Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

Hearing that some actor in a ‘soap’ or a singer discovered on a reality show is ‘great’ is enough to send some of us heading for the ‘scream out loud’ button in our brains; in modern terminology, ‘great’ seems to mean what was once described as ‘pretty good’. The same is true with ‘icon’, a fine word which is now applied to almost anyone who has a slightly individualistic attitude, swears a bit and has a tattoo in Ancient Persian on their forearm or ear. Hearing that some young singer, soap actor, footballer or, indeed, a footballers’ wife or girlfriend, is an ‘icon’ disturbs those of us who look back to those who were far more deserving of the title. If they want to see themselves as icons then let them be measured against Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, Picasso and Pele, just to mention a few Twentieth Century figures worthy of iconic status.

Iconic figures are more than just stars. They have an extra dimension, a status, which helps to shape and define their age. They embody some essential dimension of the ideas and values of their era. Their looks, words, tastes and actions are imitated at the time and inspire those who follow. They seem to express an indefinable quality of that period so that they almost become it. Their names become a shorthand way of referring to the era. To see Ché Guevara’s face adorning a million T-shirts, posters and CD covers is a slightly sad insight on society over the last forty years; the most stylish rebel of the century casts a shadow of credibility which is eagerly sought by many people. Ché would no doubt be delighted by the interest but bewildered by the way his image has made millions for business while his message of revolution has been lost to those who ‘wear’ him.

Amongst the icons of the twentieth century, one of the most celebrated was born as simple Norma Jeane Baker. Over the years she was transformed into one of the most beautiful, glamorous and mixed up women ever. In a world where the paparazzi are a big business all of their own, as is trying to ensure privacy, the celebrated but tragically short life of Marilyn Monroe is a telling moment in the journey towards celebrity obsession, and one which is well worth knowing a little about. Where Marilyn went, many others have followed since – and her life is a warning to all those seek fame as their greatest goal.

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An early modelling photo of Norma Jeane Baker. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Marilyn Monroe was born on 1st June, 1926, in Los Angeles. Confusion surrounds her early life, especially regarding who her father was. Her original name was Norma Jeane Mortenson but she was baptised as Norma Jeane Baker after her mother, Gladys Baker, who suffered mental illness and was soon taken into an ‘institution’. As a child, Norma Jeane spent her life in care homes and orphanages before she was finally adopted in 1937. However, in 1942, disaster struck when the Goddards, her adoptive family, could no longer afford to look after her. Faced with returning to a care home, she decided to marry her neighbour, a 21 year old man called Jimmy Dougherty (1920-2005). In 1944, Dougherty went off to war with the US Marines and Norma Jeane went to work in a Munitions factory where she was spotted by a photographer called David Conover. She was a natural in front of the camera (the phrase ‘a photographer’s dream’ was often used about her for the way she seemed more natural in front of the camera than in normal life) and she appeared on the front cover of more than 30 magazines during the war. When Jimmy Dougherty returned from the war, Norma Jeane faced a choice: family or work. She chose work. In doing this she was facing a dilemma which was to challenge more women as the century unfolded, the tension between work and family. She chose a career and they split up, the divorce coming through in June, 1946, just after Dougherty returned to the USA.

By way of her career, Norma Jeane was aiming for the movies but going from being a model to a film star required some changes. ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ was not considered a suitable name for a budding star who wanted to get into films and so she changed it to ‘Marilyn Monroe’, Monroe being her grandmother’s name. In going for the name change, Monroe she was far from alone in the acting world. No doubt many people would expect to see a list at this point, so here is one of just a few actors who ditched their childhood name in favour of something more memorable – or just simpler. One interesting thing to note is just how many film stars in middle years of the century were hiding foreign or Jewish names, a reflection of the values of the age.

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Frances Gumm became Judy Garland (1922-1969).  She was a seriously famous actress and singer, the child star of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who was the mother of two well-known singers and actresses, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. (Author: NBC; Source: here)

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The Marx Brothers: Julius Henry Marx, Leonard Marx, Adolph Marx, Herbert Marx and Milton Marx became Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx and Gummo Marx, sadly the one most people never remember for that is an inspired name. Together they formed one of the greatest and most popular comedy teams of the 1930s. In the photo, they are (from the top): Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo – so Gummo was already missing out. Author: Ralph F. Stitt; Source: here)

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Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff (born 1924) for some reason decided that ‘Doris Day’ was a better name for her. She was one of the finest singers and comedy actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Her films included ‘Pillow Talk’, ‘The Pajama Game’ and‘Calamity Jane’ while her songs included classics like ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Que será será’, without which football fans would have little to sing at FA Cup matches. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Archibald Leach (1904-1986) is one of the most successful British-born actors of all time. Taking the name Cary Grant might have helped him on  the way. One of the greatest ‘matinee idols’ of films from the thirties to the sixties. Cary Grant was a handsome and witty actor who was voted the second greatest male star of all time – after Humphrey Bogart. And he made a film called ‘Touch of Mink’ with Doris Day. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Marion Morrison (1907-1979) is known to history as John Wayne. The all-American hero of the big screen, he attained iconic status through his many cowboy and war films. A fiercely loyal American who inspired many people – ‘Marion’ was, of course, simply wrong on many levels. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

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Isidore Demsky (born 1916) became Issur Danielovitch before settling on the slightly punchier ‘Kirk Douglas’. The owner of the finest dimple ever seen in a chin, Kirk Douglas starred in dozens of films of which ‘Spartacus’ and ‘The Vikings’ are just two marvellous old films that are well worth watching. He is also the father of Michael Douglas. (Author: Cinema Center Films; Source: here)

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Frederick Austerlitz (1899-1987) and Virginia Katherine McMath (1911-1995) became slightly more suave and sophisticated as ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’. They are celebrated as the most famous dancing couple ever seen in films. The plots of their films, like ‘Top Hat’, were pretty thin but the dancing and the dresses were sensational. (Author: Movie Studio ; Source: here)

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Bernard Schwarz (1925-2010) switched to Tony Curtis and so became one of the most famous actors who made it big in Hollywood. Curtis became a popular leading man, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in the greatest comedy of all-time, ‘Some like it hot’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Anyway, back to Marilyn Monroe. Despite her hopes and good looks, the change of name did not work miracles and her career took several years before it got going. She continued modelling and had small parts in a number of films but, apart from some acclaim for ‘Asphalt Jungle’ and ‘All about Eve’, her career was drifting – until 1953 when she appeared in ‘Niagara’. Her decision to dye her hair blonde back in 1947 finally paid off as it raised her profile and helped her win higher profile roles in hit films like ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’ and ‘How to marry a millionaire’. Fame had well and truly found her – and she was one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as one of the most followed and imitated. Marilyn Monroe attracted attention and admirers from around the world and it was little surprise when she re-married in 1954. Her first marriage had been one of convenience in 1942 but now Norma Jeane Baker married one of the USA’s most famous men, Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). It was one of the celebrity marriages of the decade, captivating the country and raising Monroe’s profile even higher as DiMaggio, famous as ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ as he was known from his days with the New York Yankees, was one of the greatest players of all time – and he still holds the record for a hitting streak in Major League Baseball – 56 consecutive games in 1941. Sadly, as with all of her relationships, it was to be neither a long nor a happy one.

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Joe DiMaggio – ‘The Yankee Clipper’ – second husband of Marilyn Monroe. (Author: Leslie Jones Collection; Source: here)

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Monroe’s third husband was the famous playwright, Arthur Miller. (Author: US State Department; Source: here)

Monroe’s most famous film was made at the end of the fifties, the Oscar winning comedy, ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). Directed by the great Billy Wilder, the film also starred Tony Curtis (who was on the list of name changes earlier) and Jack Lemmon (who could have been, as he was originally called ‘John Uhler Lemmon III’). Both Wilder and Curtis were Hungarian-Jews, although Wilder immigrated to the USA while Curtis was born there. The film showed off Monroe’s comic skills at their very best but the film was a tense and difficult one to make. The script, cast and direction were all wonderful – but everyone said they would never work with Monroe again. She was invariably late and almost impossible to work with – although Tony Curtis must have been partly to blame as he did have an affair with her and claimed she became pregnant during the making of the film.

‘Some Like It Hot’ was just one of many great films directed by Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Wilder was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Europe to the USA in the 1930s so as to escape the Nazis. His mother and grandmother died in the Death Camp at Auschwitz during the war. Wilder was one of the high-profile figures who supported those actors who came under investigation by the HUAC and Joe McCarthy in the late forties and early fifties for allegedly being Communist supporters; in this he joined Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston and Groucho Marx, amongst others. So many little links are brought together in people like Billy Wilder. If you have some spare cash, buy a collection of his best films, several of which are in the ‘Best 100’ lists that appear when the critics get together.

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Billy Wilder with the famous actress, Gloria Swanson. (Author: Studio; Source: here)

Returning to Marilyn Monroe, her last completed film was called ‘The Misfits’ (1961) in which she co-starred alongside two great stars, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It was written by her third husband, Arthur Miller, and it turned out to be Gable’s last film, as he died just after filming ended. People blamed his heavy smoking and also the crash diet he had gone on before making what was to be a physically demanding film. But it seems that stress and tension on the set was to be even more exhausting for Gable as he, and everyone else, had to wait almost every day for Monroe to be ready – echoes of ‘Some Like it Hot only worse’. Over the years, she had developed an extraordinary nervousness and anxiety around performing so that she would often keep people waiting for hours before appearing. While the world saw only beauty, wealth, fame and glamour, Marilyn seemed lost and bewildered, somehow never moving on from her early years of insecurity and rejection; the need for affirmation and acceptance always ran up against feelings of inadequacy so that she increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol as the ways to get her through the days. Fame and wealth did not mean happiness but were more of a mask behind which she experienced crushing loneliness and insecurity.

On 5th August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead at her home in California. The coroner said it was ‘probably suicide’ but others said it was simply an accidental overdose. Some said it was done by a jealous lover (and there were many to choose from) while others suspected Mafia involvement. Rumours abound about Monroe’s affairs and she has been linked with many men, including Bobby Kennedy and, more especially, President Jack Kennedy, with whom she was supposedly obsessed. Many people believe that Marilyn was murdered by the CIA or the FBI because she ‘knew too much’, although as to exactly what that knowledge was, people are less clear. FBI files released in 2006 apparently claim her death was murder linked with her affair with Bobby Kennedy but that does not mean those files were authentic, especially as the man in charge of the FBI at the time was, of course, J. Edgar Hoover – and it does not make it clear who was supposed to have carried out the killing. This has all led to a barrage of conspiracy theories around the idea that she was killed off on orders from the White House or someone ‘high-up’ for knowing ‘stuff’ or simply to get her out of the way because she was increasingly unstable. In all probability, Monroe’s death was a tragic accident, the confused actions of a beautiful but deeply confused and anxious woman.

Marilyn Monroe lived and died in a way which linked her with many famous, powerful and important people, not least of all, President Jack Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, both of whom she is rumoured to have had affairs with. Within three months of her death, Jack and Bobby would be saving the world from destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis and it’s incredible to think what must have been going on in their private lives when all that was about to kick off. And maybe the saddest part is to remember that Marilyn died aged just 36 while Jack was killed at 46 and Bobby was only 42.

Just as sad and significant in many ways were her relationships with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, both of whom she was married to only briefly. As mentioned above, Joe DiMaggio is one of the greatest of America’s sporting icons (that word again), one of the most famous baseball players of all time. DiMaggio’s particular anger regarding Marilyn was triggered by the famous ‘skirt scene’ in ‘Seven Year Itch’, which he saw as explicit and exploitative. Monroe was a ‘sex symbol’ who sold dreams, a fantasy figure whose life seems to be a bridge between the apparent innocence of the post-war period and the apparent hedonism of the sixties and beyond. DiMaggio himself would live until 1999, dying at the age of 84. He was an All-American legend, forever ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ to millions of fans. One of the New York Yankees’ most famous sons, he was mentioned in ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel, which was used in the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’ (1967) which starred Dustin Hoffman who went on to play Carl Bernstein in ‘All the President’s Men’, the film about Watergate and Richard Nixon.

Arthur Miller was husband number three, another famous man who wrote plays which defined the era. In the early 1950s, Miller had been under investigation by the HUAC. He saw the power of McCarthyism at work and was horrified by its ability to destroy careers and lives. In response to McCarthy’s tactics he wrote one of the great plays of American theatre, ‘The Crucible’. On the face of it, this was a re-telling of the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts, but in reality it was an allegory of life in 1950’s America. It was, and remains, a mighty piece of stage writing and a brilliant attack on how elders and leaders in a society can play on fears to create violence and hatred so as to build more fear. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89.

Monroe’s first husband, Jimmy Dougherty, a police officer, died in 2005 (the same year as Miller) at the age of 84 (the same as DiMaggio). When set alongside Jack Kennedy, you have a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a politician who were all involved with a true icon. Monroe was not the first celebrity, nor was she the first famous person to die young. But she was one of the most beautiful, fascinating and vulnerable women of the century, one who epitomised a change in the nature of stardom. Her life and her death in many ways came to mark a change in the whole experience of being a celebrity.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) (Author: Studio; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘Seven Year Itch’, ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, ‘Bus Stop’, How to marry a millionaire’.

You Tube: ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ (1962) is probably the most famous version of the song ever made.

Songs: Marilyn Monroe’s Greatest Hits, ‘Candle in the wind’ by Elton John and ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Photos: far too many to number and most are available on-line

Plays: ‘The Crucible’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller (all from ‘Penguin Modern Classics’)

Books: Many books concentrate on photos of Marilyn or present a number of the conspiracy theories about her death. A wide range of these can be found on-line or in most book-shops. As an overview, one of the older books is a good place to start: ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’ by Donald Spotto (Arrow, 1994).

 

 

 

 

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