Ten Lesser Known Facts About Marilyn Monroe

An Artist’s rendition of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was the undisputed queen of the glamour world in the 1950s. She was an actor, model and singer. ‘Sex Symbol’ was just a word invented to describe her magnetic screen presence and alluring personality. Marilyn was also a large factor for the Sexual Revolution of the 60s. But we already know all that, don’t we? So, as promised, here are the ten lesser known facts about Marilyn Monroe, the Forever Enigma.

1. Marilyn and Her Father:

Marilyn Monroe was born to Gladys Pearl Baker on June 1, 1926. That is a well-known fact, alright. But what about the identity of her father? Gladys was married to Martin Edward Mortensen at the time of Marilyn’s birth, following her divorce from her previous husband, John Newton Baker. Marilyn’s birth certificate shows her name as Norma Jeane Mortensen and she often used ‘Baker’ as her surname.

So, who was the father of the most famous glamour icon of the time? It was a man named Charles Stanley Gifford, who dated Gladys in 1925 and that resulted in the birth of Marilyn. Needless to say, Gifford walked out on Gladys even before Marilyn was born.

In her twenties, Marilyn tried several times to meet her dad but she was told that Gifford wanted nothing to do with her. It was also reported that when Gifford took severely ill, he tried to contact her but it was Marilyn then who refused to meet him, saying, “it’s too late now”.

2. Marilyn and Sexual Abuses on Her:

Gifford was swift in leaving Gladys and her unborn child upon hearing the news of her pregnancy. Gladys herself suffered from frequent mental breakdowns that later was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia and thus had to be admitted to an asylum from time to time. As a result, baby Marilyn was passed from one foster home to another, totaling twelve different foster homes and an orphanage. Not all of them were what they were supposed to be.

Marilyn was first sexually abused at the age of eight while staying at one of these homes. Later Marilyn gave her offender a fake name of Mr. Kimmel and recounted how he told her to come to his room one night. She never revealed what really happened that night or the identity of her offender.

There were other homes where she felt safe about at first but was eventually molested in. Her cousin, a boyfriend of one of the family friends, even a foster parent were among those monsters who abused her as a child.

Later, as a celebrity too, she suffered countless acts of abuse at the hands of the very people adoring her. Once at a party, some men surrounded her and grabbed her and tore off her top, letting her breasts come out in the open. Marilyn just laughed it off to hide her fury at the indignity.

No matter how many advances on her, how many attempts at molestation and abuse, Marilyn always kept her head high. That’s why she writes in “Fragments”:

3. Marilyn and David Conover:

Yes, those photos by Leo Caloia are fascinating even today but it was an army photographer named David Conover who first discovered Marilyn Monroe. The US Army Air Forces produced a number of propaganda films and training films during the period of World War II. The unit responsible for producing these entertaining yet highly informative films was known as the First Motion Picture Unit and was entirely composed of professionals from the film industry, even veteran actors such as Clark Gable and William Holden. David Conover was assigned to this unit also known as the ‘Celluloid Commandoes’ when his superior, future US President Ronald Reagan asked him to go to a factory of a manufacturer of radio-controlled airplanes called the Radioplane Corporation to film women doing war work. Marilyn was at that time a worker in the same factory.

David went there, took some photos and found a dirt-smeared Marilyn working on a propeller. The then 26-year old Conover was stunned by the sheer elegance and effortless photogenicity of the then 19-year old Marilyn. He asked her to put on a sweater and pose for him during lunch hour. Marilyn agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.

Conover wrote to her many times after she became famous but Marilyn, for some reason, never reciprocated in response.

4. Marilyn and ‘Pillow-case white’:

Just thinking the name Marilyn Monroe fills your mind with platinum-blonde hair, glossy red lipstick and the seducing smile that can turn worlds upside-down. But platinum-blonde or as she herself used to call it, ‘pillow-case white’ wasn’t the original hair-color of Marilyn the Blonde.

When she was a child, her hair was blonde enough to earn her the nickname of the ‘towhead’, a name which she hated until she saw Jean Harlow. But with the passing years her hair began to naturally darken and when David Conover took her photo in 1945 she was a “half child, half woman” with a head full of curly brown hair. Following the shoot, eventually she took a modelling job with Blue Book Model Agency and Emmeline Snively, then head of the agency, advised her to bleach her hair to more blonde shades.

From time to time, many photographers who worked with Marilyn, produced photos of her with distinctly different shades of hair color. Some called her hair as ‘California blonde’ which seems blonde in the summer but darker in the winter. Marilyn herself called it ‘dirty blonde’ because it was not blonde enough to please all her clients at the same time. But she was fascinated with her childhood idol, Jean Harlow who was the original ‘blonde bombshell’ or ‘platinum-blonde’ of the Hollywood. And she wanted to replicate her hair with the help of Sylvia Barnhart, a hair-stylist at Frank & Joseph’s Beauty Salon. It was every Saturday 1:30 pm that was forever fixed in the calendar of Marilyn Monroe as an appointment with Barnhart.

So, over the years, eventually Marilyn’s hair was completely free of pigments and attained the ‘platinum-blonde’ of Jean Harlow. Marilyn used to call it ‘pillow-case white’. It was heard that she rarely washed her hair and even applied Johnson’s Baby Powder at her hair roots to maintain the color.

An artist’s take on the pillow-case white hairdo of Marilyn Monroe
An artist’s take on the pillow-case white hairdo of Marilyn Monroe

5. Marilyn and Mona Monroe:

Tom Kelly was an American photographer who worked with Hollywood celebrities during the 1940s and ’50s. In 1949, he approached Marilyn Monroe for a nude shoot for a calendar. At first, Marilyn refused because she was just starting out in her acting career and was hesitant about posing in the nude at that point in her career. But a few days later the diva gave in and posed for Kelly on 27th of May, 1949. Kelly paid her $50 for the shoot and that was that. Marilyn signed the series of photos as ‘Mona Monroe’. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, later bought the rights to these photos for only $500 and immortalized the ‘Marilyn Monroe on Red Velvet’ by publishing it on the very first issue of the Playboy.

Marilyn was not publicly recognized as the model in the red velvet photos until 1952. She was advised by many in the Hollywood to deny that she was the one in the photos but Marilyn was unapologetic about posing in the nude. She said that she was almost forced to do the shoot as she badly needed money at the time. She further joked about not being able to eat much during those days and that gave her the ‘washboard stomach’ seen in the photos. By thus standing up to the authorities, Marilyn literally brandished herself as a pure sex symbol to be later factored in the Sexual Revolutions of the ‘60s.

6. Marilyn and Her Subway-grate Scene:

In 1955, Billy Wilder co-written and directed “a nothing picture” which he wished he hadn’t made. The name of the picture was “The Seven Year Itch” and it was a mediocre one at best. But it gifted us one of the most notable movie scenes of the twentieth century — Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate while her white dress gets blown upwards by a passing train.

Marilyn played the role of ‘The Girl’, a model and actor shooting for stardom. A faithful, middle-aged married man was seen to actively imagine himself being romantically attracted to the girl, possibly because of a book he read about extra-marital affairs by men specifically in their seventh year of marriage. His imaginations ran wild with every meeting with the girl though the girl herself showed no concern with his imagined fantasies.

The famous shot of Marilyn on the subway grate was taken twice and both the shots made into the film. The first shot was on 15 September, 1954 on Lexington Ave., Manhattan where at least two thousand spectators thronged the shoot; and the second was on a sound stage. The location shot took a total of fourteen takes and three hours, resulting in thunderous cries of ecstasy from the crowd each time her dress blew up. Marilyn wore two sets of white underwear to reveal as little as possible during the shot. But much like her character in the film, she invited constant active imagination from the viewers to etch the scene forever in Hollywood movie history.

Oh, and this subway-grate scene is the most probable cause for Marilyn filing for divorce from Joe DiMagio who thought of the scene as provocative and exhibitionist and was seen to storm from the set very angry. No doubt there were some lengthy heated dissensions between the two over this scene, with Marilyn filing for divorce on grounds of mental cruelty in October, 1954.

The statue of ‘Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate’ in Chicago, designed by Seward Johnson
The statue of ‘Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate’ in Chicago, designed by Seward Johnson

7. Marilyn and the Demise of the Hollywood Studio System:

Yes, it was Howard Hughes of RKO who signed the agreement for divorcement with the federal government on 8th of November, 1948 and that eventually brought the demise of the Hollywood Studio System but most people don’t know how Marilyn Monroe Productions also played a vital part in it.

So Marilyn was one of the most sought-after actors in 1954, especially after “The Seven Year Itch” but was earning only $1500 per week while being typecast into films as a mere ‘sexual ornament’. This prompted her to form her own productions company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, in January, 1955 together with photographer Milton Greene. She said that she was not bound by contract laws as Fox (Twentieth Century Fox, then Fox Film Corporation) had failed to fulfill its duties such as paying her promised bonuses. This resulted in a year-long court battle between her and Fox and the press ridiculing her and even a Broadway Play parodying her actions.

But the 1948 ruling in the Hollywood anti-trust case aka the Paramount suit (originally filed in 1938) was actually working in Marilyn’s favor. She eventually managed to submit Fox into a new contract that gave her past earnings with a renewed salary of $100,000 per film and her approval rights over script, director and cinematographer. This can be considered as the effective fall of the Hollywood Studio System and the advent of the new Star System. It eventually earned Marilyn the title of “shrewd businesswoman” and “example of the individual against the herd”.

8. Marilyn and “Some Like It Hot”:

“Some Like It Hot” (1959) was one of the greatest films of all time and in a sense the film was able to capture Marilyn in almost all of her elements both as the actor playing Sugar Kane or the character herself. She was always late on the sets which infuriated director-producer-scriptwriter Billy Wilder. But he jokingly said that his Aunt Minnie would be punctual on the sets but then also no one would want to see her performing. Marilyn also frequently forgot her lines, sometimes as simple as “It’s me, Sugar” which resulted in numerous painstaking takes for a single shot. But her eccentric talent finished the beach scene with co-star Tony Curtis in just twenty minutes despite having many complicated lines on her part. Wilder had reportedly scheduled three whole days for shooting the same scene.

The movie saw Marilyn as a serious singer too as she beautifully sung “Runnin’ Wild” or “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. She didn’t get enough credit for her singing in her lifetime but these two renditions were everything the Singer Marilyn wanted to do. They had her signature sultriness, her signature variations and her signature husky breakings that summed her singing style perfectly up.

From her obsession with perfection or notoriety at doing what she wanted — “Some Like It Hot” was in many ways to rediscover Marilyn while she played the very definition of what she should be playing — a blonde bombshell who just needs to look sexy. She took the role and made it her very own, quite different than what even the director wanted, and still managed to make it meaningful enough to win her both Golden Globe and Laurel in 1960. Billy Wilder eventually remarked about working with Marilyn,

9. Marilyn and “The Male Gaze”:

For the 1950s, Fox was looking for a suitable replacement for Betty Grabble, the ‘blonde bombshell’ of the previous decade. According to scholar and critic Richard Dyer, Marilyn fit the role perfectly and meticulously crafted her image to feed “the male gaze”.

The ‘blonde bombshell’ screen persona required naïveté bordering almost on dumbness, successful portrayal of sexual availability and a deliberate pinch of fakeness. Marilyn worked on each little aspect of that persona. She adapted a childish voice in her films with suggestions from her voice coaches. She intentionally gave the impression of someone totally “innocent and uncalculated” during her interviews so much that her famous double-meaning phrases came to be known as ‘Monroeisms’. She studied extensively under the mime-artist and dancer, Lotte Goslar to perfect her own comic timing in her films. Marilyn also took great care into amalgamating irresistible sultriness into her voice whenever she wore her singing shoes. Countless tiny improvisations were consciously made by her even to distinctly immortalize “the girl with the horizontal walk”.

Her lifelong dedication to the craft to feed “the male gaze” has prompted Sarah Churchwell to state,

Marilyn dedicatedly worked on every single aspect of perfecting her ‘sex-symbol’ persona
Marilyn dedicatedly worked on every single aspect of perfecting her ‘sex-symbol’ persona

10. Marilyn and Hefner:

As stated before, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner bought the ‘Marilyn Monroe on Red Velvet’ photos for a mere $500 to be featured on the very first edition of his magazine. The two of them never actually met in real life but being a true believer in symbolism, Hefner considered them as two souls inevitably entwined. He said that he felt “a double connection to her because she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy” and because both of them “were born the same year” (1926).

As one-sided and frail as it sounds for a guy like Hugh, he was somewhat in what may be called love with the iconic blonde. So much that in 1992, he bought the tomb next to hers for a whopping $72,000, saying,

After his death on 27 September, 2017 Hugh was finally laid to rest beside Marilyn, enjoying an eternity together.

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