In a world where near-naked Kardashian photos don’t raise eyebrows on social media, it’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe’s impact as a movie sex symbol in the 1950s & ’60s when just seeing her dress blown high in the air in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH was wildly controversial.
Marilyn’s real self, Norma Jeane Mortenson, was born June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, but “Marilyn Monroe” wasn’t invented until August 1946 at 20th Century Fox. Norma Jeane, who’d been modeling for pin-ups and ads, got a screen test at Fox with production executive Ben Lyon. He showed it to studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who wasn’t knocked out but okayed a six-month deal just to keep her from signing at RKO. Lyon & Norma Jeane created her new self. Lyon chose Marilyn with Broadway’s Marilyn Miller in mind & Norma Jeane picked Monroe, her mother’s maiden name.
After six months in Fox’s basic training program for acting, dancing & singing, Marilyn’s contract was renewed in February 1947, bringing her some bit parts. But she seemed overly shy and Fox dropped her six months later. By then she’d made some valuable Hollywood friends, including Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck, whose pal, Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, signed her in March 1948.
It was at Columbia that Marilyn got her platinum blonde hair and a look that echoed Rita Hayworth. She starred in the 1948 low-budget musical LADIES OF THE CHORUS but failed to get the lead in BORN YESTERDAY. Columbia sent her packing in September 1948, but fate stepped in quickly when William Morris agent Johnny Hyde got her small roles in two big 1950 films — ALL ABOUT EVE & THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Hyde parlayed her good reviews into a seven-year contract with Fox. He died of a heart attack soon afterward, but Marilyn was on her way.
In 1953 she exploded as Hollywood’s top sex symbol with her starring role in NIAGARA. Women’s clubs denounced it as immoral, but that just sold more tickets. Her “dumb blonde” image started in 1953’s musical comedy GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in a role intended for Betty Grable, Fox’s older 1940s blonde bombshell.
Years of movie stardom followed, along with failed marriages and front page struggles with personal demons. Marilyn’s untimely end came on Aug. 4, 1962, at 36, nude in bed at home, from what was officially called a “barbiturate overdose,” but could also have been murder. What really happened is unknown, but with the ongoing controversy, Marilyn’s name still lives on 60 years later.