Peggy Keener: The life (and death) of a bombshell

Published 5:31 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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Born in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, Norma Jean Mortenson Baker began her life as an orphan. Through sheer determination, however, she turned herself into a sex symbol and pop culture icon by lowering her necklines (real low) and bleaching her dark hair blond (real, real, real platinum blond!).

Life for Norma Jean was decidedly tough. Her absent mother was often confined to an asylum leaving her to the mercy of the foster care system. It is startling to learn that Norma was raised by 12 sets of foster parents, as well as time spent in an orphanage. It’s no wonder she craved attention.

At age 16, Marilyn got a job in an aircraft factory. There she met her first husband, Jimmy Dougherty. Four years later they divorced. But by then she had already launched herself into the role of a popular photographer’s model as well as signing a short-term contract with Twentieth Century-Fox and taking on the name of Marilyn Monroe.

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After a few brief appearances in movies, she was again unemployed, forcing her to return to modeling for photographers. Then her nude photos in a calendar brought her a role in the “Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay!” A handful of minor roles followed.

In 1950, Monroe played a small role in “The Asphalt Jungle.” A mountain of fan mail poured in. She was on her way. Before she knew it, she had advanced to star billing becoming America’s newest “love goddess.” Her fame spread throughout the world and soon Marilyn became the object of unprecedented popular adulation.

About then she caught the eye of a famous baseball player, Joe DiMaggio. When they married in 1954, the publicity was enormous. Even I remember it. But, alas, the marriage only lasted a year and Marilyn was once again thrown into despair over her career.

So, what did she do next? The spunky orphan-turned-sexpot enrolled in the Actor’s Studio in New York City where she emerged as a talented comedian. Audiences loved her in “The Seven Year Itch” and “Bus Stop.” Playwright, Arthur Miller, loved her, too, and in 1956 they were married. Following this, Monroe briefly retired from movie making, only to return again when she costarred with Laurence Olivier in the 1957 hit, “The Prince and the Showgirl.”

Two years later, she hit the jackpot when for the first time she earned critical acclaim as a serious actress in “Some Like It Hot.” Marilyn’s last film in 1961 was written for her by Arthur Miller. “The Misfits” was filmed as their marriage steadily disintegrated. They divorced some months later.

Marilyn made another attempt the next year when she began filming “Something’s Got To Give.” Frequent absences caused major delays, however. Then in May of that year, she traveled to New York City where she famously (breathlessly) sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy with whom she was allegedly having an affair.

Marilyn was promptly fired from the film. From there she went into a slow slump. For several months she became a virtual recluse followed by her demise from an overdose of sleeping pills. Her death was labeled as a probable suicide due to the actress’s history of drug abuse and previous suicide attempts.

There were those, nonetheless, who believed that Marilyn had been murdered after she threatened to reveal her relationship with both the Kennedy brothers, JFK and RFK. She also had information linking the two to organized crime. Though there has been insufficient evidence to support this, conspiracy theories continue to persist to this day.

Marilyn Monroe’s first 23 movies grossed more than a total of $200 million as her fame surpassed any other entertainer of her time. Her early image was that of a dumb and seductive blond. Later she became a tragic figure—a sensitive and insecure woman who was not able to escape the pressures of Hollywood. This was undoubtedly more truth than fiction.

In the end her vulnerability and sensuousness, combined with the needless death, raised her to the status of an American cultural icon. She was only 36 years old when she died on Aug. 5, 1962.