Were she alive, Marilyn Monroe would turn 97 next month. But while she left us long ago, her glorious presence lives on. We see her influence in fashion, in music, and of course, in films. But what do we really know of Marilyn? Who was she behind the facade that agents and movie studio execs made her out to be? The answer, of course, is Norma Jeane — a young woman with stars in her eyes. Here’s the back story of the Marilyn we all know and love.
Screen Test Success
At 19, Marilyn was in the midst of ending her first marriage. She’d wed James Dougherty, her high school sweetheart, at 16. Before the ink was dry on her divorce papers, she set her sights on Hollywood. Her Blue Book Modeling agent, Emmeline Snively, was actively pitching her to movie studios. In July 1946, one finally took the bait. Ben Lyon, the recruiter for new talent at 20th Century Fox, invited Norma Jeane to come in for a meeting. Two days later, she was back on the lot, on the set of Betty Grable’s Mother Wore Tights, to do her very first screen test. Dressed in a floor-length sequined gown, the 20-year-old performed a multitude of physical movements, like walking across the set, looking out a window, and lighting a cigarette. This shy woman, unsure of her own abilities, would eventually become who we knew as Marilyn Monroe.
The Next Jean Harlow
Norma Jeane, the 19-year-old model, first bleached her hair not only to stand out among her competition, but also to emulate her idol Jean Harlow, who had died nine years earlier at the age of 26. Years later, Marilyn flew out Harlow’s own hairdresser to Los Angeles every Saturday to peroxide her roots. Sixteen years earlier, in 1930, when Ben Lyon he was an actor, he had starred alongside Harlow in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels. When Lyon signed Marilyn, he reportedly exclaimed, “It’s Jean Harlow all over again!”
There were plenty of eerie similarities. Harlow’s final film, Saratoga, costarred Clark Gable, who was Marilyn’s leading man in her last completed work, The Misfits. And before her death, Marilyn had been in talks to portray Harlow in a biopic (much to the approval of Harlow’s mother, Jean Poe Carpenter), but she wasn’t pleased with the script and backed out. The parallels between the two infamous blondes often haunted Marilyn. She once confided in her good friend Milton Greene that she thought it was all “kind of spooky…We just seemed to have the same spirit or something, I don’t know. I kept wondering if I’d die young like her too.”
“I thought, this girl will be another [Jean] Harlow,” cinematographer Leon Shamroy later said of Norma Jeane’s big moment in front of his camera. “Her natural beauty plus her inferiority complex gave her a look of mystery. I got a cold chill. This girl had something I hadn’t seen since silent pictures. She had a kind of fantastic beauty like Gloria Swanson, and she got sex on a piece of film, like Jean Harlow. Every frame of the test radiated sex. She didn’t need a sound track, she was creating effects visually. She was showing us she could sell emotions in pictures.”
Norma Jean’s First Shot at Fame
Although the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, didn’t see what Shamroy did in the budding actress, he also didn’t want her signed to rival studio RKO Pictures. So he agreed to give Norma Jeane a six-month contract that would pay her $75 a week. There was just one last thing Norma Jeane Dougherty needed before she could become a star: a name change.
“People are going to wonder if it’s Doe-herty or Do-gerty,” Lyon told her. “It has to be changed. It’s too much like a child’s. We need something that will offset your vulnerability but will have some class to it.” Originally, he renamed her Carole Lind, but most agreed it was not befitting the busty blonde. He then pitched Marilyn, after Broadway star Marilyn Miller, whom he had dated. Norma Jeane suggested taking her mother’s maiden name, Monroe. “That’s got a nice flow,” Lyon told her. “And two Ms should be lucky.”
But her mom was not impressed by Norma Jeane’s big break. Her daughter from her first marriage, Berniece Miracle, later revealed that Gladys Baker was highly critical of the new Marilyn. Once, when she came upon the actress practicing her enunciation in front of a mirror, she chastised her. “Oh, that’s just ridiculous. You should be doing something worthwhile with your life. Not this.” In another outburst, Baker showed up at Blue Book Modeling and confronted Marilyn’s agent for attempting to “ruin” her daughter’s life.
Worried her mentally unstable mother might interrupt Hollywood’s calling, Marilyn began to rewrite her history. When the studio sent out her biography to the media, it described the blonde as an orphan who was discovered by a 20th Century Fox exec when she babysat his children.
Dedication to Her Craft
By the time her contract was up in February 1947, Marilyn had not done any acting for the studio. But her time wasn’t wasted. When she wasn’t taking acting, singing, and dancing lessons, she was spotted on the lot, trying to learn more about the making of movies. Her dedication paid off, because 20th Century Fox signed her to another six-month contract. During that time, she appeared in a handful of films, like The Shocking Miss Pilgrim and Dangerous Years. But if you blinked, you likely missed her. Sadly, her contract wasn’t renewed a third time. “When I told her Fox had not taken up the option, her immediate reaction was that the world had crashed around her,” her agent Harry Lipton later explained.
Down but not out, Marilyn threw herself into classes at the Actors’ Lab and modeling gigs to make ends meet. According to her manager Lucille Ryman, she sometimes bartered sex in exchange for meals. “She told us without pride or shame that she made a deal. She did what she did, and her customers then bought her breakfast or lunch.”
Marilyn’s Many Admirers
Marilyn would soon learn that her body could also earn her that big Hollywood break. One night when working as a model at a poker party thrown by 20th Century Fox president Joe Schenck, Marilyn worked the host — and he was immediately smitten. The next day, Schenck, who was in his 70s, sent a limousine to pick her up and meet him for dinner. “I can’t say that I enjoyed it,” Marilyn later told her movie stand-in, Evelyn Moriarty, of her first night with Schenck. “But I can say that I didn’t feel as if I had any choice.” Others close to Marilyn, though, claim she was adamant that she never had sex with Schenck.
Regardless of its nature, the relationship did pay off for Marilyn. Schenck convinced the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, to watch her screen test. Although he wasn’t blown away, he thought that with some acting classes, there could be potential. In May 1948, she inked a six-month deal for $125 a week.
Working Through Her Insecurities
Columbia drama coach Natasha Lytess had her work cut out for her. She soon realized Marilyn lacked confidence and was “so terribly insecure.” But Lytess wanted more in return for acting lessons. “I shall mold you into the great actress I suspect — though I must say I do not know — you can be. But to do so, you must submit to me.”
In Lytess’s unpublished autobiography, she revealed that her love for Marilyn was unrequited. And according to Helena Albert, another female student of hers, that was quite painful. “I felt that Marilyn should have backed away when she knew how much Natasha cared for her, but instead I think she used it to her advantage. It was torture for Natasha.” Despite all the work on her acting, Marilyn appeared in only one film for Columbia, the 1948 low-budget musical Ladies of the Chorus, before being dropped by the studio. She later claimed it was because she refused to sleep with studio head Cohn.
Marilyn’s Big Break
Just when Marilyn thought she would never break into Hollywood, she met a man at a party who would turn it all around: William Morris agent Johnny Hyde. Although married for 20 years with children, he fell hard for the blonde and vowed to do anything to make her a star — but she had to do something in return. “From my understanding, it was a straight-out deal between them,” according to Bill Davis, who worked under Hyde. “She said she wanted to be in movies. He said he could make it happen. He was influential in the business. Meeting him was, I think, probably the best thing that had happened to her up to that time. There were dozens of starlets who wanted to sleep with him just for the chance to have him in their corners.”
Within weeks, Hyde helped Marilyn land a bit part in Groucho Marx’s Love Happy. Although she was onscreen for less than 60 seconds — when her bombshell character walks in the doorway of a detective agency, one man’s monocle pops out and smoke whistles from his pipe — Marilyn played up the cameo for a nationwide promotional tour in the summer of 1949. “I felt guilty about appearing on the stage when I had such an insignificant role in the film,” she said, “but the audiences didn’t seem to care.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Marilyn: The Untold Story, in 2022.