Remembering Marilyn Monroe

Forty-nine years ago today, America’s biggest movie star was found dead at the age of 36. Why did she take her own life?

Marilyn Monroe's gloves
Marilyn Monroe's gloves Photo courtesy of National Museum of American History

At 4:25 a.m. on August 5th, 1962, Dr. Ralph Greenson frantically called the LAPD. His news was stunning: Marilyn Monroe, the country’s biggest (and most notorious) movie star, was dead at the age of 36. The official cause of death was “probable suicide,” due to high levels of barbiturates in her blood. The country was shocked.

The significance of Monroe’s death is difficult to overstate. When news reached the public, 49 years ago today, “It was like America’s royalty had died, because she was such an icon, even in her day,” says American History Museum curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. “It was as if a bit of the innocence of the era died with her.”

Most were bewildered (and some still refuse to believe) that a celebrity of Monroe’s magnitude could possibly take her own life. But Bowers believes the very factors that made her a star led to her downfall. “The public that made her career also stymied her career, because they wanted her to play a type,” he says. After taking her stage name, dying her hair blond—she grew up as Norma Jean Baker, a brunette—and perfecting her on-screen persona, studios rarely allowed her to break from character. “Monroe’s rise to fame hinged on the development of a persona: that of the ditzy blond,” Bowers says. “And the film that really catapulted her first was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Late in her career, Monroe became known as difficult to work with, chronically tardy and emotionally unstable. Insomnia led to a wide variety of drug prescriptions, which she began to abuse along with alcohol. Many of the relationships in her personal life deteriorated; her third marriage, to playwright Arthur Miller, ended in divorce. Partway through the filming of Something’s Gotta Give, she was fired for missing 23 out of 33 days of filming. Not long after, she took her life by taking an excess of sleeping pills.

Monroe’s ambitions were loftier than many realized, and Bowers believes that this contributed to her demise. Over time, she struggled to break through the “dumb blonde” typecast and be taken seriously. “She spent a great deal of her career aspiring. I don’t know that she reached her expectations,” he says. “And I think that she may have been greatly disappointed by the fact that, although she attended classes and attended scene study at the Actors Studio, she didn’t use much of that training on film.” At the end of the last interview she ever gave, shortly before her death, she declared how she wanted to be remembered. “Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe,” she said. “I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one.”

The museum’s own Monroe artifact, a pair of trademark white evening gloves from her personal wardrobe, was given to the American History Museum by an anonymous donor in 2002. Monroe frequently wore opera-length gloves for both on-screen roles and public appearances. Although currently not on display, the gloves have been featured in several exhibitions, including “National Treasures of American Culture,” and may be part of a new exhibit on sports and pop culture opening at the museum when the renovation of the West Wing is completed in 2014.

“They connoted a degree of style to the public, and they were as equally important as the gowns she wore. They completed the outfit,” Bowers says.

“Monroe was often spotted wearing this ladylike accoutrement,” wrote curator David H. Shayt in Smithsonian magazine in 2002. “Suggestive contradiction was the name of the game. Monroe’s gloves, invoking a coquettish nod to modesty, were belied by the plunging neckline.”

Along with the platinum hair, the diamond earrings, and a certain scandalous movie scene, the gloves remain a chief icon of the era of Monroe.  They are a potent symbol of the identity that gave rise to both celebrity and tragedy. “The persona of being the vixen was her choice. She was trapped in her own persona, somewhat willingly, somewhat unwillingly,” Bowers says. “She contributed to its creation, and yet she learned to hate it.”

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