The original blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe made 23 movies and was the most famous American entertainer of her time. The combination of seductiveness and vulnerability, and her tragic death at age 36, have made her a pop-culture icon. 1955s The Seven Year Itch, with her white dress billowing up over a subway vent, is perhaps the most iconic Hollywood film still of all time. It was recreated by artist Steward Johnson in the 26-foot tall statue “Forever Marilyn” in Palm Springs, which draws thousands of visitors. Also unmistakeable is this image from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was known for her trademark hourglass figure, blonde hair and red lips, but Monroe saw “Marilyn” as a persona she could turn on and off, showing she was more shrewd than it may have appeared. Despite being misrepresented as a dumb blonde, she collected books, and owned 400, including first editions.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson, her mother was in and out of psychiatric care suffering from bipolar disorder, so she was brought up by 12 sets of foster parents and sent to an orphanage. Monroe worked in an aircraft factory where she met her first husband, whom she married at 16, largely so she would not have to find a new set of guardians.
With her pin-up figure, she got her start in show business nude modelling for photographers and graced the first-ever cover of Playboy. She signed with MGM when she was 20, taking the stage name Marilyn Monroe. She only had bit parts for the next decade, but received mountains of fan mail. 1950s All About Eve was her star turn, leading to a quick succession of roles such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. A brief marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio further accelerated her mass appeal. She then married the playwright Arthur Miller, took acting classes, and won critical acclaim for Some Like it Hot (pictured). She was also a jazz fan, and there is a longstanding story that she told a nightclub owner who was hesitant to book Ella Fitzgerald that she would be in the front row every night if he did. Fitzgerald got the gig.
Monroe died at the age of 36 at her modest Brentwood California home of a barbiturate overdose. There are still conspiracy theories around her death and her rumoured affair with President John F. Kennedy. What is known is that the couple who bought her modest home discovered a sophisticated phone tapping system inside the walls.
Even now everyone wants a piece of the iconic silver screen star. The sheer peach dress Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy sold for over a million dollars, making it the most expensive piece of clothing at the time, only to be topped by her white dress from the Seven Year Itch, which sold for over $4 million. Even her Levi’s were bought by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger as a gift for singer Britney Spears.
Despite her having divorced him on the grounds of mental cruelty, Di Maggio had red roses delivered to Monroe’s grave twice a week for 20 years following her death.