"How we react to works of art depends on who we are, where we are standing and when we encounter them." -- Margaret MacMillan, "War: How Conflict Shaped Us"

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Remember Her?

     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."


Anonymous said...

Of course, the younger generation don't know her at all, but I will never forget her.

Anonymous said...

I remembered her original name to be Norma Jeane Baker. You are correct, she was born Norma Jean Mortensen (she also used the surnames of Baker, Mortenson and Mortensen in her childhood). Great post!

DJan said...

I didn't have a clue until almost to the end!! I remember her well and am amazed to learn she would be ninety now if she had lived. Thank you for reminding me about a very singular woman. :-)

Still the Lucky Few said...

I clued in at "dumb blond" How tragic that she is remembered by that name when she was anything but dumb. I remember the filming of "Misfits", and her death shortly after that. What does surprise me is the amount of plastic surgery she had.That was a well-kept secret in those days. Thanks for a great post!

Olga said...

i got this one fairly early in the game, but I was thrown by that "same age as the queen."

Celia said...

I still cry through much of "The Misfits" My older grandkids know who she was. Bright, talented, and so sad, she deserved better.

Dick Klade said...

Very likely that Queen Elizabeth led a more sheltered life! You presented several details about Marilyn's life I'd not seen before. Interesting post.

Snowbrush said...

I'm with Dick in that it was an interesting post, and I'm with Celia about The Misfits being a great movie. It was Gable’s last movie too. I recall that Monroe was such a mess during the filming that he became very tender with her in a fatherly way. I also recall much speculation that she was murdered, and I have wondered, but unlike a lot of conspiracy theories, this one seems to have died a natural death due to a lack of interest. She was such a big deal during much of my life, but I guess she’s like James Dean in that she simply doesn’t seem important to people who were only born decades after she died.

I do have one embarrassing memory of her. It was when she sang “Happy Birthday” to John Kennedy. I found it too degrading for words. My favorite photo of her was one of her face only that appeared on the cover of Life. I'm not into soft porn, but the depth in her expression in that photo was a real turn-on.

Carole said...

All the fame and fortune couldn't buy happiness. Still true today, sadly, for some of the famous Hollywood types.

stephen Hayes said...

Sure, she was a sex symbol but there was also a palpable vulnerability about her that I always found engaging.

Jono said...

Good bye, Norma Jeane.

Barbara said...

I'm late as usual. I wasn't sure in the beginning but had an idea. I didn't realize she would have been 90 either. My grandson asks me about her occasionally because he sees the pictures of her here and there. It's hard to explain her to him. I should let him read this post so he might get the bigger picture. I didn't know about the electrolysis to the hairline or the plastic surgery. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I always thought she was terribly understood and lonely alone really..The men she married never understood her and she had the affliations with the Bad Boy Kennedys which in my mind killed her somehow..She never got a break and she worked like hell, basically she wanted to be a mom and live a quiet life but that was never ever to be..Sad indeed but a good actrees, RIP norma jean Marilyn!

Anonymous said...

A sad and tragic gal. Good to remember she was so oung when she died.

Rosy Brewer said...

I always enjoy it when people remember actors and actresses from "The Golden Age." I fear that many will be forgotten and that the younger generation has no interest in people like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or, heaven forbid, anyone would remember Gloria Swanson. Though those actresses were not necessarily my contemporaries, I watched many a late movie with my Dad. I try to do my small part when I review films on Fridays on my blog. I am working my way through the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" and this week it's Dick Powell. There is a name no one remembers. Anyway, thanks for a lovely post.

Rosy Brewer

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

The famous skirt up in the air over a subway vent is now part of a chocolate snicker bar commercial that can also be found on you tube . So now she's associated with sweets to stop your hunger'. Weird way to bring her back onto the screen but it does introduce her to a younger crowd. I also figure her wish to be close to the Kennedy clan led to further feeling of abandonment that she could not escape. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I never thought of Ms Monroe as a great actress; but, she was surely an icon of an era.
Cop Car

joared said...

Yes, I recognized who you were writing about as she became promoted in my day -- every man's fantasy if they preferred the dumb blonds type, I guess. I thought she was a pathetic tragic figure, sincerely aspired to be more, but was hardly an actress as the only character she created was Marilyn Monroe, so was perfectly type cast in the funny comedy Some Like It Hot

Wisewebwoman said...

I got it right away. So much more to MM than her looks. The first product of "dumb blonde" marketing. She truly was a product.
Well written Tom.