On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home. Today we celebrate her legacy and attempt to understand why her life ended the way it did. Here is the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn’s Broken Family
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, she never met her father. In her unfinished memoir she wrote that her mother had a picture of a man on her wall that she said she once dated. “He had a thin moustache like Clark Gable,” Monroe said. “I asked my mother what his name was. She wouldn’t answer.” Monroe then went to a film starring Gable, China Seas, and from that point Monroe said that Gable became “the man I thought was my father.”
Marilyn’s mother, Gladys Baker, often claimed that her father was a former colleague Consolidated Film Industries, Charles Stanley Gifford. Marilyn tried to contact Gifford many times, but he had refused to speak to her.
In 1981, The New York Times reported that Martin Edward Mortenson, a man who had recently died, was in possession of a copy of Monroe’s birth certificate that named himself as the father. Also in his possession were marriage and divorce papers to Monroe’s mother.
Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, suffered a severe mental illness and could not always be there for her daughter. In fact, two weeks after Marilyn was born, Gladys had put her in foster care as she was in no state to be able to raise a child. Gladys was not unloving however and visited her daughter regularly.
Once Marilyn was seven, her foster parents decided that Gladys was fit enough to take care of her daughter. And for a while she could. But in 1933, tragedy had struck. Gladys’ son from her previous marriage had died at just 13-years-old. She spiralled and was taken to a mental hospital where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
For the rest of her life, she went in and out of hospitals but did manage a very strained relationship with Marilyn. Gladys would go on to outlive her daughter by almost 22 years. Yet another tragedy.
Married at 16
Marilyn was in and out of 12 foster homes during her childhood. She stated that at one of the homes she stayed at she was sexually assaulted which resulted in her developing a stutter. But one of the most stable homes she stayed at was with her mother’s best friend, Grace McKee. This didn’t last as McKee could no longer afford to care for Marilyn.
McKee married Doc Goddard and took Marilyn back into their home. After a while, the couple could again no longer afford to care for her, so she went to live with McKee’s aunt, Ana Lower. This was the most stable home Monroe experienced in her childhood. But again, it couldn’t last. Lower was getting quite old and could not take care of the teenage Monroe. But she couldn’t go back to McKee as Doc Goddard had gotten a job in West Virginia and couldn’t afford to take Marilyn with them.
The solution to this problem was to marry her to their 21-year-old neighbour, James Dougherty. Marilyn was only 16 at the time. Dougherty told the LA Times,
“She would have gone back to an orphanage or another foster home, so her foster mother suggested I marry her. I thought she was awful young, but I took her to a dance. She was a pretty mature girl and physically she was mature, of course. We talked and we got on pretty good.”
Dougherty continued to say that even though “we decided to get married to prevent her from going back to a foster home… we were in love.” Monroe apparently did not feel the same, writing, “My relationship with him was basically insecure from the first night I spent alone with him.” She constantly felt that he preferred one of his ex-girlfriends over her.
The Nude Photo Scandal
Monroe was trying to make in the movie business, but she was on shaky ground. Her previous contract with Fox was dropped just a year in so she signed up with Columbia, but they dropped her a year in as well.
Money was getting pretty tight, so in 1949 she agreed to pose naked for photographer Tom Kelley for $50. She signed the release of the photos under the name “Mona Monroe”. Monroe told George Barris in “Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words” that “I was nervous, embarrassed, even ashamed of what I had done, and I did not want my name to appear on that model release.”
The year after, Monroe’s career took off and those photos became part of the “Golden Dreams” pinup calendar that ended up generating millions of dollars. And Monroe didn’t see a cent, “All I was ever paid for that nude calendar photograph was the fifty dollars Tom paid me as the original modelling fee.”
But in 1953, aspiring publisher, Hugh Hefner, paid $500 for one of her nude photos and one clothed photo, in order to launch Playboy. On the very first issue the headline read, “First time in any magazine, FULL COLOR, the famous MARILYN MONROE NUDE.”
Marylin said in Barris’ book, “I never even received a thank-you from all those who made millions off a nude Marilyn photograph. I even had to buy a copy of the magazine to see myself in it.”
Film executives believed that she should deny that it was her in those photos, but she admitted that it was indeed her and that she did it because she needed money. This was actually one positive from the incident as the public lauded her for it and it further boosted her career.
Marriages That Couldn’t Make It
Monroe was married twice after Dougherty. She married retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio in 1954. Monroe stated that they were drawn together by a need of stability but that proved to be difficult as she did not want to stop working just as she became a movie star. It didn’t work out. DiMaggio proved to be possessive and disliked Monroe’s status as a sex symbol.
After Marilyn shot the famous grate scene in The Seven Year Itch, the couple had a fight that had turned violent in their hotel room, according to The Guardian. Once Monroe went back to California, she filed for divorce on grounds of “mental cruelty.”
After he divorce from DiMaggio, Monroe hooked up with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Arthur Miller. They were married in 1956 and it was working out but over time Monroe felt that Miller couldn’t give her the emotional support she needed. Monroe even discovered a diary entry of Miller’s that stated he was “disappointed” and “embarrassed” by her.
Miller went to write the screenplay for the 1961 film The Misfits, which he wrote for Monroe in order to show off her dramatic skills. He based the character, Roslyn, on Monroe’s personality being a sweet but neurotic character. The filming was a complete disaster and they filed for divorce shortly afterwards.
Despite being this glamorous movie star, she experienced terrible stage fright. Don Murray told Closer Weekly that on the set of Bus Stop, “she was very, very nervous. She’d break out in a rash every time we’d shoot a scene.” And it wouldn’t stop there.
She was so nervous that she would forget even the technical aspects of filmmaking. Murray continued, “After the first day of shooting, Joshua [director] came to me and said, ‘Marilyn has a tendency to miss her marks.’ He told me, ‘Whenever she’s off her mark, put your hands on her hips and move her.’” Whenever Murray did this, however, Monroe would get very angry.
Completing scenes was an apparent nightmare with Monroe, “She would lose track of scenes very quickly, so they had to put her performance together out of small pieces,” Murray admitted. “You never got the feeling of a complete scene or performance. I had to be at my best on every take — I couldn’t have a letdown.”
But Murray said of the experience that,
“I never really held it against her, because for her to agree to let me play this leading role was such a generous thing since I had never done a movie. I was always aware of that and grateful to her.”
She Couldn’t Have The Child She’d Always Wanted
While she was married to Miller, she wanted to have a child but simply could not carry a pregnancy to term. During 1956 and 1958, Monroe suffered two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy.
There are a variety of reasons for this. For one, her drug and alcohol problem may have played a role in this. But the most likely reason was due to her endometriosis which is extremely painful, and some studies have found that it may increase the risk of miscarriage.
Her Struggles With Her Mental Health & Addiction
Due to her painful endometriosis, she was prescribed strong painkillers. On top of that, she was prescribed barbiturates and various sedatives for her insomnia. She also drank heavily, with a taste for champagne.
She was never diagnosed properly with any kind of mental illness at the time and if she had been diagnosed, it was never made public. However, according to Vanity Fair, she was seeing psychiatrist and in one of her diary entry’s she wrote for her sessions she said,
“working (doing my tasks that I have set for myself) On the stage—I will not be punished for it or be whipped or be threatened or not be loved or sent to hell to burn with bad people feeling that I am also bad. or be afraid of my [genitals] being or ashamed exposed known and seen— so what or ashamed of my sensitive feelings.”
After her divorce from Miller, she had checked herself into a psychiatric ward due to her insomnia. But once she was there, she was locked up in a padded room and could not leave. Her ex-husband, DiMaggio, eventually managed to force his way in there and get her out.
Shortly after this, Monroe was found dead in her home at 36 years old. According to PBS, her bedside table was covered in pills and medicine. No one knows for sure what happened to her but authorities had named the cause of death as an overdose of barbiturates in what was a probable suicide.
Today she is a reminder and symbol of the tragedy that hides behind the veneer of glamour. It’s something that we should remember today especially in our age of social media where everyone is putting up pictures of their best selves with no acknowledgement of the struggles they may be experiencing. It’s important to remember that it’s all a façade.
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