The longevity is fueled in part by bizarre speculation that the actress was murdered, with suspects ranging from the Kennedys and the CIA to Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa and the mob. Above all, however, Marilyn Monroe’s sexiness has lasting commercial appeal, as summed up in a 1973 headline in the Ithaca (NY) Journal: “MM: Still Making Money.”
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This year again, Andy Warhol’s screen-printed portrait “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” sold for more than $195 million at Christie’s, a record for a 20th century work of art sold at auction. On Wednesday, Netflix will release a highly anticipated Monroe movie, “Blonde,” based on a 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. The closest equivalent to the Marilyn phenomenon is the adulation for Britain’s Princess Diana 25 years after her death in a car crash.
Monroe was never nominated for an Oscar, but she was the most famous actress in the world. She grew up as Norma Jeane Mortenson (and later Norma Jeane Baker) in orphanages and foster homes around the Los Angeles area. She dropped out of high school and quickly became a photo model, first as a brunette and then as a bleached blonde. In 1946, at age 20, she signed a film contract with 20th Century Fox, which changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. (Monroe was the maiden name of her mother, who was in a mental institution.)
By 1953, the curvaceous actress was a global sex symbol, starring in the musicals ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’ Already others were taking advantage of his fame. In December 1953, Hugh Hefner published his first Playboy magazine with a photo of Monroe on the cover and an inside calendar photo of a naked Marilyn against a red velvet curtain. Hefner paid a photographer $500 for the calendar photo, which is about $5,500 today. Monroe didn’t pay anything. “I never even got a thank you from everyone who made millions from a nude picture of Marilyn,” she said, according to the 1995 book “Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own words”.” by photographer George Barris.
Monroe’s private life fared less well. In 1942, at age 16, she married the boy next door; they divorced four years later. In 1954, she married retired New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio and divorced nine months later. Her 1956 marriage to playwright Arthur Miller ended in divorce in 1961.
That year, Monroe fell in love with the new President John F. Kennedy, and the feeling was mutual. According to numerous biographies, they spent a night together in Palm Springs, California, the home of singer Bing Crosby. In May 1962, the actress caused a stir in Madison Square Garden when she sang a sultry “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy while wearing a dress so tight it had to be sewn up. “I can now retire from politics,” JFK joked. (This year, Kim Kardashian caused a stir at a Metropolitan Museum of Art gala wearing the Monroe dress, which she borrowed from Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. Ripley’s bought the dress in 2016 for $4.8 million. of dollars.)
By early 1962, Monroe had started taking prescription drugs to deal with anxiety. In June, 20th Century Fox suspended her from filming “Something’s Got to Give” after she continued to be absent from work. She remained isolated in her Spanish-style home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was there that, early in the morning of August 5, her psychiatrist found the dead actress “naked, lying face down on her bed, clutching a telephone receiver in her hand”, an empty pill bottle nearby, a reported the Los Angeles Times. The county coroner ruled her death “a probable suicide.”
Monroe was buried in a crypt in Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. But his legend survived. In 1973, Newsday reported a “renewed interest” in Monroe. “By mid-October, shelves in department stores and gift shops across the country will be stocked with Marilyn Monroe puzzles,” playing cards, planners and calendars, Newsday wrote, adding, “From Paris came word that ‘the Marilyn Monroe look’ – tight skirts, tight sweaters, high heels – is back in fashion. A former Monroe publicist said, “Anyone who can make money from Marilyn’s memory tries to do so.”
Everyone from Monroe’s housekeeper to novelist Norman Mailer has written books about the star. In her 1973 bestseller, “Marilyn: A Biography,” Mailer included previously published claims that Monroe had an affair with married Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and was assassinated by the CIA. In a TV interview with Mike Wallace, Mailer admitted he didn’t believe in speculation, but included it to sell books because “I really needed the money”.
In 1982, Monroe was more popular than ever, the Associated Press reported. That year, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine for the 19th time, more than any other movie star. “Monroe’s estate is still making thousands of dollars by laying off the image of the late Hollywood star,” the AP reported, noting that an opera titled “Marilyn” was “among Italy’s most successful attractions in during the 1982 season”.
Monroe murder theories continued to surface that year. One was that Teamsters leader Hoffa had the actress killed in revenge for Robert Kennedy’s investigations of him. Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp ordered a new autopsy of Monroe’s body. His office concluded there was “no credible evidence to support a murder theory”. Van de Kamp expressed “the faint hope that Marilyn Monroe will be allowed to rest in peace”.
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But rumors raged. A 2017 documentary, “Unacknowledged,” claimed that Monroe was murdered because she threatened to reveal classified information proving the existence of extraterrestrials.
Monroe’s legend thrived primarily on her made-in-Hollywood sexual image. “Forty years after her death,” reported the Hartford Courant in 2002, “Monroe is still Hollywood’s most successful invention, its most immediately recognized product.” When Playboy founder Hefner died in 2017, he was buried in Westwood Cemetery next to Monroe in a crypt he bought in 1992 for $75,000, around $160,000 now. Hefner once said, “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too kind to pass up,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
Over a dozen films have been made about Monroe. Netflix presents its new film “Blonde”, starring Ana de Armas, as “a boldly reimagined fictional portrait” of the Hollywood legend. The film is rated NC-17 due to its graphic “sexual content”. Despite her image as a sex symbol, Monroe’s films rarely ventured beyond what would today be PG-13 territory. In a 1962 interview, she expressed surprise at being able to show her navel in film for the first time in “Something’s Got to Give”. “I guess the censors are willing to acknowledge that everyone has a navel,” she said.
Six decades after her death, Monroe’s picture is still bringing in big bucks at the box office. Yet the real Monroe remains mysterious. In photographer Barris’ book, she is quoted as saying two months before her death: “I’m not the girl next door – I’m not a nice guy – but I think I’m human. As far as I’m concerned, the happiest time of my life is now. There is a future, and I can’t wait to get there. It should be interesting.
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again: The Story Behind Today’s Headlines,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis columns.