By Fred Jacobs
She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, a third child to her twice divorced mother Gladys, a studio film cutter. Gladys had her first child at the young age of 15 and while Martin Mortenson was listed as Norma Jeanes’ father on the birth certificate, they had separated long before Gladys became pregnant with Norma Jean. Norma Jeanes’ real father was never known.
Gladys was declared mentally ill and the children were sent to foster homes and orphanages. Norma Jeane started in foster homes at only 3 weeks of age and did not even know she had older siblings until she was 12 years old. Gladys spent most of her life in and out of hospitals and rarely had contact with her children.
Desperate to find stability, Norma Jeane married her first husband, James Dougherty when she was just 16. In 1944, while working in an ammunition factory as part of the war effort, Norma Jean met a photographer taking pictures at the factory for an Army publication. This led to launching her career as a pin-up girl, which led to her being signed for short term contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures starting in 1946. Most of these movies were “B” movies but Norma Jeane had dreams of being a true Hollywood actress. By this time she was also divorcing her first husband and Marilyn the icon was born.
Marilyn’s’ first notable role was in “All About Eve”. It was a small role supporting the great Bette Davis, but it caught the eye of Twentieth Century Fox who then signed her in 1951, to a seven-year contract. She was 25 by now and a stunning beauty. In early 1952, she was also at the center of major scandal, when it was revealed that she had posed for nude photos before becoming a star. Instead of the scandal damaging her career, it made her a box office draw.
In 1953 she made ““Niagara” about a lover who she needed to kill her husband. Her reputation as a sex symbol was now firmly established.
Then followed by “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Jane Russell and in 1954 “There is no Business like Show Business” with Ethel Merman.
Despite her success, she disliked the studio’s control over her career, typecasting her as a dumb blonde and the paying low salary. She was suspended by the studio in January 1954 when she refused to do their next planned film for her. The dispute was settled in March, after which she appeared in one the biggest successes of her career, “The Seven Year Itch”.
Still at odds with the studio and the bosses unwilling to change her contract, Marilyn left Hollywood for New York in late 1954. She formed her own production company while there and studied serious acting at the famed Actors Studio under none other than Lee Strasberg.
By the end of 1955, Fox Studio gave in and renegotiated Marilyn’s contract to assure her a larger salary and more control of her roles. This led to her films, “Bus Stop” in 1956, “The Prince and the Showgirl” in 1957 with Sir Lawrence Olivier and “Some Like It Hot” in 1959.
These movies earned appreciation for her acting as well as a Golden Globe award.
Marilyn’s personal life during this period almost overshadowed her striving to become a “serious actress”. She married NY Yankee great Joe DiMaggio in January 1954 and they divorced just 274 days later. Apparently Joe was furious over the publicity stunt by the studio of Marilyn in the famous white dress over the New York city subway grate.
Again she tried her hand at love with playwright Arthur Miller (11 years her senior) in 1956 only to divorce again in 1961. Later in 1961, she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Joe DiMaggio secured her release and tried to help her but to no avail.
Depression and addictions led to her tragedy the following year. On August 5, 1962, Marilyn would die at the age of 36 from an apparent drug and alcohol overdose. 75% of her $1.6 million estate was left to Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio.
Conspiracy theories have been floated ever since her death tied to reported affairs with President John F Kennedy and his brother Robert, but none have been ever proven. What is undeniable is that a great talent and an icon of the 20th century was lost far too soon.
Fred Jacobs is the writer of three books and a permanent resident of Puerto Vallarta.