How Hollywood Failed Norma Jeane Mortenson

Warning: This article contains heavy topics relating mental illness and drug abuse.


When the name Marilyn Monroe comes up in conversation, what most probably think of is the curvy, blonde bombshell in a white halter dress. However, many seem to forget that there is much more to Marilyn than what meets the eye. Underneath all the glitz and glamour, she was Norma Jean Mortenson, a shy, troubled young woman who grew up without a place to call home.


In 1926, Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles, California to a mother who was incapable of raising her. Her mother and maternal grandmother were eventually institutionalized (for schizophrenia and postpartum depression, respectively), causing Norma to grow up in the foster system. Many say it was this occurrence that caused her to be shy and develop a stutter. 


At just 16 years old, Norma Jean married one of her neighbors, James Dougherty. Although much of her marriage was kept private, it is known that when Dougherty left to fight in WWII, a modeling agent “discovered” Norma while she was working in a factory. Briskly after the pair’s divorce in 1946, Norma Jean signed a contract with one of the most prominent film studios: 20th Century Fox. There she took the famous moniker of Marilyn Monroe and ditched her brown hair for the famous short blonde bob. 


Marilyn’s career started slowly, but after posing nude in a 1949 catalog, she quickly gained popularity. The calendar was followed by roles in movies like The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and All About Eve (1950). Her breakthrough, however, only came in 1953 with her role in Niagara


After the many job opportunities Niagara brought, Monroe’s role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953 finally landed a spot on Hollywood’s A-list. In the following year, she married her most famous partner: baseball star Joe Dimaggio. Diamaggio is said to have felt uncomfortable with his wife’s status as a sex symbol after a disturbing reaction to a performance in South Korea. Though their marriage lasted a brief 9 months, the pair split amicably and remained friend’s throughout the rest of Marilyn’s life.


Monroe tried to build a different image by taking on more serious roles. However, after landing a part in Some Like it Hot, where her dress is famously blown up by a fan, her image as a sex symbol was solidified. The fame and popularity did not stop Fox from firing her soon after in 1961- one year prior to her death. The company claimed that she was.


What many don’t know about Marilyn Monroe is that she struggled with mental health. She presented signs of schizophrenia at a very early age and throughout her career. Additionally, in 1950, after her boyfriend Johnny Hyde passed away, she was formally diagnosed with depression and began dealing with a serious drug issue. By 1956, Marilyn was on a dark path, being seen pouring pills into her champagne numerous times while on outings with her then-husband Arthur Miller. Monroe suffered from several overdoses, most famously on the set of Some Like it Hot. Fame was putting an immense amount of pressure on Monroe, and after expressing suicidal tendencies, she was advised to admit herself to hospital care, which she did under the alias of Faye Miller.  


In 1962, the star’s friend Frank Sinatra claimed her depression had reached shocking levels and about ten days later, Marilyn was found dead in her home in Brentwood, California. Her autopsy revealed she had a fatal amount of sedatives in her system, most likely taken in an attempt to kill herself.


Marilyn Monroe remains a pop icon and sex symbol almost 60 years after her passing. However, that is not all that she was. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a tortured soul who deserved better than to be objectified by millions and disposed of when she needed help the most. Marilyn’s story should serve as a lesson on how young stars shouldn’t be cared for. No matter how happy and successful she appeared to her fans, Monroe’s well-being wasn’t made a priority, eventually causing her life to be lost. The media betrays her to this day by highlighting her figure and sex appeal, as opposed to who she really was. Her peers described her as a kind young woman, who struggled to cope with the pressures of stardom and as someone who wanted nothing more than to be loved for who she was beneath her shiny, blonde exterior. The media is not the only one to blame. Writers of that time, including Truman Capote, convinced exploited Monroe’s trust, only to sell her out as a cheap, careless woman.  


Monroe’s story is an imperative lesson for all of us. At Graded, we are lucky to be taught in an environment that places value on a woman’s personality and intellect, as opposed to her body and her body only. However, it is important to note that this is a sign of privilege, as many women aren’t even allowed to attend school. In fact, women are still treated as objects and “less than” everywhere in the world. At Graded, we are also privileged enough to have a great team of counselors who are open to talking about any sort of issue discussed in Marilyn’s story and more. It is important for us Graded students to take the privileges we have been given and make good use of them in the real world, by treating everyone with respect and allowing them to present their real selves, as opposed to letting their looks sway our views of them.


Monroe now rests peacefully in Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery in her hometown of Los Angeles. Now Monroe is frequently visited by adoring fans who shower her with gifts, and her lifelong friend Joe Dimaggio, who is said to have had red roses delivered to her grave several times a week until his passing. She remains immortalized in her films and her poetry. Unfortunately, it seems as though Marilyn’s image as a blonde, sexualized, bimbo won’t change unless the media stops using her as their quintessential objectified woman, and it seems as though the change won’t happen any time soon.


Sources: History Channel, Herald Weekly, The Atlantic, Halfway2Hannah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Atlas Obscura