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The early years of Marilyn Monroe

Sandy Kromeir - The Oregon Herald

A rather pretty girl named Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in 1926 in the charity ward at the Los Angeles County Hospital. She would later become one of the most celebrated and enduring icons of all time. He name was Marilyn Monroe.

Norma Jeane's childhood was volatile as she was passed from family members to family friends and frequently stayed in orphanages as a result of her mother's mental health. To avoid another orphanage stay a family friend orchestrated a marriage proposal when she was sixteen years old. When her husband was sent to the Pacific with the merchant marine, Norma Jeane began working on an assembly line at an aeronautical plant.

In 1945 a photographer took a snapshot of the stunning brunette while at the factory and within months she became a successful model securing dozens of magazine covers and a screen test with 20th Century Fox. Studio executives, directors and photographers immediately recognized her ability to capture and hold the attention of anyone on the opposite end of a camera lens. By the end of 1946 her hair had become a platinum shade of blonde and her name was changed to Marilyn Monroe.

The very definition of a sizzling superstar, the most famous blonde in history, beautiful Marilyn defined Hollywood glamour and tragedy with her dramatic life on and off screen. Perhaps the most famous actress ever, she completed only two '60s films—Let's Make Love and The Misfits—but her legacy lives on, built more on her roller-coaster life than on any movie she ever made. Famous As: Movie Star, Songbird, and Model BIRTH: She was born in "26, so she was 33 at the beginning of the decade. Her exotic birthplace: Los Angeles, California. Her moniker at birth: Norma Jeane Mortenson (Mortenson was her mother's maiden name), she later used Norma Jeane Baker (Baker was her mom's married name), and occasionally Zelda Zonk when checking into hotels. She's one of the few women known everywhere by a single name — say "Marilyn," and not only will everybody know whom you mean, they'll know something about her. Like Liz Taylor, who was probably the only other actress who commanded truly global attention, Marilyn couldn't go to the mailbox without generating international headlines. She may also be the most imitated actress in history, with everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Madonna to Anna Nicole Smith emulating her. Of her own image she said, "To put it bluntly, I seem to be a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I'm working on the foundation." She's remembered now, not just for her beauty and talent, but for her sad vulnerability that made the goddess all too human. In June "99 the American Film Institute released its distinguished list of the "50 Greatest Screen Legends," Marilyn was number six among the actresses, sandwiched between #5 Greta Garbo and #7 Elizabeth Taylor, with Katherine Hepburn as #1 (Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren also made the list). In January "99 Playboy released its list of the 100 Sexiest Stars of the Century," and MM was #1 (among the other two-dozen Swingin' Chicks of the '60s who ranked were Jayne Mansfield at #2, Jane Fonda at #28, and Catherine Deneuve at #45. In the summer of 2000 Entertainment Weekly magazine listed the top 100 entertainers of all time, and Marilyn came in third, the first woman on the list (the Beatles and Elvis were #1 and #2). An example of her impact in her own lifetime came at the public appearance when she and Jane Russell put their hand and footprints into the cement in front of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre. It was one of the most popular of those ceremonies ever held. Johnny Grant, honorary mayor of Hollywood who was on hand, tells the story that Marilyn suggested to Jane how they should immortalize other well-observed parts of their anatomies — Jane should lean forward into the cement, suggested Marilyn, and then Marilyn would sit in it!

Raised in a series of foster homes after the father she never knew disappeared and her mother had a nervous breakdown, Norma Jean Mortenson, then Norma Jean Baker, was married in "42 at only sixteen years old (and while still in high school) to keep from going to yet another foster home. She was working as a model in the mid-'40s, gracing the covers of hundreds of magazines and winning beauty contests (she was 1947's Miss California Artichoke Queen). Changing her name to Marilyn Monroe (the first name after '20s star Marilyn Miller, the second after her grandmother), she was getting small movie parts in the late '40s, appearing as a centerfold in the first issue of Playboy (she was the magazine's first-ever "Sweetheart," the title that would later be changed to Playmate). By "53 she was a star. Highlighting her memorable '50s movie career were such hits as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire in "53, The Seven Year Itch in "55, and the classic Some Like It Hot in "59. During this decade, however, she began displaying the signs of the insecurity that plagued her: She began taking prescription drugs, she would be late on movie sets, and she would have trouble remembering her lines. She became notoriously hard to work with, as described by Billy Wilder in Vanity Fair in October "99. He said in an interview there that just to get her to say some simple line like "Where's the bourbon" in Some Like It Hot would take an entire day and eighty takes! Sadly, by the early '60s she was a heavy drinker and pill-popper (both are often attributed to her depression over her inability to bear children), and she was briefly institutionalized in early "61 in a New York psychiatric clinic. She had a tragically short '60s career, with only two completed '60s flicks — Let's Make Love in "60 and The Misfits in "61 — when she died suddenly in "62. One role she didn't get was Breakfast at Tiffany's, which went to Audrey Hepburn even though Marilyn was author Truman Capote's first choice. Marilyn was fired from a third movie she was making Something's Got to Give, for being chronically late and working only twelve of 31 scheduled shooting days in the summer of "62. This was less than two months before she died (she was rehired and filming would've continued in August had she not died). Sadly, after bouts with alcohol and pills, she died in her Brentwood bedroom of an overdose of 47 Nembutal and chloral hydrate pills on August 5, 1962 at the age of 36. L.A.'s Chief Medical Examiner ruled it an accidental suicide, but her death is still shrouded in mystery and myth, with books nominating the Kennedys, the Mafia, accidental suicide, and intentional suicide among the possible causes of her death. Her plain but famous wall crypt, for decades decorated by Joe DiMaggio's fresh roses, is in Westwood Memorial Park, Westwood, California, the same cemetery where Natalie Wood, Dorothy Stratton, and Dean Martin are buried (Hugh Hefner has bought the crypt right next to Marilyn's). And fifteen months later, the president Marilyn was linked to was also dead, a shocking, violent reminder that an era had definitely ended.

TALENT: This is a controversial topic, in that some people feel she was good at playing herself and was never really challenged as an actress, as validated by all the Oscars she was nominated for — none. However, Marilyn authority Ray Zweidinger counters those opinions with the argument that the Marilyn we saw on and off screen was a character she created, created so well in fact that everybody assumed that's who she really was, which would be a tribute to her skill. Supporting this notion are comments from her legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg: "There are only two actors of our time; the first is Marlon Brando and the second is Marilyn Monroe." Later Strasberg eulogized: "This quality was even more evident when she was on the stage. I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses on the stage." Even if she didn't win an Oscar — which Zweidinger says was probably for the Academy's own political reasons — she did win other acting awards, including the Henrietta Award as 1951's Most Promising Personality of the Year, Golden Globes as the World's Film Favorite in "53 and "62, the Italian version of an Oscar in "59, the French version of the Oscar in "59, and a Golden Globe as Best Actress in "60.

She had a successful modeling career while struggling to be an actress, and she made the cover of Life magazine August 15, 1960, June 22, 1962, August 17, 1962, August 8, 1964, and December 22, 1969, the most Life covers for any '60s actress. Just before she died she completed a couple of famous shoots that landed her back in Vogue magazine. Some bios say she had minor plastic surgery on her nose, and electrolysis on her hairline to remove her widow's peak. Sadly, she appears to be looking older and rundown in The Misfits, though her "older and rundown" was still amazing, and she did revitalize herself in "61-'62 to such a degree that many fans consider the months before her death to be her aesthetic peak. Ironically, she once said that "no one ever called me pretty when I was a little girl." At her peak her measurements were 37-23-35; today some critics might say that she was a little heavy, a claim supported by many photos when she's wearing tight-fitting dresses. However, keep in mind that such was the style in the early '60s, and she did it better than anyone. In fact, as fan Brenda Heidrick pointed out to us, no less an expert than Groucho Marx commended Marilyn's as the "sexiest and most attractive ass in Hollywood," and if it was good enough for Groucho, it's good enough for us. One of her most famous gowns was the $12,000 "Happy Birthday" gown she got stitched into on May 19, 1962, so she could sing the sultriest, breathiest version of "Happy Birthday" ever heard to President John F. Kennedy at his Madison Square Garden "Birthday Salute." Peter Lawford introduced her as she came trotting up to the mike by calling her "the late Marilyn Monroe." That dress, a handmade Jean Louis created from silk souffle gauze and sparkling with over 6000 rhinestones and sequins, was auctioned off by Christie's for almost $1,300,000 in October "99, setting the world's record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a woman's garment (the previous high, by the way, was a quarter-million dollars paid for one of Lady Di's dresses).

She was married and divorced three times: to factory worker James Dougherty from "42 to "45 (Marilyn asked for a divorce while he was overseas in the Navy), to baseball star Joe DiMaggio from January to October of "54, and to playwright Arthur Miller from "56 to "61. During her career she had confirmed relationships with Frank and Marlon, and unconfirmed affairs with various studio bigshots and all her leading men, especially Yves Montand. Other names that frequently come up in published discussions of her affairs are — and we mean no disrespect by this, nor do we claim she actually slept with all these men — Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Laurence Olivier, Yul Brynner, Milton Berle, Robert Mitchum, Mickey Rooney, George Sanders, Mel Torme, Orson Welles, Walter Winchell, Darryl Zanuck, plus a couple of those Kennedy boys. In fact, she was such a regular caller to JFK, some published sources claim she had her own private phone line with the White House. She had a brief, intense, and legendary romance with baseball hero Joe DiMaggio in the mid-'50s. He phoned her publicist and said MM was the one woman in the world he wanted to meet, so the publicist arranged a dinner at the Villa Nova restaurant on the Sunset Strip in L.A. in the summer of "52. Joe was there at 6:30, Marilyn showed up at 10 p.m. Supposedly they only said about a dozen words to each other — he was known for being shy and quiet — but at the end of the night he proposed. Unfortunately he wanted her to be a stay-at-home wife out of the spotlight, while she was trying to get her career to take off. According to the L.A. Times after DiMaggio's death in March "99, "she was haunted by agonizing feelings of inadequacy, her every professional moment tortured by the notion that she wasn't good enough, talented enough or smart enough. He was secure in his celebrity, perhaps even indifferent to it. Marilyn's celebrity was a fragile thing that needed to be constantly nurtured and reinforced." On the day they got married, January 14, 1954, she told the S.F. Chronicle that "marriage is my main career now, a woman's not a woman unless she has children, we're going to have six, I'm going to make all of Joe's favorite foods, like steak and spaghetti," but their interests — his in sports and hangin' at home with the guys, hers in theatre and nightlife, were too different, and her desire to flaunt herself in public repulsed him, so that within nine months they were divorced. The L.A. Times called it "America's most famous terrible marriage," but the Times also wrote that "DiMaggio loved her obsessively, probably more than any man ever had or would. Marilyn knew this intuitively, and she alternately abused and relied upon his constancy for the rest of her life. Her subsequent deterioration and descent into the abyss merely confirmed his worst feelings about the perils of Hollywood. After 1960, after Arthur and Jack and Bobby and all the others, she would turn to him frequently for comfort in her most desperate hours. When she overdrew by $5,000 at Irving Trust, DiMaggio covered her debt. When she was committed to Payne Whitney for psychiatric treatment in 1961, it was Joe who bailed her out and muzzled the press. On Aug. 5, 1962, it was Joe who made all her funeral arrangements.

It was Joe who stood guard at the Westwood Village Memorial Park to make sure that the Kennedys and Sinatra and all the others who drove her to despondency would be barred from the service. It was Joe who wept through the ceremony, who whispered "I love you' as he bent over her coffin for a final cold kiss. And it was Joe who, for twenty years, paid to have fresh red roses put on her grave. He never married again." In fact, according to a September 2000 Vanity Fair interview with DiMaggio's lawyer and confidant, Morris Engelberg, these were DiMaggio's last words in March "99 just before he died: "I'll finally get to see Marilyn." Several biographers have said that the couple was planning to wed again at the time of her death.

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