“There’s been more written about Marilyn Monroe than about World War Two,” filmmaker Billy Wilder once said, “and there are many similarities.” Wilder, who directed her in Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch, later added, “She was the meanest woman I have ever met around this town. I am appalled by this cult.”
Yet as difficult as the great blond love goddess was for many of the people who worked with her (primarily the men), she was just as unforgettable to her friends and the public. Witness the public’s thirst for anything it can learn about her since her apparent drug overdose on August 15, 1962.
And “apparent” is the fuel that keeps the Monroe saga alive. Born in 1926 in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital to Gladys Baker Mortensen, “Norma Jean” was placed in the first of a succession of foster homes when she was less than a month old.
Many moves, many schools, and many promises later, she married, began modeling, made her first two suicide attempts (pills, gas), and posed for her famous nude calendar by the time she was 23.
It was agent Johnny Hyde who brought her to public attention in October 1950. Hyde died two months later, but not before seeing that she was signed to Twentieth Century Fox, where she slowly developed into a star. It was said that she was the only starlet who did not have to “service” studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck during the notorious mogul’s famous 4:00 p.m. liaisons. The reason? She was involved with Zanuck’s silent partner, producer Joseph Schenck.
Her pictures, her marriages, her divorces, and her glamour are well known, as are her alleged dalliances, particularly with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. For years it has been rumored that the abortion she had in July 1962 was JFK’s love-child. She was shooting the Fox comedy Something’s Got to Give when it did, and she was fired for tardiness and incompetence. A month later she was dead.
Rumors, doubts, and questions circulated even before her body was in the ground of the Westwood Memorial Cemetery near UCLA. Why did she overdose on the Penergan and Nembutal she had been prescribed two days earlier? Did she try to make a phone call to actor Peter Lawford the night she died? Was she asking him to try to reach his brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy on her behalf? Why were objects disturbed in her Brentwood house?
The circumstances of her burial were as noteworthy as her death. Despite her worldwide renown, Monroe’s body lay unclaimed for days in the morgue until her former husband, Joe DiMaggio, arranged for its removal to a crypt. He sat beside her coffin all night before the funeral, and then decreed that it be closed for the services, from which he barred all but 20 people.
Some years later an attempt was made to break into Monroe’s crypt, but it was stymied by 2 feet of solid concrete that sealed her to the ages. From the date of her death until 1982, DiMaggio continued sending six red roses three times a week to her final resting place. DiMaggio died in 1999.
Even though the rest of the world was being caught in the Great Depression, the movies didn’t feel the financial crunch right away. The public needed an escape, and they kept buying tickets. Eventually, though, the economy caught up with Hollywood. To lure customers back, theater owners instituted “dish night.” Each week a different plate, cup, or saucer was given away with each ticket bought. If you and your family went to the movies enough times, pretty soon you’d have a place setting. When audiences had gathered enough place settings, theater owners started offering towels and washcloths, then raffles. Finally they hit on the idea of just making better movies.
By dying at age 36, Marilyn Monroe never grew old. As to why her short but turbulent life has inspired so many books and such a fanatic following, just look at the nature of the star system itself, and the way it uses up people.
And then there’s the political side: Could this breathy voiced nymph who seduced a president, and who ran with people who ran with mobsters, have been more than she seemed to be? Was she the airhead she portrayed, or the genius her friends swore she was? Did the White House have her killed? Did the Syndicate? If she was so valuable a star property, why didn’t the studio have her hospitalized?
“A sex symbol becomes a thing,” Monroe once said. “I just hate being a thing.” Through a confluence of questions, mistakes, triumphs, and tragedies, she became more than a thing. She became a legend.