Marilyn Monroe

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Subject Profile

Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) was an iconic American actress, model, and singer who epitomized the word “sex symbol.” Her marriages to Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, as well as alleged romances with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, are legendary. More than 50 years after her death, the name “Marilyn Monroe” is still synonymous with beauty. Monroe claimed many different names during her life, being born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926. With her father's identity undetermined, Norma Jeane was baptized with her mother's last name, Baker. At 16, she married 21-year-old neighbor Jimmy Dougherty and became Norma Jeane Dougherty. The circumstances were forced, at best, as her mother had been committed to a mental institution years earlier, and the future legend had been passed between foster homes and orphanages. Monroe noted in her autobiography that she did not feel like a wife, instead playing with neighborhood children until her husband would call her home. While working on the Radioplane Munitions factory’s assembly line in California, she was spotted by a photographer working on a story on women contributing to the war effort. Norma Jeane began to receive modeling calls and photo shoots that lead her to enroll in drama classes in 1946. With stardom imminent, Norma Jeane divorced in 1946, signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox, dyed her hair blonde. and adopted the stage name (partly based on her mother’s maiden name) that would forever immortalize her: Marilyn Monroe.

She appeared in several magazines and made her first appearance on the cover of Life magazine in April 1952, where she was described as "The Talk of Hollywood." Perhaps her most famous magazine appearance was in the first issue of Playboy magazine in December 1953. A nude photograph of Monroe, taken in 1949 as part of a shoot for the iconic "Golden Dreams" calendar, was used inside the magazine. Her early film appearances were minor, but performances in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and All About Eve (1950) gained her attention helped pave the way for her first leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock (1953). She also famously appeared in such classic silver screen fare as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Some Like It Hot (1959). She studied at the Actors Studio to broaden her range, a move that resulted in a well-respected dramatic performance in Bus Stop (1956).

She and Joe DiMaggio married in January 1954, but their conflicting careers – and competing desire for fame – led to a divorce by the end of that year. In 1956. she wed playwright Arthur Miller, divorcing in 1961. Despite international success and the adoration of throngs of fans, Monroe was plagued by low self-esteem issues and hampered by the use of drugs. On May 19, 1962, Monroe made her last significant public appearance, seductively singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at a celebration for President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. She was found dead in her home on August 5, 1962. Her ex-husband, DiMaggio, took charge of her funeral arrangements, with only 31 close friends and family members invited to the services – and deliberately shunning the Hollywood elite. Though officially classified as a “probable suicide,” the possibility of an accidental overdose, as well as of homicide, have not been ruled out.

As a cultural icon, the demand for Monroe’s autograph has never waned. She would happily sign her name in-person, with a secretary regularly handling requests for signed photos via the mail. Even an autograph on a piece of paper can be a valuable commodity, with signed checks, documents, and of course photographs demanding higher premiums. Scarce early examples of her name or variation from her marriages to Dougherty, DiMaggio, and Miller surface at public auction, but the flowing script of “Marilyn Monroe” remains a coveted – and elusive -- prize for many.