Marilyn Monroe was not always Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe, known as a Hollywood legend and icon, is actually a character herself. She was named Norma Jeane Mortenson upon her birth. The name, Marilyn Monroe, arose alongside her career and identity developments.
Fans of Marilyn Monroe, historians, actors, models, poets and basically anyone that has ever witnessed a film or photo featuring Marilyn Monroe tend to wonder what exactly it is that sets her apart from so many others.
When I first introduced my fiancé to my multifaceted obsession with Marilyn Monroe, he wasn’t too surprised. After all, she is everywhere. People showcase her image on t-shirts, mugs, coasters, coffee table books, tattoos, cars and so much more.
Little did he know about the woman behind the face and the figure. While we courted, I would tell him anecdotes about her that I had just read in a new Marilyn bio; I made him sit through most of Marilyn’s movies (which he really enjoyed). I showed him all my books and photos of Marilyn. Eventually, he said, “she really was the real thing. She really had it.”
It. What was it? What is it? Sure, you have the intellectuals and scientists that might say, “oh, its her measurements; they’re ideal and attractive genetically,” or a comedian might say, “it’s her incredible timing!” A model could say, “it’s her poses. She knows how to display herself so well.” A makeup artist might credit it to her “fabulous makeup.” A cynic might argue that she simply “knew how to ‘sell’ herself,” or “she slept her way to the top!” A mystic might say, “it was the soul in her eyes. It came out in the photos through her eyes.”
You could say a great many things about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve heard quite a few. But, I still have yet to put my finger on what it is. These explanations above don’t cut it for me. Many people are capable of and talented enough to do all of the above, but I don’t see their faces on t-shirts in gas stations.
Therefore, to me, this is evidence that we still don’t know what it is and we may never figure it out. We can only theorize and convey our opinions. I’m no expert, but based on my knowledge (or I guess, more precisely, life-long research lol), I think it is a product of survival mixed with an overwhelming imagination.
After reading a few biographies and versions of her life, I learned that Ms. Monroe was a survivor of so many childhood traumas and stressors that so many others can never recover from (although, it doesn’t seem she ever did either based on the span of her short life). When I read about her childhood and adolescence, it became clear to me that Marilyn like many other actors and comedians was definitely naturally talented, but, because of her scarring experiences and survival instincts, she, like a long lost war captive returned home, compulsively squeezed the absolute most out of every opportunity that came her way. Each film, photo shoot, song, interview could so easily have been her last. At any second, all of her earnings, talents and security could be yanked away from her, as it was all throughout her childhood. I imagine that she feared her identity, her successful Marilyn Monroe, could also be taken away, exposing vulnerable Norma Jeane Mortenson to the cold winds of the earth.
Monroe was an artist. She was also a child with deep wounds that were never tended to, making her more passionate, brilliant, imaginative, whole-hearted, moody, dramatic, honest, naive yet hyper-sexual, vulnerable but tough as nails, selfish but generous, than other movie stars. She was a bubble of both excitement and gloom, impassioned by her childish and nervous energy, but burdened by and exhausted from the traumas of her pre-star life. She is remembered as a beautiful, sensuous Hollywood star with talent, but she was essentially a woman with the heart of a poet. Like Jim Morrison, Virginia Woolf or Kurt Cobain, Monroe would write at night, revealing her poetic tendencies only to her journals.
My poetry professor, Dr. Maureen Seaton, used to say, “Poetry is pulling the thorn out of your skin; it hurts while you write, but once you write, it’s out and you feel better.” Marilyn Monroe was a red plush rose with many thorns.
As a result, Monroe lived in a foster home until she was 7.
At this age, she was stuffed in a duffel bag by her mom, who was just recently released from the mental ward. Her mother, Gladys, was attempting to kidnap Monroe from her foster home.
When her mother was granted custody, little Monroe went to live with her again until her mom began demonstrating signs of instability which became severe quickly. Her mom was committed once again.
Monroe was officially a ward of the state. Yes, Marilyn. Unbelievable, right?
Her mother’s friend, Grace, took Monroe in, until, Grace married a man by the nickname, Doc. Marilyn was 9. She was sent to live in an orphanage.
Families wanted to adopt her, but her mother hesitated, becoming an aching burden on Monroe for the rest of her life.
11 year old Marilyn moved back in with Grace and Doc which quickly did not work out because, disturbingly, Doc was sexually abusive and attempted several assaults.
She then went to live with her aunt, but, horrifyingly, one of her male cousin’s succeeded in assaulting her.
After living with another aunt for a few years in peace and safety, she was forced to return to Grace and Doc’s house (can you imagine having to go back?!). Monroe was in high school.
The ending of her childhood came challengingly early. Doc and Grace had decided to move to Virginia for a job offer. Again, Gladys did not allow her to be adopted by a neighbor. At this point, the only solution was to send 16 year old Monroe back to an orphanage. Strategy changed, however, when Grace concocted an idea for Monroe to marry a boy Monroe was dating, Jim Dougherty.
After surviving (in the most literal sense) her childhood, Monroe began to sculpt the potent and compelling Marilyn Monroe.
Soon to come, Facts That Prove Marilyn Monroe was Tough as Nails Part II: A Study of Marilyn Monroe’s Initial Footsteps Toward Her Career.
I’m so pleased to announce that three of my poems, “Slots,” “Scraping” and “Make a Decision” have been published in Barking Sycamores Literary Magazine Issue 13. Barking Sycamores is dedicated to neurodivergent literature and its craft. I’m so honored to be a part of this project. Barking Sycamores Issue 13
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