Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles California.
Her mother, Gladys worked at Consolidated Film Industries where she met salesman Charles Stanley Gifford who left Gladys when she fell pregnant.
Gladys had severe bouts with mental illness and was unable to care for Norma, so she was placed with foster parents. She spent her childhood in and out of foster homes and state-run care until the age of sixteen when she married James Dougherty, a friend of hers that lived a few houses away. Dougherty joined the military and Norma went to work at a defence plant as well as working as a model.
In 1945 she signed with the Blue Book Model Agency, dyed her hair blonde and began appearing in magazine ads and covers. Norma was an avid reader and spent quite a bit of her modeling salary on books. She also took literature courses and an acting course at the Actors Lab in Hollywood. When she met Ben Lyon, an executive at 20th Century Fox, he convinced Darryl F. Zanuck to sign her to a six-month contract. It was at this time Lyon changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. She had a bit part as a waitress in the movie Dangerous Years in 1947. Zanuck was not particularly impressed with Monroe and let her contract lapse a year later. By this time she had divorced Dougherty and decided to pursue acting full time.
In 1948 she was signed by Columbia Pictures and appeared in several minor pictures such as Ladies of the Chorus in 1948, A Ticket to Tomahawk, All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 and Niagara in 1953. It was her performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 that made Monroe a star. In 1954 she married baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. The marriage lasted less than a year because DiMaggio wanted a full-time wife and Marilyn wanted to continue to act. He also had a hard time dealing with Marilyn’s sex symbol image and attention from men.
In 1955 she appeared with Tom Ewell in Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch where the iconic photo of Marilyn standing over a sidewalk grate blowing up her skirt was created. By this time Marilyn was tired of the dumb blonde roles, she was continually being handed and yearned for more dramatic roles. She moved to New York and enrolled in the New York’s Actors Studio studying under the director, Lee Strasberg. She also began psychotherapy, urged on by Strasberg.
Strasberg was one of the movie industry’s elite. He coached such actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier and Joanne Woodward in the “Method Acting” technique. Monroe became very attached to Strasberg, and in a sense, he became the father she never had.
In 1956 Marilyn was back in Hollywood to work in Josh Logan’s Bus Stop. She ran into playwright Arthur Miller who she had met years earlier at a party. Miller embodied everything Marilyn wanted in life. He was a serious thinker, well educated and a highly respected writer. She was introduced to his social circle of literary greats such as Truman Capote, Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow. Marilyn was intelligent and witty and fit right in with Miller’s friends.
She converted to Miller’s religion of Judaism and married him in June of 1956 with Lee Strasberg giving her away at a small wedding.
The newlyweds moved into an apartment on East 57th Street in New York City and frequently vacationed on Long Island. Monroe had reported that the time spent with Miller in 1957 were the best of her life. She was truly in love; she was being given serious acting roles and believed that she had finally found the happiness that had eluded her since childhood.
When she and Miller moved to London so she could work on The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, things began to unravel. Miller had left his diary open, and Marilyn saw an entry where he had written that their marriage was a disappointment and that she had frequently embarrassed him in front of his friends because she was not as smart as he would have liked. Marilyn was devastated, but continued to work to keep the marriage together. She returned to psychoanalysis and began relying on barbiturates and alcohol to sleep.
The two returned to the United States and purchased a home in Connecticut. Marilyn stood with Miller while he was attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee run by Senator Joseph McCarthy, well known for investigating the famous for ties, real or imagined, to the Communist Party.
In 1959 Marilyn appeared in Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The film was a critical and box office success. Marilyn had already been fired from several projects due to habitual lateness and for being difficult to work with on set, and her anguish over her failing marriage only made things worse.
She completed Let’s Make Love in 1960 with Yves Montand and, starved for affection, had become involved in an affair with Montand, further alienating her from her husband. She re-entered psychoanalysis, but it seemed to her that her doctor was more concerned with his infatuation for her than on her mental well-being.
Miller had been writing a screenplay for her, The Misfits, with Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach. Filming started in 1960 with Miller on the set every day. During the filming, Miller met Inge Morath, a film archivist, and Marilyn was forced to watch as her husband fell in love with another woman. Three months after filming began Miller and Monroe announced their separation.
Marilyn moved back to California and began filming the movie Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse but was fired for her inability to show up on time.
On May 19, 1962, Peter Lawford had arranged an appearance with Marilyn at a Democratic Fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. It was there that Marilyn appeared in the now famous skin-tight dress and sang Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy.
Three months later Marilyn died. She was discovered by her housekeeper on August 5, 1962, in her Brentwood home, the victim of an overdose of barbiturates. Her link with the Kennedy family has caused many to believe that she was secretly murdered or that she committed suicide.
Her former husband Joe DiMaggio stepped up and took care of the funeral arrangements with Lee Strasburg delivering the eulogy. Marilyn was interred at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, and DiMaggio made sure that a fresh red rose was placed at her grave every day.