As tickets go on sale today for Elton John's 2016 Tour, this blog seemed somewhat apt.
A troubled childhood is often the fuel for a successful career in show business. Many actors and actresses are searching for the love and attention they missed in their earliest years. That certainly seems to apply to one of the most famous actresses of all time. She was born as Norma Jeane Mortensen on June 1st 1926 in Los Angeles, but she rose to world-wide fame as Marilyn Monroe.
That was when she was an adult; as a child she never knew her father and lived only briefly with her mother Gladys, who struggled with mental illness and was eventually sent to an insane asylum. So instead of a happy family life, the future Marilyn Monroe was bounced between relatives and even lived for a time in an orphanage. The sense of loss she felt then may have driven her quest for stardom in her later years. Her quest succeeded, but she didn’t enthral the world for long. Like James Dean and John F. Kennedy, two other icons from the post-war era, she went far too soon. Dean died in a car crash and Kennedy was assassinated, but Marilyn died by her own hand, taking an overdose of sleeping-pills in 1962.
Or did she? Some say the overdose was an accident or that she was murdered. Figures like Marilyn Monroe attract conspiracy-theorists in the way bright lights attract moths. Marilyn shone very brightly, but very briefly too. She had leading roles in Hollywood for only a decade before her death, after beginning her climb to fame in 1945. She working in a factory when a visiting army photographer spotted her potential as a model. He encouraged her to apply to a modelling agency and she decided to dye her hair blonde from its natural brunette.
Her new look helped her become one of the agency’s most successful models and she attracted the interest of the film company Twentieth Century Fox. Now she transformed herself again, changing her name to Marilyn Monroe. It’s a catchy, attractive and memorable name, but its magic took some time to work: her early roles were small and fleeting until her breakthrough film Clash by Night in 1952. Now her unhappy childhood began to work in her favour. News of her early struggles helped win her sympathy and attention from the media and general public. One magazine described her success as a “Cinderella Story”.
And by then she was dating a handsome prince: the baseball player Joe DiMaggio, the David Beckham or Ronaldo of his day. Publicity bred publicity, and Marilyn began to fill a role that she would never lose, becoming a universal symbol of glamour and sex-appeal. As many people noted during her lifetime and afterwards, she wasn’t an outstanding actress or a true natural beauty, but she had something even more valuable to an actor: the camera loved her. She looked wonderful on film and in photographs, and her image filled newspapers and magazines right around the world.
At first she had had only bit parts in films. Then came supporting roles. Finally, she was ready to be a leading actress – a genuine star. In 1953 she appeared with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, singing and dancing in the role of a scheming show-girl. As she sang in the film: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!” Her other iconic films included The Seven Year Itch in 1955 and the comedy Some Like It Hot in 1959. But fame, success and adulation didn’t bring her the contentment she might have hoped for. Her marriage to Joe DiMaggio early in 1954 was over before the year ended. As Marilyn said: “He was jealous of me because I was more famous than he was.”
After all, baseball is popular in only a few countries around the world. Beauty is a universal language and Marilyn’s appeal could be understood everywhere from Amsterdam to Zanzibar. In 1956, two years after her divorce from DiMaggio, she tried to find marital happiness again with the playwright Arthur Miller. She even converted to Judaism to get closer to her husband and his family. This marriage lasted five years, ending shortly before her death. She had affairs too, most famously with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. But she always felt that her real self could never live up to the promise of her film self. Fame had turned into a trap and she tried to break out using psychoanalysis, drugs and alcohol.
But nothing worked and her film career was harmed by her growing reputation for unreliability and emotional fragility. Her problems were piling up and her career was beginning to fade – were many people surprised when news of her death flashed around the world in August 1962? If she had lived to seventy or eighty, perhaps few people in the twenty-first century would remember her: “Marilyn who?” But that’s unlikely. If you see Marilyn Monroe on film or in a photograph, you remember her and want to see her again. She bursts in the brain – that’s why she was called a blonde bombshell, after all.
And early death did for her what it did for James Dean and Princess Diana: held off old age for ever. All three of them died while they were still young and attractive. The camera loved all of them and they continue to light the world with their images, bringing smiles and fond memories to countless millions who never saw them in the flesh.