Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s Ultimate Sex Symbol

For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have chosen to write about Marilyn Monroe.    Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge lover of Old Hollywood.    Marilyn Monroe has long been one of my favorite actresses, and this makes her a perfect subject for today’s post!

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Mortenson on June 1, 1926, and had a very tragic childhood.   Both her mother and grandmother were institutionalized when she was very young.   This had young Norma in and out of orphanages and various foster homes.   She suffered from various forms of abuse as a child, including sexual abuse, which she reflected on as an adult.   When she was sixteen she was married off to a man named James Dougherty.   The marriage was set up by her foster mother, who wanted her out of the house.   This was largely thought to be because Norma’s beauty and burgeoning sexuality were a temptation to the woman’s husband!   It also was likely due to not wanting to pay to feed and clothe the girl any longer.

At the start of the Second World War James signed up for the army and was sent overseas.   Norma did not like her husband going to war and reacted poorly to the idea of him leaving, but eventually began working in a plane factory.   It was there that she was discovered by a photographer while painting an airplane.   After that Norma appeared in many print magazines and did a lot of cheesecake pin-up work that was sent to the troops overseas.   These magazines were actually how James found out she was modeling!   He did not approve of his wife modeling, or of her wanting to be an actress.   When he gave her the ultimatum, it was him or a career, she sent him a Dear John Letter ending things.   

By 1946, she had won a small contract and began doing bit parts in films.    She had her hair dyed blonde and some small plastic surgery on her nose and chin.   It was also around this time that the studio told her that Norma Jean was not the name of a star.   They chose Marilyn as her first name and wanted another M name for her last in order to have an “mmm” sound.   She herself suggested the surname of Monroe, as it was her grandmother’s name!    From here onwards, she was known as Marilyn Monroe, although she did not legally change it until 1955.

Early on in her career, she had an affair with the agent Johnny Hyde, and he was integral in getting her some of her early parts including her role in The Asphalt Jungle.    After his death, she relied on others such as her acting coach Natasha Lytess.   

The year that would make her a star was 1953, and it was Gentleman Prefer Blondes that would prove to make her an icon.   She and Jane Russell would both put their hand and footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at the premiere!   

It was around this time that she would begin dating her second husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.   During their honeymoon, they famously made a stop-over in Korea so that Marilyn could sing to the troops!   Their marriage would end quickly, as Joe wanted a traditional wife, and was not into the “Hollywood Scene.”   In fact, she would often attend premieres alone during their relationship, as he had no interest in going.    The final straw that would lead to their divorce was his reaction to the shooting of the famous “skirt scene” in The Seven Year Itch.   The scene was originally shot on the street in New York, and DiMaggio hated seeing a gaggle of people gathered to watch his wife’s skirt blowing up.    This was made worse by the fact that even with two pairs of underwear on, the lights made her underwear appear very sheer!    He had a violent reaction to this when she went home that night, and when they returned to Hollywood they would separate and file for divorce. 

Marilyn would eventually rebel against the roles 20th Century Fox tried to give her, as she was fed up playing dumb-blonde characters.    This is when she famously went to New York to study under Lee Strasburg at The Actor’s Studio.    It was also during this time in New York that she began her relationship with Arthur Miller (whom she had actually met first years earlier).   

Upon her return to Hollywood, she had set up her own production company and had negotiated for director and script approval.   She proved herself in dramatic work with her role as Cherie in Bus Stop.   At this point, everything seemed to be looking up for Marilyn.   She married Arthur Miller in 1956, twice actually, a civil ceremony and a Jewish ceremony.   Marilyn had converted to Judaism for their marriage.   Although, it was not long before things began to go downhill for her once again.

During her marriage to Miller, she suffered several miscarriages and one ectopic pregnancy.   This was devastating for Marilyn, as she greatly wished to be a mother.   Several biographers have even surmised that she likely felt inadequate due to being a sex symbol who could not do the most feminine of things, give birth to a child!   It was this, in addition to Miller’s disrespect of her, that would deteriorate their relationship.   Miller famously wrote the script of The Misfits, and it was yet another dumb-blonde style character for Marilyn.   The two famously fought often on the set, as she was insulted at the role he had written specifically for her.   They would divorce in 1961.

The last year of her life included the iconic affairs with the Kennedy brothers.    It was the year she would sing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” and get fired and re-hired from Something’s Gotta Give.   In Something’s Gotta Give she filmed what should have been the first nude scene by an American actress, had the film been released.   Her antics on set were well known, and she would often show up several hours late, or not at all.   She was rehired after being fired largely because Dean Martin threatened to quit if she was not rehired.   

In this final year of her life, she was hospitalized in a mental hospital and had to be picked up by Joe DiMaggio.   She could not stay in a mental hospital given her fear of ending up like her mother and grandmother!

On August 5, 1962, the world learned that Marilyn Monroe had died in the early morning hours.    The circumstances of her death are highly debated to this day.   We know that she was found naked in her bed, dead of an overdose of barbiturates.    We know that her housekeeper called her psychiatrist before the police were ever called.    We know of many suspicious occurrences, but I will not go into that here.   I feel her death can fill an entire blog post by itself, so I will leave her story off here.    Marilyn died aged just 36, and the world lost one of its brightest stars! 

She was a beautiful and intelligent woman who died too young.   In fact, she was a very well-read woman, owning a library of at least 400 books!   I wanted to mention that to combat the image of her as simply a dumb blonde.   She was a talented actress, who could play many various roles, and much of how she presented herself was a persona she developed.   I hope that you have enjoyed learning about the life of Marilyn Monroe.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Marilyn.   I found the image on 

Further Reading/Watching

  • Marilyn Revealed by Ted Schwartz
  • Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner
  • Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles
  • Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
  • How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
  • The Seven Year Itch (1955)
  • Bus Stop (1956)
  • Some Like It Hot (1959)