On June 1st, 1926, (ninety-six years ago), the actress more commonly known as Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson. Born to her single mother Gladys Pearl Baker in Los Angeles, California, Marilyn grew up shy and in and out of foster homes, reserved, never expecting to be a global sensation on the screen, the mic and the stage.
Marilyn’s mother Gladys was born on May 27th, 1902 to mother Della Mae Monroe from Arkansas and father Otis Elmer Monroe from Minneapolis, in Piedras Negras, Mexico; a relatively new town across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. She soon migrated with her parents to Los Angeles County and her father started working for a railway company.
She married her first husband in 1917, Jasper Newton “Jap” Baker, and in 1918 gave birth to their first child Robert Kermit “Jackie”. On July 30th, 1919, one year later, their second child was born, this time a girl, Bernice Inez Gladys. Following several accounts of abuse, Gladys filed for divorce from Jasper in 1921 and obtained full custody of both their children which would later lead Jasper to kidnap the children and raise them in Kentucky away from their mother.
On October 11th, 1924 she married and later divorced Martin Edward Mortensen, whose last name was used on Marilyn’s birth certificate because he was speculated to be her father.
However, in 2022 DNA technology proved Charles Stanley Gifford to be the actress’s father. Gifford was born in September of 1898 in Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, he had an affair with Marilyn's mother (his coworker at a film handling laboratory) in 1925.
He married a woman named Lillian Priester in July of 1919 but divorced her soon after. They had two children together, a girl named Doris Elizabeth in 1920 (d. May 1933) and two years later a boy named Charles Stanley (d. April 2015) who was born in Los Angeles, as was his sister. He later married his second wife Mary-Belle Seiwell (d. 1994) with whom he had no children.
He settled in Riverside County, California, became the owner of some cottage apartments, and later moved to San Jacinto where he successfully founded and operated a drive-through store.
Marilyn’s childhood in foster care and orphanages
Marilyn was raised in an evangelical foster home in Hawthorne, California and her mother (who was unfit mentally and economically to raise a child) lived in the same town for the first six months until work called and she was forced to move back to Los Angeles; after that, she would visit during the weekends. Her foster parents Albert and Ida Bolender gave her a good first years of her life and despite all the complications, Marilyn had a stable and happy early childhood. Marilyn did not grow up with her stepbrother and only found out about the existence of her step-sister (who she met for the first time as an adult) when she was twelve years old.
She moved back in with her mother in Los Angeles at the age of seven but in January of 1934 following a mental breakdown Gladys was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia which eventually resulted in her being hospitalized for most of her remaining years, going from hospital to hospital and rarely staying in contact with her daughter. Marilyn then had no choice but to move in with other caregivers, and she was later moved into the Los Angeles Orphans Home, “a model institution” in which Marilyn felt abandoned. In 1937, Erwin “Doc” Goddard and his wife Grace took her out of the orphanage. During this period of time, she was sexually and psychologically abused. Being not yet a teenager, Marilyn was molested by Doc. She was later able to leave the house and move in with Grace’s friends in Compton. As a teen, she developed a stutter and became reserved on top of her naturally shy disposition, something later explained by psychologists as a result of her traumatic late childhood and teen years.
First marriage and modeling
A couple of weeks after her birthday on June 19, 1942, she married her first husband, her neighbor’s son James Dougherty, a Texas-born factory worker who was twenty-one at that time. Marilyn dropped out of school and became a housewife but found no affinity for home life or her husband for that matter, saying they had been mismatched and describing the marriage as extremely boring. But in 1943 when James enlisted in the Merchant Marine and was stationed in Santa Catalina Island, (an island off the coast of southern California), Marilyn came with him. In April of 1944, James was sent into the Pacific on a ship where he spent the bigger part of the following two years. Marilyn moved in with her in-laws and began working at the Radioplane Company manufacturing aircrafts.
One year later, she quit in order to pursue modeling against her still deployed husband’s will. It didn’t take her long to sign with a modeling agency and once she did, she straightened her hair and dyed it blond to make herself look more enjoyable. According to her agency and coworkers, Monroe quickly became one of the most hard-working models, having appeared on thirty-three covers after just one year; all sorts of publications ranging from Pageant and Laff, to U.S. Camera, Pin-Up Models and even some more risqué calendars.
Her start on the big screen and breakthrough roles
When it came time to sign a contract in the acting industry, she tried Paramount Pictures first but the interview didn’t go too well. On the other hand, her screen-test with 20th Century Fox went exceptionally well and resulted in a six-month contract from head executive Darryll F. Zanuck that began in August of 1946. She chose the stage name “Marilyn Monroe” because of her resemblance to Broadway star Marilyn Miller and Monroe being her mother’s maiden name. She divorced her husband in September because he strongly opposed her career and she then spent six months at 20th Century Fox studios learning dancing, singing, and acting. She got some small parts in movies and her contract was renewed. She continued to study acting and she said that after her first taste of what real acting in a drama could be, “I was hooked”. She later signed with Columbia Pictures and eventually with a talent agency.
Marilyn’s first breakthrough roles were Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle both in 1950. Despite her screen time being very small, she captivated audiences and was mentioned in the film review magazine Photoplay. After her supporting roles in Love Nest, As Young as You Feel and Let’s Make it Legal all three in 1951 she gained praise in The New York Times, being described as “superb” and the Los Angeles Daily which called her “one of the brightest up-and-coming [actresses]”.
Niagra, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire
In 1953, she starred in three movies that would forever solidify the image the public got from her and knew her as. Henry Hathaway’s Niagra, where she played a femme fatale plotting to kill her husband and developed her trademark make-up look: pale skin, dark brows, a beauty mark, and shiny red lips. This movie was one of her most overtly sexual performances with scenes in which she could be seen almost nude so with this movie, came her hypersexual persona. Sensuality all over, she was “sex on legs”.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks is to this day one of her most recognizable movies. It has some of the most unforgettable scenes and dresses, from her pink Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend dress to the metallic gold dress that she wore alongside Jane Russel. This movie cemented her on-screen as a “dumb blonde”, gold-digging bombshell as did Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire. It fully portrayed Marilyn as a naïve (once again) dumb blond who wants nothing more than money. Both of these movies really solidified the gold digger image, whether it was the lyrics to Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend or the moment in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when Russel’s character tells Marilyn’s character that some people don’t care about money and Marilyn tells her to “be serious”. In How to Marry a Millionaire, she and her girlfriend just want to get with the right man so they can use him for his money. People, of course, did not separate the character from the actress.
Stardom at what cost
From there to 1960 she became a star, but at what cost? From conflicts with Fox concerning her contracts to a second failed marriage in 1954, this was a period of confusion and whirlwind. Marilyn’s request to star in more serious roles was dismissed by the head executive at Fox who did not have a good opinion of her and thought that she wouldn’t bring in as much revenue in other types of roles.
In January of 1954, Marilyn was asked to act in yet another musical comedy, The Girl in Pink Tights but when she refused, she was suspended by the head exec. Darryll F. Zanuck. The negative publicity was flooding in, she was on every front page for all the wrong reasons so in order to counter this negative publicity, she publicized her wedding to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and their honeymoon to Tokyo. This marriage came to an end in October of the same year when the staged filming of The Seven Year Itch brough two thousand spectators to watch Marilyn’s dress fly up revealing leg, thighs, and what proceeds, at Lexington Avenue, Manhattan. The relationship between DiMaggio and herself had been toxic, he was physically abusive, very jealous and controlling and when the tabloids caught wind of this, it was on every front page.
In January of 1955 began a year-long legal battle between Marilyn and Fox after she founded her own production company Marilyn Monroe Productions as she stated that she was “tired of the same old sex roles” that Fox kept giving her and that they hadn’t been paying her promised bonuses. The media was not on her side. She was ridiculed, mocked and even parodied in the Broadway play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? After this, she continued to develop her production company, finalized her divorce with Joe DiMaggio, and dated star actor Marlon Brando and later playwright Arthur Miller.
In 1956 she announced her win against Fox but this time, the press was on her side. This time she was a “shrewd businesswoman” according to Time magazine, “an individual breaking free” with “the best yet to come” according to other publications. But the negative publicity was back when she married Arthur Miller that year in June. The tabloids attacked her husband for his connections to left-wing politicians and her for marrying him. She converted to Judaism after some time of studying the religion and had started filming movies under a new contract; specifically, she was working on the drama Bus Stop which was released in August of the same year and was a critical and commercial success, giving Marilyn Monroe Productions a good look and a step up.
The beginning of the end
When filming started in 1959 for the musical comedy Let’s Make Love there were several things delaying it, the first being a script that was considered weak and had to be rewritten. The second was Marilyn’s repeated absences from set, and the third was extensive publicity about her off-set affair with co-star Yves Montand coming out while still married to Arthur miller.
In 1960, her performance in Let’s Make Love was called “the most vulgar yet” and the movie itself was unsuccessful upon release in September. Directors and coworkers started describing Marilyn in a more negative light: “untidy”, “not herself”, “lacking… the old Monroe dynamism”. Her star role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was given to Audrey Hepburn due to producers saying her conduct would slow down or complicate the production.
In 1960, she completed her last film amid a falling out with her husband Arthur Miller and a new relationship with photographer Inge Morath. This and the fact that for one week in August she was hospitalized for a week to detox her body of drugs, made production very difficult. Despite all this, Monroe gave her all and performed to her best, bringing out genuine emotions almost as if method acting. In January of 1961 Monroe and Miller got a Mexican divorce and in February, The Misfits (her last movie), was released failing at the box office with mixed reviews calling the movie itself “blank and unfathomable”, the character development “choppy” but Marilyn’s performance “extraordinary” and “the most mature interpretation of her career”.
1962 was an eventful year, in the spring she received a “World Film Favorite” Golden Globe Award and began to film a movie for Fox, Something’s Got to Give. In may she took a break from filming to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, NYC wearing a nude-beige fitted dress with sparkling rhinestones. A dress auctioned in 2016 for $5 000 000, making it the world’s most expensive dress.
On June 7th Fox fired and sued Marilyn for $750 000 in damages, and after co-star Dean Martin refused to make the film with anyone else Fox fired and sued him too and then shut down the production. Then began a smear campaign against Marilyn from Fox studios who were spreading negative (mostly false) publicity about her and even alleged that she was mentally disturbed. Fox had also distributed naked images of her swimming in a pool which were to be used as advanced advertising for a movie.
Fox soon regretted this and opened negotiations with Marilyn again as they re-took Something’s Got to Give and offered Marilyn the lead on an up-and-coming movie What a Way to Go!. In an attempt to repair her public image in order to get ready for these two upcoming movies and a biopic of Jean Harlow which she was planning of starring in, Marilyn gave interviews to several tabloids, publications and magazines including Life and Cosmopolitan and did a photo shoot for Vogue.
In the early hours of August 5th, Marilyn’s body was found face down, on her bed, nude with a telephone in one hand by her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, who had been called by her landlord Eunice Murray. Murray felt something was wrong when he could see light coming from under Marilyn’s bedroom door but couldn’t get an answer. He called Greenson who broke in through a window and in the following hour and a half physicians were at the scene and the LAPD had been notified.
She was estimated to have died between eight-thirty and then-thirty p.m. the previous evening, August 4th. The toxicology report pointed to a drug overdose with the official cause of death being acute barbiturate poisoning, specifically chloral hydrate and pentobarbital. Empty medicine bottles were found next to her bed and the possibility of an accidental overdose was ruled out due to the magnitude of the dosage found inside Marilyn, which was several times larger than the lethal dose. The investigation was carried out by the Los Angeles County Coroners Office who were assisted by the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Team.
Marilyn’s doctors pointed out the fact that she had overdosed in the past — possibly on purpose. She was “prone to severe fears and frequent depressions” with “abrupt and unpredictable mood changes”, her doctors stated and due to those facts and “a lack of any indication of foul play”, her death was classified as a probable suicide.
“Marilyn Monroe: ‘It looks like suicide’”, “Marilyn Monroe Kills Self. Found Nude in Bed”, “Marilyn Monroe Dies; Pills Blamed”, and “Murió Marilyn Monroe: suicidio” were just some of the headlines splashed across front pages of newspapers and magazines all across the United States, Europe and South America, many focusing on the fact that she was found in the nude. The whole world was in shock and people wanted to know who killed Marilyn Monroe. Who killed the most beloved yet heavily criticized actress. The actress who you know you could turn to for a good movie, the celebrity that was kind to all. People just weren’t happy with “she took too many pills”, something had happened and the world wanted to know what.
Had DiMaggio come back but gone too far? Was she having an affair with Robert Kennedy? Was the CIA pulling a stunt? Was the mafia trying to get to president JFK? Was the CIA involved? Did she know too much about aliens and Roswell? Was she drugged by a date? Anything was possible.
Speculations of death first came into the mainstream with the publication of Marilyn: A Biography by Norman Mailer in 1973. These theories became so widespread that the Los Angeles County District Attorney conducted a second investigation due to the reaction from the people. Still, no evidence of foul play was found despite all the rumors, theories, and signs.
But most importantly, if anything good came from Marilyn’s death it was the conversations that arose. The conversations about the works she left us with; nothing short of masterpieces. The conversations about who she truly was; a “sex symbol” or a sentient person just like you and me. The conversations about what she truly wanted; to be taken seriously. The conversations about how movie stars are treated; how much is too much? The conversations about suicide, suffering in silence, and just how quickly something can be over and forever gone.
Today Marilyn is a household name for all things sex, beauty, and glamour. Everything from her eyebrows to her legs have become a brand to the public eye, a true “blonde bomshell”, the textbook definition of a “sex symbol”. Her stellar acting and incredible vocals often go forgotten when only her looks are discussed. The work she did against the discrimination of people of color and homosexuals goes unmentioned when it’s her nude swim that’s being talked about.
Marilyn was a hard-working woman, reduced to legs, face, and a nice body. A woman who gave her all to keep a whole nation and a whole world entertained. A woman who put so much effort and dedication into what she did, a woman who rose up no matter what was thrown at her. But all this is forgotten when people just want to talk about her affairs, who she slept with and who she didn’t.
Hundreds of books have been written about Marilyn, she is the subject of movies, plays, operas, musicals and songs. She is the inspiration to artists such as Andy Warhol and Madonna. She is the face of an industry, Hollywood would not be the same without her. She changed the movie industry and brought new audiences to the theaters in the masses. To this day she is referenced in fashion, culture and artistry of all sorts. Yet we continue to reduce her to the way she looked. We forget about how intelligent she was, how committed she was, what a marvelous talent she was, and how gifted she was because “Marilyn Was Found Nude!”.
Marilyn’s legacy lives on today and forever. Her movies must be talked about, her plays must be remembered and her songs must be sung. Her platinum blonde hair came from a tube and some bleach and her legs from wax and workouts. Her talent came from within, as did the love she had for all and the strength she radiated to everybody she met.
“I don’t stop when I’m tired. I only stop when I’m done”
-Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962)