Women’s History Month – Marilyn Monroe

For the month of March, the world celebrates Women’s History Month. I am devoting a week each in March to one woman I am inspired by. 

For this week, I am devoting the week to Marilyn Monroe.

Norma Jeane Mortenson was born on 1 June 1926 to Gladys Pearl Baker at Los Angeles General Hospital. Gladys was not mentally or financially stable or prepared for a child when Norma was born although her early childhood is being noted as being stable and happy. Gladys placed Norma with evangelical Christian foster parents Albert and Ida Bolender in Hawthorne. It was at this time that Norma did not see her mother very often but in 1933, Gladys bought a small house in Hollywood and moved with the 7-year-old to that place. They had lodgers who stayed with them, actors and the like, from time to time. 

It wasn’t long before Gladys had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1934. She spent most of her life in and out of hospitals and rarely made contact with her daughter. Norma became a ward of the state, with her mother’s friend Grace Goddard looking after her. 

In the next sixteen months, Norma lived with friends of her mother and it is assumed she was sexually abused during this time. She’d always been a shy girl but it was around this time that she developed a stutter and became withdrawn. In 1935, she stayed briefly with Grace Goddard and her husband, but just a few months later she was placed in the Los Angeles Orphans Home. It did not last long. Grace returned to take her out of the orphanage in 1937. Unfortunately, this stay did not last as Grace’s husband was molesting her. She ended up staying with friends and relatives of friends in Los Angeles and Compton. 

Norma said that her experiences as a child made her want to be an actress: “I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim…when I heard that this was acting. I said that’s what I want to be.” 

Norma finally found something a little more permanent when she moved in with Grace’s aunt Ana Lower in Sawtelle. This was in September 1938. She was enrolled in school and excelled in writing and contributing to the school newspaper but she was not a bright student in other subjects. Owing to Ana’s failing health, Norma was returned to live with the Goddard’s in Van Nuys in 1941. 

In 1942, Grace’s husband was relocated to West Virginia. California child protection laws prevented them from taking Norma with them, so she was forced to return to the orphanage. Instead, she married her neighbor’s son, James Doughtery, a 21-year-old factory worker on 19 June, 1942, just after her 16th birthday. 

She dropped out of school and later said she was “dying of boredom” during her marriage. In 1943, Dougherty enlisted as a Merchant Marine and was stationed on Santa Catalina Island where she moved. 

Norma moved in with her in-laws when Dougherty was sent out to the Pacific and remained there for two years. Norma got a job in a munitions factory. She met a photographer in late 1944 who was told to shoot morale-boosting pictures of female workers in the factory. Her pictures weren’t used but she still quit her job in 1945 and began modeling for that photographer and his friends. Defying her husband’s wishes, she moved on her own and signed a contract in August 1945. 

She began modeling for the pin-up fashion in magazines and advertisements. She dyed her own hair blonde and straightened it so it would give her more jobs. 

Norma signed a contract with Ben Lyon at 20th Century Fox in 1946, but some executives were unenthusiastic about it. The only reason she was signed was so RKO Pictures, a rival at the time, could not sign her. Lyon and Norma chose the screen name, Marilyn Monroe, for Lyon’s love of broadway star Marilyn Miller and Norma’s mother’s maiden name, Monroe. 

In September 1946, she divorced Dougherty as he was opposed to her career. 

She spent months learning how to sing, dance and act. She was given her first roles in 1947 but after consideration, Fox did not renew her contract in late 1947. She returned to modelling but she was determined to make it as an actress. 

She was signed in March 1948 by Columbia Pictures. Here, her look was modelled after Rita Hayworth and her hair was bleached platinum blonde. She performed in one movie for them. Her contract was not renewed in September 1948. 

It was not until 1950 that she was cast in more than one movie through the William Morris Agency, the vice president Johnny Hyde, was her lover. In 1950, Hyde negotiated a 7 year contract for Monroe with Century Fox. Hyde died only days later, leaving her devastated. This was when her popularity began to grow. 

In early 1952, she began a public romance with retired New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio. This was around the time her bombshell and sex symbol personality was starting. She wore a revealing dress when acting as Grand Marshal at the Miss America Pageannt parade, and told gossip columnist Earl Wilson that she usually wore no underwear. By the end of the year she was named the “it” girl of 1952. 

It was around this time she gained a reputation for being difficult to work with which only worsened as her career grew. She was late or didn’t show up at all, couldn’t remember her lines, and would demand re-takes. Her problems have been attributed to a combination of perfectionism, low self-esteem, and stage fright. To alleviate her anxiety and chronic insomnia, she began to use barbituates, amphetamines and alcohol. She didn’t become addicted until 1956. 

In 1953, her sex symbol status was confirmed when Hugh Hefner featured her on the cover and as a centrefold in the first issue of Playboy. Monroe did not consent to the publication. The cover image was a photograph taken at the Miss America Pageant parade in 1952 and the centrefold featured on of her nude photographs taken in 1949. 

On January 14, 1954, Marilyn married Joe DiMaggio in San Francisco due to the studio not wanting to renew her contract and not allowing her to choose the movies she wanted to be in. The press followed her new publicity stunt and not the studio’s. Because of this attack, the studio offered her a new contract, a bonus of $100,000 and a starring role in The Seven Year Itch

While filming that scene from the movie, the shoot lasted several hours and attracted nearly 2,000 spectators. It also happened to mark the end of her marriage to DiMaggio who was infuriated by it. In October 1954, Monroe filed for divorce. 

1955 saw Monroe undergo psychoanalysis and started to date actor Marlon Brando and playwright Arthur Miller. She legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe in 1956. Monroe married Miller in June in New York. She converted to Judaism. 

Monroe started to become dependent on alcohol and drugs at this point and even had a miscarriage while working alongside Laurence Olivier. She took an 18 month hiatus to concentrate on her family life. She had an ectopic pregnancy in 1957 and another miscarriage a year later which was linked to her endometriosis. 

During the filming of “Some Like It Hot”, Monroe likened the production to a sinking ship and said, “why should I worry, I have no phallic symbol to lose”. 

The last film Monroe would complete was The Misfits which Miller had written to provide her a dramatic role. Her marriage to Arthur was over by this point. 

Her health was failing, she was in pain from gallstones, and her drug addiction was so severe that her makeup usually had to be applied when she was still asleep under the influence of barbituates. 

In 1961, she underwent surgery for endometriosis and spent four weeks in hospital for depression. She was helped by Joe DiMaggio who had rekindled a friendship with her. She began to date his friend Frank Sinatra for several months. 

Monroe was too sick to work for the next six weeks, but despite confirmations by multiple doctors, the studio pressured her by alleging publicly that she was faking it. On May 19, she took a break to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” on stage at President John F. Kennedy’s early birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in New York. She drew attention with her costume: a beige, skintight dress covered in rhinestones, which made her appear nude. Monroe’s trip to New York caused even more irritation for Fox executives, who had wanted her to cancel it. 

Her housekeeper Eunice Murray was staying overnight on the evening of August 4, 1962. Murray woke at 3:00 a.m. on August 5 and sensed that something was wrong. She saw light from under Monroe’s bedroom door but was unable to get a response and found the door locked. Murray then called Monroe’s psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, who arrived at the house shortly after and broke into the bedroom through a window to find Monroe dead in her bed. Monroe’s physician, Hyman Engelberg, arrived at around 3:50 a.m.  and pronounced her dead. At 4:25 a.m., the Los Angeles Police Department was notified.

Monroe died between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on August 4; the toxicology report showed that the cause of death was acute barbiturate poisoning. She had 8 mg% (milligrams per 100 milliliters of solution) chloral hydrate and 4.5 mg% of pentobarbital (Nembutal) in her blood, and 13 mg% of pentobarbital in her liver. Empty medicine bottles were found next to her bed. The possibility that Monroe had accidentally overdosed was ruled out because the dosages found in her body were several times the lethal limit.  

Monroe’s doctors stated that she had been “prone to severe fears and frequent depressions” with “abrupt and unpredictable mood changes”, and had overdosed several times in the past, possibly intentionally. Due to these facts and the lack of any indication of foul play, deputy coroner Thomas Noguchi classified her death as a probable suicide.

In 2022, it was proved by DNA that Norma’s father was a Charles Stanley Gifford who passed in 1965. He worked with Gladys and they had an affair in 1925. 

According to The Guide to United States Popular Culture, “as an icon of American popular culture, Monroe’s few rivals in popularity include Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse… no other star has ever inspired such a wide range of emotions—from lust to pity, from envy to remorse. 

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