Written by Issy Golding.
Marilyn Monroe. Everyone has their own image of the woman that embodies that name. But that is kind of the point. Marilyn was there for people to project their own images and fantasies on. Carefully created and then honed by the studio system at a time when “dumb blondes” were seen as disposable and easily replaceable.
Fifty-nine years after her death, people are still fascinated with her despite not knowing the real Marilyn. Her face, frozen in history at her peak, never having the chance to grow old, is plastered over home décor and souvenirs, with little thought to the fact there was a real person behind the façade.
In William J. Weatherby’s Conversations with Marilyn, she says of herself, “Marilyn Monroe became a burden, a – what do you call it? – an albatross. People expect so much of me, I sometimes hated them. It was too much of a strain.”
Born Norma Jeane Baker in 1926, she never knew her father, and her mother was sent to an institution for what is likely to have been schizophrenia, so young Norma Jeane became a ward of the state. Her childhood was spent being passed around various foster homes, where most saw her as a monthly pay check, and she was treated with indifference at best. At worst, she suffered abuse at the hands of men who were meant to care for her.
The foster home cycle only ended when a rushed marriage was arranged, when she was just sixteen, to prevent her from going back into the system. It took place just before America joined World War Two, with her husband, Jim Doherty, signing up and shipping out. Back at home, Norma Jeane began working in a munitions factory and it was here she was “discovered” by a photographer for an Army magazine, setting into motion a modelling career. This in turn led to the idea that she might be able to make a career in film, something her husband did not support, leading to divorce as she pursued her new career.
One incorrect assumption surrounding Marilyn seems to be that she just exploded onto the movie scene as an overnight success. That is far from the truth. In her slow rise to fame, she moved from modelling into receiving her first screen contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946, where she took the name Marilyn Monroe and the process of becoming the woman we picture as Marilyn begins. She had several bit parts at this time, but nothing of real note, and her contract was not renewed in 1947. It took until 1950, appearing in small but memorable roles in All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle until she caught the industry’s eye again and was offered another contract through 20th Century Fox. By 1953, her “trademark” look had been fully embraced and thanks to film roles in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, she became Fox’s most bankable star. Though not bankable enough for them to pay her what she deserved. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was paid her contract rate of $1500 per week, while co-star, Jane Russell, earned somewhere between $100000 to $200000, despite both playing joint-leads and Monroe being the “blonde” referred to in the title.
The dumb-blonde, sex-pot roles may have helped launch her career, but it also led to type-casting. The studio did not want to mess with the lucrative (for them) formula, and also did not take Marilyn seriously, despite being their highest-grossing actress. She wanted to break away from these roles, for something more substantial. She was denied, even being suspended from Fox for breaking her contract after refusing to take roles that she thought did not do her justice. During this time, she joined The Actor’s Studio in New York in a bid to study the craft and be taken more seriously. In 1955, she broke from Fox and set up her own production company, something that would help set in motion the collapse of the studio system over the following years.
Along with a desire to be taken seriously, there was also an underlying need to be seen and to be loved, a void her fame could not fill. But the Marilyn persona created issues here too. Her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, fell for “sexy” Marilyn but came to find he didn’t like that persona being on display to the world. The third husband, Arthur Miller, was supposed to be someone who could help feed Marilyn’s natural intelligence and desire to learn, but all he seemed to want was the Hollywood glamour side, becoming another man who didn’t take her seriously.
On 5th August 1962, news of Marilyn’s shock death spread around the world. Still, people are fascinated with what may have happened. Did she end her own life deliberately? Or were the Kennedys involved? These conspiracies exist because people just cannot believe that such a larger-than-life, beautiful figure could be gone from the world because of what seems the most likely, but most mundane answer, of an accidental overdose. What is forgotten during these theories is at the heart of it is a woman who never felt like she belonged, who had natural acting ability but was overwhelmed with such self-doubt that she spent years in a vicious cycle of medication to deal with her issues. At the heart of it all is still a young Norma Jean who never felt the kind of love she deserved to be given.
If you have yet to view one of Marilyn’s films, I highly recommend starting with the 1953 classic, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Along with the iconic musical number Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, the movie is a great vehicle to showcase Marilyn’s natural comedic talents. This is one of the “dumb blonde” roles where her character has more depth. On the surface, Lorelai Lee comes across as gold-digging and not very bright, but there is clearly more going on. She’s smart enough to know how to play the men around her and is using her personal weapons to give herself the best chances in life. It also helps that the film is good fun, showcasing strong female friendships, and has a wonderful timeless feeling to it.
Marilyn Monroe: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Melville House Publishing, 2020 – specific reference made from interview Conversations with Marilyn by William J. Weatherby. First published by Paragon House, 1992)
My Story by Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007