The silver screen has mesmerized us for decades with clever stories, impressive effects, twists, turns, and musical melodies. But the most important thing about movies, the reason we pay for the show, are the people in it. We slip away from our lives for 100 minutes or so and dive into someone else’s. The goal of any actor is to envelope us in that transition, connecting to us through the screen, and the fiction. While some struggle with this surmountable goal, others, like Marilyn Monroe soared.
Monroe’s short career spanned 16 years and 29 films, 24 of which were in the first 8 years. Her great comedic skill and demanding screen presence captivated audiences from each film’s inception. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, her life was difficult from the start. Due to her mother’s mental health issues, and absentee father, as a child she was bounced around between her mother, her mother’s friend Grace, and orphanages. At the age of 15, while living with Grace, she met 20 year old Jim Dougherty and since Grace and her husband were moving and could no longer support Norma Jeane, they encouraged her to marry Dougherty, which she did in 1942. Their relationship was disjointed from the start and he joined the Merchant Marines and was sent overseas in 1944.
In the same year, she was photographed by the Army while inspecting parachutes in a factory, depicting how women helped the war effort. One photographer, David Conover asked permission to take more pictures of just her. Her natural beauty translated well into photography, so she started working for The Blue Book modeling agency. Embracing the possibilities now in front of her, she took drama and singing classes, and cut, straightened, and lightened her hair. By 1945 she appeared on 33 national magazine covers. In the fall of 1946 she and Dougherty divorced.
Earlier that year Norma Jeane signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Studios. She started using her mother’s family name Monroe and the first name Marilyn after actress Marilyn Miller. She had a minor part in Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! then in 1948 she sang her first song in a movie in Ladies of the Chorus. In 1949 she met Johnny Hyde of the William Morris Agency who became both mentor and lover to her. That same year she agreed to pose nude for a calendar. Her first serious role came in The Asphalt Jungle playing a small but important role in 1950, then she earned critical praise in 1952’s Clash By Night and her first leading role also came that year in Don’t Bother to Knock. The nude photos taken by Tom Kelley surfaced and were bought by a man named Hugh Hefner.
In December 1953, a new magazine for men was introduced. Playboy, founded by Hefner and Eldon Sellers, had an initial print run of 53,991 and was not numbered; as Hefner was unsure the magazine would be successful enough to warrant a second issue. Marilyn Monroe was the first featured “Sweetheart of the Month,” utilizing a photo taken by Kelley during the Red Velvet sessions in 1949. The photo, which showcased a nude Monroe reclining on red velvet, is known as the “Golden Dreams” photo and no doubt helped the maiden issue of Playboy sell out within weeks.
Monroe sparked controversy by allowing the photos to be taken and published. Through the rest of her short, yet incredibly popular career, she continued to challenge conventions, ruffle feathers, and become the immortally remembered Marilyn Monroe.