The Wonder and Tragedy of Marilyn Monroe

On this day in 1962, film actress Marilyn Monroe is found dead at her Brentwood home in Los Angeles. She was discovered lying nude on her bed, face down, a telephone clutched in one hand. Empty bottles of pills, prescribed to treat her depression, were littered about the room. After a brief investigation, LAPD concluded her death was “caused by a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs and that the mode of death is probable suicide.” She was 36.

Norma Jeane Mortenson, nee Norma Jeane Baker, was born in Los Angeles, California to mother Gladys Pearl Baker and an unknown father. As Gladys was technically married to one Martin Mortensen at the time, that name was taken. Though Gladys was employed as a negative film cutter, she suffered from significant mental illness; with her mother frequently confined in an “asylum,” Monroe herself was reared by 12 successive sets of foster parents and, for a time, in an orphanage.

In 1942 Monroe married a fellow worker in an aircraft factory, but they divorced soon after WW2. She became a popular photographer’s model and in 1946 signed a short-term contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, taking as her screen name Marilyn Monroe. After a few brief appearances in pictures made by the Fox and Columbia studios, she was again unemployed, and returned to modeling for photographers. Her nude photograph on a calendar brought her a role in the film Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (1948), followed by other minor roles.

In 1950 Monroe played a small, uncredited role in The Asphalt Jungle that reaped a mountain of fan mail. An appearance in All About Eve (1950) won her another contract from Fox and much recognition. In a succession of films, including Let’s Make It Legal (1951), Love Nest (1951), Clash by Night (1952), and Niagara (1953), a favorite of your scribe featuring Joseph Cotten, she advanced to star billing on the strength of her studio-fostered image as a “love goddess.” With performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), her mythos and pathos grew inexorably and spread throughout the developed world. This in turn minted her as the object of unprecedented popular adulation and the archetype for the modern sex symbol.

In 1954 Monroe married New York Yankees superstar Joe DiMaggio, and the attendant publicity was enormous. With the end of their marriage less than a year later she began to grow discontented with her career. Notwithstanding, she sought to improve her craft, studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York City, and in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop (1956) she began to emerge as a talented comedian.

In 1956 she married playwright Arthur Miller and briefly retired from acting, although she costarred with Sir Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). She won critical acclaim for the first time as a serious actress for Some Like It Hot (1959). Her last role, in The Misfits (1961), was written by Miller, whom she had divorced the year before.

With her emotional management failing visibly, Monroe began filming the comedy Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin, under director George Cukor in 1962; her mental condition is painfully obvious in outtakes and the film was never completed. In May she appeared at a New York City gala where she famously sang “Happy Birthday” to Pres. John F. Kennedy, with whom she was allegedly having an affair.

Living as a recluse in the final months of her life, Monroe’s maid Eunice Miller often stayed with her at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive. Murray awoke at 3:00 a.m. on August 5 and sensed that something was amiss. Though she saw light from under Monroe’s bedroom door, the door was locked and Monroe did not answer persistent knocking. Murray called Monroe’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who arrived at the house and broke in through a bedroom window, finding Monroe dead in her bed. Monroe’s physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, arrived at the house at around 3:50 a.m., and pronounced her dead at the scene; at 4:25 a.m., they notified LAPD.

In their first runs, Monroe’s 23 films grossed a total of more than $200 million, and her fame surpassed that of any other entertainer of her time. Her early image as a dumb and seductive blonde gave way in later years to the tragic figure of a sensitive and insecure woman unable to cope with the pressures of Hollywood and her own nuanced charisma and stunning beauty. Despite apparent best efforts, no female talent has come close to matching the width and breadth of Monroe’s enormous presence and legacy, and it appears unlikely that any will.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.