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Marilyn Monroe - Goddesses of the Silver Screen
717    Dibyendu Banerjee    28/04/2020   

Appropriately portrayed as one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s and the symbol of the era's changing attitudes towards sexuality, Marilyn Monroe was born as Norma Jean Mortensen on 01 June 1926 at the Los Angeles County Hospital. Her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker was married to John Newton Baker, an abusive man nine years her senior, whom she divorced in 1923 and married Martin Edward Mortensen in 1924, though they were separated within a few months and were divorced in 1928.Though Norma Jean most often used Baker as her surname, nobody is sure about the identity of her biological father. It was speculated by many that her father was a co-worker of her mother at RKO Pictures named Charles Stanley Gifford. In any case, Marilyn was regarded as an illegitimate child and grew up not knowing her father.

marilyn monroe

Unfortunately, Gladys had a mental breakdown in January 1934 and was in and out of mental hospitals on many occasions, until she was institutionalized at the Norwalk State Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1935. Her friend, Grace Goddard, took the responsibility of her little girl and placed Norma Jean in the Los Angeles Orphanage. During the summer of 1937, Grace Goddard took her out of the orphanage.

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But, she could not stay with the Goddard family for more than a few months, as she was molested by Erwin ‘Doc’ Goddard, the husband of Grace. After that, she had to live for brief periods with some friends and relatives of Grace, until September 1938, when she started to live with Grace's aunt, Ana Lower, in Sawtelle, near Los Angeles and was enrolled in Emerson Junior High School. However, Due to the health problem of the elderly aunt, she was again sent to live with the Goddard family in Van Nuys in early 1941 and began attending Van Nuys High School.

marilyn monroe

However, Norma Jean could not continue her student life, for the prevailing circumstances, which was beyond her control. As Doc Goddard was transferred to Virginia by his employer and Norma could not be taken out of the state, according to the child protection laws of California, she was supposed to be returned to the orphanage, which Norma did not like, neither the Goddard family. To escape the foster system, Norma accepted Grace’s proposal to marry their neighbour’s 21-year-old son Jim Dougherty, a factory worker and married him on 19 June 1942, at the age of sixteen.

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In 1943, when America's involvement in World War II gripped the nation, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines and was stationed on Santa Catalina Island, where Norma moved with him. However, in April 1944, when Dougherty was shipped out to Shanghai for two years, she moved in with his parents and joined the Radioplane Munitions Factory, in Van Nuys, initially as a parachute inspector, then as a paint sprayer.

marilyn monroe
Monroe, while working at the Radioplane Company in mid-1944

At that stage of life, Norma’s life took a turn, as she was discovered by photographer David Conover who was taking promotional photographs of the women working in the plant, on behalf of the US Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. Impressed by the magnetic beauty of brunette Norma Jean, David Conover showed her photographs to Potter Hueth, a commercial photographer, who immediately made a deal with Norma to the effect that, he would pay her, only if the magazines buy her pictures. Her photographs, taken by Hueth, attracted the attention of Emmeline Snively, the head of the Blue Book Modeling Agency, who offered her the opportunity to become a full- fledged model, provided she attend his three-month modeling school classes. Despite the objection of her deployed husband, Norma Jean Baker left her job and signed a contract with the Blue Book Model Agency in August 1945.

marilyn monroe
The change of look

As the first step to become a professional model, she straightened her curly brunette hair and dyed it blonde. She was featured mostly in advertisements and pinup magazines, often showcasing her hourglass figure in two-piece bathing suits. She proved herself as a hard working girl, when by early 1946, she had appeared on 33 magazine covers. In June 1946, Emmeline Snively helped her to sign a contract with an acting agency and after an unsuccessful interview at Paramount Pictures, she was given a screen-test by Ben Lyon, an executive of 20th Century Fox. Though the head executive was not very satisfied, but to avoid the possibility of her being signed by any other studio, she was given a standard six-month contract of $ 125 per month on 26 August 1946. As suggested by Ben Lyon she took ‘Marilyn’ as her new name for the show business and she added ‘Monroe’ as her last name, which was the last name of her grandmother. However, when Jim Dougherty returned home, he strongly objected about her career and they were eventually divorced in September 1946.

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During the first six months, Marilyn had no film roles and later she was given bit parts in Dangerous Years (1947) and Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), all of which were deleted at the final cut. However, she religiously attended the free acting, dancing, and singing classes at the studio, as she was eager to prove her worth and promote herself. However, her contract was not renewed in August 1947. She returned to modeling, but was determined to make it as an actress. To promote herself, she frequented producers' offices and occasionally entertained influential male guests at studio functions. She also became a friend and an occasional sex partner of Fox executive Joseph M Schenck, who helped her to get signed by Columbia Pictures in March 1948, as a $125-a-week contract player. The low-budget musical Ladies of the Chorus (1948) was her only film at the studio, in which she had her first starring role as a chorus girl. The film failed at the box office and her contract was not renewed in September 1948.

marilyn monroe

During this period, Marilyn became an apprentice of Johnny Hyde, the vice president of William Morris Agency and their relationship soon became sexual. Hyde proposed her marriage, but she refused. Instead, she continued modeling and in 1949 agreed to the proposal of photographer Tom Kelley, who offered her $50, to pose nude for a calendar She accepted the offer, as she was broke and posed for full-length nude shots, which Tom Kelley sold to the Western Lithograph Co for $900 for their calendar, ‘Golden Dreams,’ that made millions. Later, Hugh Hefner bought one of the photos for $500 in 1953 and published it in the first issue of his famous Playboy magazine.

marilyn monroe
Playboy spread (1953)

On the other front, Marilyn bagged small roles in Love Happy, The Fire Ball and A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950). In addition to that, she also appeared in minor supporting roles in two critically acclaimed films, All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Despite the fact that her name was unaccredited, her appearance in The Asphalt Jungle generated a huge wave of appreciation, people started to name her as a blond bombshell and it effectively pushed Marilyn from movie model to a serious actress.

In the meantime, after successfully negotiating a seven-year contract for Monroe with 20th Century, Johnny Hyde died of a heart attack in December 1950. Though his sudden death devastated her, the contract brought her more publicity and she played supporting roles in four low-budget films in 1951, Home Town Story, As Young As You Feel, Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal. Though it was maintained by many that all those films featured her as a sexy ornament, she also earned some praise from the critics and her popularity started to soar high, as she charmed the public with her intoxicating quality of volcanic sexuality wrapped in an aura of almost childlike innocence.

marilyn monroe

During that period, Marilyn had relationship with many famous persons, which include film directors Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray, actors Yul Bryner and Peter Lawford, apart from her highly publicized romance with retired baseball player Joe DiMaggio, whom she married later on 14 January 1954.

By that time, sensing a potential box-office goldmine, Fox ordered the producers to find suitable roles for her and released three of her films in 1952. Clash by Night, based on the play by Clifford Odets, was the first major film in which her name was credited in the title. We’re Not Married was a 1952 American anthology romantic comedy film, in which Marilyn’s role as a beauty pageant contestant was created solely with the intention to present her in a bathing suit. However, in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Marilyn Monroe played a serious role, her first leading role as a mentally unbalanced babysitter. Though her job was not very much appreciated in the film, she made a much more favourable impression later in the year in Monkey Business (1952), in which she featured opposite Cary Grant and played the role of a dumb, childish and blonde secretary, innocently unaware of the havoc her sexiness creates around her. For the first time, in this film, she appeared as a platinum blonde, which became her immortal trademark. In the same year, she added fuel to her image of sex bomb, when she appeared in a revealing dress while acting as Grand Marshal at the Miss America Pageant parade and confessed to a gossip columnist that she usually wore no underwear.

During that period Marilyn earned a bad name for being difficult to work with. Frequently she came late on the set or did not show up at all, forgot her lines and would demand several re-takes before she was satisfied. Probably, a combination of perfectionism and low self-esteem were responsible for all her problems. She was more spontaneous during her photo sessions, instead of following a script and hated the lack of her control on film sets. To reduce her anxiety and fight against chronic insomnia, she started to use barbiturates, nerve stimulant drugs and alcohol, which aggravated the problems.

marilyn monroe
In Niagara (1953)

Nevertheless, over the next two years, Monroe made some of the most memorable movies of her life and successfully emerged as the major sex symbol and one of the most bankable performers of Hollywood. By that time, she had acquired her trademark make-up look, with dark arched brows, sparkling red lips, added with a distinguished beauty mark. With the new look, she appeared in the technicolour film noir Niagara (1953), in which she played a femme fatale, plotting to murder her husband. It was one of the most overtly sexual films of her career and much of the critical commentary of the film focused on her overtly sexual performance, especially in some of the scenes where her body was covered by a towel or a sheet. The film was protested by the Woman’s Club Movement as immoral, criticized by Variety as morbid, but the public liked it and Marilyn was awarded the Fastest Rising Star at the Photoplay awards in January 1953. In the same year she also appeared the satirical musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which proved to be one of the biggest box office successes of the year. Released in the same year, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) was Monroe's biggest box office success at that point in her career. After that, she appeared in River of No Return (1954), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). However, Marilyn was disgusted with the same type of roles and was eager to prove her worth and wished to appear in films other than comedies or musicals. But, the head executive of Fox thought otherwise, as he personally disliked Monroe. Finally, Fox suspended her in January 1954, when she refused to shoot for another musical comedy.

marilyn monroe
With Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire

Marilyn had other things in her mind. After her marriage with Joe DiMaggio on 14 January 1954, she took action in her own way to counter the negative publicity against her. She traveled alone to Korea and participated in a programme organized by USO, an American nonprofit-charitable corporation that provides live entertainment to the members of the United States Armed Forces and their families. She performed before 60,000 US Marines, singing songs from her films over a four-day period. When she returned to the States, she was awarded Photoplay’s Most Popular Female Star Award. Fox settled with her in March with a promise of a new contract, a bonus of $ 100,000 and a starring role in Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955).The film showcased her considerable comedic talent and became one of the biggest commercial successes of the year. It contained a controversial scene, in which Marilyn was shown standing over a subway grate when a gust blew the skirt of her white dress into the air while excited onlookers whistled and clapped. It was purposely filmed on location on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan to generate advance publicity. The scene made Joe DiMaggio enraged and it created bitterness in their conjugal life. In fact, they had a troubled relationship from the beginning, due to the jealous and controlling attitude of Joe DiMaggio. They were divorced on 31 October 1955, after only nine months of marriage.

marilyn monroe
The famous scene from The Seven Year Itch

However, Marilyn was discontented to be seen as merely a pretty face attached to a voluptuous figure. So she set her sights on becoming a serious actress and decided to work more seriously on her acting skills. She broke her movie contract and moved to New York, where she founded Marilyn Monroe Productions, in collaboration with photographer Milton Greene. At the same time, she enrolled at the prestigious Actors Studio run by Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula. By the end of the year, she signed a new seven-year contract with Fox, by which Fox agreed to pay her $400,000 to make four films, and granted her the right to choose her own projects and the technicians. Bus Stop (1956), her first film under the new contract, became a critical and commercial success and she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

On 29 June 1956, Marilyn married American playwright Arthur Miller, with whom she was introduced by Elia Kazan in the early 1950s. However, as he was of Polish-Jewish descent, Monroe converted to Judaism, which led Egypt to ban all of her films. During her marriage to Miller, Monroe suffered two miscarriages and in spite of that she endured several failed operations in an attempt to become a mother. It broke her heart, when after her last surgery in 1959, the doctor informed her it was not successful and once again she turned to sleeping pills to cope with her emotional turmoil. Nevertheless, her next movie, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), brought mixed reviews. It made money, but was criticized as slow-moving for the American Audiences. However, It was better received in Europe, where she was awarded the Italian David di Donatello, French Crystal Star award and was nominated for a BAFTA.

marilyn monroe
With Arthur Miller

In July 1958 Marilyn returned to Hollywood to play the role of Sugar Kane in Billy Wilder's comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), starring Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. Initially, he had hesitancy to accept the role, as she considered it another dumb blonde. However, finally she agreed, due to the attractive offer of ten percent of the film's profits on top of her standard pay. But, the filming became a harrowing experience for all, due to Marilyn’s attitude of late reporting on the set, her continuous demands of dozens of re-takes, her inability to remember her lines and her disagreement with the director about how she would portray the role. Despite everything, the film became a critical and commercial success and Monroe’s performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. In 1960, Marilyn appeared in George Cukor’s musical comedy Let’s Make Love (1959), the production of which was delayed by her frequent absences. During filming, Monroe had an extramarital affair with her co-star Yves Montand, which was widely reported by the press and used in the film's publicity campaign. However, the film was unsuccessful upon its release and Marilyn was described as appearing rather untidy and lacking old Monroe dynamism.

marilyn monroe
With Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

The Misfits (1961), which Miller had written to provide her with a dramatic role, was the last film that Marilyn Monroe completed, despite her severe physical problems. It was the story of a recently divorced woman, who became a friend of three aging cowboys, played by the legendary Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and fellow Actors Studio alum Montgomery Clift. The film marked the final screen appearances for Monroe and Gable, as Gable died of a heart attack on 16 November 1960. Nevertheless, filming in the Nevada desert between July and November 1960 was not an easy task. Moreover, Marilyn was in pain from gallstones and her drug addiction was so severe that her make-up usually had to be applied while she was in sleep under the influence of barbiturates. The production was halted in August, as she had to spend a week in a hospital for detoxification. By that time her marriage to Miller was almost over and he began a relationship with set photographer Inge Morath. They ended their five-year marriage after the completion of the film.

marilyn monroe
Personification of

During that period, Marilyn Monroe was steadily sinking into alcohol and prescription drug abuse and could never finish shooting her last film Something’s Got to Give, which was scheduled to begin shooting. She had a serious sinus infection and was too sick to work for the majority of the next six weeks. However, she took a break on 19 May, when she appeared on the stage at Madison Square Garden in New York, wearing a skintight, beige-coloured and rhinestone-studded dress, to sing ’Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ at the early birthday celebration of President John F Kennedy. Her sultry performance sparked a rumour that the two were having an affair. Although the extent of their relationship will never be known, the logbook of White House switchboard noted calls from her during 1962. In the opinion of one writer, Monroe was in love with President Kennedy and wanted to marry him and when their affair failed to materialize, she turned to Robert Kennedy. Later, it was reported that Robert Kennedy visited Marilyn in Los Angeles the day that she died.

Subsequently, Marilyn filmed a scene for Something’s Got to Give, in which she swam naked in a swimming pool. That was the first time that a major star had posed nude at the height of their career. However, when she again abstained for shooting for several days, 20th Century Fox fired her and sued her for $750,000 in damages for breach of contract. Though she was eventually rehired, the film was never finished.

marilyn monroe

Two months later, Marilyn Monroe was found dead by her housekeeper, in her home in Los Angeles, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to her body. She had a phone in one of her hands, her body was completely nude and face down, on her bed. According to the coroner, she died between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on 04 August 1962, due to acute barbiturate poisoning and pronounced it a possible suicide. Her funeral, held at the West Wood Memorial Park, was attended by only her closest associates, but hundreds of cine-lovers crowded the streets around the cemetery to their homage to the departed soul. Popularly known for her sex appeal, Marilyn Monroe was described by Joshua Logan, the director of Bus Stop as one of the most unappreciated people in the world.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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