Had she lived, she would have turned 90 years old on June 1 -- the same age as Queen Elizabeth. She was born in Los Angeles, the third child of a divorced woman. The identity of the father is unknown. It might have been her mother's ex-husband; it might have been someone else.
She was placed with foster parents, Albert and Ida Bolender, who lived in Hawthorne, Calif. Her mother would visit her, and felt able to take her back when she was seven years old. The very next year, however, the mother had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. The mother spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals, rarely seeing her daughter, who became a ward of the state.
She spent the next several years living in an orphan home, occasionally getting out to live with different friends. She suffered abuse from several men as she graduated from junior high and began attending Van Nuys High School. At age 16 she married a man who worked at the Lockheed Corporation, and dropped out of school.
Her husband, Jim Dougherty, enlisted in the Merchant Marines in 1943 and went off to the Pacific. The young woman went to work at the Radioplane Munitions Factory as part of the war effort.
You probably know where this is going -- perhaps you even know who this is by now. In 1944 the young woman met a photographer who was taking pictures of female workers, and she began modeling for him and his friends. She had her curly brown hair straightened and dyed blonde, and soon became a a modeling sensation, posing for advertisements and magazine shoots. By 1946 she had graced the covers of no less than three dozen magazines.
Through her modeling work she met an executive at 20th Century Fox and was signed to a contract. She focused on acting lessons and landed a couple of minor roles, but her contract was not renewed. She landed a spot at Columbia Pictures where the drama coach raised her hairline by electrolysis, bleached her hair even lighter, and cast her as a girl who is courted by a wealthy man in a movie called Ladies of the Chorus.
She was picked up by the William Morris Agency in 1948 where her look was further "improved" by plastic surgery. She landed a number of minor roles, then went back to 20th Century Fox where she developed an image as a "cheesecake queen." Meanwhile, she got divorced, had a relationship with director Elia Kazan and dated Yul Brynner and Peter Lawford. By 1952, she was becoming a popular sex symbol, and made her mark by playing a "dumb blonde" opposite Gary Grant in the comedy Monkey Business.
Even early in her career she developed a reputation for being difficult on the set -- showing up late, forgetting her lines, insisting on reshooting scenes -- and she fought off stage fright with alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines.
But by 1953 she was a bankable property, starring as a femme fatale in Niagara, a dumb blonde in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a naive model in How to Marry a Millionaire.
Surely, you know who this is by now. First she was Norman Jeane
Mortenson, then as a model she used the name Jean Norman, but when she
started appearing in movies, her agent picked the name Marilyn, and
she selected Monroe, her mother's maiden name, as her last name.
But her fame went beyond the movies. She appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine. She married baseball great Joe DiMaggio, and was famously embroiled in one dispute after another with her studios. In 1954 she filmed The Seven Year Itch, playing the object of her married neighbor's fantasies. As a publicity stunt, director Billy Wilder moved the production to New York where he filmed a scene of Monroe standing over a subway grate, with the wind blowing up her skirt. The publicity shot appeared on front pages of newspapers around the world.
However, the stunt also proved to be the last straw in her difficult marriage to Joe DiMaggio. They got divorced in 1954. She went on to date Marlon Brando and then marry playwright Arthur Miller (headlined "Egghead Weds Hourglass") which involved her conversion to Judaism.
Along the way, Marilyn Monroe took time off to move to New York, form her own production company, take more acting lessons, and try to have a baby. She had at least two miscarriages caused by endometriosis, a disease she suffered from throughout her life.
But 1958 found her back in Los Angeles to film her most famous movie, Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. The difficulties in the production were legendary (Tony Curtis quipped that kissing Monroe was like "kissing Hitler") yet the movie was both a critical and commercial success and won Monroe a Golden Globe award for best actress.
Monroe's last movie was The Misfits, filmed in Nevada in 1960 with Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. By this time her marriage to Miller was basically over, and she was suffering from other health problems including a severe drug addiction. She spent time in a drug rehabilitation center; she had an affair with Frank Sinatra; she tried to film a couple more movies but could not complete any of them.
It was the early hours of August 4, 1962, in her California home, when her housekeeper "sensed something was wrong," knocked on her door and found it locked. The housekeeper called Monroe's psychiatrist who arrived to find Monroe dead. Cause of death: acute barbiturate poisoning, ruled a suicide. She was 36 years old.
Marilyn Monroe perhaps has had more cultural impact after death than during her life, due to the conflicted image of the beautiful sex symbol and her troubled private life, plus her relevance in any modern conversation about the media and the role of fame in American culture. Songs have been written about her; books have been published. And this coming November a number of Monroe's personal effects are going to be auctioned by a Los Angeles auction house.
She never won an Academy Award. But she was named a top "female screen legend" by the American Film Institute. And the Smithsonian Institution selected her as "one of the most significant Americans of all time."