In honor of Marilyn Monroe’s birthday, DMG takes a look into the captivating life of the legendary model, singer, and actress.
Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Born as Norma Jeane Mortenson, she was the third child of Gladys Baker, a film cutter at a Hollywood film lab. Although Monroe’s birth certificate stated her father was Martin Edward Mortensen, discrepancies on the birth certificate have led historians to believe her real father’s identity is unknown. At one point, rumors spread that Monroe’s father was Clark Cable, however there is insignificant evidence that Gable ever met Baker.
Plagued by mental instability, Gladys checked herself into a mental institution. Without a proper guardian, Monroe entered the foster care system. Monroe spend most of her childhood moving from foster home to foster home. While most of her guardians were inadequate, Baker’s best friend, Grace McKee, was Monroe’s most influential guardian. McKee, a Jean Harlow fan, not only introduced Monroe to the movies, but even told Monroe she would become a big movie star.
Monroe stayed within foster care until she met her neighbor James Dougherty. Dougherty and Monroe began dating when Monroe’s foster parents planned to move to West Virginia. Monroe’s foster mother encouraged Dougherty to marry Monroe so she could escape the foster care system. Although Dougherty was hesitant, Monroe and Dougherty married on June 19, 1942.
During World War II, Dougherty enlisted as a merchant marine and toured the South Pacific. Monroe, eager to help the war efforts, worked at the Radioplane Munitions Factory. During her time at the munitions factory, David Conover, Yank the Army Weekly photographer, took notice of Monroe and encouraged her to contact The Blue Book Modeling Agency.
Monroe signed with The Blue Book Modeling Agency and quickly became one of the agency’s most successful models. Monroe’s modeling success caught 20th Century Fox executive Ben Lyon’s attention, who reached out to Monroe and offered her a six month contract. Lyon encouraged Monroe to change her name, since Norma Mortenson didn’t sound like an actress’s name. Monroe and Lyon collaborated to create the best name for her. After combining her mother’s maiden name with 1920s musical performer Marilyn Miller, they developed her new title, Marilyn Monroe.
Determined to develop an acting career, Monroe filed for divorce in September 1946. Despite Monroe’s professional focus, she only received extra roles in her first films, DANGEROUS YEARS (1947) and SCUDDA HOO! SCUDDA HAY! (1948).
Although Monroe was let go by 20th Century Fox, it didn’t take her long to find a new opportunity. While at a photo shoot in Palm Springs’ Racquet Club, she met respected William Morris Agency EVP, Johnny Hyde. Captivated by Monroe’s beauty, Hyde recognized Monroe’s on screen potential. Hyde used his connections to not only helped Monroe receive a six month contract from Columbia Pictures, but also introduced Monroe to Columbia’s head acting coach, Natasha Lytess.
Monroe received her first major role in LADIES OF THE CHORUS (1948). Monroe played the role of Peggy Martin, the daughter of a former burlesque star. Although Monroe’s performance received praise, the movie’s lukewarm reception encouraged Columbia to drop Monroe’s contract.
Monroe took modeling and extra jobs until she signed with Hyde. With Hyde’s help, Monroe was given parts in A TICKET TO TOMAHAWK (1950), THE FIREBALL (1950), RIGHT CROSS (1950), THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950). Monroe’s overload of screen appearances gave the actress national recognition, helping her gain a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox.
Despite Monroe’s recent fame, she enrolled in UCLA to hone her acting skills. While attending UCLA, Monroe continued her onscreen bombardment and acted in AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL (1950), HOME TOWN STORY (1951), LOVE NEST (1951) and LET’S MAKE IT LEGAL (1951). Monroe’s relentless dedication to film earned her a spot as a presenter at the 23rd Academy Awards ceremony.
Although Monroe continued to make onscreen appearances, such as WE’RE NOT MARRIED! (1952), DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952), MONKEY BUSINESS (1952), and FULL HOUSE (1952), 20th Century Fox released her from her contact in August 1952.
Despite Monroe’s misfortune, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck took notice of Monroe’s abilities and casted her in the thriller film noir NIAGARA (1953). Monroe played the role of Rose Loomis, a wife planning to kill her husband while visiting Niagara Falls. The critics praised the film and Monroe’s onscreen presence. According to the New York Times:
“Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point. But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this… And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive – even when she walks. As has been noted, Niagara may not be the place to visit under these circumstances but the falls and Miss Monroe are something to see”.
Monroe took a role in Howard Hawk’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). In the film, Monroe and costar Jane Russell played two showgirls embarking on a trip to France. While shooting the movie, Russell discovered Monroe had deep seeded stage fright. To help Monroe overcome her fear, Russell often escorted her from the dressing room to the set. Despite Monroe’s fear, not only was her performance highly acclaimed by critics, but also GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES became the highest grossing film of 1953.
Although Monroe’s popularity was sky-high, she disliked her “dumb blonde” persona. Monroe carried her resentment into her next feature, RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954). Monroe’s change of attitude resulted in onset quarrels with director Otto Preminger. After RIVER OF NO RETURN finished production, Monroe refused to work on her next film, causing 20th Century Fox to suspend her.
Despite problems at work, Monroe married famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio on January 14, 1954. The two travelled the world together, visiting countries such as Japan and Korea.
Monroe’s return to Hollywood was less than grand. Monroe starred in the musical feature, THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954). The film performed poorly at the box office and critics attacked Monroe’s acting capabilities.
Eager to bounce back from her earlier film’s shame, Monroe accepted a role in the romantic comedy THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955). Monroe played the role of Richard Sherman’s (Tom Ewell) extra-marital desire. The film has one of the most iconic moments of Marilyn Monroe’s career, the skirt-blowing scene. While filming this classic scene, DiMaggio, among a crowd of enthusiastic bystanders, watched Monroe. DiMaggio became enraged at Wilder’s repeated takes of the scene, accusing him of exploiting Monroe. Tension between DiMaggio and Monroe quickly grew, causing them to end their marriage. Despite the divorce, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH became a box office success and threw Monroe back to stardom. Monroe fans desperately looked for replicas of the signature white dress in hopes to reenact the historic scene. With her regained fame, Monroe negotiated a new contract with 20th Century Fox, allowing her the right to reject any script or crew member.
Despite 20th Century Fox’s offer, Monroe was still unsatisfied with the studio. In an attempt to branch away from the studio, she interviewed at New York City’s Actors Studio and earned a spot in the class. At the Actors Studio, she focused on overcoming her intense stage fright. Monroe’s dedication and enthusiasm for acting left a last impression of the Actors Studio cofounder Lee Strasberg. Despite the countless actors Strasberg influenced, he stated:
“I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of actors and actresses, and there are only two that stand out way above the rest. Number one is Marlon Brando, and the second is Marilyn Monroe.”
The first movie Monroe created under her new 20th Century Fox contract was Joshua Logan’s romantic comedy BUS STOP (1956). In the film, Monroe played the role of a love stricken saloon singer. Fresh from the Actors Studio, Monroe delivered a spellbinding performance. Monroe’s brilliant artistry earned her a nomination at the 1957 Golden Globe Awards.
Monroe continued her streak of excellence in Laurence Olivier’s THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957). In the romantic comedy, Monroe plays the part of an American showgirl entangled in a relationship with Prince Charles (Laurence Olivier). Although the film had modes box office earnings, critics worldwide applauded Monroe’s acting abilities. Monroe’s performance earned her the David di Donatello and a BAFTA nomination. Overwhelmed with such praise, Monroe decided to pay her fortune forward and donated her THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL salary to the milk fund for babies.
While filming BUS STOP, Monroe started dating famous playwright Arthur Miller. When the two married in June 1956, Monroe converted to Judaism, compelled to win over Miller and his parents. After THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, Miller accompanied Monroe on a year retreat from Hollywood. After their one year break in Amagansett, New York, Monroe went back to Hollywood and started her next feature, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).
Monroe acted with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in the comedic masterpiece SOME LIKE IT HOT. Monroe played the role of Sugar Cane Kowalczyk, the love interest of cross dressing jazz player Joe (Curtis). SOME LIKE IT HOT became a monumental success, receiving six Academy Award nominations and earning Monroe a Golden Globe Award. SOME LIKE IT HOT is still listed as the greatest American comedy of all time by the American Film Institute.
In 1960, Arthur Miller developed a screenplay based on his short story about local citizens of Nevada. The screenplay would become Marilyn Monroe’s final feature film, THE MISFITS (1961). THE MISFITS focuses on a recently divorced woman (Marilyn Monroe) and two cowboys (Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift) in an early sixties Nevada desert. While filming the movie, Monroe’s health and marriage began to deteriorate. If Monroe wasn’t in a hospital bed, she was arguing with cast and crew members. Although THE MISFITS was a box office flop and received mixed reviews from critics, Monroe received the Golden Globe Award as “World Film Favorite”. THE MISFITS would later become an American film classic and an essential Marilyn Monroe film.
Monroe divorced Miller in January 1961. One month later, Monroe checked herself into several clinics around the country due to her worsening condition. After she underwent surgery in New York, she returned to California and started filming SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE (1962).
While on the SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE set, Monroe contract a virus and fell ill. Monroe decided to selectively choose when she would act and not act, depending on her health and her crew member’s health. Due to Monroe’s repeated absences, 20th Century Fox terminated her from the film and sued her for $500,000. Although 20th Century Fox tried to replace Monroe with actress Lee Remick, Dean Martin stood up for Monroe and refused to work with Remick. 20th Century Fox had to shelve the picture until they could settle the dispute.
Despite the turmoil, on May 19, 1962, Monroe attended the birthday celebration of President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. In front of thousands, Monroe performed one of the most enticing versions of “Happy Birthday” in American history. After her performance, Kennedy lightheartedly remarked:
“Thank you. I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead at her Los Angeles home. Although the coroner recorded her death as a probable suicide, many theories circulated around her death, ranging from Mafia to CIA involvement. She was 36 years old.
Despite many disadvantages, Marilyn Monroe’s exquisite elegance and enduring passion turned her into one of the world’s most admired actresses. DMG is proud to not only celebrate her life’s work, but also continue her legacy worldwide.
Someone said to me, ‘If fifty percent of the experts in Hollywood said you had no talent and should give up, what would you do? ‘ My answer was then and still is, ‘If a hundred percent told me that, all one hundred percent would be wrong.
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