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Marilyn Monroe Bio
Marilyn Monroe (born June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962 as Norma Jeane Mortenson) was an American Actress and Model. Famous for playing “dumb Blonde” characters, she became one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s, emblematic of the era’s attitudes towards sexuality. Although she was a top-billed Actress for only a decade, her films grossed $200 million by the time of her unexpected death in 1962. She continues to be considered a major popular culture icon. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Monroe spent most of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage and married for the first time at the age of sixteen. While working in a factory as part of the war effort in 1944, she met a photographer and began a successful pin-up modeling career. The work led to two short-lived film contracts with Twentieth Century-Fox (1946–47) and Columbia Pictures (1948). After a series of minor film roles, she signed a new contract with Fox in 1951. Over the next two years, she became a popular Actress with roles in several comedies, including As Young as You Feel and Monkey Business, and in the dramas Clash by Night and Don’t Bother to Knock. Monroe faced a Scandal when it was revealed that she had posed for nude photos before becoming a star, but rather than damaging her career, the story increased interest in her films. By 1953, Monroe was one of the most bankable Hollywood stars, with leading roles in three films: the noir Niagara, which focused on her sex appeal, and the comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, which established her star image as a “dumb Blonde“. Although she played a significant role in the creation and management of her public image throughout her career, she was disappointed at being typecast and underpaid by the studio. She was briefly suspended in early 1954 for refusing a film project, but returned to star in one of the biggest box office successes of her career, The Seven Year Itch (1955). When the studio was still reluctant to change her contract, Monroe founded a film production company in late 1954, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). She dedicated 1955 to building her company and began studying method acting at the Actors Studio. In late 1955, Fox gave her a new contract, which gave her more control and a larger salary. After giving a critically acclaimed performance in Bus Stop (1956) and acting in the first independent production of MMP, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for Some Like It Hot (1959). Her last completed film was the drama The Misfits (1961). Monroe’s troubled private life received much attention. She struggled with addiction, depression, and anxiety. She had two highly publicized marriages, to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, which both ended in divorce. She died at the age of 36 from an overdose of barbiturates at her home in Los Angeles on August 5, 1962. Although the death was ruled a probable suicide, several conspiracy theories have been proposed in the decades following her death.
Modeling and first film roles (1945–49)
In late 1944, Monroe met photographer David Conover, who had been sent by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) to the factory to shoot morale-boosting pictures of female workers. Although none of her pictures were used by the FMPU, she quit working at the factory in January 1945 and began modeling for Conover and his Friends. He also encouraged her to apply to the Blue Book Model Agency, run by Emmeline Snively, to which she was signed in August 1945. She began to occasionally use the name Jean Norman when working, and had her curly brunette hair straightened and dyed blond to make her more employable. As her figure was deemed more suitable for pin-up than fashion modeling, she was employed mostly for advertisements and men’s magazines. According to Snively, Monroe was one of the agency’s most ambitious and hard-working models; by spring 1946, she had appeared on 33 magazine covers for publications such as Pageant, U.S. Camera, Laff, and Peek. Impressed by her success, Snively arranged a contract for Monroe with an acting agency in June 1946. Through it, she met Ben Lyon, a 20th Century-Fox executive, who gave her a screen test. Head executive Darryl F. Zanuck was unenthusiastic about it, but he was persuaded to give her a standard six-month contract to avoid her being signed by rival studio RKO Pictures. Monroe began her contract in August 1946, and together with Lyon selected the screen name of “Marilyn Monroe“. The first name was picked by Lyon, who was reminded of Broadway star Marilyn Miller; the last was picked by Monroe after her mother’s maiden name. In September 1946, she was granted a divorce from Dougherty, allowing her to concentrate on her acting career. Monroe had no film roles during the first months of her contract and instead dedicated her days to acting, singing and dancing classes. Eager to learn more about the film industry and to promote herself, she also spent time at the studio lot to observe others working. Her contract was renewed in February 1947, and during that spring she was given her first two film roles: nine lines of dialogue as a waitress in the drama Dangerous Years (1947) and a one-line appearance in the comedy Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948). The studio also enrolled her in the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, an acting school teaching the techniques of the Group Theatre. Monroe’s contract was not renewed in August 1947, and she returned to modeling. She continued taking classes at the Actors’ Lab, and in October appeared as a Blonde vamp in the short-lived play Glamour Preferred at the Bliss-Hayden Theater, but the production was not reviewed by any major publication. Monroe landed her next film contract in March 1948, this time with Columbia Pictures. According to biographers Donald Spoto, Anthony Summers and Lois Banner, it was arranged for her by Fox executive Joseph M. Schenck, whose mistress she was at the time, and who was Friends with Columbia’s head executive, Harry Cohn. At Columbia, Monroe began working with the studio’s head drama coach, Natasha Lytess, who would remain her mentor until 1955, and had some changes made to her appearance: her hairline was raised by electrolysis and her hair was bleached even lighter, to platinum blond. Her only film at the studio was the low-budget musical Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which she had her first starring role as a chorus girl who is courted by a wealthy man. During the production, she began an affair with her vocal coach, Fred Karger, who paid to have her slight overbite corrected. Despite the starring role, Monroe’s contract was not renewed. Ladies of the Chorus was released in October and was not a success. After leaving Columbia in September 1948, Monroe became a protégée of Johnny Hyde, vice president of the William Morris Agency. Hyde began representing her and their relationship soon became sexual, although she refused his proposals of marriage. To advance Monroe’s career, he paid for a silicone prosthesis to be implanted in her jaw and possibly for a rhinoplasty, and arranged a bit part in the Marx Brothers film Love Happy (1950). Monroe also continued modeling, and in May 1949 posed for nude photos Taken by Tom Kelley. Although her role in Love Happy was very small, she was chosen to participate in the film’s promotional tour in New York in the summer.
Monroe appeared in six films released in 1950. She had bit parts in Love Happy, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Right Cross and The Fireball, but also made minor appearances in two critically acclaimed films: John Huston’s crime film The Asphalt Jungle and Joseph Mankiewicz’s drama All About Eve. In the former, Monroe played Angela, the young mistress of an aging criminal. Although only on the screen for five minutes, she gained a mention in Photoplay and according to Spoto “moved effectively from movie Model to serious Actress“. In All About Eve, Monroe played Miss Caswell, a naïve young Actress. Following Monroe’s success in these roles, Hyde negotiated a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox in December 1950. He died of a heart attack only days later, leaving her devastated. Despite her grief, 1951 became the year in which she gained more visibility. In March, she was a presenter at the 23rd Academy Awards and in September, Collier’s became the first national magazine to publish a full-length profile of her. She had supporting roles in four low-budget films: in the MGM drama Home Town Story, and in three moderately successful comedies for Fox, As Young as You Feel, Love Nest, and Let’s Make It Legal. According to Spoto all four films featured her “essentially [as] a sexy ornament”, but she received some praise from critics: Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described her as “superb” in As Young As You Feel and Ezra Goodman of the Los Angeles Daily News called her “one of the brightest up-and-coming [actresses]” for Love Nest. To develop her acting skills, Monroe began taking classes with Michael Chekhov. Her popularity with audiences was also growing: she received several thousand letters of fan mail a week, and was declared “Miss Cheesecake of 1951” by the army newspaper Stars and Stripes, reflecting the preferences of soldiers in the Korean War. In her private life, Monroe was in a relationship with director Elia Kazan, and also briefly dated several other men, including directors Nicholas Ray and Yul Brynner and actor Peter Lawford. The second year of the Fox contract saw Monroe become a top-billed Actress, with gossip columnist Florabel Muir naming her the year’s “it girl” and Hedda Hopper describing her as the “cheesecake queen” turned “box office Smash“. In February, she was named the “best young box office personality” by the Foreign Press Association of Hollywood, and began a highly publicized romance with retired New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio, one of the most famous sports personalities of the era. The following month, a Scandal broke when she revealed in an interview that she had posed for nude pictures in 1949, which were featured in calendars. The studio had learned of the photographs some weeks earlier, and to contain the potentially disastrous effects on her career, they and Monroe had decided to talk about them openly while stressing that she had only posed for them in a dire financial situation. The strategy succeeded in getting her public sympathy and increased interest in her films: the following month, she was featured on the cover of Life as “The Talk of Hollywood”. Monroe added to her reputation as a new sex symbol with other publicity stunts that year, such as wearing a revealing dress when acting as Grand Marshal at the Miss America Pageant parade, and by stating to gossip columnist Earl Wilson that she usually wore no underwear. Monroe appeared in three commercially successful films in the summer of 1952. The first was Fritz Lang’s drama Clash by Night, for which she was loaned to RKO and featured in an atypical role as a fish cannery worker, allowing her to show more of her acting range. Monroe received positive reviews for her performance: The Hollywood Reporter stated that “she deserves starring status with her excellent interpretation”, and Variety wrote that she “has an ease of delivery which makes her a cinch for popularity”. She then starred as a beauty pageant contestant in the comedy We’re Not Married! and as a mentally disturbed babysitter in the thriller Don’t Bother to Knock. According to its writer Nunnally Johnson, the former role was created solely to “present Marilyn in two bathing Suits“, but the latter film was intended as a vehicle to show that she could act in heavier dramatic roles. It received mixed reviews from critics, with Crowther deeming her too inexperienced for the difficult role, and Variety blaming the script for the film’s problems. Monroe next played a secretary opposite Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy Monkey Business. Released in October, it was one of the first films to feature her as a “dumb, childish Blonde, innocently unaware of the Havoc her sexiness causes around her”, marking the beginning of typecasting in her career. Monroe’s final film of the year was O. Henry’s House page’>Full House, in which she had a minor role as a prostitute. During this period Monroe gained a reputation for being difficult on film sets, which worsened as her career progressed: she was often late or did not show up at all, could not remember her lines, and would demand several re-takes before she was satisfied with her performance. A dependence on her acting coaches, first Natasha Lytess and later Paula Strasberg, also irritated directors. Monroe’s problems have been attributed to a combination of perfectionism, low self-esteem, stage fright, and her gradually escalating use of barbiturates, amphetamines and alcohol, which most likely began during this period to aid with her anxiety and chronic insomnia. The use of medication to assist sleeping and to provide energy was not unusual in the 1950s, and was reportedly very common in the film industry.
Rising star (1953)
Monroe starred in three movies released in 1953, emerging as a major sex symbol and one of Hollywood’s most bankable performers. The first of these was the Technicolor film noir Niagara, in which she played a femme fatale scheming to murder her husband, played by Joseph Cotten. By then, Monroe and her make-up artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder had developed the make-up look that became associated with her: dark arched brows, pale skin, “glistening” red lips and a beauty mark. According to Sarah Churchwell, Niagara was one of the most overtly sexual films of Monroe’s career, and it included scenes in which her body was covered only by a sheet or a towel, considered shocking by contemporary audiences. Its most famous scene is a 30-second long shot of Monroe shown walking from behind with her hips swaying, which was heavily used in the film’s marketing. Upon Niagara’s release in January, women’s clubs protested against it as immoral. While Variety deemed it “clichéd” and “morbid”, The New York Times commented that “the falls and Miss Monroe are something to see”, as although Monroe may not be “the perfect Actress at this point … she can be seductive – even when she walks”. Monroe continued to attract attention with her revealing outfits in publicity events, most famously at the Photoplay awards in January 1953, where she won the “Fastest Rising Star” award. She wore a skin-tight gold lamé dress, which prompted veteran star Joan Crawford to describe her behavior as “unbecoming an Actress and a lady” to the press. While Niagara made Monroe a sex symbol and established her “look”, her second film of the year, musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, established her star image as a “dumb Blonde“. Based on Anita Loos’ bestselling novel and its Broadway version, the film focuses on two “gold-digging” showgirls, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, played by Monroe and Jane Russell. The role of Lorelei was originally intended for Betty Grable, who had been 20th Century-Fox’s most popular “Blonde bombshell” in the 1940s; Monroe was fast eclipsing her as a star who could appeal to both male and female audiences. As part of the film’s publicity campaign, she and Russell pressed their hand and footprints in wet concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in June. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released shortly after and became one of the biggest box office successes of the year by grossing $5.3 million, more than double its production costs. Crowther of The New York Times and William Brogdon of Variety both commented favorably on Monroe, especially noting her performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”; according to the latter, she demonstrated the “ability to sex a song as well as point up the eye values of a scene by her presence”. In September, Monroe made her television debut in the Jack Benny Show, playing Jack’s fantasy woman in the episode “Honolulu Trip”. Her third movie of the year, How to Marry a Millionaire, co-starred Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall and was released in November. It featured Monroe in the role of a naïve Model who teams up with her Friends to find rich husbands, repeating the successful formula of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was the second film ever released in CinemaScope, a widescreen format which Fox hoped would draw audiences back to theaters as television was beginning to cause losses to film studios. Despite mixed reviews, the film was Monroe’s biggest box office success so far, earning $8 million in world rentals. Monroe was listed in the annual Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll in both 1953 and 1954, and according to Fox historian Aubrey Solomon became the studio’s “greatest asset” alongside CinemaScope. Monroe’s position as a leading sex symbol was confirmed in December, when Hugh Hefner featured her on the cover and as centerfold in the first issue of Playboy. The cover image was a shot of her at the Miss America Pageant parade in 1952, and the centerfold featured one of her 1949 nude photographs.
Conflicts with 20th Century-Fox and marriage to Joe DiMaggio (1954–55)
Although Monroe had become one of 20th Century-Fox’s biggest stars, her contract had not changed since 1950, meaning that she was paid far less than other stars of her stature and could not choose her projects or co-workers. She was also tired of being typecast, and her attempts to appear in films other than comedies or musicals had been thwarted by Zanuck. When she refused to begin shooting yet another musical comedy, a film version of The Girl in Pink Tights, which was to co-star Frank Sinatra, the studio suspended her on January 4, 1954. The suspension was front page news and Monroe immediately began a publicity campaign to counter any negative press and to strengthen her position in the conflict. On January 14, she and Joe DiMaggio, whose relationship had been subject to constant media attention since 1952, were married at the San Francisco City Hall. They then traveled to Japan, combining a honeymoon with his business trip. From there, she traveled alone to Korea, where she performed songs from her films as part of a USO show for over 60,000 U.S. Marines over a four-day period. After returning to Hollywood in February, she was awarded Photoplay’s “Most Popular Female Star” prize. She reached a settlement with the studio in March: it included a new contract to be made later in the year, and a starring role in the film version of the Broadway play The Seven Year Itch, for which she was to receive a bonus of $100,000. The following month saw the release of Otto Preminger’s Western River of No Return, in which Monroe appeared opposite Robert Mitchum. She called it a “Z-grade cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process”, although it was popular with audiences. The first film she made after returning to Fox was the musical There’s No Business Like Show Business, which she strongly disliked but the studio required her to do in exchange for dropping The Girl in Pink Tights. The musical was unsuccessful upon its release in December, and Monroe’s performance was considered vulgar by many critics. In September 1954, Monroe began filming Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch, in which she starred opposite Tom Ewell as a woman who becomes the object of her married neighbor’s sexual fantasies. Although the film was shot in Hollywood, the studio decided to generate advance publicity by staging the filming of one scene on Lexington Avenue in New York. In it, Monroe is standing on a subway grate with the air blowing up the skirt of her white dress, which became one of the most famous scenes of her career. The shoot lasted for several hours and attracted a crowd of nearly 2,000 spectators, including professional photographers. While the publicity stunt placed Monroe on front pages all over the world, it also marked the end of her marriage to DiMaggio, who was furious about it. The union had been troubled from the start by his jealousy and controlling attitude; Spoto and Banner have also asserted that he was physically abusive. After returning to Hollywood, Monroe hired famous attorney Jerry Giesler and announced that she was filing for divorce in October 1954. The Seven Year Itch was released the following June, and grossed over $4.5 million at the box office, making it one of the biggest commercial successes of the summer. After filming for Itch wrapped in November, Monroe began a new battle for control over her career and left Hollywood for the East Coast, where she and photographer Milton Greene founded their own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) – an action that has later been called “instrumental” in the collapse of the studio system. Monroe and Greene asserted that she was no longer under contract to Fox, as the studio had not fulfilled its duties, such as paying her the promised bonus for The Seven Year Itch. This began a year-long legal battle between her and the studio. The press largely ridiculed Monroe for her actions and she was parodied in Itch writer George Axelrod’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955), in which her lookalike Jayne Mansfield played a dumb Actress who starts her own production company. Monroe dedicated 1955 to studying her craft. She moved to New York and began taking acting classes with Constance Collier and attending workshops on method acting at the Actors Studio, run by Lee Strasberg. She grew close to Strasberg and his wife Paula, receiving private lessons at their home due to her shyness, and soon became like a family member. She dismissed her old drama coach, Natasha Lytess, and replaced her with Paula; the Strasbergs remained an important influence for the rest of her career. Monroe also started undergoing psychoanalysis at the recommendation of Strasberg, who believed that an actor must confront their emotional traumas and use them in their performances. To remain in the public eye, Monroe arranged publicity for herself throughout the year. In her private life, she continued her relationship with DiMaggio despite the ongoing divorce proceedings while also dating actor Marlon Brando and playwright Arthur Miller. She had first been introduced to Miller by Kazan in the early 1950s. The Affair between Monroe and Miller became increasingly serious after October 1955, when her divorce from DiMaggio was finalized, and Miller separated from his wife. The studio feared that Monroe would be blacklisted and urged her to end The Affair, as Miller was being investigated by the FBI for allegations of communism and had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The FBI also opened a file on her. Despite the risk to her career, Monroe refused to end the relationship, later calling the studio heads “born cowards”. By the end of the year, Monroe and Fox had come to an agreement about a new seven-year contract. It was clear that MMP would not be able to finance films alone, and the studio was eager to have Monroe working again. The contract required her to make four movies for Fox during the seven years. The studio would pay her $100,000 for each movie, and granted her the right to choose her own projects, directors and cinematographers. She would also be free to make one film with MMP per each completed film for Fox.
Critical acclaim and marriage to Arthur Miller (1956–59)
Monroe began 1956 by announcing her win over 20th Century-Fox, which prompted Time to call her a “shrewd businesswoman”. She also officially changed her name to Marilyn Monroe in March. Her relationship with Miller prompted some negative comments from the press, including Walter Winchell’s statement that “America’s best-known Blonde moving picture star is now the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia.” Monroe and Miller were married at the Westchester County Court in White Plains, New York on June 29, and two days later had a Jewish ceremony at his agent’s House near Katonah, New York. Monroe converted to Judaism with the marriage, which led Egypt to ban all of her films. The media saw the union as mismatched given her star image as a “dumb Blonde” and his position as an intellectual, as demonstrated by Variety’s headline “Egghead Weds Hourglass”. The first film that Monroe made under the new contract was Bus Stop, released in August 1956. She played Chérie, a saloon Singer whose dreams of stardom are complicated by a naïve cowboy who falls in love with her. For the role, she learnt an Ozark accent, chose costumes and make-up that lacked the glamour of her earlier films, and provided deliberately mediocre singing and dancing. Broadway director Joshua Logan agreed to direct, despite doubting her acting abilities and knowing of her reputation for being difficult. The filming took place in Idaho and Arizona in spring 1956, and proceeded well after Logan adapted to her chronic lateness and perfectionism, and allowed her to run the production the way she wanted it. Bus Stop became a box office success, grossing $4.25 million, and received mainly favorable reviews, with Crowther proclaiming: “Hold on to your chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise. Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an Actress.” She received a Golden Globe for Best Actress nomination for her performance. In August 1956, Monroe began filming MMP’s first independent production, The Prince and the Showgirl, at Pinewood Studios in England. It was based on Terrence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, a play about an affair between a showgirl and a prince in the 1910s. The main roles had first been played on stage by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; he reprised his role and directed and co-produced the film. The production was complicated by conflicts between him and Monroe. He angered her with the patronizing statement “All you have to do is be sexy”, and by wanting her to replicate Leigh’s interpretation. He also disliked the constant presence of Paula Strasberg, Monroe’s acting coach, on set. In retaliation to what she considered Olivier’s “condescending” behavior, Monroe started arriving late and became uncooperative, stating later that “if you don’t respect your artists, they can’t work well.” Her drug use increased and, according to Spoto, she became pregnant and miscarried during the production. She also had arguments with Greene over how MMP should be run, including whether Miller should join the company. Despite the difficulties, the film was completed on schedule by the end of the year. It was released in June 1957 to mixed reviews, and proved unpopular with American audiences. It was better received in Europe, where she was awarded the Italian David di Donatello and the French Crystal Star awards, and was nominated for a BAFTA. After returning from England, Monroe took an 18-month hiatus from work to concentrate on married life on the East Coast. She and Miller split their time between New York and Roxbury, Connecticut, and spent the summer in Amagansett, Long Island. She became pregnant in the summer of 1957, but it was ectopic and had to be terminated. She suffered a miscarriage a year later. Her gynecological problems were largely caused by endometriosis, a disease from which she suffered throughout her adult life. During the hiatus, she dismissed Greene from MMP and bought his share of the company as they could not settle their disagreements. Monroe returned to Hollywood in July 1958 to act opposite Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot. Although she considered the role of Sugar Kane another “dumb Blonde“, she accepted it due to Miller’s encouragement and the offer of receiving ten percent of the film’s profits in addition to her standard pay. The difficulties of the film’s production have since become “legendary”. Monroe would demand dozens of re-takes, and could not remember her lines or act as directed – Curtis famously stated that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler” due to the number of re-takes. Many of the problems stemmed from a conflict with Wilder, who also had a reputation for being difficult, on how she should play the character. Monroe made Wilder angry by asking him to alter many of her scenes, which in turn made her stage fright worse, and it is suggested that she deliberately ruined several scenes to act it her way. In the end, Wilder was happy with Monroe’s performance, stating: “Anyone can remember lines, but it takes a real artist to come on the set and not know her lines and yet give the performance she did!” Despite the difficulties of its production, when Some Like It Hot was released in March 1959, it became a critical and commercial success. Monroe’s performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and prompted Variety to call her “a comedienne with that combination of sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat”. It has been voted one of the best films ever made in polls by the American Film Institute and Sight & Sound.
Final films and personal difficulties (1960–62)
After Some Like It Hot, Monroe took another hiatus from working until late 1959, when she returned to Hollywood to star in the musical comedy Let’s Make Love, about an Actress and a millionaire who fall in love when performing in a satirical play. She chose George Cukor to direct and Miller re-wrote portions of the script, which she considered weak; she accepted the part solely because she was behind on her contract with Fox, having only made one of four promised films. Its production was delayed by her frequent absences from set. She had an affair with Yves Montand, her co-star, which was widely reported by the press and used in the film’s publicity campaign. Let’s Make Love was unsuccessful upon its release in September 1960; Crowther described Monroe as appearing “rather untidy” and “lacking … the old Monroe dynamism”, and Hedda Hopper called the film “the most vulgar picture she’s ever done”. Truman Capote lobbied for her to play Holly Golightly in a film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the role went to Audrey Hepburn as its producers feared that Monroe would complicate the production. The last film that Monroe completed was John Huston’s The Misfits, which Miller had written to provide her with a dramatic role. She played a recently divorced woman who becomes Friends with three aging cowboys, played by Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. Its filming in the Nevada desert between July and November 1960 was again difficult. Monroe and Miller’s four-year marriage was effectively over, and he began a new relationship. Monroe disliked that he had based her role partly on her life, and thought it inferior to the male roles; she also struggled with Miller’s habit of re-writing scenes the night before filming. Her health was also failing: she was in pain from gall stones, and her drug addiction was so severe that her make-up usually had to be applied while she was still asleep under the influence of barbiturates. In August, filming was halted for her to spend a week detoxing in a Los Angeles hospital. Monroe and Miller separated after filming wrapped, and she was granted a quick divorce in Mexico in January 1961. The Misfits was released the following month, failing at the box office. Its reviews were mixed, with Bosley Crowther calling Monroe “completely blank and unfathomable” and stating that “unfortunately for the film’s structure, everything turns upon her”. Despite the film’s initial failure, in 2015 Geoff Andrew of the British Film Institute described it as a classic. Monroe was next to star in a television adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story Rain for NBC, but the project fell through as the channel did not want to hire her choice of director, Lee Strasberg. Instead of working, she spent a large part of 1961 preoccupied by health problems, undergoing surgery for her endometriosis and a cholecystectomy, and spending four weeks in hospital care – including a brief stint in a mental ward – for depression. She was helped by her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, with whom she had not been in contact since the finalization of their divorce in 1955; they now rekindled their friendship. In spring 1961, Monroe moved back to Los Angeles after six years in New York. She began a relationship with Frank Sinatra, and in early 1962 purchased a House in Brentwood. Monroe returned to the public eye in 1962; she received a “World Film Favorite” Golden Globe award in March and began to shoot a new film for 20th Century-Fox, Something’s Got to Give, a re-make of My Favorite Wife (1940), in late April. It was to be co-produced by MMP, directed by George Cukor and to co-star Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse. Monroe was absent for the first two weeks of filming due to the flu; biographers have also attributed her absence to sinusitis or her ongoing drug addiction. On May 19, she took a break from filming to sing “Happy Birthday” on stage at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in New York. She drew attention with her costume: a beige, skintight dress covered in rhinestones, which made her appear nude. Most of Monroe’s biographers agree that she had an affair with Kennedy at some point in the last two years of her life, although they disagree on its length and timing. Monroe next filmed a scene for Something’s Got to Give in which she swam naked in a swimming pool. To generate advance publicity, the press were invited to take photographs of the scene, which were later published in Life; this was the first time that a major star had posed nude while at the height of their career. When she was again absent from set for several days, the studio fired her on June 7 and sued her for breach of contract, demanding $750,000 in damages. She was replaced by Lee Remick, but after Martin refused to make the film with anyone other than Monroe, Fox sued him as well and shut down the production. The studio publicly blamed Monroe’s drug addiction and alleged lack of professionalism for the demise of the film, even claiming that she was mentally disturbed. To counter the claims, Monroe engaged in several publicity ventures, including interviews for Life and Cosmopolitan and her first photo shoot for Vogue. For Vogue, Monroe and photographer Bert Stern collaborated for two series of photographs, one a standard fashion editorial and another of her posing nude, which were both later published posthumously with the title The Last Sitting. In the last weeks of her life, Monroe began negotiations with Fox about resuming filming on Something’s Got to Give, and made plans for starring in What a Way to Go! (1964) and a biopic about Jean Harlow.
Monroe was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood home by her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, in the early morning hours of August 5, 1962. Greenson had been called there by her housekeeper Eunice Murray, who was staying overnight and had awoken at 3:00 a.m. “sensing that something was wrong”. Murray had seen light from under Monroe’s bedroom door, but had not been able to get a response and found the door locked. The death was officially confirmed by Monroe’s physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, who arrived at the House at around 3:50 a.m. At 4:25 a.m., they notified the Los Angeles Police Department. The Los Angeles County Coroners Office was assisted in their investigation by experts from the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Team. It was estimated that Monroe had died between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m., and the toxicological analysis concluded that the cause of death was acute barbiturate poisoning, as she had 8 mg of chloral hydrate and 4.5 mg of pentobarbital (Nembutal) in her blood, and a further 13 mg of pentobarbital in her liver. Empty bottles containing these medicines were found next to her bed. The possibility of Monroe having accidentally overdosed was ruled out as the dosages found in her body were several times over the lethal limit. Her doctors and psychiatrists stated that she had been prone to “severe fears and frequent depressions” with “abrupt and unpredictable” mood changes, and had overdosed several times in the past, possibly intentionally. Due to these facts and the lack of any indication of foul play, her death was classified a probable suicide. Monroe’s unexpected death was front-page news in the United States and Europe. According to Lois Banner, “it’s said that the suicide rate in Los Angeles doubled the month after she died; the circulation rate of most newspapers expanded that month”, and the Chicago Tribune reported that they had received hundreds of phone calls from members of the public requesting information about her death. French artist Jean Cocteau commented that her death “should serve as a terrible lesson to all those, whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars”, her former co-star Laurence Olivier deemed her “the complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation”, and Bus Stop director Joshua Logan stated that she was “one of the most unappreciated people in the world”. Her funeral, held at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on August 8, was private and attended by only her closest associates. It was arranged by Joe DiMaggio and her business manager Inez Melson. Hundreds of spectators crowded the streets around the cemetery. Monroe was later interred at crypt No. 24 at the Corridor of Memories. Several conspiracy theories about Monroe’s death have been proposed in the decades afterwards, including murder and accidental overdose. The murder speculations first gained mainstream attention with the publication of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography in 1973, and in the following years became widespread enough for the Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp to conduct a “threshold investigation” in 1982 to see whether a criminal investigation should be opened. No evidence of foul play was found.
Public image and reception
I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of.
—Monroe in an interview for Life in 1962
When beginning to develop her star image, 20th Century-Fox wanted Monroe to replace the aging Betty Grable, their most popular “Blonde bombshell” of the 1940s. While the 1940s had been the heyday of actresses perceived as tough and smart, such as Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, who appealed to women-dominated audiences, the studio wanted Monroe to be a star of the new decade that would draw men to movie theaters. She played a significant part in the creation of her public image from the beginning, and towards the end of her career exerted almost full control over it. Monroe was responsible for many of her publicity strategies, cultivated friendships with gossip columnists such as Sidney Skolsky and Louella Parsons, and controlled the use of her images. Besides Grable, she was often compared to another iconic Blonde, 1930s film star Jean Harlow. The comparison was partly prompted by Monroe, who named Harlow as her childhood idol, wanted to play her in a biopic, and even employed Harlow’s hair stylist to color her hair. Monroe was also influenced by Mae West, stating: “I learned a few tricks from her – that impression of laughing at, or mocking, her own sexuality”. Monroe’s star image centered on her blond hair, and the stereotypes associated with it, especially dumbness, sexual availability and artificiality. Having begun her career as a pin-up Model, this style carried over to her films, and she became noted for her hourglass figure. Film scholar Richard Dyer has noted that Monroe was often positioned so that her curvy silhouette was on display, and in her publicity photos often posed like a pin-up. Her distinctive, hip-swinging walk also drew attention to her body, earning her the nickname “the girl with the horizontal walk”. Monroe’s clothing choices played an important part in her star image. She often wore white to emphasize her blondness, and drew attention by wearing revealing outfits that showed off her figure. Her publicity stunts often revolved around her clothing exposing large amounts of her body or even malfunctioning, such as when one of the shoulder straps of her dress suddenly snapped during a press conference. To emphasize her “innocence” and “dumbness”, Monroe often used a breathy, childish voice in her films, and in interviews parodied herself with double entendres that came to be known as “Monroeisms”. For example, when she was asked whether she had anything on during the 1949 nude photo shoot, she replied, “I had the radio on”. She was portrayed as the embodiment of the American Dream, as a girl who had risen from a miserable childhood to Hollywood stardom. Stories of her time spent in foster families and an orphanage were exaggerated and even partly fabricated in her studio biographies. According to film scholar Thomas Harris, her working class roots and lack of family also made her appear more sexually available, “the ideal playmate”, in contrast to her contemporary Grace Kelly, who was also marketed as an attractive Blonde, but due to her upper-class background came to be seen as a sophisticated Actress, unattainable for the majority of male viewers. According to Dyer, Monroe became “virtually a household name for sex” in the 1950s and “her image has to be situated in the flux of ideas about morality and sexuality that characterised the fifties in America”, such as Freudian ideas about sex, the Kinsey report (1953), and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). According to him, Monroe’s star image was created mainly for the male gaze as characterized in film roles where she generally played “the girl”, who is defined solely by her gender. Her roles were almost always chorus girls, secretaries, or models; occupations where “the woman is on show, there for the pleasure of men.” Dyer also sees Monroe as the first sex symbol to combine “naturalness” and sexuality, in contrast to the 1940s femme fatales. This alleged artlessness and lack of Shame about her sexuality was closely linked to her image as a dumb and vulnerable woman. According to Norman Mailer, “Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her.” Similarly, Molly Haskell has written that “she was the fifties fiction, the lie that a woman had no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” She has also stated that before her death, Monroe was less popular with women than with men, as they “couldn’t identify with her and didn’t support her”. The importance of blondness to Monroe’s star image has also been analyzed by film historians. Dyer has argued that platinum Blonde hair became such a defining feature of her because it made her “racially unambiguous” and exclusively white, and that she should be seen as emblematic of racism in twentieth-century popular culture. Lois Banner agrees that it may not be a coincidence that Monroe launched a trend of platinum Blonde actresses at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning, but has also criticized Dyer, pointing out that in her highly publicized private life Monroe associated with people who were seen as “white ethnics”, such as Joe DiMaggio (Italian-American) and Arthur Miller (Jewish). According to Banner, she sometimes challenged prevailing racial norms in her publicity photographs; for example, in an image featured in Look in 1951, she was shown in revealing clothes while practicing with African-American singing coach Phil Moore. As well as being a sex symbol, Monroe was perceived as a specifically American star, “a national institution as well known as hot dogs, apple pie, or baseball” according to Photoplay. Historian Fiona Handyside writes that the French female audiences associated whiteness/blondness with American modernity and cleanliness, and so Monroe came to symbolize a modern, “liberated” woman whose life takes place in the public sphere. Film historian Laura Mulvey has written of her as an endorsement for American consumer culture:
If America was to export the democracy of glamour into post-war, impoverished Europe, the movies could be its shop window … Marilyn Monroe, with her all American attributes and streamlined sexuality, came to epitomise in a single image this complex interface of the economic, the political, and the erotic. By the mid 1950s, she stood for a brand of classless glamour, available to anyone using American cosmetics, nylons and peroxide.
To profit from Monroe’s popularity, 20th Century-Fox cultivated several lookalike actresses, including Jayne Mansfield and Sheree North. Other studios also attempted to create their own Monroes: Universal Pictures with Mamie Van Doren, Columbia Pictures with Kim Novak, and Rank Organisation with Diana Dors.
According to The Guide to United States Popular Culture, “as an icon of American popular culture, Monroe’s few rivals in popularity include Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse … no other star has ever inspired such a wide range of emotions – from lust to pity, from envy to remorse.” The American Film Institute has named her the sixth greatest female screen legend in American film history, Smithsonian Institution included her on their list of “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”, and both Variety and VH1 have placed her in the top ten in their rankings of the greatest popular culture icons of the twentieth century. Hundreds of books have been written about Monroe, she has been the subject of films, plays, operas, and songs, and has influenced artists and entertainers such as Andy Warhol and Madonna. She also remains a valuable brand: her image and name have been licensed for hundreds of products, and she has been featured in advertising for multinational corporations such as Max Factor, Chanel, Mercedes Benz, and Absolut Vodka. Monroe’s enduring popularity is linked to her conflicted public image. On the one hand, she remains a sex symbol, beauty icon and one of the most famous stars of classical Hollywood cinema. On the other, she is also remembered for her troubled private life, unstable childhood, struggle for professional respect, and her death and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. She has been written about by scholars and journalists interested in gender and feminism, such as Gloria Steinem, Jacqueline Rose, Molly Haskell, Sarah Churchwell, and Lois Banner. Some, such as Steinem, have viewed her as a victim of the studio system. Others, such as Haskell, Rose, and Churchwell, have instead stressed Monroe’s proactive role in her career and her participation in the creation of her public persona. Due to the contrast between her stardom and troubled private life, Monroe is closely linked to broader discussions about modern phenomena such as mass media, fame, and consumer culture. According to academic Susanne Hamscha, because of her continued relevance to ongoing discussions about modern society, Monroe is “never completely situated in one time or place” but has become “a surface on which narratives of American culture can be (re-)constructed”, and “functions as a cultural type that can be reproduced, transformed, translated into new contexts, and enacted by other people”. Similarly, Banner has called Monroe the “eternal shapeshifter” who is re-created by “each generation, even each individual … to their own specifications”. While Monroe remains a cultural icon, critics are divided on her legacy as an Actress. David Thomson called her body of work “insubstantial” and Pauline Kael wrote that she could not act, but rather “used her lack of an Actress‘s skills to amuse the public. She had the wit or crassness or desperation to turn cheesecake into acting – and vice versa; she did what others had the ‘good taste’ not to do”. In contrast, according to Peter Bradshaw, Monroe was a talented Comedian who “understood how comedy achieved its effects”, and Jonathan Rosenbaum stated that “she subtly subverted the sexist content of her material” and that “the difficulty some people have discerning Monroe’s intelligence as an Actress seems rooted in the ideology of a repressive era, when superfeminine women weren’t supposed to be smart”.
Marilyn Monroe was actress and model known for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like It Hot.