Marilyn’s personal struggles and traumatic experiences are well-known (and exploited to the hilt in Netflix’s Blonde.) On the other hand, some commentators have judged her as more of a trailblazer than she really was – whether claiming she was the first woman in Hollywood to own a production company (in fact, many others preceded her), or by portraying her friendship with Ella Fitzgerald as a victory for civil rights.
Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Grant Wong retraces the ‘true history’ of this complex, yet remarkable woman, and considers why Marilyn’s life still inspires us today.
“That same question—who was the real Monroe?—has sparked debate among cinema scholars, cultural critics, historians, novelists, filmmakers and the general public for decades. Was ‘Marilyn,’ the personality and persona brought to life by the star’s younger self, Norma Jeane Mortenson, a real person? Or was she simply a manufactured image?
Film historian Michelle Vogel, author of Marilyn Monroe: Her Films, Her Life, echoes this view. ‘I don’t think there was a “real” Marilyn Monroe,’ says Vogel in an interview. ‘She was a character and a persona to be played, both on and off the screen. At the heart of it all, Marilyn Monroe was still Norma Jeane. … When she acted a part, it was Norma Jeane, playing Marilyn Monroe, playing said role. Not easy.’
Cultural historian Sarah Churchwell, meanwhile, contends in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe that ‘Something that is not natural can still be real: It has been made. One of the questions the stories about Marilyn’s life beg, therefore, is how much any of us is natural, whether any identity is not made.’
Born in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, the future Monroe grew up far from the trappings of luxury and fame she’d one day enjoy … [her] hardships persisted as she came of age … The glamour of the silver screen helped Monroe get through it all … ‘In junior high, I was completely movie-struck,’ she said in a 1951 interview. ‘I used to see movies I liked three or four times when I could afford it.’
At age 16, Monroe married 21-year-old Jim Dougherty to avoid being placed back in the orphanage system … Her marriage fell apart as she pursued a career in modelling, but she was determined to make a name for herself …’I wouldn’t settle for second best,’ Monroe later said. ‘I would take home photographs of myself to study how I looked and if I could improve myself posing in front of a mirror.’ Just as importantly, she learned how to charm others. ‘She made everyone she talked to feel as if he were the only one in the world,’ recounted modelling agent Emmeline Snively.
Monroe’s initial contract with 20th Century Fox fell through, as did a follow-up gig with Columbia, but through it all, she kept striving to transform herself into the person she wanted to be … Narratives of Monroe’s life, whether they’re based in fact or fiction, tend to focus on her trauma at the expense of her hard work and dedication. The myths surrounding her life have obscured what originally helped make her famous: her craft as an actress.
It wasn’t easy to make it big as an actress in 1950s Hollywood. At the time, the film industry was dominated by the studio system … Still, Monroe prevailed. Her natural beauty helped her get through the door, but it was her hard work that cemented her rise to superstardom. ‘She had a drive to better herself by reading books on psychology, philosophy, poetry, art, drama, you name it,’ says Vogel … Rehired by 20th Century Fox, Monroe quickly became the studio’s most marketable star … Her typical role, that of a ditzy charmer with impeccable comedic timing, differentiated her from contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn, whose personas represented different kinds of femininity.
Of course, Monroe was a dramatic force all her own. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)—the quintessential Monroe film—she proved herself to be a triple-threat talent … The ‘Blowtorch Blonde,’ as she was dubbed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, absolutely steals the show. ‘When Monroe is on screen, you watch her,’ says film scholar Steven Cohan in an interview. ‘[T]here was something just physical about Monroe that exploded on film. … She just photographed luminously. So, there’s something very beautiful about [her] performance. And she had great timing—just watch her deliver lines.’
Though Monroe is perhaps best known for her ‘dumb blonde’ comedies, films like The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and The Misfits (1961), a Western co-starring Clark Gable, testify to her range. That’s not to say her comedic roles lacked depth … The star’s professional success is even more impressive in light of her personal struggles. Monroe was notoriously difficult to work with, as she was constantly late to shoots and often flubbed her lines. But she was no diva. ‘In reality, she had severe stage fright,’ says Vogel … She abused barbiturates and amphetamines callously prescribed to her by doctors to cope with her trauma and anxiety.
Monroe’s career soared as her romantic life foundered, with two successive husbands failing to understand the woman she wanted to be … ‘Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted to be loved,’ said film historian Karina Longworth in a 2017 episode of the You Must Remember This podcast. ‘But she never had the courage to figure out that she could choose who to love.’
But this was Monroe’s private life. In public, she was a savvy political operator who could turn scandal into success and personalise her publicity. ‘The Hollywood studio system would often create fictitious back-stories and cover-up scandals for their stars, but Marilyn was different,’ says Vogel. ‘There was a very real, flawed, human element about her that made the public relate and fall in love with her.’
At the height of her fame, Monroe also took steps to fight back against the studio system, which enabled male executives to wield unprecedented control over the careers of its marquee stars … ‘She strove for equality and change to the Hollywood system, and [she] got it,’ says Vogel.
Despite Monroe’s ascendance in the film industry, the final years of her life were marked with professional difficulties … ‘[Marilyn’s death is] the gift that keeps on giving,’ says Cohan, ‘because there’s no smoking gun … And the fact that she died in her [mid-30s] meant that she never grew old … It’s another reason that she remains forever, forever young’ in the public imagination.
According to Vogel, ‘It’s as if we feel robbed of what could have been had Marilyn lived longer, so we cling on to everything she gave us, and repeatedly watch it, over and over and over again. … Maybe we’ll see or hear something new this time, or maybe it will be a comfortable reminiscence of memories that makes us feel nostalgic joy in knowing that no matter how much time has passed, she is still there, and will be for as long as we can turn on a television.’
We should care about Monroe because of how much she cared about us, her audience. Her films enliven her myth but also remind us of the person she was. Yes, her life was a tragedy, but it was also a triumph—American history in miniature.”