An icon of the twentieth century, Marilyn Monroe began life as plain old Norma Jeane Mortenson — her surname being changed to ‘Baker’ later, when her mother re-married.Taken into state care at an early age, in her teens Marilyn became a photographer’s model, before embarking on a career as a film actress.
Her famous ‘dumb blonde’ persona was used to great effect in such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), but Monroe grew weary of being typecast, and spent time studying at the Actors Studio to broaden her range. Her resulting dramatic performance in Bus Stop (1956) was lauded by critics and garnered a Golden Globe nomination.
Monroe’s last completed film was The Misfits (1961), written by her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller.
Her death in 1962, from an overdose of barbiturates, has now been officially — and completely unsatisfactorily — classified as ‘probable suicide’. It continues to be the subject of much debate.
Until you get a chance to know the screen legend better, here are ten facts that might surprise you about her.
1. When her mother Gladys was institutionalised due to serious mental health issues, the young Norma Jeane was taken into care; being moved around a succession of California foster homes. It apparently took the young tomboy some time to develop her famous ‘hour-glass’ figure. At high school, her nickname was ‘Norma Jeane, the Human Stringbean.’
2. She started using the name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in 1946, but didn’t legally change it until 1956. (The first time someone asked her for her autograph, she apparently had a David Cameron style ‘brain fade’ and forgot how to spell her new screen name. She ended up putting the ‘i’ in Marilyn in the wrong place.) Early on in her career, she also worked under the pseudonym ‘Jean Adair’.
3. As an aspiring 21 year old model, Monroe’s first success came as she won a beauty contest in Castroville, California. She beat all other entrants to the glamorous title of ‘Queen Artichoke 1947’. (Castroville is, of course, the ‘Artichoke Capital of the World’.)
4. Although often thought of as the archetypal ‘dumb blonde’, Monroe was neither. Accepted to study literature at UCLA, she reportedly had an IQ of 168. (She was veracious reader and counted Tolstoy and Milton among her favourite writers). Monroe was also a brunette – see early modelling shots. The first time she wore her trademark ‘platinum blonde’ hair colour was in the (unexceptional) 1952 Cary Grant comedy Monkey Business.
5. In 1953, Monroe became Playboy’s first ‘Sweetheart’, later renamed ‘Playmate of the Month’. Marilyn had been paid $50 to model for the pictures several years earlier. Hugh Hefner bought them from the photographer for $500 – and made millions from sales. (‘Hef’ is apparently a devoted fan of Marilyn; albeit in slightly weird, stalkery way. Following her death, he bought the crypt next to hers at the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery, so he could be buried beside her, despite the fact that they never met.)
6. When jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was unable to get a break in Hollywood, Monroe called the owner of the popular Hollywood nightclub, Mocambo, demanding he book her. (The club was initially reticent about hiring black performers.) Interviewed about this years later, Fitzgerald recalled: “(Finally) the owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
7. Marilyn’s beaded Jean Louis gown – which she famously wore when she sang Happy Birthday to JFK in 1962 – was sold in 1999 for $128,000. At the time, it was the record price for a single item of clothing. (However, this record was smashed in the 2011, when the billowing white dress Marilyn wore whilst airing her knickers over a subway grate in Seven Year Itch sold for $4.3 million.)
8. Though a massive Hollywood star, Marilyn was always relatively badly paid. When they co-starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jane Russell was paid almost 10 times as much as her. Her salary for her final (unfinished) film, Something’s Got to Give was $100,000, five times less than her co-star, Dean Martin.
9. According to a report in The New York Times, the number of suicides in the New York area hit a record high of 12 in single day the week following Monroe’s death. One suicide victim even left a note saying, ‘If the most wonderful, beautiful thing in the world has nothing to live for, then neither must I.’
10. Inspired by the early death of Jean Harlow, at their wedding in 1954 Monroe asked her new husband Joe DiMaggio if he would – should she die first – decorate her grave with fresh flowers every week. Baseball legend DiMaggio agreed (must’ve been a fun wedding!) and even though they divorced after just nine months, when she died he made good on the promise – for 20 years. DiMaggio’s last words were reportedly, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.” *
*See, Hef? That’s how you do it…
For more big-screen bombshells, seek out The Bluffer’s Guide to Insider Hollywood®