How Mythos Made Monroe an Icon

Anyone who knows or has followed me for any length of time knows I first got involved with the Old Hollywood community due to a fascination with Monroe. For ten years I studied her life, I’ve made friends due to mutual fandom (let me tell you, that was a shit show) and I’ve talked about Monroe more than my own child with everyone from podcasters to radio show hosts. I was hooked from the first time I picked up one of the numerous editions of Marie Clayton’s Marilyn Monroe: Life in Pictures. In 2016, I went out with a former friend to work on a research project where I got to go through a fraction of author Anthony Summers’ interview tapes used to craft what is probably the most popular Monroe biography, Goddess. While we could debate the merits of Summers’ book until the cows come home (and trust me, I’ve been there), what struck me as fascinating at the time was how many verifiable people described Monroe as a bit of a bitch.

Joan Greenson shared a story about how Monroe made her try on clothes in front of Paula Strasberg so Monroe could heap praises on Greenson’s figure while dogging Strasberg’s daughter, Susan, saying things like “Look how much better Joan’s legs are than Susan’s,” and expecting Strasberg to readily agree. Greenson, uncomfortable with the situation, held onto the memory of Monroe’s bitchiness for over 20 years, recalling that it was done because Paula’s husband, Lee, was refusing to move to Los Angeles. Pat Newcomb was also game to share something that stood out to her, recalling how Monroe had become so paranoid about Cyd Charisse lightening her hair to blonde (stills show she wasn’t) during the filming of Something’s Got to Give that she wanted Charisse fired from the film and dropped from her publicity agency.

I’m not sharing these recollections to dog Monroe, and I firmly believe those who shared them weren’t either, but to paint a little fuller picture of the late star as a woman who could be cruel when there really was no need to. Yes, her documented neurosis comes into play, but what I routinely see in the Monroe community, including the books we receive about her, is this idea that she must be painted as a victim. Monroe was bitchy? Well, the person receiving it must have deserved it. No verifiable excuse? Oh, the person is lying, being rude, etc. Instead of taking a cold, hard look at Monroe as a person who could be mean and cruel to those around her (Billy Wilder famously described her as the meanest person he’s ever met) it’s excused due to the mythological creation we’ve made of the woman as the earth’s eternal punching bag. Instead of a full picture of Monroe as a person, we’re left with someone as shallow as a puddle whose poor behavior is excused away as acceptable at all times. Her triumphs are strokes of genius while anything off-putting is swept under the rug or oddly celebrated as an accomplishment. The fact that her career was sinking fast in ’62? Ignored in favor of the idea that she was well on her way to a spectacular comeback. Today we’re going to look at a few examples of the myths used as excuses or just crappy behavior not to dog Monroe but to try to understand her motivations in life.

  1. Monroe’s Childhood was the Worst of Any Hollywood Star

This one is popular because there’s no denying that Monroe’s childhood was difficult. Transferred from one series of homes to the next over the course of roughly 9 years, with long interludes spent in some and mere months in others, Monroe herself liked to paint it as a series of strangers that held no love for her. There are four markedly difficult times during Monroe’s childhood. The first was being removed from the Bolender’s home, where she’d lived for the first seven years of her life, into her mother’s home where she was molested by a Mr. Kimble, one of her mother’s boarders. The second was after her mother, Gladys, was institutionalized and Monroe was placed in 4 separate living arrangements while her legal guardian, Grace Goddard, figured out how to care for the little girl. The third was when she was required to be in the Los Angeles Orphanage for just over a year. The fourth was after living with the only family members she had contact with for just over a year were forced to return her to Goddard after the Los Angeles Flood of 1938.

During those times, Monroe did in fact move around between homes relatively frequently, finding any stability she’d felt seemingly cruelly taken away. This is also where Monroe’s publicity and actual, documented fact begin to diverge. While all of these instances contributed to trauma and later exasperated her mental health issues, Monroe wasn’t placed in the homes of strangers nor was she ever in the California foster care system. She knew every family she lived with being they were family, friends, or members of Goddard’s family and all were paid for her care out of Gladys roughly $5,000 estate managed by Goddard. Monroe actually spent most of her childhood in homes for at least a year, usually longer. Is this ideal? Of course not; however, it wasn’t quite as Dickens as Monroe liked to paint it out either, with Grace submitting financial reports showing luxury items like a coat that cost over $300 in 2021 dollars or cosmetic products that would cost as much as MAC does today. While these items in no way make up for Monroe’s childhood trauma, they do show someone who was well-cared for during the Depression, especially from the time she was 12-16. Even Monroe had a hard time spinning her teenage years, heaping praises on her caregivers during this era. Unlike other stars, we have plenty of photos of Monroe from her childhood, all showing a healthy, well-groomed child, even in candids.

When we look at other stars though, we see childhoods with repeated statutory rapes (Billie Holiday) and demanding stage mothers who made their children work as soon as they could walk (Betty Grable). A prime example, and a woman who deserves just as much recognition as Monroe, is actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge. Made to work since she was a child, Dandridge was routinely abused by her mother’s lover, Geneva Williams, mothered a severely disabled child, Harolyn, and dealt with racism due to her skin tone throughout her career. If Monroe was living the Dickens life, Dandridge was the dirt in the same tale. Yet, unlike Monroe, Dandridge couldn’t rely on childhood tragedies to garner sympathy from the public. She had to entertain with a smile on her face or work wouldn’t come. She couldn’t afford to gamble with her career like Monroe did, and when she took a stand in 1955, it cost her almost everything she’d built up in Hollywood and essentially blacklisted her for three years. With the exception of 1959’s Porgy and Bess, Dandridge found herself relegated to supporting roles or B-films, with her last film being the 1961 tv movie The Murder Men. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have sympathy for Monroe’s childhood traumas, or that we should compare who had it the worst, but to act like she was the most put upon star of all time is frankly asinine and insulting.

2. Monroe was the First Woman to Own a Production Company

This is a story that simply won’t die, and is perpetuated by everyone from fan clubs to authors. Monroe was closer to the 100th, with plenty of women actively owning companies during the silent era and beyond. Early examples can be found here, but some names you might recognize that came before Monroe are Mae Murray, Gloria Swanson, the Talmadge Sisters, Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Constance Bennett, Joan Bennett, Maria Montez, and Hedy Lamarr. Of course, the most famous example of an actress owning an actual studio was Mary Pickford co-founding and owning a quarter of United Artists. Pickford/UA aside, when one looks at actress-owned production companies, Monroe’s falls short as far as films made, with the average woman on this list making four films with her company versus Monroe’s singular The Prince and the Showgirl (Bus Stop is sometimes credited as an MMP film, but it seems more likely that Monroe’s paycheck was funneled through the company versus any actual producing, something Monroe would do for the rest of her life for tax reasons). Monroe was simply one in a long line of female-led production companies, even in the 1950s.

3. Monroe was More Popular Than Ever When She Died

Realistically, Monroe was likely on her way out. Let’s Make Love and The Misfits had done respectable box office numbers, but they were far off from what she’d pulled in years before as the primary lead (Some Like It Hot featured Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two of the top box office stars of 1959 and likely would have been a success without her involvement). Monroe’s behavior on-set was well documented by 1962, and Dean Martin’s films from that time were hit and miss. Personally, I’ve always been of the mindset that Something’s Got to Give would have been lucky to break even–especially after the nude scene was cut (there’s no way in hell Fox would have kept it in). This isn’t to say Monroe’s career had fallen as far as Jayne Mansfield’s or Mamie Van Doren’s, but the sex with a wink style of films that had propelled her to popularity were well on their way out. A perfect example of how Monroe’s stardom was fading was the offer to appear in Vegas for $5-10,000/week (sources differ). Publicly decided B-lister Mansfield was pulling in 3.5-7x that only two years before, and was making about $8,000/week when she died in 1967. Fox had done its best to bury Monroe during the summer of ’62, and the idea that they’d turn around and giver her a million dollar contract is hogwash (Donald Spoto reports it as $250,000/film, about what Mansfield earned during that same period after being dropped by Fox, and this number seems the most realistic and reliable). The 1960s were not kind to most of the female stars of the previous decade, and there’s nothing to suggest Monroe would have been exempt from the purge.

4. Arthur Miller Pushed Milton Greene Out of MMP

This rumor is another one that sticks, but Monroe was very vocal about her dislike for Greene and his business practices. In 1957, she insisted he had overstepped his boundaries with co-running her company, and basically accused him of leaching off of her in a lengthy public statement, saying, “The company was not set up merely to parcel out 49.6% of all my earnings to Mr. Greene for seven years.” While Arthur likely contributed to her decision, it’s fully on her for deciding to cut him out. I know that popular commentary says Marilyn was devastated by the decision, but if that was the case, she had no reason to publicly lambast Greene. In fact, the separation became rather petty, with Greene, via his lawyer, demanding things back like salad tongs and a radio while Monroe insisted they were gifts.

5. Monroe was Used and Abused by EVERYONE

Again, a rumor that won’t die. At the end of the day, Monroe used people just as much as they used her. Most of her relationships were jointly parasitic, with Monroe demanding time and compassion in exchange for large sums of money. This can be seen in her relationships with Natasha Lytess, the Strasbergs, Pat Newcomb and Ralph Greenson. This doesn’t mean these people didn’t care for her at all, but they were transactional. While we tend to focus on the monetary side of these relationships, it would be extremely difficult to be at someone’s professional and personal beck and call without compensation.

Relationships that didn’t revolve around finances also followed this transactional methodology. John Carroll and his wife, Lucille Ryman, managed young actresses and kept them in apartments in exchange for 10% of salaries, but dropped Monroe after she attempted to move in with them and told Ryman she was going to run off with Carroll (Ryman would later describe her as “a kitten with claws”). As much as people like to claim Monroe didn’t utilize men to help her career, her relationship with Hollywood super agent Johnny Hyde is well-documented as are her platonic dates with Joseph Schenck. While Monroe liked to claim the only time she asked for help from the latter was for a dressing room during the filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it seems he likely went to bat for her when she became difficult a few years later (Monroe was lucky not to get dropped by Fox in ’55 when she moved to New York). Hyde’s help is much easier to verify, with him getting her roles in All About Eve and Asphalt Jungle (both 1950). In the era of MeToo, we can recognize the power dynamics of these relationships for what they are, but it contextualizes her life and career to show what she went through to become a star instead of painting her as somehow above it all.

Finally, people like to paint Monroe as getting the short end of the stick with her original 1951 contract, but in actuality, it was the formula every star followed before A) negotiating a better deal for themselves with their home studio or B) freelancing. Monroe, making $250/week in 1951, earned more in 2.5 months than the average American family made in a year. If she hadn’t left her contract in December of 1954, she would have been able to freelance by 1958 and made more movies that she proclaimed she wanted to make. Instead, she attached herself to Fox (which in fact was a much smarter career move being it guaranteed a salary) for the foreseeable future. This doesn’t mean the studio system was perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but Monroe wasn’t singled out for poor treatment.

This piece isn’t to dog Monroe, but instead attempts to paint her as a real person, warts and all, while acknowledging the women who came before or struggled alongside her. The carefully crafted mythos of Monroe as some kind of otherworldly being needs to stop. She was flawed, she was difficult and she could be a bitch, but that’s what makes me love her.

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