What is it about the blonde-haired beauty?
Marilyn Monroe found work as a “pin-up” model in the mid-1940s. She then had small roles in film. In the early ‘50s, Monroe gained more recognition as an actress, and by the mid-’50s she was a household name and “sex symbol.” Monroe died when she was 36 years old after overdosing on medication. Her death worked to immortalize Monroe as a “forever young” symbol of beauty and social mobility.
Keep reading to learn more about the life and tragic death of a classical Hollywood star.
The Early Years of Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe, whose birth name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 1, 1926.
Her mother, Gladys, was from a poor and troubled background. She married young, to an abusive man, and had two children. The couple divorced, and although she was awarded custody of the children, they were kidnapped by the estranged husband.
Gladys later married again but divorced soon after. The identity of Marilyn’s father is not known. Marilyn was sometimes placed in foster care during her early childhood, although still maintained a close relationship with her daughter at this point.
However, when Marilyn was 7 years old, her mother had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Contact between the two was rare and sporadic after this.
Marilyn had several foster homes for the remainder of her childhood. She once talked about how this experience gave her a passion for film and acting.
She told Life, not long before her death, in 1962, “I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim, but I loved to play house. […] When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be.”
She continued, “Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.”
Marilyn was subjected to sexual abuse on more than one occasion while living in foster care. Perhaps because of this, the young Monroe became more withdrawn than normal and developed a stutter.
Marilyn was sometimes cared for by her mother’s friend and her husband (although he sexually abused her at one time too). She was living with them when the couple was required to move out of state due to the husband’s work.
With child protection laws meaning she would be unable to move with them and faced with having to return to an orphanage, she married the neighbor’s son, who was five years her senior, when she was 16.
She then dropped out of school and became a housewife, and moved with him to Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, where he worked as a Merchant Marine.
Monroe later said she was “dying of boredom” in the marriage and that the pairing was mismatched. Monroe’s husband was soon shipped overseas and she moved in with his parents and began working at a factory.
When she was 18, a photographer came to the factory to take morale-boosting photos of female workers to be used in the war effort. Although none of her pictures were used, Monroe quit her factory job to become a full-time model.
She had appeared on the covers of 33 magazines by the start of 1946. She applied to an acting agency and got small roles in Dangerous Years (1947) and Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948).
In 1950, Marilyn secured a seven-year acting contract with Fox. The contract boosted her recognition and popularity almost instantly and she appeared in dozens of films, mostly garnering critical acclaim.
Even when criticized for her acting skills, critics noted that although she wasn’t “the perfect actress […,] she can be seductive—even when she walks.”
Marilyn’s status as a sex symbol was unmatched at the time and was deliberately bolstered by the actress herself, through planned “scandals,” such as telling the press she rarely wore underwear.
The Demise of a Hollywood Legend
Marilyn’s housekeeper awoke in the early morning of August 5, 1962. She sensed something was wrong after seeing the light on in Marilyn’s bedroom but hearing no response when she knocked on the locked door.
She called the actress’s psychiatrist who gained access to the room through a window. Marilyn was already dead. She had overdosed on prescription medication for her anxiety and depression.
Marilyn’s death made international headlines and the actress was forever immortalized as an icon of Hollywood glamor.