She was born on 1 June 1926 in the Los Angeles County Hospital, the third child of Gladys Baker. She lived with a number of foster parents, as her mother was mentally unstable, until her mother’s best friend Grace McKee became her guardian.
McKee was inspired by Jean Harlow and allowed the nine-year-old Norma to wear makeup and curl her hair, until McKee married and sent Norma Jean to an orphanage.
The young girl was then sent to live with her great aunt Olive Brunings, where it is thought she was sexually assaulted by Olive’s son. At 16, she escaped her old life by marrying a 21-year-old aircraft plant worker, Jim Dougherty. The couple divorced four years later. By this time she had begun modelling bathing suits and, after bleaching her hair blonde, was posing for pin-ups and glamour photos.
Howard Hughes tried to get her a screen test but was beaten to the punch by 20th Century-Fox, who signed her to a contract — at $125 per week for six months — and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
After appearing in small parts in films including ‘Love Happy’ and ‘All About Eve’, Monroe found fame in 1953 with ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘How To Marry a Millionaire’. That same year, she began dating baseball player Jo DiMaggio, and a nude spread of her appeared in the debut issue of Playboy magazine. Monroe had hit stardom. The nude spread caused a scandal with her studio, so she agreed to admit she had posed for the photo as she was struggling to pay her rent. The resulting publicity created some sympathy for the struggling actress.
In 1954, she eloped with DiMaggio — a union which was only to last eight months — before filming ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘The Seven-Year Itch’, the latter featuring the classic scene in which she stood over a subway grating, skirt billowing. She applied for divorce from DiMaggio on the grounds of mental cruelty. Despite this, he secured her release from the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Mental Clinic in 1961.
Monroe’s work began to slow down, but critics praised her acting in 1956 film ‘Bus Stop’. She married playwright Arthur Miller the same year, divorcing him four years later. In the meantime, she fell prey to alcohol and pills, and suffered two miscarriages.