What becomes a legend most? The answer, alas, is early death. John F. Kennedy and Mohandas Gandhi, Janis Joplin and Princess Diana, James Dean and Heath Ledger: what they lost in time on Earth they gained in retrospective allure. Any admirer could applaud their achievements and mourn their demise, wondering what might have been had they survived. That wistfulness surely applies to Marilyn Monroe. The actress’s death at 36 from “acute barbiturate poisoning” in the early hours of Sunday, Aug. 5, 1962, was an international headline then and remains no less notable or poignant 50 years later. Few stars shine so bright a half-century after their lives were snuffed out.
Then again, few performers had the seismic impact Monroe registered in her 1950s eminence, when she starred in the hit movies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot and cued reams of tabloid tattle in her marriages to Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio and Very Important Playwright Arthur Miller. Those who think that the media’s saturation coverage of a celebrity is an invention of the MTV and Internet era should understand that, in the 1950s, Marilyn was Brangelina, Lindsay Lohan and all the Kardashians combined, and then some.
Her name, face and figure popped up everywhere, including in the pages of TIME, which mentioned her in nearly a hundred stories from 1953 to May 14, 1956, when it published its 4,333-word Monroe cover story, “From Aristophanes and Back.” In that issue, the publisher’s letter boasted that “33 reporters in 26 cities” around the world sought out those who knew Monroe best, and that Los Angeles bureau staffers “conducted more than 100 interviews.” TIME caught Monroe on her return to moviemaking (Bus Stop) after having deserted Hollywood for a year’s self-improvement sojourn among the Manhattan culturati. “In Hollywood’s pagan pantheon, Marilyn Monroe is the Goddess of Love,” wrote TIME Cinema reviewer Brad Darrach. “Furthermore, she has shown signs of becoming a good actress, and many a once-skeptical professional now thinks she may become an outstanding one.”
(MORE: the full Marilyn Monroe cover story by subscribing to TIME)
More telling than the critical insights, though, was the story Monroe told TIME’s Hollywood Correspondent Ezra Goodman. (In his 1960 “inside” history, “The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood”, Goodman would lament that the magazine’s editors assigned Darrach to redo the story he had written. But that was the TIME system then: reporters reported the stories and writers wrote them.) Filling more than 65 notebooks, Goodman listened and scribbled as Marilyn put her broken heart on the record.
With remarkable candor, and a dramatist’s flair, Monroe spoke of her illegitimate birth as Norma Jeane (the magazine’s spelling) Baker, about her deranged mother and about being shuttled through more than a dozen harsh foster homes. She recalled her sudden popularity with the boys when she donned her first tight sweater at the age of 12, the early marriage she was urged into, and “her first attempt — ‘not a very serious one’ — at suicide.” Since the cover story makes no reference to any further suicidal impulses, the 1956 reader may wonder about that “first attempt.” Any reader from Aug. 5, 1962, to today would feel the shiver of prophesy.
What TIME Told of Marilyn
The cover story represented the crest of TIME’s fascination with Marilyn, from her early emergence as a pin-up princess in 1951 to her Sunday-morning death, for which TIME stopped the presses to include Barry Farrell’s elegant obituary, titled “The Only Blonde in the World,” and still got copies to readers’ mailboxes that Tuesday. Before Monroe had ever been cited in a TIME movie review, she had appeared in the magazine three times: as one of the “new faces, bosoms and legs” whose photos adorned the lockers of GIs in Korea (Feb. 12, 1951), as a Hollywood supporter of Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidential bid (Apr. 28, 1952) and in a solo citation: her first People page item (May 19, 1952). “Cinemactress Marilyn Monroe, who keeps photographers scampering to think up new angles, posed for her latest: a picture in bed. A week after an emergency appendectomy she gave cameramen a painless, luxurious stretch…” TIME got around to appraising one of her films, Clash by Night, in the Jun. 9, 1952 issue. “Also on hand, in a minor role: shapely Marilyn Monroe, as a fish-cannery employee who bounces around in a succession of slacks, bathing suits and sweaters.”
(MORE: Barry Farrell’s obituary of Marilyn Monroe by subscribing to TIME)
She commandeered a fuller profile in a review of her killer-baby-sitter drama Don’t Bother to Knock (Aug. 11, 1952). Monroe, TIME said, “has brought back to the movies the kind of unbridled sex appeal that has been missing since the days of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow. The trademarks of Marilyn’s blonde allure (bust 37 in., hips 37 in., waist 24 in.) are her moist, half-closed eyes and moist, half-opened mouth. … She currently gets more than 5,000 letters a week from smitten admirers. Soldiers in the Aleutians voted her ‘the girl most likely to thaw out Alaska.’ A whole U.S. battalion in Korea recently volunteered to marry her. Students of the 7th Division Medical Corps unanimously elected her the girl they would most like to examine.” TIME was also eager to eye the new blond bombshell, journalistically speaking. “In bed, she claims, she wears ‘only Chanel No. 5,’ and she avoids excessive sun bathing because ‘I like to feel blonde all over.’” The story cited the notorious nude calendar for which Monroe had posed in 1949: “Asked if she really had nothing on in the photograph, Marilyn, her blue eyes wide, purred: ‘I had the radio on.’”
(PHOTOS: Life magazine’s rare photos of the night Marilyn sang to JFK)
From that Aug. 1952 page through the end of 1953, Monroe’s name appeared in 25 different stories. The next year she was in just two films but graced the magazine 25 more times. In 1955: one movie (The Seven Year Itch), 36 mentions. And in her cover-girl year, 1956, when Bus Stop was her only film, she made starring or guest appearances in 48 stories — nearly one per issue. On the Letters page, Monroe panegyrics shared space with this angry declaration from three North Carolina coeds, as college women were called then: “Marilyn Monroe has done more to lower the standards of womanhood in the eyes of both men & women than any one person in history” (Mar. 16, 1953). The star’s name found its way into articles about a Geneva Summit conference, the religious reform movement in Israel and a coup in Pakistan (Ghulam Mohammed “is also an ardent Marilyn Monroe fan”). Soviet Agriculture Ministers, New Jersey politicians and 1953 Man of the Year Konrad Adenauer all shared page space with Marilyn.
TIME’s Cinema critics were her ardent vassals. “As Lorelei Lee, who believes that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, Marilyn Monroe does the best job of her short career to date,” proclaimed the review of her 1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Jul. 27, 1953). “Her almost surrealist figure, quite as implausible as a Petty girl’s, fascinates every male aboard a transatlantic luxury liner… In the process, she also sings remarkably well, dances, or rather undulates all over, flutters the heaviest eyelids in show business, and breathlessly delivers such lines of dialogue as ‘Coupons—that’s almost like money,’ as if she were in the throes of a grand passion.” The critics also found ways to insinuate Monroe references in the least likely places. A review of the 1953 Western Hondo (Dec. 14, 1953) noted of its star, John Wayne: “On five separate occasions he takes long, slow walks away from the camera, rolling his muscular buttocks like a male Marilyn Monroe as he goes.”
(MORE: Corliss on Megan Hilty in the latest revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)
In a review of Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (Jun. 13, 1955), TIME noted that “Marilyn Monroe’s eye-catching gait is more tortile and wambling than ever. She also displays a nice comedy touch, reminiscent of a baby-talk Judy Holliday. After listening to a Rachmaninoff concerto, Marilyn gets real comic conviction into her voice when she decides it must be classical music ‘because there’s no vocal’.” (“Tortile,” “wambling”: two reasons people read TIME in those days.) She had just turned 29 and seemed on the verge of a grand career. Neither the magazine nor the star could know that, except for another Wilder comedy, Some Like It Hot, four years later, The Seven Year Itch would be her last hit movie. Or that, six summers after her TIME cover, she would be dead.
(MORE: Corliss’s tribute to Monroe’s greatest film, Some Like It Hot)
What Marilyn Told TIME
Yet mortality, loneliness and emotional abuse streak the 1956 cover story. Here is the opening paragraph: “Sin, sin, sin. Morning and night, that was all they talked about in the little frame house in the California poor-town where Norma Jeane Baker lived in the early years of the Depression. ‘You’re wicked, Norma Jeane,’ the old woman used to shrill at the little girl. ‘You better be careful, or you know where you’ll go.’ Norma Jeane was careful, especially not to talk back. If she did, she got whaled with a razor strop and told that a homeless girl should be more grateful to folks who had put a roof above her head. One night, when the child went to sleep in her cot, she had a strangely exhilarating and frightening dream: ‘I dreamed that I was standing up in church without any clothes on, and all the people there were lying at my feet on the floor of the church, and I walked naked, with a sense of freedom, over their prostrate forms, being careful not to step on anyone.’”
(PHOTOS: From Life, previously unpublished photos of the young Marilyn Monroe)
The girl was in a foster home because her mother, Gladys Monroe Baker, a redheaded assistant film editor, suffered a nervous breakdown after her husband walked out with their two children while Gladys was pregnant with Norma Jeane. Gladys’s parents, the story relates, “died in mental hospitals,” and Marilyn later paid for her mother’s private care but didn’t visit her. “To me she was just the woman with the red hair” — and the mother whose only enduring legacy was her daughter’s emotional instability.
The story says that Monroe has a memory of her earliest childhood: when she was two, “a demented neighbor made a deliberate attempt to smother her with a pillow, and almost succeeded before she was dragged away.” One pair of foster parents treated Norma Jeane like a scullery maid or galley slave: “she had to scrub the floors before she was five years old, and do the family dishes.” She was placed with a family of seven who “all bathed once a week in the same tub of water, and the ‘orphan girl’ was always the last one in the tub.” At six, “she was raped by a grown man — ‘a friend,’ she recalls, ‘of the family.’” Instead of fury at the captors who should have been her protectors, she blamed her woes on herself: “Her feelings of guilt began to be obsessive. She began to hear a noise in her head at night — and she began to brood about killing herself.” Even if some of these recollections are exaggerated or invented, they paint a portrait of psychic scars that no amount of public adoration could heal.
(MORE: TIME’s cover story on Norman Mailer’s Marilyn book)
In her late teens, with the foster homes and the loveless marriage behind her, “Norma Jeane was trained for nothing except laying on paint; her education was so poor that she could not even fake a cultural conversation. In public she was smothered by feelings of inferiority. In private she was swept by panics, anxieties and hallucinations. And yet, curiously, life in its deepest expressions was on Norma Jeane’s side — perhaps had always been on her side. The sensitivity which made her feel so deeply the shocks of her childhood was countered by a set of instincts as solid as an anvil. She took blows that would have smashed many people, and she cracked a little, but she did not fall apart. And always there was that traffic-jamming, production-stopping hunk of woman that the scared little girl inhabited.” She got into movies, and Hollywood gave a name to that walking ideal of little-girl womanhood: Marilyn Monroe.
“I Want to Be a Real Actress”
We understand that a performer constantly wounded as a child would think that playing dumb blonds in movie comedies was a betrayal of her deepest gift: to sculpt all she had suffered into film art. It’s a shame she took so little pride in her comedy roles, because she was a glorious comedienne with a trilling, thrilling singing voice. But in the 1950s, with Method acting at the fore and the most ambitious Broadway plays routinely turned into Hollywood films, Marilyn wanted to be taken seriously. “I never dared to think about it,” she says in the cover story, “but now I want to be an artist. I want to be a real actress.” That meant studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and — when she returned to her home studio, 20th Century-Fox — making a movie of Bus Stop, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge.
It also meant trading up in the spouse department. Her first husband was an aircraft worker, her second a Hall of Fame ballplayer. Her third was Arthur Miller, another Pulitzer-winning playwright. (Inge was unavailable, being gay.) In the Jun. 14th cover story, Miller is quoted as saying that the actress “has a terrific instinct for the basic reality of a character or a situation. She gets to the core.” She surely got to his: Miller left his first wife early that month and was married to Marilyn Jun. 25. That alliance lasted four contentious years and broke up in 1960 while they were shooting The Misfits, from Miller’s script, with Clark Gable.
(MORE: Corliss on Marilyn Monroe’s final unfinished movie)
The movie was Gable’s last completed film, also Monroe’s. Within 19 months Miller produced a play, After the Fall, about a tortured Jewish intellectual and a suicidal blond named Maggie. It may be a blessing that Marilyn wasn’t around to see the play, and also a pity that she couldn’t take the part. For this might have been the scaldingly serious role that, in the TIME cover story, she said she had dreamed of. It would take “a real actress” to play a spurned husband’s vision of Marilyn Monroe.