The phrase is inextricably associated with ’50s blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, who lifeless body was discovered the day after her 36th birthday, on August 5, 1962, and it comes from her turn as Lorelei Lee in the movie (adapted from the play, adapted from the novel) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—something else that’s not necessarily true in my experience, either. It’s a ridiculous plot of two gold (diamond?)-digging dames and their exploits on board ship and in Paris with a selection of both clueless and loving, and manipulative and equally gold-digging, men. Naturally, it comes out right, ends well, and they all live happily ever after.
Not so Norma Jean Baker (her paternity is uncertain, and she used the name her mother took when she married her first husband), whose life was rife with sadness and tragedy from the start. Unable to care for her, Norma Jean’s mother put her infant daughter in foster care with a couple who would have liked to adopt her. Nevertheless, her mother took her back until, when Norma Jean was about eight, her mother had a complete mental breakdown. She spent almost all of the rest of her life in institutions, and Norma Jean went back into orphanages and foster care, some of it loving, some of it sexually abusive.
When she was sixteen, her foster parents at the time moved to West Virginia. As a minor, Norma Jean couldn’t be taken across state lines, and she was at risk of being returned to the orphanage. So, to stave off that fate worse than death–she got married! The following year, 1943, her husband enlisted in the Merchant Marines, Norma Jean began work at a munitions factory as part of the war effort, and as a result of some “pin-up” shots taken by a US Army photographer, her modeling career was launched. And at some point, her name was changed to Marilyn (because she liked it) Monroe (her mother’s maiden name).
From there, and over the next seven or eight years she moved to Hollywood and began a career that really took off in 1953, the year she starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, and the noir thriller, Niagara. By the end of the decade, she was well-established as a Hollywood A-lister, albeit one with serious substance abuse and personality issues, difficult to work with, and unreliable. Along the way, she’d divorced the hapless Jim Dougherty after just two years of marriage, married (for an even briefer time) one very famous man (Joe DiMaggio), and was getting ready to divorce her also-very-famous third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (that marriage lasted five years and ended in 1961).
Nineteen months later, Marilyn Monroe died, likely of a drug overdose, at her home in Los Angeles. Her body was found to contain very high levels of barbiturates, and a world which had been bombarded with stories of her wild life, her drinking, her drug-taking, and her reckless and self-destructive behavior, found no difficulty in labeling her death, along with Los Angeles Coroner Thomas Naguchi, a “probable suicide.”
Until the conspiracy theories surfaced.
The world went mad. It’s one of the first memories I have of a global obsession as the result of one or another entertainment icon, rather than as the result of one or another existential crisis. And of course, her connections to the Kennedy family, and in particular to Bobby and Jack, didn’t help. And after JFK’s assassination, and more conspiracy theories there, they multiplied again, and have a wide audience to this day.
So very sad. An unarguable talent, such a short, destructive life (not all the misery of her own making), and a tawdry end. Perhaps she’d have done better, and been happier, if she’d stuck it out with young Mr. Dougherty and discovered the merits of flat comfortable shoes and expansive cotton underwear. Just a thought.
Here she is, singing the song that first defined her (it should come in at 1:58):
And here she is nine years later, singing the other song that, unfortunately, also defines her.
Honestly, when I watch this one, I am alternately fascinated and repelled. A part of me says, “Lord, I’m glad we don’t do that sort of stuff anymore,” and another part of me says “Whaddya mean? Take a look at the entertainment page of Google News any day. It’s not gone, it’s just different.” Ugh:
Rest in peace, pretty lady.
This is, with some light editing, a repost from August 2019 on Ricochet. I’m expecting a revival of of the Monroe legend, together with all its lurid conspiracy theories in the coming weeks with the release of Blonde, a film based on the Joyce Carol Oates book of the same name, and (in a rather odd bit of casting) starring Cuban actress Ana de Armas (who was charming in Knives Out) as Marilyn.
Fasten your seatbelts.
Here’s the trailer: