If anyone knows me at all, they know that I have a love for old Hollywood. I live in a world of black and white, of classic films, handsome and dashing leading men, and effortlessly beautiful and talented actresses. That’s my reality–the place where I spent most of my time. So, naturally, I am familiar with the work of Hollywood’s most recognizable icon, Marilyn Monroe.
It is also no secret to those who know me, that while I will not deny that Marilyn Monroe was certainly pretty, she has never been my favorite. I have always looked at her as a ditzy and fake blonde who completely changed herself just for fame, was never true to herself, and would do or say anything just to make a buck from the industry. That is what I thought until semi-recently.
For various reasons, I have spent quite a bit of time over the last year studying, reading, watching, and learning quite a bit about Miss Monroe, and I have been very quickly brought to the realization that I had drawn such conclusions about her in my mind, yet I had never really learned anything about her at all. The more I have studied, read, watched, and listened, the more I have been roped in, and I have learned more than I ever thought could be possible about someone I believed to be so shallow.
I know that, to many people, hers is a familiar story. But I have been feeling that I would very much like to share it and pay homage to what evidence suggests was such a beautiful and real human being.
This account is as candid and as truthful as I can make it, according to the information I have been able to obtain from many different sources. It is a deeper look, not at Marilyn Monroe, but at who she always truly was–Norma Jeane.
On the first of June in the year of 1926, a daughter was born to single mother Gladys Baker. Her name was Norma Jeane Mortenson. Even in the earliest days of her life, little Norma Jeane faced changes and difficulties. Her mother, Gladys, did not possess the financial means to care for a baby. To many, it is even believed that she did not want a daughter. She did try, however–undoubtedly through a sense of obligation, more than anything else.
Norma Jeane’s love for the movies was instilled in her as a young child. She was born in Los Angeles–the land of the stars. Her mother also had a position as a film cutter at one of the studios. Sometimes she would give Norma Jeane money so that she could go by herself to the movies. The young girl also spent much of her time at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, just going from block to block and looking at the places where many different stars had stood. She would spend hours trying to fit her feet into the prints of the stars, but they were always too big for her. She would just sigh and say to herself, “Poor little girl. Your turn will never come.”
Despite her efforts to live a normal and stable life with her daughter, Gladys was just not mentally or financially stable enough to support the life that depended on her. So, Norma Jeane was taken into custody by the state and placed in foster care at a young age. She was sent from home to home, having brief and sporadic reunions with her mother. She confessed to being unhappy as a child who just wanted someone to love her as a parent should, but she did not truly belong to the people she was sent to live with, so they could never give her the affection she so desired. During her time in one foster home, she was even sexually assaulted. In the midst of all of this instability, however, there were bright spots for Norma Jeane. She was still fairly young when she met Andre de Dienes, a photographer who was several years older than herself. The two became very good friends despite their age difference. Dienes saw model potential in the young Norma Jeane, and he helped her blossom by making her the center of many different photograph series. They would take day trips up and down the coast, shooting pictures and talking. Once they took a trip to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where they visited the grave of film legend Rudolph Valentino. Norma Jeane, still possessed by dreams of becoming a star, noticed that Valentino died the same year that she was born. Dienes never forgot the way she quietly suggested, “Maybe I was born to take his place.” A grim thought, considering that Rudolph Valentino’s life was also tragically cut short at the age of 31. Dienes was captivated by her–not captivated by the platinum blonde, red-lipped starlet that she was to become, but captivated by the natural beauty and simple style that she had then. Dienes was not the only one of Norma Jeane’s acquaintance who adored her just the way she was. Long-time friend Robert Slatzer recalled how he once told her during a day trip to the beach to never change, and she promised, “I’ll never change.” After her death, Slatzer lovingly described her as a “down-to-earth, pleasant type of girl.”
The guardian Norma Jeane was closest to was a close friend of her mother’s by the name of Grace McKee. Together the two of them would read endless magazines about all of the latest motion pictures, and McKee would dress Norma Jeane up like a movie star, even doing her hair and makeup for her. They also took many a trip together to the theater, to watch Hollywood’s greatest stars on the big screen. Norma Jeane was in high school when she was living with McKee. It was during this time that McKee decided to relocate to Virginia, and despite everything, decided not to take Norma Jeane with her. This created a dilemma because, if McKee left Norma Jeane behind, she was still young enough that she would once again be taken into the custody of the state. So, from school that she had a crush on, James Dougherty, was approached and convinced to marry Norma Jeane to keep her from being handed over to the state. An overall harsh blow for Norma Jeane, who would learn more and more over time that it was always just a marriage of convenience, and nothing more. She remained Mrs. Dougherty, however, for five years. It was during that span of time that she would take her first steps towards stardom.
James Dougherty enlisted in the military during WWII, and Norma Jeane, a typical housewife, did her part to support the cause by doing factory work. Photographers came around to the munitions factory to take pictures, and they noticed Norma Jeane. She was encouraged to look for work as a model, so that is what she did. She got a contract with The Blue Book Modeling Agency. This was the time when Norma Jeane underwent her biggest identity change. At the time, the agency was more interested in lighter hair, so Norma Jeane bleached hers. After changing her appearance, she became one of the agency’s most successful models. It was only a matter of time until someone from Hollywood picked up a magazine and discovered her. In 1947, 20th Century Fox offered her a contract. She accepted, but the studio still felt that something wasn’t quite right. That name. Norma Jeane was just too plain sounding, not important enough. Wishing to stay true to her roots, suggested the last name of Monroe, because it had been her mother’s maiden name. Yes! Monroe! They liked it. Norma Jeane Monroe. No, no, no. Still not right. Norma Monroe? Too clunky sounding. Jeane Monroe? Still missing something. Eventually, they hit the jackpot. Marilyn! Marilyn Monroe–that sounds sexy. That sounds different. Norma Jeane did not like the name Marilyn, but the executives persuaded her to use it, because it would help launch her career.
Everything began to go well for Marilyn Monroe. She had a contract with a film studio, she was taking singing and dancing lessons, etc. She had finally made it. Or so it would seem. After a while, it became clear to her, that the studio was not taking her seriously, and they refused to use her for anything. Eventually they let her have brief, non-speaking roles. Finally she was allowed to have one line in one scene in a movie, but that was all. Shortly after that, Fox released her from her contract. She went over to Columbia Pictures and appeared in one movie for them, Ladies of the Chorus (1948). Then she was dropped. After that it took some time for her to find more film work, but she slowly began to take on smaller parts. Her next big picture was a part in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It was around 1950 that a talent agent managed to get her a second contract with Fox. Finally, more stability for her. Not only that, but an opportunity to achieve another one of her dreams. In 1951, finally having adequate funds to do so, Marilyn enrolled for classes at UCLA, where she studied literature and art. She was able to juggle school and her career with relative ease for a while, because she only had smaller bit parts and promotional pieces in magazines. These magazines sparked an interest in readers and audiences in Marilyn Monroe–who was she? Where did she come from? In 1952, Marilyn was given more significant parts in Clash by Night, We’re Not Married!, and Don’t Bother to Knock. She received very positive reviews, and people wanted to see more of her. More parts came, but it seemed to her that people were only focusing on her beauty, and not the talent that inspired her look. Many more well-seasoned actors of the day automatically wrote her off as a dumb blonde because of the way the studios presented her. More rejection for Norma Jeane from the realm she always felt she belonged in. Finally, one of her biggest breakout roles came. Marilyn was cast alongside Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). The film was an enormous success, and she even earned her own immortalized footprints at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater–success for Marilyn. But it came at a price. Her schedule became more demanding and she decided she needed to stick with acting, which meant dropping out of college–another dream that would never come true for Norma Jeane.
Next came the comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which was also an enormous help in boosting her career. Yet the reviews were bittersweet for her. She knew only too well that it was one of the only films she ever made where the audience could appreciate her for her talent and the words she spoke, rather than how she looked. What many people even today do not realize about the the seemingly bold, sexy, and fearless actress that was Marilyn Monroe, is that she suffered from acute stage fright. She was terrified of being in front of the camera and having to say the right words. Terrified of not getting it right, which was partly due to a fear of rejection, but also partly because she was a perfectionist. She said that whenever she was sitting in her dressing room, she was not Marilyn Monroe, but just Norma Jeane, and she would work herself up so much that she would become terrified to come out. This led to many a person on the set referring to her as being “difficult.” She was aware of what others were saying about her, and it only made her more afraid and simultaneously feel disappointed in herself, so she would often disappear for days at a time. In 1953, after one such incident, Fox suspended her.
While on suspension in 1954, she married professional athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Her marriage proved to be difficult due to her career. She later remarked that she knew DiMaggio married and wanted to share a life with Norma Jeane. The problem was that, to the rest of the world, Norma Jeane did not exist. Later that same year, Fox reached an agreement with Marilyn which allowed her to come back to work. Her first reappearance on the big screen was in one of her most well recognized films, The Seven Year Itch (1955). This film was also responsible for one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, when Marilyn was conveniently positioned over a subway grate, and the air lifted her skirt to revealing heights. It was a scene that turned out to be an iconic representation for her for the rest of her life–success for Marilyn. Unfortunately, with their marriage already on the rocks, DiMaggio was infuriated by the scandalous scene. The two disputed about it, and shortly after announced their separation–failure for Norma Jeane.
Norma Jeane longed to be a serious actress, but nobody would take her seriously. After the release of The Seven Year Itch, she decided to take a break. She spent her time off in New York, where she was reintroduced to a previous acquaintance, Arthur Miller. The two began a relationship and married the next year. Marilyn’s break from film, however, was short-lived. By the beginning of 1956 she had agreed on a new contract with Fox which stated that she was responsible for making and releasing 4 motion pictures over a year period. She felt inclined to agree because she had recently established Marilyn Monroe Productions, in the hopes that it would give her more of a say in how her image was presented to the public. Unfortunately, it did very little to help her in the long run. She was cast as an unsophisticated saloon girl in Bus Stop (1956), and then came The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). She desperately wanted the part in the latter film, because it was alongside acclaimed Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier, and she believed that if she could pull it off, it would help her image. But she never felt that she earned Olivier’s respect, and the film, as a finished product, only drove it further into her mind, that she was just something pretty to take up space in front of the camera.
Later that year, in 1957, Marilyn found out that she and new husband, Arthur Miller, were expecting a baby. She was thrilled beyond belief, even though she knew it would mean her career would be put on hold. In August of 1957, a pregnant Marilyn spent the morning at the beach with her husband. Many well publicized photos were taken of her looking radiant in a white bathing suit. She was happy. Later that afternoon she returned to New York and suffered a miscarriage. A positive outcome for Marilyn, who would face no setbacks in her career. A broken heart for Norma Jeane.
Marilyn officially took a year off to recover from her loss, but her husband encouraged her to return to work in Hollywood. So, that next year she returned and filmed Some Like It Hot (1958). Shortly after filming began, she discovered she was pregnant once again. But this too would end with another miscarriage within 4 months. Some Like It Hot was an immediate success, and Marilyn even won the Golden Globe for Best Actress. But despite her achievements, she was beginning to sink into a depression. She wasn’t happy, and couldn’t sleep at night. She began to abuse prescription drugs and to develop a dependency on alcohol. Fearing that she was approaching a breaking point, she began to seek psychoanalytic treatment. Nothing was going right. Her marriage was failing, and she and Miller would divorce in 1961. Her career was slowly falling apart, she was depressed and tired, but she couldn’t sleep, and she developed a fear of the night. Her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, was intrigued and simultaneously afraid of the way that she expressed herself noting that, “she evoked painful things with no pain.” She was empty. She began to deteriorate very quickly. When she claimed 35 in 1961 she claimed, “I know I’ll never be happy, but at least I can be high-spirited.” She had already attempted to commit suicide once before, but had been unsuccessful. A confusing portrait of her is painted in the last years of her life. To many of her friends and colleagues, Marilyn Monroe seemed positive, healthier, and full of life. To Greenson, while he had seen improvement in her, he still saw Norma Jeane, who was still suffering and had legitimate fears.
On the morning of August 5, 1962, Dr. Greenson’s worst fear as a psychiatrist was recognized. He had lost a patient. The body of Norma Jeane was found in her Los Angeles home. She had died at the age of 36 from acute barbiturate poisoning. The coroner ruled that it was a probably suicide. There was no denying that she certainly had tried to take her life before, but there were also many strange and unanswered questions surrounding her death. It is therefore, to this day, an unsolved mystery as to whether she committed suicide, or was murdered. Who knows, perhaps Norma Jeane just thought she could save herself by killing Marilyn Monroe.
If you have been reading this, and have made it all the way to the end, and you are interested in a raw documentary on Marilyn Monroe and her psychoanalysis, there is an excellent one that is among my sources, and is also posted on Youtube. Click the following links to watch:
“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss,
and fifty cents for your soul.”
“I am involved in a freedom ride protesting the loss of the minority rights
belonging to the few remaining earthbound stars. All we demanded
was our right to twinkle.”
“It is often enough just to be with someone. I don’t need to touch them. Not even talk.
A feeling passes between you both. You are not alone.”
“I don’t want to make money. I just want to be wonderful.”
“I have feelings too. I am still human.
All I want is to be loved for myself and my talent.”