It’s 60 years since the death of Marilyn Monroe, yet the Hollywood star remains one of the most-recognizable people on Earth.
- Fans say “misconceptions” about Marilyn Monroe shaped her celebrity persona into something very different from real life
- Academics believe she represented a massive cultural shift in history
- Her lifeless body was found in her bed in the early hours of August 5, 1962
Monroe died August 4, 1962 at 36 years of age.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, she is remembered as a model, actress, singer and pop culture icon of the 1950s and 60s.
Six decades later, her fans remember her as a kind woman with a generous spirit.
“Anyone [who] really knew her, never even thought of her in those terms of a blonde bombshell,” Marilyn Remembered fan club president Greg Schreiner says.
“They saw her as this giving, loving, very caring person.
“I remember talking to her stand in, Evelyn Moriarty, and she said once she remarked about something Marilyn was wearing, how lovely it was.
“And the next morning, that item was packaged in front of her door. I mean, that’s how generous Marilyn was.”
She had a successful acting career, starring in some 30 films, including Some Like it Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Many of them were major hits, and some of them are now bona-fide cinema classics.
However, it is her personal life that continues to make headlines, long after her death.
Monroe was married three times, including to baseball star Joe DiMaggio and screen writer Arthur Miller.
None of those relationships lasted.
‘Misconceptions’ hiding the real Marilyn
While the public was used to seeing her on screen as the sexy but ditzy blonde, the real-life Marilyn was very different.
“I think that the public can have misconceptions,” Mr Schreiner says.
“Certainly the studio promoted the image of her being a ‘dumb blonde’. She was far from dumb.
“She was incredibly witty and clever, and she really was a very smart girl.
“When she read books, she was reading philosophers and very in-depth books.
“She was not reading a cheap novel. She was into always educating herself.”
However, what was it about the starlet that captured the public’s attention? Was it her looks from her? Her acting talent of her? Her troubled personal life of her?
Some researchers think it’s because she represents a moment in history where there was a massive cultural shift.
“Monroe, for a lot of people, personifies the 1950s in general, that kind of Playboy culture,” Syracuse University’s film and screen studies associate professor Will Scheibel says.
“The fact that her image, her star was on the rise at the same moment that there were all of these kind of transformations in film and popular culture, allowing for—or encouraging—sort of more sexually liberated attitudes.
“We see this in popular literature. We see this in films.
“And, so, Monroe is… like the nexus point for a lot of those changes in the 1950s.”
Her legacy lives on
Monroe is still a global icon, much imitated by modern-day celebrities.
However, Dr Scheibel says, perceptions of what kind of woman she was have changed.
“When we talk about Marilyn Monroe, we’re talking about both the sex symbol and this other side that was more concealed in the 1950s,” he says.
“In the 1950s, I think there was this assumption that her value lied exclusively just in her sexual appeal and that she wasn’t talented and she was really that dumb, you know.
“And I think now people understand that that was a performance.”
One image that stands the test of time is a photograph taken to promote the movie The Seven Year Itch.
Monroe posed for the press over a subway grate, a taste of air blowing her dress up.
AP photographer Matty Zimmerman took the photo that became one of the most instantly recognizable celebrity photos in the world.
His former colleague, Hal Buell, has his own theory as to why the picture became so famous.
“Marilyn was the ultimate sexual symbol, and yet there was a naivety about her that was a contradiction,” he says.
“And there she is, her little panties showing, and her legs showing. And yet her attempt to hold the skirt down. It kind of caught the eye.
“The picture had, for its time, had a sensual appeal that was a striking.”
More recently, her name made front page news because reality TV star Kim Kardashian appeared at the Met Gala with the dress Monroe wore when she provocatively sang Happy Birthday to then-US president John F Kennedy.
Then there were rumors that Marilyn had an affair with the president.
Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose after a long struggle with her mental and physical health, including a substance abuse problem that lasted years.
Fans are left to wonder what she might have achieved had she lived.
“Well, I think it’s very clear that Marilyn wanted to move beyond the blonde bombshell that the studios were pegging her in. And that’s why she formed her own production company,” Dr Schreiner says.
“And she produced two really, really good films, Prince and the Showgirl, and Bus Stop.
“And I think, plus, she was working at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg in New York, really trying to hone her skills as an actress because she really wanted to be a much-better actress and not be considered just a sex symbol.
“That was not her goal. And she was on that road, definitely.”
Marilyn’s body was discovered on her bed by a maid in the early hours of the morning of August 5, 1962.
An empty bottle of the sedative pentobarbital was reportedly found on the bed.