Near the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelie
Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe, turns to her fiance’s father,
Mr. Esmond, and explains why he should allow her to marry
his son. Her logic is impressive:
Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a
girl being pretty? You may not marry a girl just because she
is pretty, but, my goodness, doesn’t it help? And if you had
a daughter, wouldn’t you rather she didn’t marry a poor man?
You’d want her to have the most wonderful things in the world
and to be very happy. Oh, why is it wrong for me to have those
Mr. Esmond is stunned by her persuasive argument, and he
stutters, “Well, I concede…," but here he interrupts himself
in dazed wonder, “Say…they told me you were stupid. You don’t
sound stupid to me." With a tender smile, Lorelie replies,
“I can be smart when I want to." Just like Lorelie Lee, Marilyn
Monroe could be smart when she wanted to. A careful look at
her life reveals that the dumb blonde stereotype is unfair;
Marilyn actually enacted the proto-feminism of what several
scholars have called the mid-century “transitional woman."
In the 1940s, when thousands of women flooded into the working
world, Norma Jean Dougherty took her place among them. Her
husband, Jim Dougherty, had been sent to the Pacific and Southeast
war zones as a Merchant Marine, and in 1944 Norma Jean went
to work at the Radioplane Company in Burbank spraying varnish
on fuselage fabric and inspecting parachutes. For this work,
she received “excellents" on the company evaluations and was
paid the national minimum wage: twenty dollars a week for
sixty hours of work. One day, a crew of photographers from
the Army’s First Picture Unit arrived at the plant to take
pictures of women contributing to the war effort.
Norma Jean’s fresh good looks made their way all over the
Army’s literature, and it was not long after that she quit
her job at Radioplane, realizing she had a future as a model.
Photographer after photographer attests to her professionalism.
More than any other model they worked with, Norma Jean was
relentlessly self-critical; she scrutinized contact sheets
and negatives for the tiniest fault; she asked her photographers
for advice. According to biographer Donald Spoto, she wanted
“every image of herself to be brilliant."
Her mother-in-law. Ethel Dougherty, did not approve of this
new career, so Norma Jean moved out of the house they were
sharing. She joined the Village School, a modeling agency
in Westwood, and by the spring of 1946 her hard work had landed
her on the cover of thirty-three magazines, including U.S.
Camera, Parade, and Glamorous Models.
Norma Jean, realizing she had that special luminescent quality,
decided she wanted to join the stable of starlets at Twentieth
Century-Fox Studios on Pico Boulevard. An unmarried woman
was more favorably regarded in this system, pregnancy during
filming could be very troublesome, so she quietly slipped
over to Las Vegas to get a divorce from Jim. According to
Gloria Steinem in Marilyn, Norma Jean was determined
and ambitious, and she was not going to let her arranged marriage
to Jim, who didn’t support her career choice anyway, keep
her from being successful in her chosen profession. She eventually
signed with Twentieth Century-Fox and was dubbed Marilyn Monroe.
During her early years in the Hollywood system, Marilyn
worked hard to become a star. When the studio was failing
and did not renew her contract, she did not give up. She took
acting classes at the Actors Lab and did occasional modeling
work. When she was finally picked up by another studio, Columbia,
she added daily lessons with a drama coach, Natasha Lytess,
to her work load. Marilyn was never content to rely solely
on her looks. From her days at the Actors Lab until the day
she died, Marilyn was working with a drama coach.
At this point in her life, Marilyn met the executive vice-president
of the William Morris Agency, one of Hollywood’s most powerful
representatives, Johnny Hyde. They soon began an affair, and
Hyde repeatedly begged Marilyn to marry him, but she refused.
She had a single goal now: she wanted to be a star. She knew
that her marriage to a very wealthy man more than twice her
age would make her look like a bimbo and a joke which might
prevent her from achieving her goal.
Thus, in 1949, on the eve of the 1950s, the decade in which
women were leaving the workplace and returning to the domestic
sphere, Marilyn Monroe steadfastly refused to do so. On the
contrary, as 1950 approached, she could be seen jogging through
the service alleys in Beverly Hills each morning and lifting
weights to preserve her figure—two activities, as Spoto phrased
it, “not commonly undertaken by woman in 1950." She also enrolled
in an evening course in world literature at UCLA which she
attended in jeans—neither her college attendance nor her apparel
were commonplace at that particular historical moment.
After Marilyn re-signed with Twentieth Century-Fox, she
began taking acting lessons with Michael Chekhov, nephew of
the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and received her first
leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock. After this film,
her work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to
Marry a Millionaire catapulted her to stardom, and in
1953 a photographer friend, Milton Green, suggested that she
start her own production company after he heard her complain
about the studio system — she was forced to play roles she
didn’t choose and was paid an absurd salary considering what
her films were making. So, in 1954, eager to change her image
from the sultry, dumb, gold-digging blonde and perform roles
with more depth, Marilyn Monroe defied the formidable Darryl
Zanuck, left Hollywood in the middle of her contractual obligation
to Twentieth Century-Fox, started her own production company,
Marilyn Monroe Productions, performed in a one-woman show
for soldiers in Korea, and settled in New York to learn what
she could by attending Broadway performances and studying
with Lee and Paula Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
During this period, her desire to change her image — perhaps
intensified by redoubled societal pressure to re-domesticate
“Rosie the Riveter" following the release of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s
Sexual Behavior and the Human Female and the launching
of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (both in 1953) —
led Marilyn into her second marriage. She married Joe DiMaggio
who represented the wholesome, all-American, heroic image
she wanted herself. Unfortunately, this marriage did not last
long. He wanted her to retire, to wear less revealing clothing,
and to be an accommodating housewife. Spoto stated, “A traditionalist,
[DiMaggio] resented her income, fame and independence." When
she resisted the role he had designed for her, he became abusive.
By October of 1954, they were already separated with a divorce
pending. She would not give up her career, and she would not
endure an abusive husband.
During her time of growth in New York, Marilyn also read
widely and wrote poetry. The following is one of her better
“To the Weeping Willow"
I stood beneath your limbs
And you flowered and finally
clung to me,
and when the wind struck with the earth
and sand—you clung to me.
Thinner than a cobweb I,
sheerer than any—
but it did attach itself
and held fast in strong winds
life—of which at singular times
I am both of your directions—
Somehow I remain hanging downward the most,
As both of your directions pull me.
Here Marilyn reveals her anguish over the contradictory
pushes and pulls between such issues as societal values, her
husbands’ demands, and her own desires. This contemplative
mood was a theme in New York; Marilyn was exploring her intellectual
side, the side that wrote poetry and attended serious theater,
and the second husband she chose, Arthur Miller, unveils her
need to change her image once again and align herself with
In 1956, Marilyn Monroe Productions negotiated a contract
with Twentieth Century-Fox for its first project. Together,
they brought the hit Broadway play Bus Stop to the
screen. The lead role in this project was exactly the kind
of work Marilyn wanted to do.
The second project her company undertook was The Prince
and the Showgirl. For her leading man, she chose the most
“serious" actor in the world: Lawrence Olivier. She negotiated
a deal with Jack Warner, MCA, and Olivier’s production company
again in open defiance of Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox.
Indeed, Spoto has argued that the eventual “collapse of the
studio system and its ownership of actors owed much to her
tenacity and to the success of efforts exerted by her, Greene,
and his attorneys." Wisely, she also kept control of 51% of
MMP, so Greene, the attorneys, or Zanuck could not seize power.
On January 30, 1956, Time magazine announced, “There
is persuasive evidence that Marilyn Monroe is a shrewd businesswoman."
While filming The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn
earned the praise of one of the supporting actors, Dame Sybil
Thorndike. Thorndike was one of the legendary actresses of
the English stage, Shaw had even written St. Joan for
her decades earlier, and she saw talent in Marilyn. Several
weeks into filming, she tapped Olivier on the shoulder and
said, “You did well in that scene, Larry, but with Marilyn
up there, nobody will be watching you. Her manner and timing
are just too delicious…We need her desperately. She’s the
only one of us who really knows how to act in front of a camera."
Marilyn had worked with the best in the world and more than
held her own. Finally, in 1959, Marilyn’s talent was recognized
worldwide when she won her first major award—the Golden Globe
from the Foreign Press Association as best actress for Some
Like It Hot.
After filming The Misfits, Arthur Miller and Marilyn divorced. She was tired of financially supporting
the broke playwright and insulted by the role he had written
for her in that film. In one scene, Roslyn, Marilyn’s character,
expressed her dismay over the imminent slaughter of horses
by throwing a tantrum. Marilyn commented:
I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything,
so I have a fit — a screaming, crazy fit. I mean nuts.
And to think, Arthur did this to me. He was supposed to
be writing this for me, but he says it’s his movie. I don’t
think heeven wanted me in it.
Marilyn was also insulted by the film’s director, John Huston,
who treated her like an idiot and always addressed her as
“dear." Thus, in 1962, the independent Marilyn moved back
to Los Angeles by herself and bought her own home at 12305
Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood for $77, 500. Unfortunately,
Marilyn died that same year.
For decades, irresponsible biographers like Norman Mailer
have represented Marilyn Monroe as nothing more than weak,
psychotic, junkie, nymphomaniac, idiot. I have tried to read
her life in a different way. True, Marilyn was sometimes mired
in the ideology of the past: she married men to gain an identity
she wished for herself; she was over-reliant on her sexuality
for success in her career. But, at the same time, she displayed
real agency by divorcing three unsupportive husbands who interfered
with her career and her self-esteem, by fighting for her modeling
and film success, by continuing to perfect her art by taking
acting classes long after she was a big star, by battling
Darryl Zanuck to have more control over her own destiny, by
starting her own production company, by buying her own home,
even by jogging through service alleys, lifting weights, and
wearing jeans. All of these things were accomplished six years
before the first feminist protest at the Miss American Pageant
in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and eight years before the First
Congress to unite Women in New York.
In his book, Graham McCann quotes Ella Fitzgerald saying
that Marilyn “was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her
times" after Marilyn fought with the owner of the Mocambo
Club to let Fitzgerald sing. In the 1950s, Hollywood nightclubs
did not invite non-white artists to perform. When Marilyn
learned that her idol had been denied any discussion of an
engagement at this club, she phoned the owner of the club
and told him that if he booked Fitzgerald, she would take
a front table every night. With this move, Marilyn placed
herself on the cutting edge of civil rights. Fitzgerald was
booked, and Marilyn was indeed at that front table every night.
Marilyn was able to transcend many of the traditional boundaries
of her era and display the proto-feminism of the “transitional
woman." Also, her actions reveal a person who was far more
than the dumb blonde she often played in films. Anthony Summers
tells the story in his book Goddess, when asked if
her friend was dumb, the actress Shelley Winters replied,
“Dumb? Like a fox was my friend Marilyn." As the biographers
of the future sort the distortions from the facts about Marilyn’s
life, I have a feeling they may be left like Mr. Esmond at
the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes saying in dazed
wonder to the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, “Say…they told me
you were stupid. You don’t sound stupid to me."