No star has ever captivated the public imagination quite like Marilyn Monroe. Her luminous screen presence still enchants viewers of all ages more than 60 years after her untimely death, while her turbulent personal life has led to much speculation in the form of books, documentaries and gossip. While Marilyn was one of the most photographed stars of her day, the woman behind the glitz and glamour remains elusive. Her three marriages, all of which ended in divorce, can shed some fascinating light on who she was. Here’s a look at Marilyn Monroe husbands — the highs, the lows and the stories that keep us coming back.
1942 to 1946: Marilyn Monroe and James Dougherty
Marilyn Monroe married her first husband, James Dougherty, in 1942, when she was just 16 years old. At the time, she was still going by the name Norma Jean Baker. Norma Jean had an unstable childhood filled with constantly shifting foster homes and suffering abuse — it’s no wonder she wanted to get out and find some semblance of normalcy.
Monroe’s marriage to Dougherty, a 21-year-old merchant mariner, led her to drop out of school and become a housewife. While Dougherty was away for work, Monroe began to pursue her acting career. In 1946, the year she and Dougherty divorced, she chose her new name and began modeling, and by 1948 she was taking on bit parts in films.
Dougherty called Monroe a “shy, sweet person” and had reservations about her getting into acting. Dougherty would go on to become a police detective and marry twice more. He died in 2005 at age 84.
1954 to 1955: Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio
By 1954, Monroe was a star, lighting up the screen in early-’50s classics like Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and more. That year, she entered into her high-profile but ill-fated second marriage, to retired New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was already a fan of Monroe when they met in 1952, and the pairing of famous athlete and famous actress captivated fans and the media.
Their marriage was short but intense. While the couple started out starry-eyed, DiMaggio soon became possessive and jealous. The fact that Monroe’s career was on the rise while DiMaggio had recently retired didn’t help matters, and he wanted her to be a stay-at-home wife rather than the hardworking actress she was.
Monroe was always smarter and savvier than the general public gave her credit for, and she felt that her second husband was holding her back. She reportedly told an old friend that while she married DiMaggio with love and hope, she ultimately found that “He doesn’t want to know about my business. He doesn’t want to know about my work as an actress. He doesn’t want me to associate with any of my friends. He wants to cut me off completely from my whole world of motion pictures, friends, and creative people that I know.”
Tensions between the couple kept rising, and came to a head when she was filming the now-iconic blowing dress scene in The Seven Year Itch. DiMaggio was on set, and felt disgusted by what he saw, which led to fights that became physical.
Shortly after this, Monroe filed for divorce, citing “mental cruelty.” The marriage lasted just nine months. Later on, in 1961, Monroe and DiMaggio reconciled as friends following issues with her mental and physical health. When she died of a pill overdose at 36, DiMaggio helped arrange the funeral service. He would never remarry, and died at age 84 in 1999.
1956 to 1961: Arthur Miller
Monroe’s final marriage, to the playwright Arthur Miller, was her longest. The couple was covered breathlessly in the press, due in large part to the perceived differences between the sex symbol and the acclaimed writer (a representative Variety headline about their marriage read “Egghead weds hourglass”). The two met in 1951, on the set of the film As Young as You Feel, and were introduced through their mutual friend, the director Elia Kazan. They reconnected in 1956, marrying that year.
Monroe was deeply committed to Miller, saying their marriage marked the first time she’d truly been in love and even converting to Judaism for him. Miller, known for writing plays like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, used his mastery of language to write her swooning love letters, saying things like “I am near tears this minute at the miracle you are to me. How happy I will make you!”
Sadly, while Miller and Monroe’s marriage started out strong, tensions arose as she suffered multiple miscarriages and Miller wrote of feeling disappointed with her in diary entries she later discovered. Monroe felt rightly betrayed by Miller’s characterization of her as an embarrassment in front of his friends. Monroe was attracted to Miller’s intelligence and strong convictions, and it hurt to see him act so dismissive, and neglect her own intelligence and complexity, especially given how passionate and connected they once felt.
Miller wrote the screenplay for Monroe’s final film, The Misfits, and the couple’s relationship disintegrated during production. They divorced shortly before the premiere in 1961. In 1964, he wrote After the Fall, a play believed to have been inspired by Monroe. 40 years later, in 2004, he wrote Finishing the Picture, a play inspired by the troubled production of The Misfits. He died in 2005 at age 89.
While none of Marilyn Monroe’s marriages lasted very long, taking a look at Marilyn Monroe husbands helps give us a better sense of what she was like off-camera.
During the making of The Misfits, Monroe wrote in her diary, “Starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that’s all I really have and as I see it now have ever had.” Heartbreakingly, even with her many loves, she felt she was all alone. The image of Marilyn as an individual — a woman with her own talents and wisdom — has ultimately endured far longer than any of her relationships.
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