Those red lips. Platinum hair. Heavily-lidded eyes. That one-of-a-kind breathy voice and hourglass figure. They instantly bring to mind the quintessential icon of sex appeal and absolute embodiment of a woman–the timelessly beautiful, wonderfully fascinating Marilyn Monroe.
Who else could have graced the first-ever issue of Playboy magazine in December of 1953 other than Marilyn, the virtuous coquette and film star of sly wit and blonde ambition? Absolutely no one at (the time, or since), has quite embodied pure sex the way we like to think of it: playful, fresh, delightful, (never lewd) and with a hint of innocence. That was Marilyn Monroe’s brand of sexy, and it’s as magnetic today as it was in the post-war “wholesome” 1950s.
Norma Jean Mortensen, born in Los Angeles in 1926 to a mentally ill mother and absentee father, lived a tough childhood haunted by violent abuse as an orphan who was in and out of foster care. With the signing of her first movie contract, the mousy-haired Norma Jean became platinum-blonde Marilyn Monroe in 1946.
After playing minor characters in films, Monroe’s break as an actress finally came in 1950 when she earned critical attention for The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. Back-to-back roles in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry A Millionaire in 1953 made Monroe a household name and celluloid favorite. She won World Film Favorite in 1954 at the Golden Globes. One of the most iconic images of Monroe is one in which she is captured in Seven Year Itch (1955): luminous and laughing as a blast of air from a New York City subway vent sent her white dress famously upward, revealing her leggy figure. Monroe’s then husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio reportedly found the scene to be in poor taste. It was said to have helped spark the couple’s divorce just a few weeks later. The image was later made into a 26-foot-tall sculpture by Seward Johnson, titled Forever Marilyn.
Additional starring roles in classics such as Bus Stop (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Misfits (1961) made her a bankable film star and one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses; she was awarded her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Although she carved a timeless image built on curves, that voice was for the ages. She was coquettish in interviews (some given in the nude, one in which she cheekily answered a question about what she wore to bed with a winking “Chanel N°5”), and she steamily sang that notorious birthday song performed for JFK while wearing a flesh-colored and glittering dress so tight she had to be sewn into it.
It always looked as if life came easily to Monroe, but she struggled to show her depth. There was the famous marriage to the comparatively nerdy, pipe-smoking and bespectacled Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. She was photographed famously with her face buried in a book. There were the acting coaches she employed on set, despite having already landed plum roles. A reported prized-possession? An autographed photo of Albert Einstein. And of course there were the widely-reported IQ test scores that put Monroe at a lofty 168 and Einstein himself at 160.
Her cooing voice may have suggested ditz, but the statements she made were heavy. In an autobiography penned (and published posthumously), she said about acting, “My God, how I wanted to learn! To change, to improve! I didn’t want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act.“
In an interview she once said, “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” In another interview she pled, “Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe. I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one … I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.” She devoured literature and poetry.
While working to prove she was more than a sex symbol, Monroe quietly acted like a woman ahead of her time. After Mary Pickford, creator of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, she was the first woman to own her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. At a time when women were culturally less athletic, Monroe was a weightlifter and early practitioner of Yoga.
Even less-talked-about is how she laid the groundwork for today’s multi-hyphenate actresses, being named “The Most Advertised Girl in the World” by the Advertising Association of the West in 1953 while representing a roster of brands including American Airlines, Kyron Way Diet Pills, Pabst Beer, Tan-Tan Suntan Lotion and Royal Triton Oil. She refused to accept mid-century color lines by insisting Ella Fitzgerald play Hollywood’s “it” club, Mocambo, a venue that did not previously book black artists. In her last interview she said, "What I really want to say: That what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers.”
Throughout her career Monroe made headlines for high-profile romances. After Norma Jean split from first husband, merchant marine Jimmy Dougherty (whom she married at age 16), she wed again and again as Marilyn Monroe to both record-setting baseball Hall-of-Famer Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, which prompted the notorious Variety headline: “Egghead Marries Hourglass.” Monroe also was rumored to be linked to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot, among others.
On Aug. 5, 1962, just 10 years after her breakthrough as an international superstar, Monroe died of a sleeping pill overdose. Like many events in Monroe’s life, her death sparked widespread gossip. Many have speculated that she was murdered, and some have tied her death to alleged romances with both John and Robert F. Kennedy. Monroe was just 36 years old when she died. The event shocked the nation and carried rippling effects. According to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose 12 percent in the month after Monroe’s death.
Like any woman, Monroe was layered and complicated beyond what nude portraits or a form-fitting wardrobe could reveal. But her legendary status as an enduring sex symbol remains just as vital a part of her legacy. Fittingly, the distinguished Playboy cover star appeared on Playboy’s cover after her death, in 1997, 1999 and 2005. Her ties with the magazine have been fated for eternity. After all, it’s Hugh Hefner who owns the crypt at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles located directly next to that of his first and most iconic Playmate–the endlessly fascinating, ever-enrapturing Marilyn Monroe.