Profile In Dreaming: The Blonde Bombshell

Marilyn Monroe may be one of the most misunderstood stars Hollywood has ever seen. Known around the world as the eternal sex symbol, she was more than a pretty face. She took on the big studios at a time when they dominated the movie industry and won. She overcame her critics to earn a Golden Globe. She was an avid reader, with an impressive book collection. Her story is an inspirational example of how you can achieve your dreams even when the whole world underestimates you.

It’s very easy to assume that Marilyn Monroe was nothing more than a pretty face.

Flicking through any of the thirty films she made would lead you to believe that she was a light touch. A comedic actress that relied on her looks to make it on the silver screen.

Everybody recalls the iconic scene in the film, “Don’t Bother to Knock,” in which Monroe stood above the subway grate, as the wind blew her white dress up, exposing her legs.

Who could forget her rendition of “Happy Birthday” at Madison Square Garden, for President John F. Kennedy, with whom she was rumored to have an affair.

But, how many of us were aware of her impressive book collection, totaling 430 volumes, many of which were first editions, including The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, and The Fall by Albert Camus.

When one of her girlfriends challenged her to make a list of men she fantasized about sleeping with, not one was under the age of fifty. This was a woman that married Arthur Miller, after all.

Monroe was not your stereotypical bombshell. Beneath the glamourous, playful exterior lay a deep, often troubled, single-minded intellectual, who managed to carve out a 15-year career in Hollywood and build a legacy that remains intact almost 60 years after her death.

Her story is an inspiration for anyone with a dream, especially those whose lives began in darkness.

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles. Her mother was young and poor, while the identity of her father is unknown to this day. Until the age of seven, Monroe lived with foster parents in a rural town southwest of Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1933, Monroe moved into a house with her mother and a small family of lodgers, the Atkinsons. But her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia a year later, and she spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals.

Monroe’s childhood became turbulent from there. She moved around for the next four years, experienced sexual abuse, developed a stutter, and became withdrawn. She spent a couple of years at an orphanage, before moving in with the Goddards, friends of her mother. That only lasted a few months, because Erwin Goddard molested her.

By the age of sixteen, Monroe had had enough of moving around. Faced with the prospect of returning to an orphanage, she married a factory worker, named James Dougherty, dropped out of high school, and became a housewife.

Dougherty was shipped out to the Pacific in April 1944, leaving Monroe with his parents. She took up a job at the Radioplane Company and that’s where she got her big break. She was discovered by a photographer sent by the Army to take morale-boosting pictures of female workers and signed a contract with the Blue Book Model Agency in August, 1945.

Monroe originally had curly brown hair, but she straightened and dyed it blonde to make herself more employable. The agency’s owner described her as one of its hardest-working and most ambitious models. By 1946, she had already appeared in thirty-three magazine covers.

She quickly turned her attention to the movie business, signing on with an agency later that year and adopting the stage name “Marilyn Monroe,” after Broadway star, Marilyn Miller. She also dedicated herself to learning her craft, taking acting, singing, and dancing classes for the next six months, before enrolling in the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre.

Despite her enthusiasm, her teachers felt that she was too shy and insecure to become a successful actress. She lost her agency contract and returned to modeling, but she never gave up on the dream of making it in Hollywood.

Monroe cultivated relationships with influential men in the industry, eventually landing a contract with Columbia Pictures in March, 1948. There, she took on a few “girl next door” roles and her first starring role in a low budget movie, called “Ladies of the Chorus.” Again, she wasn’t successful and returned to modeling for the next two years.

In 1950, she scored supporting roles in two critically acclaimed films, “All About Eve” and “The Asphalt Jungle.” She was slowly becoming recognized as a serious actress, culminating in her signing a seven-year deal with 20th Century Fox.

Monroe’s career took off in the Fifties. She began taking on more prominent roles and established herself as a funny and sexy up-and-coming actress. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association named her “best young box office personality” in 1952 and she was listed in the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll in 1953 and 1954.

During this period, Monroe developed a reputation for being difficult to work with. She was often late to shoots or did not show up at all. She had trouble remembering her lines and she would demand several takes before she was satisfied with her performances.

She had a slew of psychological problems, including perfectionism, low self-esteem, stage fright, and chronic insomnia. She tried to manage her issues using drugs and alcohol, and eventually became addicted by 1956.

In her defense, Monroe routinely faced sexism from male co-stars and directors. She was also locked into an old contract with 20th Century Fox that paid her less than she was worth despite being one of the studio’s biggest assets. It was so bad that she couldn’t even pick her own films.

In a career-defining moment, Monroe took on 20th Century Fox. After filming “The Seven Year Itch,” she left Hollywood for New York, where she set up her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She was ridiculed by the press for this decision and even parodied in a Broadway play.

After a year-long legal battle with Fox, Monroe signed a new seven-year contract, which would net her $400,000 to make four films and grant her the rights to choose her own projects, directors, and cinematographers. It was a monumental victory and one that was lauded by the press. Suddenly, Time Magazine called her a “shrewd businesswoman.”

Her first film under the new contract was “Bus Stop.” It marked a departure from her typical roles as a comedic sex symbol. Monroe chose costumes and makeup that lacked glamour, and downplayed her singing and dancing skills for the role. The film was a huge success, earning her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

Monroe followed this up with two more successful movies, “The Prince and the Showgirl” and “Some Like It Hot.” The latter earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress and has been voted one of the best films ever made in polls by the BBC and the American Film Institute.

Unfortunately, this marked the peak of her career. The start of the Sixties brought mental, emotional, and physical strain to Monroe’s life. She divorced Arthur Miller and led a string of affairs with different men. She suffered with gallstones and her drug addiction became severe. She underwent surgery for endometriosis and spent four weeks hospitalized for depression.

It all led up to her unexpected death on August 4, 1962. She was found naked, lying face down on her bed, clutching a telephone receiver in her hand at 3:30 a.m. The cause of death was acute barbiturate poisoning, with dosages several times the lethal limit found in her body.

Even today, conspiracy theories abound about Monroe’s death. Her house had been bugged using sophisticated equipment that many considered only available to the government. One of her close friends, Pat Newcomb, spent that fateful evening with her and claimed that it must have been an accident.

“We had made plans for today. We were going to the movies this afternoon.”

Monroe’s life ended just as it had begun, inspired by a trip to the movies.

As she once put it: “When I was five I think, that's when I started wanting to be an actress...I didn't like the world around me because it was kind of grim, but I loved to play house...When I heard that this was acting, I said that's what I want to be...Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I'd sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.”

Her legacy lives on today, but in ways that misrepresent her accomplishments. She is a misunderstood icon. One who deserves to be known for more than her looks and sense of humor. She was an ambitious, determined woman that blazed her own path in Hollywood. She made her dreams come true through single-mindedness and pure resilience.

The moral of her story is to never judge a book by its cover. Its contents may amaze you.

Here are some things you may not have known about Marilyn Monroe:

  • Truman Capote originally had her in mind for the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany's
  • She had a highly publicized romance with Joe DiMaggio, the legendary baseball player
  • She was featured on the cover of Playboy Magazine in 1953 without her consent
  • She left her archive and personal effects to her acting teacher, Lee Strasberg
  • Her possessions were auctioned off by Christie’s for over $13.4 million in 1999

And three lessons from her life:

Listen to your audience.

Monroe carved her own niche in the movie business early on. She found a role that resonated with audiences and capitalized on it to lay the foundations for her acting career.

Once she had enjoyed enough success as a comedic sex symbol, she used the leverage she had built to command more serious acting roles. This culminated in a nomination and award for Best Actress at the Golden Globes.

Monroe understood that in order to wield power in Hollywood, she needed to be loved by audiences first. She made this plain in an interview she gave to Life Magazine in 1962:

“I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That's the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I'm going to be a symbol of something, I'd rather have it sex than some other things they've got symbols of.”

Whatever you do in life, your audience determines your success. Even if you have to compromise in the short-term, there are few assets more valuable than a loyal audience. Once you have yours, you will have the flexibility to try new things and take more risks. The key is to find your audience first.

Believe in yourself.

Monroe had her naysayers at every step of her career. First, they thought she was too insecure and shy. Then, they thought she was too one-dimensional. After that, they thought she didn’t have the skills to do any serious acting. And on top of all that, she had to contend with sexism from her male co-actors and directors.

Throughout it all, she believed in herself. She knew what she wanted and she wouldn’t let anyone or anything get in her way. She even overcame a legal battle with 20th Century Fox to get the contract and control she deserved when the whole industry mocked her. Monroe would not have built the career she had without this dogged self-belief.

As she once said, “I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, 'There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star.' But I'm not going to worry about them. I'm dreaming the hardest.”

As cliché as it sounds, confidence is king. In a world where perception is reality, you need to demand that others believe in you. The best way to do that is to believe in yourself. Monroe is a testament to what you can overcome if you simply back yourself to succeed.

Fight for your right.

Monroe was a sex symbol in Hollywood at a time when it was extremely male dominated. She was not given the same credence as her male peers, nor was she taken seriously, especially early on in her career.

Despite the fact that she was one of Fox’s biggest assets, she was paid far less than other actors and she had no control over her projects. Most actresses at the time simply acquiesced and accepted these circumstances. Not Monroe. She stood up to the studio, took it on, and won a landmark legal battle.

Her best work came after she secured a new contract and took control over her projects. Fighting for her right paid off, even though it was viewed as a crazy and downright stupid thing to do at the time.

You will face battles at some point in your career. People will want to take things from you. Nobody will give you an inch for free. Know your self-worth and be prepared to fight for it. Don’t compromise on the things that matter most to you. Fight for them even if the odds are stacked against you. It will pay off eventually.