may have actually been another studio employee, C. Stanley Gifford. Gladys’ mental illness surfaced shortly after her daughter’s birth, and she was institutionalized much of Norma Jean’s growing years. Norma Jean was placed in a series of twelve foster homes, and once in an orphanage. She attended Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles, California.
At sixteen, Norma Jean escaped the foster system by marrying 20-year-old James Dougherty. A year later, in 1943, he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine. Norma Jean took a job in an airline plant, part of the World War II factory effort, and worked first as a parachute inspector, then as a paint sprayer. When the government came through to take promotional photographs of the women working in the plant, the brunette Norma Jean learned that she photographed well, took a modeling course, and began working part-time as a photographer’s model.
Success as a photographer’s model led her to her dream of becoming an actress. In 1946, she divorced Dougherty and bleached her hair to become a blond. She signed a one-year, $125/month contract with Twentieth Century-Fox on August 26, 1946. Ben Lyon, casting director, suggested that she take the name Marilyn, and she added her grandmother’s last name, Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe as an Actress
Marilyn Monroe played one bit part that year, all of which ended up on the cutting room floor. The next year, she signed another one-year contract, this time with Columbia. The results weren’t any better.
In 1950, Marilyn Monroe posed for full-length nude shots, which the photographer Tom Kelley sold for a calendar. That same year, she appeared in a bit part in The Asphalt Jungle, and though her name wasn’t even mentioned in the credits, her appearance generated a huge amount of fan mail. Her reputation as a blond bombshell had begun to be established.
So Twentieth Century-Fox signed Marilyn Monroe to a new contract — this time, for seven years. She appeared in All About Eve. In 1953, she had her first starring role, in Niagara. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes she sang and, for the first time, she had her own dressing room.
In January 1954, Marilyn Monroe married the famous baseball player, Joe DiMaggio. The marriage was short-lived; they divorced in October.
Seven Year Itch
For the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe appeared in the famous photographic stunt, in a white halter dress, with her skirt blown up by a draft from a sidewalk grate, leaning down to catch her dress so that her cleavage showed. The photograph was used to advertise the film and has become one of the iconic images of Marilyn Monroe.
After filming The Seven Year Itch, in which she plays a prototypical “dumb blond,” Marilyn Monroe decided to work more seriously on her acting skills, to the skepticism of many critics. She broke her movie contract and moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg for a year.
Success … and Problems
In 1955, she founded her own company with Milton Greene, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and signed a new contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. She made the 1956 movie Bus Stop, which wowed the critics, but she’d begun to lose herself to self-doubt, depression, drugs, and alcohol.
Marilyn Monroe, whose mother and maternal grandparents had all struggled with mental illness and institutionalization, began taking sleeping pills for her insomnia. She regularly consulted psychiatrists. She drank heavily, and began a habit of arriving late to work, and sometimes not being able to work at all.
Marriage to Arthur Miller
She married Arthur Miller, the playwright, shortly after Bus Stop was released, and for the marriage converted to Judaism. She lived quietly for two years with her new husband. During that time, Miller was fighting his conviction for contempt-of-Congress for refusing to answer two questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The marriage, and several miscarriages added to her self-doubt and depression, and to her use of drugs and alcohol.
Marilyn Monroe’s next movie, The Prince and the Showgirl, brought mixed reviews. That was followed by Let’s Make Love and an unhappy romantic liaison with co-star Yves Montand.
The Misfits was written for Marilyn Monroe by her husband, Arthur Miller. She performed well in the final product, though, during its filming, she was often under the influence of alcohol and pills, and she was notoriously late to the set. Marilyn was affected by the death, two months after the film was completed, of her co-star, Clark Gable.
In early 1961, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller divorced. During this period, she was also bothered by many rumors of affairs, including with the President, John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.
Filming her next project, ironically titled Something’s Got to Give, Marilyn’s lateness and addictions led to her dismissal after a month. She was briefly committed to a mental hospital. She was approved to return to the film, but never resumed filming.
Two months later, in her home in Los Angeles, Marilyn Monroe was found by her housekeeper, dead, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to her body. The coroner found the death was caused by an overdose of barbiturates and pronounced it a possible suicide. No evidence of foul play was presented to the coroner.
Marilyn Monroe’s funeral was planned by Joe DiMaggio; Lee Strasberg delivered the eulogy.
Marilyn Monroe’s Parents
- Mother: Gladys Monroe Baker (also called Gladys Pearl Baker or Gladys Monroe Mortenson)
- Father: Edward Mortenson or C. Stanley Gifford
Marilyn Monroe’s Husbands
- James Dougherty (married June 19, 1942; divorced September 13, 1946)
- Joe DiMaggio (married January 14, 1954; divorced October 27, 1954)
- Arthur Miller (married June 29, 1956; divorced January 24, 1961)
- Van Nuys High School
- 3-month modeling course
- dramatic coach, Natasha Lyless
- Actors Lab, Los Angeles
- Actors Studio, New York