She still is among the world’s most celebrated actresses, sex symbols, and popular culture icons, with celebrities ranging from Beyonce to Hillary Clinton depicted as her, while her name and image is even now used to sell everything from perfumes to paint. But Marilyn Monroe, whose 90th birth anniversary falls on Wednesday, also represents the limitations of fame and glamour in ensuring happiness and a sense of belonging.
On the other hand, her life, both personal and professional, have also ensured a legacy of her commonly figuring in discussions on gender and feminism as well as on mass media and consumer culture. Marilyn has had hundreds of books written on her, from ‘definitive biographies’ to more academic interpretations, she’s been the subject of films, plays, operas, paintings (by the likes of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali) and is referenced in songs by Madonna, Def Leppard, David Bowie and Lady Gaga.
All this comes even though in her roughly 15-year-long Hollywood career, she only spent a decade as a top-billed actor and has only a handful of enduring films, spanning from the 1953 crime noir Niagara to 1961 drama The Misfits - in which she managed to fulfil her childhood dream of acting with Clark Gable but was sadly the last film for both of them.
Save these, she played mostly a femme fatale or a recently-divorced woman trying to move on with her life. Most other films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955) - with its iconic scene in which her dress billows up as she stands on a subway grate, have her as a dumb, disingenuous but alluring blonde. This is the image the world has come to associate with her. But it is true?
Well, for starters, Marilyn was not even originally a blonde.
Behind all the glamour and popularity was a tragic story of a troubled life, stemming from an uncertain and unstable childhood, a lifelong search for professional respect, and her untimely and lonely death - which has attracted a bevy of conspiracy theories.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, she was the third child of Gladys Pearl Monro, who had married twice and separated from her second husband even before becoming pregnant again. There was no certainty of who Marilyn’s father was - she would spend quite a bit of her life trying to find out.
Meanwhile, her mother, mentally and financially unprepared for a child, placed her with foster parents. It was only in 1933 that Marilyn’s mother felt capable enough to take care of her but they only spent a few months together before Gladys had a mental breakdown - she spent the rest of her life (she died in 1984, long outliving her daughter) in psychiatric institutions.
Both these factors cast a long shadow over Marilyn’s life - as a recent biography (J Randy Taraborrelli’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (Pan Macmillan, 2010) holds, that she “was a woman more troubled than most people knew. Though she would try to hide it from the world with her seamless portrayal of style and wit, those closest to her were privy to her deepest, darkest secret: She feared for her sanity”.
Her problems are also sought to be explained by her perfectionism, her low self-esteem, stage fright, and increasing use of barbiturates, amphetamines and alcohol - which would take over, and ultimately take her life in August 1962.
It is against this backdrop we can understand Marilyn’s string of brief, unsuccessful marriages - three, though the first one was only to keep her from going back to an orphanage, and then to baseball star Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, and many affairs, including with Frank Sinatra and rumoured ones with President John F Kennedy (and his brother Robert). But none of them could ensure any sense of stability for her.
For people who would like to know more about her, Taraborelli’s work is fairly detailed, and for those who like to see her in a different light, there is Barbara Collins Bombshell (2004), where Marilyn manages to prevent a war between the superpowers.
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