Movie star magic: The life of Marilyn Monroe

We take a look back at one of Hollywood's most iconic stars 60 years after her death.

Marilyn Monroe

by Bryony Firth-bernard |

Everything you need to know about the life, loves, style, career and tragic death of Marilyn Monroe, the American actress who became one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s.

The word icon is commonly overused but in the case of Marilyn Monroe, it’s entirely justified – after all, this is a woman whose image is immediately recognisable, even 60 years after her death, and sought after (Andy Warhol’s portrait of her sold for a record $195 million in May).

Had she not tragically died on August 5, 1962, age 36, of a barbiturate overdose, she may have joined Queen Elizabeth II and David Attenborough in celebrating her 96th birthday this year. But her life never seemed destined to turn out that way.

Growing up

Marilyn Monroe on the beach

Born Norma Jean Mortenson in LA, June 1, 1926, the girl who would become Marilyn had a troubled childhood. When Marilyn was nine, her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was committed, although for many years Marilyn believed she was dead. As a young child she lived with a series of family friends and at The Los Angeles Orphans Home, until aged 16 when she married a neighbourhood friend, James Dougherty.

A successful modelling career led her to a studio contract, her name change, and some small roles, including one in All About Eve (1950), alongside Bette Davis. Her part as Miss Caswell only required a few minutes of screentime but she gave a commanding performance that so impressed 20th Century Fox, it earned her a seven-year film contract. It was also in this film that the small mole on her cheek was darkened – the beauty mark would become part of her signature look.

The 'Blonde Bombshell'

Marilyn Monroe movie

Three years later, after starring in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn had become a superstar – her platinum blonde hair, voluptuous figure and breathy voice gaining her the nickname, The Blonde Bombshell. In 1954 she married baseball star Joe DiMaggio, starred in There’s No Business Like Show Business, and then the following year The Seven Year Itch. The scene of Marilyn standing over a subway grating with the wind blowing up her white dress, revealing her legs, is one cinema’s most famous, but although the film was a commercial success, all was not well. Marilyn suffered bouts of depression, had trouble memorising her lines and was becoming dismayed by her sexpot image – “What was supposed to be a fun scene turned into a sex scene” she said of that subway scene.

Tides begin to turn

Marilyn's marriage to DiMaggio ended after just a year and in 1956 she married playwright Arthur Miller. During their marriage she made The Prince and the Showgirl and smash hit Some Like It Hot but her personal life was still troubled – she suffered two miscarriages, exhaustion, substance abuse and health issues such as endometriosis. After the collapse of her marriage, she had a breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric ward.

While Marilyn’s troubled nature was well documented, she was more than just a tragic figure. Her friends recalled her as an exceptionally bright woman who loved reading. She had a sly sense of humour and could light up a room. Marilyn worked hard and took acting seriously – she took acting classes in New York even when she was a major star – and she courageously stood up to studio bosses by setting up own production company.

However, the final months of her life were chaotic – there were rumours of an affair with President Kennedy and she’d been fired then rehired by her studio. A comeback was on the cards, but it wasn’t to be. Marilyn herself summarised her life: “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I never had belonged to anything or anyone else.”

How did Marilyn Monroe die?

On 4th August 1962, Marilyn sadly died of barbiturate overdose at her home in California. It's still uncertain as to whether Marilyn's death was an accident or a possible suicide, police listed it as accidental, whereas the coroners office listed is the latter.

Three things you didn't know about Marilyn Monroe...

young Marilyn

1. Marilyn had to be sewn into the nude, crystal-covered gown that she wore to sing 'Happy Birthday' to John F.Kennedy in 1962, because it was so tight!

2. She suffered from a childhood stutter, however, a speech therapist trained her to adopt a breathy speaking style to overcome it. It returned while filming Something's Got to Give, which made it hard for the actress to learn her lines and was later fired from the film.

3. Marilyn was supposedly meant to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1962), however her acting coach advised her against it. Audrey Hepburn went on to take the role instead.

Blonde trailer

Netflix have recently released their trailer for the upcoming Marilyn Monroe movie, Blonde. Starring actress Ana de Armas, the movie follows Marilyn through her difficult private life and iconic movie scenes.

You can watch Blonde on Netflix from September 28, 2022.

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