Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, is remembered by many as one of the most iconic yet tragic actresses of the classical Hollywood period. Her public image is one that has become synonymous with the glamour of the mid-20th century, while her scandals are discussed and remembered to this very day.
Marilyn’s image and legacy have lived on since her untimely death in 1962, featuring in everything from modern works of art to movies and TV shows about her life. But it is easy to get lost in her public image that is so well remembered to this day.
Here, we look back at the life of one of the most iconic actresses of all time, telling the story of her life – from childhood to tragic end – in a series of remarkable photos.
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born on 1 June 1927 at the Los Angeles County Hospital in California. It is unknown who her biological father was. She had a difficult childhood, with her mother and grandmother frequently confined to an asylum.
Norma Jeane was 16 when she married her first husband, Jim Dougherty, who was her neighbour at that time. Her motivations for the marriage were partly caused by the desire to escape the orphanage. They divorced following World War Two, after being together for four years.
While working for a California munitions factory during World War Two, Marilyn was ‘discovered’ by a photographer who helped her to become a successful model.
First steps in Hollywood
Her first role with 20th Century Fox was an uncredited part in the 1947 movie The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Her true breakthrough was in the 1953 film-noir thriller Niagara. It was her first movie where she was given top billing, elevating her to stardom.
Marilyn in Korea
Marilyn visited South Korea a year after the end of the Korean War. She toured in multiple American military bases, performing for around 100,000 servicemen. The performances helped her to overcome her own stage fright.
Marilyn Monroe’s famous photo session with photographer Ed Feingersh highlights her image as a ‘love goddess’ and a ‘sexual icon’. Her breathy sultry voice, which became one of her trademarks, was suggested by her speech therapist to overcome a stutter.
Monroe’s fame kept on rising with a succession of commercial Hollywood hits like 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as well as 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.
Her second marriage
In January 1954, Monroe married her second husband, the American baseball player Joe DiMaggio. From the outside, it seemed like a quintessential all-American love affair, with enormous press attention given to both of them.
The couple divorced after 9 months of marriage following DiMaggio’s increasing jealousy turning into violent outbursts.
New career directions
After growing increasingly discontented with her acting career, Marilyn Monroe began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York City. The Seven Year Itch in 1955 and Bus Stop in 1958 displayed her emerging talents as a comedian, proving that she was more than a beauty icon. Her performance in the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot is considered to be one of her finest, gaining widespread critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award.
Her third and final marriage was to the Hollywood playwright Arthur Miller, whom she met in 1951. Following her wedding in 1956, she converted to Judaism and started reading Judaic texts with her husband’s family rabbi Robert. E. Goldburg. The couple split in 1961.
Her final movie
Her last theatrical release was the drama The Misfits, released in 1961 and a departure from her previous more comedic work. Marilyn Monroe suffered from emotional exhaustion following the filming of the movie and was omitted to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York.
Alleged relationship with President John F. Kennedy
In 1962 Marilyn Monroe famously sang a sultry version of ‘Happy Birthday’ to President John F. Kennedy, to which he jokingly replied, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way”. The dress she wore that night was sold in 2016 for 4.8 million dollars.
One of Marilyn Monroe’s last trips before her death was to Mexico in 1962. She met screenwriter and cinematographer José Bolaños, who allegedly was one of the last people she spoke to prior to her overdose.
The death of Marilyn Monroe
On 5 August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an overdose of barbiturates, in her home in Brentwood, California. Reportedly she was seeking the help of psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson right before her death, talking to him over the phone for an hour. She was only 36 years old at the time of her passing. Her funeral was organised by her second husband Joe DiMaggio on 8 August 1962 at the Westwood Memorial Park.
Monroe has been immortalised in the public consciousness following her death, making her one of the most recognisable people in history. Potentially the most iconic works of art that she inspired are the series of paintings done by Andy Warhol. In 2022, his ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ became the most expensive painting ever sold.