Marilyn Monroe’s final interview is a heartbreaker. Published in Life magazine on August 3, 1962—just a day before the actress died of a barbiturate overdose at age 36—it found Monroe reflecting on her celebrity status, alternatively thoughtful, frank and witty.
“When you’re famous you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” she observed. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she—who is she, who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe?”
That same question—who was the real Monroe?—has sparked debate among cinema scholars, cultural critics, historians, novelists, filmmakers and the general public for decades. Was “Marilyn,” the personality and persona brought to life by the star’s younger self, Norma Jeane Mortenson, a real person? Or was she simply a manufactured image?
Andrew Dominik’s new film Blonde, starring Ana de Armas as Monroe, adds another layer to this age-old question in a fictionalized narrative of the actress’ life that’s equal parts glamorous and disturbing. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name, the movie imagines a Monroe torn between two disparate selves. As the star explains in the film’s trailer, her stage persona isn’t real. “When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera’s rolling,” she pleads, haunted and exhausted. “Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.”
Film historian Michelle Vogel, author of Marilyn Monroe: Her Films, Her Life, echoes this view. “I don’t think there was a ‘real’ Marilyn Monroe,” says Vogel in an interview. “She was a character and a persona to be played, both on and off the screen. At the heart of it all, Marilyn Monroe was still Norma Jeane. … When she acted a part, it was Norma Jeane, playing Marilyn Monroe, playing said role. Not easy.”
Cultural historian Sarah Churchwell, meanwhile, contends in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe that “Monroe is not best understood as only an image, or as an ‘artificial creation of a woman.’ … Something that is not natural can still be real: It has been made. One of the questions the stories about Marilyn’s life beg, therefore, is how much any of us is natural, whether any identity is not made.”
Here’s what you need to know about the true history behind Blonde—and the woman, actress and image that was Monroe—ahead of the film’s release on Netflix on September 28.
Is Blonde based on a true story?
Very loosely. Though the 166-minute film has the sweeping scope of a biopic, covering Monroe’s life from childhood to her ascent to stardom to her death, it does not purport to be historically accurate. Instead, like the fictionalized Oates novel it’s based on, Blonde seeks to be spiritually faithful to the image Monroe embodied. (As literary critic Elaine Showalter wrote for the New Yorker in 2020, Oates—and, by extension, director-screenwriter Dominik’s script—“plays with, rearranges and invents the details of Monroe’s life in order to achieve a deeper poetic and spiritual truth.”)
Despite the liberties taken by Blonde, Dominik sees his film as an attempt to portray what he deems the “real” Monroe. “I’m trying to relate to someone else’s life experiences in an authentic way,” Dominik tells Vanity Fair. “I wanted to detail her childhood trauma and then show her adult life through the lens of that trauma. If you look closely at Marilyn Monroe, she’s the most visible woman in the world, but she’s completely unseen.”
For Blonde’s lead actress, de Armas of Knives Out fame, the role was an emotional and spiritual revelation. “I truly believe that [Marilyn] was very close to us, she was with us,” de Armas tells Deadline. “… She was all I thought about, she was all I dreamed about, she was all I could talk about.” The actress adds, “I knew I had to let myself open and go to places that I knew were going to be uncomfortable, dark and vulnerable. That’s where I found the connection with this person.”
So, who was Marilyn Monroe? Once upon a time, she was a real person, a childhood dream come true—the dream of a little girl named Norma Jeane Mortenson.
Who was Norma Jeane Mortenson?
Born in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, the future Monroe grew up far from the trappings of luxury and fame she’d one day enjoy. Her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, was a film cutter who struggled to make ends meet. Her father was nowhere to be found.
Baker didn’t have the money to take care of Monroe, so she shuttled the child between orphanages and foster homes. After Baker was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and institutionalized in 1934, family friend Grace Goddard took charge of Monroe’s upbringing. “You could buy a sackful of old bread … for 25 cents,” Monroe recalled in her unfinished autobiography. “Aunt Grace and I would stand in line for hours. … When I looked up at her, she would grin at me and say, ‘Don’t worry, Norma Jeane. You’re going to be a beautiful girl when you grow up.’”
Monroe’s hardships persisted as she came of age. In one foster home, she was sexually abused, fondled by a lodger at just 8 years old. At school, she was the target of other children’s hurtful jests. “I was tall for my age and scrawny and my hair was short and rather thin and scraggly,” she said in a May 1952 interview. “The boys used to yell ‘Norma Jeane—string bean!’ and they thought it was so funny that I wanted to be an actress. … Somehow they thought I looked like a boy, I was so straight up and down.”
The glamour of the silver screen helped Monroe get through it all. The idyllic films of Golden Age Hollywood inspired her childhood fantasies, giving her hope that a better, brighter future lay ahead. She loved movies, watching them for long stretches while her guardians were at work. “In junior high, I was completely movie-struck,” she said in a 1951 interview. “I used to see movies I liked three or four times when I could afford it.” She fantasized that the “King of Hollywood” himself, Clark Gable, was her missing father, and she aspired to be just like the blonde bombshell Jean Harlow when she grew up.
At age 16, Monroe married 21-year-old Jim Dougherty to avoid being placed back in the orphanage system. In 1944, as the Second World War raged, Dougherty enlisted in the Merchant Marine, while his wife went to work at a munitions factory. One day, a photographer came by the factory and was struck by the now-18-year-old’s beauty. “You’re a real morale booster,” Monroe recalled him saying. “I’m going to take your picture for the boys in the Army to keep their morale high.”
This portrait marked Monroe’s discovery. Her marriage fell apart as she pursued a career in modeling, but she was determined to make a name for herself. Monroe’s wholesome look, completed by her winning smile and large bust, made her a natural for pin-ups. She continuously strove to improve her craft, honing her ability to work the camera through modeling classes and study. She also bleached her curly, reddish-brown hair, becoming a platinum blonde.
“I wouldn’t settle for second best,” Monroe later said. “I would take home photographs of myself to study how I looked and if I could improve myself posing in front of a mirror.” Just as importantly, she learned how to charm others. “She made everyone she talked to feel as if he were the only one in the world,” recounted modeling agent Emmeline Snively.
In 1946, 20th Century Fox took notice of this up-and-coming model and offered her a screen test. With it, Norma Jeane Mortenson took another key step toward her reinvention as Marilyn Monroe, a new persona that was everything her younger self had aspired to be: a movie star, beautiful, beloved and talented.
Who was Marilyn Monroe?
Monroe’s initial contract with 20th Century Fox fell through, as did a follow-up gig with Columbia, but through it all, she kept striving to transform herself into the person she wanted to be. “I knew how third-rate I was,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my god, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve.” Changing her name to Marilyn Monroe—first as a screen name, then as her legal name in 1956—was but one part of her larger transformation. Living out of suitcases, she honed her craft and supported herself through modeling.
Narratives of Monroe’s life, whether they’re based in fact or fiction, tend to focus on her trauma at the expense of her hard work and dedication. The myths surrounding her life have obscured what originally helped make her famous: her craft as an actress.
It wasn’t easy to make it big as an actress in 1950s Hollywood. At the time, the film industry was dominated by the “studio system,” an arrangement through which the “Big Five” studios—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and RKO—monopolized movie production, distribution and exhibition. These male-dominated companies quashed the independent studios where women actors, directors and producers had previously found success.
Still, Monroe prevailed. Her natural beauty helped her get through the door, but it was her hard work that cemented her rise to superstardom. “She had a drive to better herself by reading books on psychology, philosophy, poetry, art, drama, you name it,” says Vogel. “She studied at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York, with Lee Strasberg, because she had the desire to be a drama student, even after she was already a famous Hollywood actress. She was a trailblazer, and in many ways a feminist before the term was really known or understood.”
Rehired by 20th Century Fox, Monroe quickly became the studio’s most marketable star. After appearing as a tragic femme fatale in Niagara (1953), she took the lead in a series of films that established her “dumb blonde” persona: classics like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Her typical role, that of a ditzy charmer with impeccable comedic timing, differentiated her from contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn, whose personas represented different kinds of femininity. Taylor’s temptresses competed with Monroe’s bubbly blondes, while Day’s wholesome “girl next door” persona evoked the appeal of the younger actress’ pin-up career. In contrast, Hepburn crafted an aristocratic image defined by her social refinement and style.
Of course, Monroe was a dramatic force all her own. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)—the quintessential Monroe film—she proved herself to be a triple-threat talent, dazzling her audiences with her singing and dancing as much as she made them laugh. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is one of film’s most famous scenes for good reason: The “Blowtorch Blonde,” as she was dubbed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, absolutely steals the show.
“When Monroe is on screen, you watch her,” says film scholar Steven Cohan in an interview. “[T]here was something just physical about Monroe that exploded on film. … She just photographed luminously. So, there’s something very beautiful about [her] performance. And she had great timing—just watch her deliver lines.”
Though Monroe is perhaps best known for her “dumb blonde” comedies, films like The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and The Misfits (1961), a Western co-starring Clark Gable, testify to her range. That’s not to say her comedic roles lacked depth. Her glittering performance as showgirl Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes drew many of its laughs from the ambiguity of the character’s intelligence. “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it,” says Lorelei in the film, heightening an already laugh-out-loud monologue.
The star’s professional success is even more impressive in light of her personal struggles. Monroe was notoriously difficult to work with, as she was constantly late to shoots and often flubbed her lines. But she was no diva. “In reality, she had severe stage fright,” says Vogel. “She was a nervous wreck filming scenes, often breaking out into a rash or being physically ill at the thought of performing.” She abused barbiturates and amphetamines callously prescribed to her by doctors to cope with her trauma and anxiety.
Monroe’s career soared as her romantic life foundered, with two successive husbands failing to understand the woman she wanted to be. Baseball hero Joe DiMaggio balked at the sexuality of his wife’s public image. Playwright Arthur Miller was disgusted by her cult of celebrity. “Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted to be loved,” said film historian Karina Longworth in a 2017 episode of the “You Must Remember This” podcast. “But she never had the courage to figure out that she could choose who to love.”
An old journal reveals the depth of Monroe’s grief: “I have always been deeply terrified to really be someone’s wife since I know from life one cannot love another, ever, really.” The fact that the actress was seemingly unable to carry a child to term (two pregnancies ended in miscarriages, while a third was ectopic) compounded these fears; in her view, her inability to bear children “damaged her femininity, her status as the representative of all women,” writes historian Lois Banner in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.
But this was Monroe’s private life. In public, she was a savvy political operator who could turn scandal into success and personalize her publicity. “The Hollywood studio system would often create fictitious back-stories and cover-up scandals for their stars, but Marilyn was different,” says Vogel. “She was open and honest about her dysfunctional childhood, so there was a very real, flawed, human element about her that made the public relate and fall in love with her.”
In 1953, when Playboy magazine published nude photos of Monroe without her consent, she kept her career intact by turning the images into free advertising. (Monroe hadn’t posed for Playboy; the photos dated to 1949, when the aspiring actress took part in a nude shoot with a pin-up photographer.) A May 1952 interview with the Chicago Tribune reveals how Monroe cannily responded to the situation: “When an interviewer recently asked her why she posed in the nude for calendars, she replied, ‘I was hungry.’ That’s a stopper if I ever heard one.”
At the height of her fame, Monroe also took steps to fight back against the studio system, which enabled male executives to wield unprecedented control over the careers of its marquee stars. Forced to take roles she considered beneath her, the actress decided to break her restrictive contract with Fox in 1954 and start her own production company—Marilyn Monroe Productions—on the East Coast. Though Fox tried to blackball Monroe, she emerged victorious, renegotiating a studio contract that afforded her both a higher salary and creative control over her future roles. “She strove for equality and change to the Hollywood system, and [she] got it,” says Vogel.
Why should we still care about Monroe?
Despite Monroe’s ascendance in the film industry, the final years of her life were marked with professional difficulties. Her last movie, The Misfits, was written by her third husband, Miller, as an allegory of their declining relationship. Playing a thinly veiled stand-in of herself was a particularly taxing experience for Monroe, and the movie turned out to be a commercial failure.
Fox fired Monroe while she was on sick leave during the 1962 filming of Something’s Got to Give. Though she was rehired and on the cusp of a career resurgence at the time of her death, her final interview reveals her disillusionment with the whole affair: “I had asked if many friends had called up to rally round when she was fired by Fox,” wrote Life editor Richard Meryman. “There was silence, and sitting very straight, eyes wide and hurt, she had answered with a tiny ‘No.’”
At the age of 36, Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood home. Was her death a suicide? An accident? A cover-up concocted by the Kennedys? A murder at the hands of her doctors? Sixty years later, the exact nature of her demise remains the subject of spirited debate.
“[Marilyn’s death is] the gift that keeps on giving,” says Cohan, “because there’s no smoking gun. The autopsy continues to be raised, but it never answers any questions. … And the fact that she died in her [mid-30s] meant that she never grew old. … It’s another reason that she remains forever, forever young” in the public imagination.
According to Vogel, “It’s as if we feel robbed of what could have been had Marilyn lived longer, so we cling on to everything she gave us, and repeatedly watch it, over and over and over again. … Maybe we’ll see or hear something new this time, or maybe it will be a comfortable reminiscence of memories that makes us feel nostalgic joy in knowing that no matter how much time has passed, she is still there, and will be for as long as we can turn on a television.”
Monroe biographer Banner perhaps encapsulates the star’s allure best:
In the case of Marilyn, people believe what they want to believe. She lives in the fantasies of the national imagination, enshrined in a story with endless possibilities, plots, characters and events. Marilyn’s life and death have become flexible, plastic representations of a real person and a real event. … No one can deny the power of her representation: She is the [blonde] who has haunted the American imagination.
We should care about Monroe because of how much she cared about us, her audience. Her films enliven her myth but also remind us of the person she was. Yes, her life was a tragedy, but it was also a triumph—American history in miniature.
Speaking with Meryman in the summer of 1962, Monroe had just one request. “Please don’t make me a joke,” she said. “End the interview with what I believe. I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one. I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.”
Her words went unpublished.