Norma Jean Mortenson

 

Today is the birthday of actress Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles, California (1926). As a chil, she was passed around between her mother and a series of foster parents. Eventually, she wound up with her mother’s friend Grace McKee, who worked in the movie industry. Grace worshiped movie stars, and she told Monroe that she would be a movie star herself one day. She taught Monroe to act like the women she saw in movies; she took Monroe to beauty parlors, she dressed her up in fancy clothes, and had her practice smiles and pouts in the mirror.

After Grace McKee got married, Monroe had to live for a while in an orphanage, and at night she would stare out the window at the water tower of RKO Studios. She spent the next several years moving from house to house, living with various distant relatives and friends of the family. She told children at school that her parents had died in a car accident.

After she went through puberty, her clothes were much tighter, but the family she was living with couldn’t afford to buy her new ones. Walking to school, men started honking their horns at her and waving, and she’d wave back. She said, “The whole world became friendly.” To avoid returning to an orphanage or another set of foster parents, she was married at 16 to a man named James Dougherty.

During World War II, Monroe got a job at an aircraft factory called Radioplane, where she sprayed glue on fabrics and inspected and folded parachutes. She was working at the factory when a group of photographers showed up to take pictures of women working for the war effort. The photographers noticed her right away, and they persuaded her to become a model. She bleached her hair and began to appear on the covers of magazines.

She got her big break in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Everyone had been trying to sell her as a “love goddess,” but it turned out that she had a gift for comedy.

She died just nine years after that first big success, but her life has been an inspiration to many writers. She has been the subject of more than 300 biographies, including a partially fictionalized biography by Norman Mailer. The poet Sharon Olds wrote a poem about her death. In the novel “Motor City” (1992), author Bill Morris wrote a fictional version of her wedding day with Joe DiMaggio. Joyce Carol Oates wrote the novel “Blonde” (2001) about her, and it was nominated for the National Book Award.

Marilyn Monroe said, “I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.”

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