Marilyn took her career as an actor seriously, and assiduously studied her new craft. Hollywood, in the form of the moguls still exploiting the studio system, were little impressed with her abilities on screen. Instead, Marilyn was used as a hostess for Hollywood parties and gatherings, tasked with “entertaining” motion picture moguls and their would-be investors. Small parts in musicals and a few low-budget stage productions whetted her appetite for an acting career, but roles eluded her. In 1948 she signed a contract with Columbia, though she continued to find little demand for her in films. She did find that Columbia executives wanted her to fill the time-honored image of the “blonde bombshell”.
Columbia lightened her hair still further, creating the platinum blonde look which remained throughout her career. Following the end of her Columbia contract she returned to modelling, including posing for nude calendars and pinups. She also worked in advertising, under the tutelages of the William Morris Agency and its vice-president Johnny Hyde. Hyde became her mentor, lover, and chief promoter. It was under his guidance she finally landed roles in major Hollywood productions, including All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, though her roles were small. Hyde used the good reviews she garnered to negotiate a contract with 20th Century Fox, for seven years. Shortly after Marilyn signed with Fox Hyde died of a heart attack, leaving her emotionally devastated and without a champion in the studios of Hollywood.
Marilyn emerged as a popular star in the early 1950s
Although Marilyn’s roles were often stereotyped in the early 1950s, that of the dazzling blonde primarily in the film as comic relief and to brighten up the sets, her star began to rise. Critics, including the influential New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, praised her work. Crowther called her “superb” in the Fox film As Young as You Feel, though the picture was only moderately successful. But audiences noticed the blonde despite the paucity of screen time. So did fellow Hollywood stars. By 1952 Marilyn was known for dating several of Hollywood’s leading men, including Yul Brynner, Peter Lawford, director Nicholas Ray, William Holden, and former New York Yankees star Joe Dimaggio.
By 1953 she was still without a critically acclaimed film performance, yet she was a major star. Scandals over her admission to having posed nude for photographers did little to slow her rising to stardom. She also provided titillating interviews, claiming she often chose not to wear any undergarments in an age when most mature women routinely wore girdles. She was provocative and at the same time innocent, combining sexual allure with childlike naivete, creating her own image in defiance of the blonde bombshell reputation preferred by the studio moguls in Hollywood.
In 1953 Marilyn Monroe emerged as a major Hollywood star, her image both exploited by the studios and by the actor herself. The studios wanted a “dumb blonde” image, sexy and stupid. Marilyn delivered in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. That same year Hugh Hefner used Marilyn’s image on the cover of the first issue of his new magazine, Playboy. He also presented nude photos of the actor within the magazine, taken years earlier and purchased from the photographer. Hefner’s exploitation of the star’s rising popularity ensured the success of his venture.
Marilyn’s successes in 1953 led to her being in demand for other roles, as well as public appearances, but it also led to her being typecast. Marilyn resented the “dumb blonde” image studio executives viewed as bankable, and actively sought other types of roles. The blonde bombshell sex symbol image was another matter. She exploited her allure, using it and its box office power to demand roles which would cement her position as a serious dramatic actress.
The rebellious superstar clashed with studio heads
After her major successes in 1953 Marilyn began to develop a reputation as being demanding and difficult to work with. Through the public was unaware of it, she relied on several drugs to get her through the day, medicating against insomnia, depression, and other concealed problems. She also dated several men in and around Hollywood, though by 1952 she was in a relationship with Joe DiMaggio.
In addition to her major film successes in 1953, Marilyn appeared on television, with her first appearance on The Jack Benny Show. In January 1954, 20th Century Fox studio head Daryl F. Zanuck suspended her contract following her refusal to perform in another film which exploited her success in the typecast role of the dumb but sexy blonde. Monroe had refused the role in the film The Girl in Pink Tights. In response, Monroe fled to San Francisco, where she married Joe DiMaggio on January 14, 1954. Both her suspension and marriage were front page news.
After their marriage DiMaggio and Monroe traveled to Japan, he to meet commitments previously made to train and evaluate Japanese baseball teams and players. Marilyn took the opportunity to remind Zanuck and other studio executives of her immense popularity. She embarked on a tour to entertain American troops in Japan and Korea. By the time she returned to the United States she was among the most popular entertainers in the world. That spring, Photoplay Magazine named her its Most Popular Female Star.
Marilyn leveraged her popularity to receive a more favorable contract with Zanuck and Fox, which included a $100,000 (about $1.03 million today) bonus and more control over her film roles. In many ways it was revenge for Zanuck forcing her to appear in dumb blonde roles, as well as his despicable use of the “casting couch”. In exchange, she agreed to appear in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business, a role she despised but Zanuck demanded she do for having refused to appear in The Girl in Pink Tights. She also received a role in The Seven Year Itch, which led to one of the most iconic images of her career.
By mid-1954 the marriage of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe was in trouble. DiMaggio resented the constant press coverage and the demands of her career on his wife, and was deemed by Marilyn’s friends in the industry to be controlling and possibly abusive. While filming The Seven Year Itch in September, Monroe used the famous scene where the subway trains blow up her skirt as a publicity event. Among the fans and photographers who were present for the scene’s filming was a seething DiMaggio.
It was the last straw, though it was Marilyn who filed for divorce the following month, after just nine months of marriage to the former Yankee’s superstar. Their relationship remained cordial, though Marilyn dated several other men, among them New York playwright Arthur Miller. With Miller’s encouragement and support, Marilyn teamed with Milton Greene, a photographer, and formed a production company named Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). The new company put her into a legal conflict with 20th Century Fox which began in early 1955 and increased the pressures on the star.
From the early 1950s Marilyn Monroe relied on several different medications to cope with the pressures of her career, her relationships, and her fragile mental condition. Following the collapse of her marriage to DiMaggio her use of prescription drugs increased. She began studying acting under Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula Strasberg. Strasberg demanded Monroe enter psychoanalysis. Strasberg believed psychoanalysis would help Marilyn confront her personal demons, and the experience could then be used to improve her performances as an actor.
Instead, Marilyn grew increasingly unwell, both emotionally and physically. The legal battle with Fox added to her troubles. By the end of 1955 MMP and Fox arrived at an agreement which led to a new contract for Marilyn. In October of that year her divorce from DiMaggio was finalized, and Marilyn’s relationship with Arthur Miller grew deeper. Miller had been listed as a communist by the FBI, which then opened a file on Marilyn which eventually grew to hundreds of entries and continued to the end of her life in 1962.
As 1956 began Marilyn Monroe’s new contract with Fox was announced. The press touted it as a major victory for Monroe. The press, which had been for the most part derisive of her year-long battle with the studio now called her a shrewd business operator (TIME Magazine) and a champion of the individual over the corporation. Meanwhile the far-right press began to question her loyalties based on her increasingly public relationship with Arthur Miller, a known communist sympathizer. Columnist Walter Winchell called her a “darling of the left-wing intelligentsia”, the latter descriptive a conservative code name for communists.
Through her position as head of MMP Marilyn had greater creative control of her films, including the choice of director. She also had control over script changes and rewrites, and her demanding persona on-site led to difficulties with film crews and fellow actors. She was also chronically late to the set, causing delays in filming which exasperated studio executives and her drug use often left her incapable of remembering her lines while performing. Nonetheless, critics began to regard her as a serious dramatic actor, beginning with the film Bus Stop (1956) and continuing through the rest of the decade.
In June 1956, Marilyn married for the third time, to playwright Arthur Miller. Miller was Jewish, and Marilyn studied under a rabbi prior to the marriage, converting to Judaism in July. Their marriage, like her previous two, was troubled from the start. Marilyn went to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, and problems between the two stars made for an uncomfortable and difficult filming. Olivier demanded Marilyn play the role similarly to the way Vivien Leigh had done in the stage version.
According to some biographers Monroe suffered a miscarriage during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl. Her dependence on drugs increased and when the film was completed Marilyn took a year and a half away from films. During the period of recovery she and Miller resided in New York, with time off in Connecticut and Long Island. Her health continued to deteriorate; diagnosed with endometriosis (a disease of the reproductive system) she suffered another miscarriage as well as an ectopic pregnancy. Her illness exacerbated her mental state, and her drug use spiraled out of control.
In 1957, Marilyn suffered an overdose of barbiturates which required hospitalization and rest for over a month. Despite her remaining away from Hollywood and filming her marriage to Miller was strained. Her mental condition continued to deteriorate, her reliance on drugs and psychiatric care increased. In 1958 she returned to acting. During the production of Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, she often arrived late to the set, too drugged to remember her lines. She demanded multiple retakes of her scenes, antagonizing her fellow actors and director Billy Wilder. Curtis claimed he had an affair with Monroe during the filming.
Despite the difficulties Some Like It Hot proved a major success with the public and critics, and remains in many lists as one of the greatest American films ever made. Marilyn followed it with Let’s Make Love in 1959. During filming of Let’s Make Love Marilyn had an affair with Yves Montand, with whom she appeared in the film. The affair was not a discreet one. Widely reported in the press and denied by neither participant, it helped bring about the end of her third marriage.
In 1960, Marilyn began filming The Misfits, with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Written by her husband, Arthur Miller, the filming was troubled. Problems on the set were largely caused by the dissolution of her marriage to Miller, her demanding rewrites of numerous scenes, and Gable’s own ill health. It was to be his last film. Clark Gable died just days after the film was completed in November, 1960.
Although nobody knew it at the time, it was also the last film Marilyn Monroe completed during her lifetime. Following its completion Monroe went to Mexico to obtain a quick divorce from Miller, abandoned her Judaism studies and practice, and entered a period of steadily declining health, both mental and physical. She underwent surgery for her endometriosis and other related problems and spent hospitalized for mental health issues. She began work on other projects, but health problems prevented their completion and they were abandoned.
Marilyn’s last years were increasingly unhappy for her
During 1962 Marilyn’s health problems led to delays in several projects, including a film in which she was to star with Dean Martin, Something’s Got to Give. Monroe’s health problems included sinusitis, which prevented her working, though the studio publicly claimed she was faking her illness. In May 1962 she appeared at a birthday gala and fundraiser for President John F. Kennedy, at which she sang Happy Birthday to JFK in a famously sultry, sexy manner, wearing a skin tight dress which made her appear nude under the television lights.
Following that appearance Marilyn filmed a scene for Something’s Got to Give in which she swam naked in a pool, generating considerable publicity. By then the film was so far behind schedule that Fox fired Marilyn, replacing her with Lee Remick. Dean Martin refused to continue the production without Marilyn, and Fox sued both stars for compensation. Monroe eventually settled with Fox and planned another film to be shot later that summer. She also sat for interviews with Life Magazine and Cosmopolitan that summer in an attempt to counteract the negative publicity which had accompanied her firing. Something’s Got to Give was scheduled to resume shooting late in 1962.
On August 5 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom in Brentwood, California. Her body was discovered by her psychiatrist, who arrived at the home after being called by Monroe’s housekeeper. Her autopsy revealed she had died on the evening of August 4, from an overdose of barbiturates. After testimony from several doctors who had treated her over the years, Marilyn’s death was classed as a probable suicide. She had a history of overdoses, both accidental and likely deliberate, as well as a history of violent mood swings and suicidal thoughts, according to her doctors.
At the time of her death the public knew little of her history with depression and drugs. The studio’s publicity machine had largely kept such issues private. The sudden nature of her death, and her relatively young age (36) led to what became the legend of Marilyn Monroe. An industry arose over the star, one in which she was either an exploited, abused victim of the studio system and the rich and powerful, or a sex and drug addled exploiter of powerful men. Marilyn was no longer a movie star, she was a legend which continues to grow 60 years after her death.
Rumors of an affair between President John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe began in the 1960s, after both of them died. Later they expanded to include a subsequent affair between Robert Kennedy and Monroe. Like most stories regarding the Kennedy brothers, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence regarding the affairs, but little in the way of hard evidence. One story, which apparently began with a Hollywood hairdresser, even alleged Bobby Kennedy visited Marilyn at her home on the day she died, supposedly to end their affair.
Confirmed details of the relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe are virtually non-existent. The same is true regarding an RFK-Monroe affair. And there is virtually no evidence beyond scandal-mongering and malicious gossip that either of the Kennedy brothers had anything to do with Monroe’s death, as has been alleged. For those who believe such rumors the absence of factual evidence is immaterial. For them, the Kennedy brothers are just two of the rich and powerful men who exploited Marilyn before cavalierly discarding her, a tragic theme of her short life.
In 1973 a coffee table sized book largely of photographs of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 appeared. Titled Marilyn, it contained text of approximately 93,000 words written by Norman Mailer. Mailer claimed in his “biography” that Monroe had been involved in a long-term affair with Robert Kennedy, and that Kennedy had her killed when she threatened to go public with the story. Mailer cited no evidence, other than having learned the story from an earlier biography of Monroe.
In July 1973, Mailer sat for an interview by Mike Wallace for CBS’s news magazine program 60 Minutes. Wallace asked Mailer to describe what the writer believed to have been the circumstances of Monroe’s death. “I’d say that it was a 10-1 that Marilyn’s death was an accidental suicide”, Mailer stated. Pressed on why he had written otherwise in Marilyn, Mailer responded. “I needed money very badly”. The book, with its allegations about RFK, remained in print for decades despite its author’s recanting his own work.
Although Marilyn had known Frank Sinatra for many years, going back to her earliest days in Hollywood, she was not romantically linked to the singer and actor until the last two years of her life. When she first began working in films she was introduced to Peter Lawford, then a friend of Sinatra’s and a member of the legendary Rat Pack. Lawford was also the brother-in law to then Senator John F. Kennedy, and may well have been introduced to Kennedy by Lawford during the 1960 Presidential campaign. Sinatra and Monroe remained friends throughout her career, but they were not regarded as dating until 1960.
During filming of The Misfits Marilyn frequently spent time off in Los Angeles, or at the Cal-Neva Lodge, then owned by Sinatra. One of the gifts Sinatra gave Marilyn was a small dog, to replace another which Arthur Miller had kept following their divorce. Marilyn named the dog Maf, short for mafia, as a sly dig at Sinatra’s alleged mob connections at the time. She was a frequent visitor to the Cal-Neva Lodge during the last years of her life. Another facet of her life she shared with Sinatra was the interest of the FBI, which kept extensive files on both of them.
Joe DiMaggio was retired from professional baseball when he began dating Marilyn Monroe, though he remained one of the most recognizable men in the United States. Famously proud but disdainful of celebrity, DiMaggio dated Marilyn for nearly two years before the two of them were married. He was one of the few men in her life at the time who had no involvement with Hollywood and the studio system. Even her doctors were part of the Hollywood world, answerable to the powerful heads of the studios at the time.
DiMaggio preferred privacy to celebrity, but Monroe’s carefully crafted image demanded the opposite. When she filed for divorce from DiMaggio, Life Magazine published photographs of her arriving to file the papers. The photos depict her in tears, clearly fraught with anguish over the end of her marriage. She cited mental cruelty as a cause for divorce, and some claimed the marriage was physically violent. Following her divorce from Arthur Miller she rekindled her friendship with DiMaggio, who never remarried.
Depending on the source, Marilyn Monroe had several abortions during her lifetime. Like the relationship with the Kennedys, there is little in the record to support the allegation. She did suffer at least two miscarriages during her marriage to Arthur Miller, and one ectopic pregnancy. But no evidence of her obtaining an abortion, at the behest of the studio, or a married lover, or for any other reason has ever been found.
There is considerable evidence that Marilyn wanted to have children, as her pregnancies during her marriage to Miller attest. Diagnosed with endometriosis she underwent surgery in an attempt to alleviate the condition, which is relatively rare and reportedly extremely painful. The pain likely contributed to her chronic use of painkilling drugs, and her seeming inability to carry a child to term undoubtedly added to her emotional problems. Still, there are those who claim Marilyn had several abortions, an accusation cited without evidence, in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Marilyn Monroe was still married to Joe DiMaggio when she began an affair with Arthur Miller, whom she had met several years earlier. Miller too was married at the time. After both were divorced their affair became public knowledge and they were married in a civil ceremony in June, followed by a Jewish ceremony on July 1, 1956. As noted above, Marilyn converted to Judaism, largely to gain acceptance by Miller’s family. Following their divorce she dropped all claims to Judaism. Their marriage was troubled, mostly from Marilyn’s miscarriages and ensuing health issues.
Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay for The Misfits. Marilyn disliked many of her scenes, demanding they be rewritten, and sometimes rewrote them herself. Other scenes were rewritten by Miller just hours before they were shot, leaving Marilyn unprepared for her new lines. The tensions of their marriage spilled over onto the set, and by the end of filming they decided to divorce. Miller later married Inge Morath, a photographer on the set of The Misfits, with whom some have alleged he had an affair as his marriage to Marilyn was ending.
Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of barbiturates so massive that, according to the coroner’s report, could not possibly have been accidental. She had a large tolerance for barbiturates, having taken them for many years, both for physical and emotional pain. Her habit of drugging herself to sleep led to her needing to drug herself awake in order to meet shooting schedules and other appointments. Most of the drugs she took were prescribed, either by her physician or her psychiatrist. She also supplemented them with alcohol, though she was not known to be a heavy drinker in what was then a heavy drinking town.
In 2022 several websites focused on celebrities reported new evidence which suggests Marilyn died as a result of the use of an unidentified “party drug” administered via an enema. The fatal enema theory has been brought up in various forms many times, though with differing opinions as to who administered it, usually as part of a murder and coverup conspiracy theory. The theory dismisses the facts of Marilyn’s long dependence on prescription drugs, as well as her fragile emotional state and the circumstances of her death.
During the filming of Let’s Make Love, Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, the film’s stars, had a public affair which drew the attention of gossip columnists in America and France. Montand was married at the time to Simone Signoret, Marilyn to Arthur Miller. The affair ended with the completion of filming, with Montand publicly addressing the story with reporters. “Had Marilyn been more sophisticated, none of this ever would have happened”, Montand told reporters, adding “But, nothing will break up my marriage”.
Marilyn attempted to get back in touch with the French actor during the filming of The Misfits, evidently to no avail. Montand remained married to Simone Signoret until her death in 1985. Monroe, as noted, moved on to divorce Arthur Miller and did not remarry. Montand was but one of several extramarital affairs she had throughout her lifetime.
Marilyn Monroe remains a tragic figure, regarded as a symbol of American culture of the 1950s, with all of the good and bad such a persona entails. She advanced feminism by taking on the male dominated studio system, yet that same system exploited her image to line its pockets. She created her “dumb blonde” image and exploited it to the hilt, using her sexual allure to get what she wanted in films, and in life. She was far from the first blonde bombshell, nor the last, but she remains the epitome of the stereotype 60 years after her death.
It is virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction regarding her life, her many affairs, her relationships, and her tragic and untimely death. In many ways, she is still exploited by writers and film makers, eager to use her image and her popularity to make money, with truth optional. Over 300 biographies have been written about her, with varying dedication to facts. She remains a major marketing icon, as well as a cultural icon. She is also a character in novels, fictionalized depictions of her life and loves, which are too often regarded as truthful by fans and readers. Even with such immense coverage, the real Marilyn Monroe and her life’s story remains elusive, hidden beneath the glitzy blanket of Hollywood’s past.
How do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
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“Blonde Bombshells: Sirens of the Silver Screen”. Article, Central Rappahannock Regional Library. February 9, 2022. Online
“Marilyn and her Monsters”. Sam Kashner, Vanity Fair. October 5, 2010
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“The Blond Marilyn Monroe”. Paul Rudnick, TIME Magazine. June 14, 1999