I grew up with a framed photo/litho of Marilyn Monroe in my home. My mother wasn’t a fanatic, she just happened to love this one particular image, and so my earliest perception of the tragic actress was as an earthy, glowing, calm presence. Shot by George Barris, Monroe appears grounded and peaceful in the photo, which is titled “The Warm Up.” To me, she looks like a good listener, ready to hear you out and offer encouragement and guidance. Amazingly, the warm image was taken toward the end of her short life–some even claim it was the last photo ever taken of her. Not long after, on August 5, 1962, she’d be dead of an overdose of sleeping pills–a death around which conspiracy theories still swirl.
I never would have guessed that Monroe (who legally changed her name from Norma Jean Mortenson after being discovered) was born in LA. I would have taken her for a Midwestern gal, from somewhere dusty and wide open. Then again, Los Angeles was a heck of a lot wider-open and dustier back in 1926 when she was born, so there you go. A lot of people probably think Monroe wasn’t all that great. Sure, she was the ultimate sex symbol, a Hollywood starlet, a surprisingly talented actress with a gift for comedic timing, and a tabloid darling, but so what?
What is it that makes her so unforgettable, so alluring, so mesmerizing? What set her apart from the other tragic blondes that she overlapped with–Jayne Mansfield and Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow? Their impact was intense but finite; Marilyn’s endures.
Before she was discovered by an army photographer in 1944, Monroe’s life had been, as she described it, “kind of grim.” Born to an unstable, single mother, and into a family with a history of mental illness ranging from manic depression to paranoid schizophrenia, she didn’t exactly get off to a smooth start. Early childhood saw her shuffled between foster homes, friends and acquaintances of her mother’s, and even an orphanage. Along the way she was neglected and sexually assaulted. By age sixteen she’d been ushered into a marriage of convenience–the friend who’d been caring for her was moving away, and marriage seemed to be a viable solution. It was when her husband joined the Merchant Marines and shipped off in 1944 that everything started to change.
After being discovered by army photographer David Conover while working in an aircraft and parachute-inspecting plant, the two set off on a road trip around southern California on what would become Monroe’s first photo shoot. Once the pictures were produced, she caught the attention of the Blue Book Model Agency. She’d appear on 33 national magazine covers within the next year. Out of that photo expedition would grow a film career that ultimately led to roles in classics including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, and Some Like it Hot. She’d wed twice more: First, Joe DiMaggio, then Arthur Miller. Both would end in divorce. Later, just before her death, she and DiMaggio would reunite. For years after she died, he had roses delivered to her crypt on a weekly basis.
As a child, no one wanted her. As an adult, everyone wanted a piece of her. “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world,” she once said, “not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.” And so, perhaps, that is what made Marilyn Monroe great in her own strange, sad way. She gave herself to Hollywood, to the screen, to each of us, entirely and without pause. She was sexy without meanness, vulnerable without weakness, funny and sweet, and she was ours.
The girl in “The Warm Up” is the one that David Conover originally discovered–the innocent, natural beauty, stripped of artifice, pictured in a moment of quiet–and that must be why my mother loves it. It’s a reminder of what made Monroe so special, a reminder that while she appeared larger than life, she was a human woman, after all, sincere in spirit, always seeking love and stability.