Marilyn Monroe: The Fascinating Life of a Pop Icon

Marilyn Monroe was an American actress and one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s.

Dec 1, 2023By Diana Oliveira, MA English, BA English Literature

marilyn monroe life story


Long after her untimely passing, Marilyn Monroe remains a significant icon of popular culture. In 1999, the American Film Institute listed her sixth on its ranking of the most important female screen icons from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Monroe was a center-stage actress for an entire decade, and her films brought in $600 million—equivalent to $2 billion in 2023.


Who was Marilyn Monroe?

marilyn monroe holding flower sam shaw 1957.jpg
Marilyn Monroe by Sam Shaw, New York, 1957, via Tumblr


Before the iconic Marilyn Monroe, there was Norma Jeane Mortenson. She was born in 1926 in Los Angeles. Prior to her marriage to James Dougherty at the age of sixteen, Norma Jeane spent most of her youth in foster residences and orphanages. While she was employed in a factory during World War II she met a photographer who worked for the First Motion Picture Unit and she started her professional life as a pin-up model. Short-lived agreements with 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures resulted from this new career path she was on. After a couple of minor parts in films, Norma Jeane agreed to a new deal with Fox in the latter half of 1950. She rose to fame as an actor during the course of the following two years, appearing in various comedies.


Growing Up as Norma Jeane

norma jeane mortenson.jpg
Norma Jeane Mortenson, via All That Is Interesting


Norma Jeane was born to Gladys Pearl Baker and her illicit lover, Stanley Gifford. As Gladys was married to Martin Edward Mortenson, Norma Jeane received his surname. Gladys suffered a mental breakdown in January 1934 and was given the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, she was admitted to a mental health facility, and because of her absence, Norma Jeane was made a ward of the state. Grace Goddard, a friend of Gladys, assumed control of Norma Jeane and her mother’s businesses. Goddard sent Norma to an orphanage in 1935. In the following four years, Norma Jeane’s residential arrangements saw several changes. She lived with different foster families, distant relatives, and family friends. She was even sexually assaulted by one of her foster parents.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

The orphanage personnel liked Norma Jeane, and they thought she would thrive in a real family setting. This made Grace Goddard agree to be the girl’s legal guardian. However, this did not work out because Erwin Goddard, Grace’s husband, abused Norma Jeane. Once more, Jeane had to move from house to house, taking advantage of the kindness of her friends and family members in Los Angeles who let her stay with them temporarily.


norma jeane andre dienes.jpg
Norma Jeane Mortenson by André de Dienes, 1945, via Perfectly Marilyn Monroe website


Norma Jeane’s foster parents frequently sent her to the movies to get the young girl out of their way, and with every trip she spent in front of the big screen, her goals and aspirations expanded. In 1938, while Jeane was a high school student, she moved in with Grace’s aunt Anna Lower, finding a place to call home.


Although Jeane was an average pupil overall, she was a gifted writer who wrote with assiduity for the school’s newspaper.


In 1942, Grace’s husband was sent to West Virginia by his employer. Grace, still Norma Jeane’s legal guardian, was unable to legally remove her from the state, so they decided to arrange for the sixteen-year-old to marry James Dougherty, a neighbor who was 21 years old. After the wedding, Norma Jeane stopped attending classes and became a housewife. She felt out of place with Dougherty and was bored by their relationship.


norma jeane 1944 portrait.jpg
Norma Jeane, 1944, via canalblog


When Dougherty was sent to fight in the Pacific in April 1944, Norma Jeane relocated to live with her husband’s parents and, shortly after, began working at the Radioplane Company. There, she met David Conover, a photographer assigned by the US Army Air Forces. He was asked to be there on behalf of the First Motion Pictures Unit to take photos of female employees in order to boost morale.


Jeane left her job at the factory in 1945 and started posing for Conover and his pals. She then relocated by herself and accepted a contract with the Blue Book Agency, disregarding her stationed husband. She mostly appeared in commercials and men’s publications, since the Agency thought her body was better suited for pin-up photography than high fashion modeling.


She bleached her hair blonde and flattened it to make herself more marketable. She became one of the Agency’s most determined and driven models. By 1946, her image was featured on thirty-three cover pages of various magazines. While working as a model she sometimes used the alias Jean Norman.


norma jean david conover radioplane comapny.jpg
Norma Jeane by David Conover, 1944, via Marilyn From the 22nd Row


In 1946, Norma Jeane saw herself signing yet another contract through the Agency’s proprietor, but this time it was with an acting agency. After failing a screen test at Paramount Pictures, she was granted a test by 20th Century Fox executive Ben Lyon. Jeane was given a common contract with a stipulated duration of six months by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, in order to keep her away from RKO Pictures, a rival company that was interested in signing her. Together with Ben Lyon, Norma created her iconic pseudonym. Marilyn Monroe was born. She went on to separate from Dougherty, who strongly disapproved of her work, in September 1946.


Becoming Marilyn Monroe

newly signed 20th century fox contract marilyn monroe.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in 1947, via Good Housekeeping


During her initial semester at Fox, Monroe learned to dance and sing. In 1947, she received her very first roles, beginning with Dangerous Years. Her enrolment in the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, an acting school that teaches the various techniques and in-depth skills required for performing in front of a camera, and interacting with the other actors while in character, was also arranged by the studio.


Fox would not extend Monroe’s contract when the first one ended because, despite her excitement, Monroe’s acting coaches believed that she was too timid and frightened to pursue a career in acting. Monroe went back to modeling while working odd jobs from time to time at various film studios. For example, she worked as a dancing pacer who stayed behind the lead actors in musicals to keep them on cue.


Monroe persisted in her studies at the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre. The play Glamour Preferred, in which she was able to land a minor part, was canceled after only a few performances. But, Monroe continued networking by visiting producers’ offices, making friends with tabloid columnists, and hosting powerful men at studio events.


marilyn monroe rehearsing with acting coach.jpg
Marilyn Monroe Rehearsing with Her Coach, 1947, via Good Housekeeping


Additionally, Monroe befriended and started a causal affair with Joseph M. Schenck, a Fox executive who had a friendly connection with Harry Cohn, the chief executive of Columbia Pictures. Schenck influenced him to hire Marilyn in 1948.


Rita Hayworth served as the inspiration for Monroe’s style at Columbia Pictures when her hair was dyed platinum blonde. Marilyn started training with Natasha Lytess, the studio’s principal acting coach, who would serve as her role model until 1955. Monroe only made one movie while working at the company, the small-scale musical Ladies of the Chorus, where she played a chorus girl who was wooed by a rich guy. Unfortunately, the film was a flop at the box office when it came out in 1948.


Monroe went back to modeling once her deal with Columbia Pictures expired. She posed for images used in calendars and ads. She felt at ease with nudity and did not hesitate to accept any role that required her to strip in front of the camera, despite the traditional and conservative attitudes of the time.


Monroe met Johnny Hyde, the vice president of the William Morris Agency, and became his mistress and protege. As a result of their relationship, Monroe was able to get tiny parts in a number of films, including the universally praised All About Eve (1950) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).


marilyn monroe the asphalt jungle.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle, 1950, via Perfectlymarilynmonroe


Despite having a brief amount of screen time, Monroe was finally recognized as a genuine actor thanks to her appearance in The Asphalt Jungle. Johnny Hyde secured a seven-year deal with 20th Century Fox for Monroe in December 1950. Only a few days after orchestrating this significant break for Monroe, Hyde passed away from a heart attack, leaving Monroe heartbroken and alone.


Monroe played minor parts in three partially successful Fox comedies in 1951. She was nonetheless praised by esteemed media like the Los Angeles Daily News and The New York Times, who called her one of the most promising emerging actors.


Her following among viewers was also expanding. Every week, she got tens of thousands of letters from fans. Marilyn was also acknowledged by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as the finest young box office icon of 1952. Later that year, she began a widely documented relationship with Joe DiMaggio, who was among the most well-known athletes of the time.


Scandal Turns to Opportunity

marilyn monroe and joe dimaggio.jpg
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, via Biography


Marilyn announced to the public that she posed naked for a calendar back in 1949. The studio had learned about the images and, in consultation with Monroe, determined that, in order to protect her budding career, it was best to acknowledge the session while emphasizing the fact that Monroe was in financial ruin at the time.


The tactic helped her gain popularity, which meant she was now given leading roles. Following the controversy, Monroe appeared on the covers of several high-profile magazines and newspapers. In close proximity to the scandalous revelation, her movies Clash by Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, and We’re Not Married came out.


Marilyn wanted to show off more of her acting talent despite her newfound reputation as a sex icon. Her recent performances, particularly Don’t Bother to Knock, got favorable reviews. She had exceptional delivery and interpretation skills that backed up her good looks.


marilyn monroe ernest bachrach 1952.jpg
Marilyn Monroe by Ernest Bachrach, 1952, via The Cina Monroe Tumblr


Monroe started being typecast. She played a foolish, juvenile blonde office assistant in Monkey Business, alongside Cary Grant. Nevertheless, throughout 1952, Monroe used media stunts to secure her position as a sex bomb. She allegedly told a gossip journalist that she typically didn’t wear pants when wearing a skimpy outfit when she performed as the Grand Marshal of the Miss America Pageant procession.


Monroe developed a track record for being challenging to deal with during this time. The reputation would only become worse as her professional life proceeded. She frequently arrived behind schedule or did not arrive at all, forgot her lines, and required many takes before she was happy with how she performed. Although Monroe was honing her skill, the filming crew painted this as scandalous behavior.


marilyn monroe listens to her drama coach natasha lytess.jpg
Marilyn Monroe and Natasha Lytess, 1947, via Good Housekeeping


Directors were also upset by Monroe’s reliance on her acting tutors, notably Letyss. Her issues have been ascribed to a trifecta of anxiety about performing, inadequate self-worth, and perfectionism. Monroe resented the lack of authority she had on movie sets and did not experience the same issues with photographic projects, where she had greater autonomy and was able to be more expressive.


She started using alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants to treat her chronic insomnia and stress, which only made matters worse. She didn’t develop a serious addiction until 1956.


Stereotypes: Sex Symbol and Dumb Blonde

marilyn monroe pink dress niagara.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, 1953, via San Francisco MoMA


Marilyn Monroe appeared in three films in 1953. She portrayed a femme fatale in the noir movie Niagara, where her makeup artist, Allan Snyder, created her signature appearance. She received crimson lips, a beauty mark, and black, raised eyebrows to contrast with her bleached locks and draw attention to her pale complexion.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is arguably the most famous movie in which Marilyn Monroe ever appeared. A custom-made dress was made for the actress by William Travilla, with a plunging neckline and a tight pleat at the waist. Despite all the positive reviews the film received, it was also criticized by a more conservative audience. For instance, renowned actress, Joan Crawford, criticized Monroe’s portrayal in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as being disrespectful to an actor and unworthy of a lady in public.


marilyn monroe gentlemen prefer blondes
Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, via The University of Iowa


As a result of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe became the stereotypical dumb blonde. This picture was inextricably linked to her on-screen presence. Monroe and Jane Russell each played a greedy showgirl in the movie, showcasing sex appeal as superior to actual intelligence. It’s important to note that Betty Grable, who turned out to be 20th Century Fox’s most well-liked blonde belle in the 1940s, had been originally cast in Monroe’s part in the movie. Marilyn, however, was chosen for the role because she was swiftly surpassing Clark Gable as a star with a broad appeal among both sexes.


Once more, magazines and newspapers wrote about Monroe’s performance. She now demonstrated her singing abilities with finesse. She drew particular attention from the press through the musical number Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Of course, the interpretation of this glorious musical scene was attached to both stereotypes that were now a part of Monroe’s persona—sex symbol and dumb blonde, an ageless debate of real talent versus shallowness.


marilyn monroe diamonds are a girls best friend.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, 1953, via Cornel1801


Monroe had her TV debut in September of 1953 on The Jack Benny Show, when she portrayed the ideal girlfriend for the lead character. She starred in the movie How to Marry a Millionaire in November of the same year alongside Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. In it, Monroe played a gullible model who joins forces with her friends to locate wealthy husbands. The film was following the pattern that made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes so popular. The movie was Monroe’s largest movie theatre hit at the time, despite mediocre reviews. As a result, she was put on the cover of Playboy magazine’s debut issue.


Monroe became one of 20th Century Fox’s greatest stars, but since the terms of her contract had not been altered since 1950, she received a significantly lower salary than other performers of her caliber and was unable to pick and choose which roles she would star in. The management at the studio blocked all of her efforts to take part in movies that did not highlight her sex appeal. When she declined to play an inept bombshell in yet another comedy, Monroe was put on leave in January 1954.


marilyn monroe how to marry a millionaire.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953, via Hello, bombshell website


In order to divert attention from the negative press she was getting because of the studio’s suspension, Monroe counteracted by marrying Joe DiMaggio and allowing the event to be highly advertised and photographed. In January 1954, Monroe and DiMaggio took a plane to Japan to go on their honeymoon and assist the Japanese baseball clubs with their training. Following her return to the USA, Monroe finally signed a new contract with Fox in March of 1954. She was given a new deal and the lead role in the movie adaptation of the Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch.


Monroe would nevertheless portray a highly sexualized role as a lady who became the target of her married neighbor’s longings. This specific role had a distinct effect on Monroe’s life since her new spouse found the constant depiction of her as a sex symbol quite unpleasant.


marilyn monroe marries joe dimaggio.jpg
Marilyn Monroe Marries Joe DiMaggio, 1954, via PBS American Experience


The studio made the decision to stage a moment when Monroe stands on an underground vent in Manhattan with the breeze whipping up the hem of her white dress in order to promote the movie. One of Monroe’s best-known photographs came out of this precise occasion. Some have stated that The Seven Year Itch became one of the biggest box office blockbusters of the decade because of the white cocktail dress sequence.


The PR gimmick did wonders for Monroe’s career since it got her on the top pages of several international publications. The attention proved to be too much for her spouse and it resulted in the dissolution of their marriage. DiMaggio was outraged by the media circus surrounding his wife. Monroe petitioned for divorce in October 1954 because she saw no use in dragging out what would be a damaging relationship to the professional life she had fought for so hard.


marilyn monroe pose seven year itch dress.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in White Ivory Cocktail Dress, 1954, via Wikipedia


Marilyn Monroe and photographer Milton Greene teamed up in November 1954 in order to start their own production firm. This marked the beginning of Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). Her choice was subsequently cited as being crucial to the studio system’s demise. Monroe declared that she was not under a contractual agreement with Fox anymore, because she was sick of doing highly sexualized parts. This sparked a court dispute between her and the studio, and the press mainly mocked Monroe for being foolish or incapable of building her own company.


MMP: Going Independent

marilyn monroe is shown with dog.jpg
Marilyn Monroe with Her Dog Maf, 1955, via Good Housekeeping


Marilyn traveled to Manhattan in 1955. Lee Strasberg, the head of the Actors Studio, and his wife Paula became a key part of her life. The Strasbergs thought that an actor must face their personal scars and employ them in their performance, thus they urged Monroe to explore psychoanalysis.


Additionally, Monroe began a romantic relationship with writer Arthur Miller, but the studio advised against it because of Miller’s alleged association with communism.


MMP would not be able to finance pictures alone, and Fox was keen to have Monroe work for them once more, so by the end of 1955, Monroe and Fox made yet another deal. Fox gave her the freedom to pick the films, filmmakers, and projects she wanted. She would additionally be allowed to produce one movie with MMP for every finished movie with Fox.


In 1956, Marilyn Monroe declared her victory against Fox. In order to fully embody Marilyn Monroe on screen, she formally altered her name from Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe. She was referred to as a clever entrepreneur for the first time in her life when the press spoke positively about her choice to battle the studio.


marilyn monroe and jack warner.jpg
Marilyn Monroe with Jack Warner, 1956, via Good Housekeeping


After she got married to Miller in June of 1956, Monroe converted to Judaism. Many people saw their relationship as a mistake because of Miller’s reputation as an academic and Monroe’s image as a sex symbol. After a succession of commercially successful films with Fox and MMP, Monroe took a break to focus on her relationship with Miller and their family. Due to endometriosis, she suffered an ectopic pregnancy in 1957 and subsequently miscarried. After that, she was admitted to the hospital after an overdose.


In July 1958, Monroe made a comeback to Hollywood to appear in Some Like It Hot, a comedy about gender roles made by Billy Wilder. She hesitated to play another silly blonde on screen, but she agreed after Miller urged her to resume acting.


As she struggled to recall her lines and follow instructions, Monroe repeatedly requested retakes. Her recent health concerns had a role in it, but she mostly wanted to stand her ground and exercise complete artistic freedom. She continued to develop into her own person, refusing to conform to expectations about her movies’ themes or genres. Her position at the time led some people to see her as one of the pioneers of feminism, and today she is regarded as a feminist symbol in spite of some of the negative connotations associated with sex symbols.


marilyn monroe with director billy wilder.jpg
Marilyn Monroe with Billy Wilder, 1959, via Good Housekeeping


Due to their divergent views on how the movie should be made, Monroe and Wilder fought much, but in the long run, Wilder was pleased with Monroe’s execution, and the movie was a box office hit and a critical triumph. With her unrivaled sexual appeal and timing, Monroe’s performance garnered her a Golden Globe award for Best Actress.


Fall From Grace

marilyn monroe taking a break on set.jpg
Marilyn Monroe Taking a Break on Set, 1960, via Good Housekeeping


John Huston’s The Misfits, which Miller wrote in order to give Monroe a serious film role, was the final movie that Marilyn Monroe finished filming. Monroe believed her character was subpar compared to the masculine parts Miller had developed and objected to the fact that he built it based on loose bits of her life. Miller’s practice of reworking sequences the night before filming presented another challenge for her. On top of it all, her health was becoming worse than ever.


As a result of Monroe’s constant suffering and serious drug addiction, her makeup was typically done when she remained unconscious and under the effects of narcotics. The shooting was put on hold in August so that she could spend an entire week in a medical facility detoxing.


Following the completion of the shooting, Monroe and Miller fell out, and eventually divorced in January of 1961. The Misfits didn’t do well at the box office. Due to Monroe’s declining health and drug use, the rest of the year was full of projects starting and stopping.


marilyn monroe the misfits.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, 1961, via IndieWire


In the spring of 1962, Monroe made a comeback and started filming the Fox movie Something’s Got to Give. Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse were set to co-star in the George Cukor-directed film that MMP would co-produce. Fox started the project as scheduled in late April, despite medical recommendations to delay it.


Monroe was unable to work for weeks due to her illness, but the studio put pressure on her by publicly accusing her of lying about it. In June 1962, Fox sacked Monroe and sued her. When Dean Martin threatened to leave the film if Monroe wasn’t kept, the company eventually settled the case in Monroe’s favor with a number of stipulations.


Monroe resided in the Los Angeles district of Brentwood during her final months. On the afternoon of August 4, 1962, Eunice Murray, her housekeeper, noticed a light under Monroe’s bedroom door but failed to get a response for Monroe and discovered that the door was locked. She then called Monroe’s psychiatrist, who quickly drove over and entered the house via the bedroom window to discover Monroe dead in her bed. LAPD was promptly notified.


marilyn monroe somethings got to give.jpg
Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Got to Give, 1961, via Film Affinity


According to the laboratory report, acute narcotic intoxication was the exact cause of her death. Next to her bed, empty pill bottles were discovered. The quantities discovered in Monroe’s body were multiple times beyond the level that would have been fatal, ruling out the chance that she had overdosed accidentally. Despite extensive investigation, suicide was ultimately determined to be the cause of her untimely death.


Due to her connections to several significant politicians, many have made assumptions and theories about her death. However, there has never been any evidence of external causes that would counter the official report of suicide.


On August 8, Marilyn Monroe’s funeral took place, and only her closest friends and family were there. Joe DiMaggio, who had remained close to Monroe after their divorce, planned the memorial ceremony. While Monroe was being put to rest, a large crowd of onlookers gathered in the streets surrounding the cemetery.


Marilyn Monroe: The Truth Behind the Sex Symbol

marilyn monroe ballerina sitting greene 1954.jpg
Marilyn Monroe Ballerina Sitting by Milton H. Greene, 1954, via Artsper Magazine


After appealing to audiences that were mostly made up of women throughout the war, strong and intelligent actresses enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1940s. Fox envisioned Marilyn Monroe as the next decade’s leading starlet, luring men to the movies. Her sexualized appearance was primarily created with the masculine gaze in mind.


Betty Grable and Jean Harlow were used as analogies for Monroe. Part of the reason for the connection may be attributed to Monroe herself, who cited Harlow as her hero growing up, planned to portray her in a biopic project, and even hired Harlow’s own hairdresser to dye her hair.


Monroe’s identity was heavily influenced by her blonde hair and the clichés that went along with it, particularly those of stupidity, inexperience, sexual openness, and plasticity. In her movies, Monroe frequently spoke in a soft, childlike voice, and in interviews, she conveyed the sense that all that she was saying was absolutely harmless and careless while making fun of herself with jocular comments.


Monroe attracted attention by dressing revealingly and flaunting her body, frequently donning white to highlight her blondness. Her publicity tricks frequently involved her wearing exposing attire.


marilyn monroe poses for a portrait circa 1952.jpg
Marilyn Monroe, c. 1952, via Redbook Magazine


According to press accounts, Monroe represented the American Dream, having overcome a difficult upbringing to become a Hollywood celebrity. Despite Monroe’s portrayal of a silly yet sexually alluring blonde on television being a meticulously staged show, spectators and reviewers mistakenly thought this was who she really was. The most prevalent misconception is that she was ignorant, weak, and unable to act. Despite not having had formal education, she was tremendously brilliant and fierce.


In the 1950s, Monroe became an international symbol for sex, and her public persona had to be placed within the shifting moral and sexual ideologies that marked the decade. She was the very first sex symbol to portray sex as organic and beyond peril, contrary to the 1940s femme fatale, by seeming fragile and oblivious to her own allure.


sex symbol marilyn monroe gold dress
Marilyn Monroe in Gold Dress, 1953, via Redbook Magazine


Today, Marilyn Monroe is loved by younger generations for very different reasons. She has evolved into a certain type of woman, one who cares for and loves herself. She is seen as someone who introduced body-conscious clothing into daily life. Her influence on the fashion world is undeniable, and she is most known for celebrating her curvaceous form.


Monroe resisted being stereotyped when the business did not take her performance seriously and established a production company of her own. Back when movie companies dictated which films performers could appear in, she campaigned for and ultimately earned the right of screenplay and directing clearance. We can credit Monroe for each actress who can turn down a role and defend her own interests in the world of entertainment today.

Author Image

By Diana OliveiraMA English, BA English LiteratureDiana Alexandra Oliveira speaks Portuguese and English fluently and has extensive knowledge of Spanish and French history. She has won several short-story competitions and has essays published internationally. History, literature, and music are her greatest passions in life.