Marilyn Monroe as Icon

A teenager dressed in vintage clothes and a blond wig.
Ill-used by Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s, talented Sheree North eventually made her mark as a dependable character actress. Jena Ardell / Getty Images

"... it's nice, people knowing who you are and all of that, and feeling that you've meant something to them." -- MARILYN MONROE

It would be an injustice to Marilyn Monroe to end her story with an account of her tragic death, for in many ways, she is very much alive. Her stardom has not only survived the last three decades, it has escalated.


Some maintain that Marilyn has more fans in death than she did in life -- a claim substantiated by the large number of fan clubs based all over the world, the renewed popularity of her films as a result of their release on video, and her identity as an icon of American pop culture.

Even during her lifetime, Marilyn reached a level of popularity that surpassed that of many of her peers. Her power as a star was indicated by the box-office success of her films, by the groundbreaking contract she negotiated with her studio, and by the amount of publicity she generated in the press.

She also inspired many imitators in her lifetime. It is this phenomenon, in particular, that speaks volumes about her popularity.

Her success inspired rival film studios to groom buxom blondes the way horticulturists grow flowers. Seemingly overnight there appeared a crop of beauties who emulated Marilyn's physical appearance in bids to become "the next Marilyn Monroe."

Some of these starlets were talented and inspired followings of their own. Others, who simply copied Marilyn's hair or provocative voice, quickly dropped out of sight.

Jayne Mansfield joined Marilyn as a Twentieth Century-Fox contract player in the 1950s. Though a clever comedienne and a shrewd self-promoter, Mansfield lived forever in Marilyn's shadow.

From the moment Jayne burst onto the scene in the Broadway version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, she was compared, contrasted, and sometimes even equated with the world's most famous blonde. Like Marilyn, she had a burning ambition to become a movie star, and she labored to build her own image through outrageous publicity stunts.

Unlike other copycat Monroes, Mansfield was a spirited performer with a flair for broad comedy. However, what little success she did enjoy was garnered through roles in which she parodied Marilyn Monroe.

In a business that thrives on image and typecasting, Mansfield's chances of escaping the inevitable comparisons to Marilyn were next to impossible. Despite early Hollywood triumphs like The Girl Can't Help It and the film version of Rock Hunter, Mansfield's gifts were eventually perceived as limited, and her career quickly fell to pieces after 1960.

The actress Jayne Mansfield had replaced as Fox's "second dizzy blonde" was Sheree North. North was a talented and dynamic dancer, but the studio used her only as a pawn in its attempts to keep Marilyn in line.

When Marilyn refused to do How to Be Very, Very Popular and The Girl in Pink Tights, Fox threatened to replace her with North.

Eventually, adorned with hair and makeup designed by the studio to resemble Marilyn's, North did star in How to Be Very, Very Popular. The role was tailored to fit Marilyn's image instead of to suit North's undeniable talents, and the picture was not the box-office success the studio had hoped for.

Shortly after Mansfield's arrival at Fox, North disappeared from the big screen and did not return for almost a decade.

Other film studios promoted their own versions of Marilyn Monroe, though none of these challengers matched the original's unique combination of wit, native intelligence, and sensual beauty.

Universal Pictures touted Mamie Van Doren as "the girl built like a platinum powerhouse," but her career stalled in B-movies.
Universal Pictures touted Mamie Van Doren as "the girl built like a platinum powerhouse," but her career stalled in B-movies.

Pouty Mamie Van Doren starred in such B-movie cult classics as High School Confidential! and Untamed Youth, and served as Universal Pictures' sexy siren throughout the late 1950s.

Van Doren managed to snag a showy supporting role in Teacher's Pet, a major production that starred Clark Gable and Doris Day, but was mainly relegated to starring roles in exploitation pictures.

Many of the copycat Monroes exaggerated the sexual side of Marilyn's image -- an approach that doomed them to one-dimensional roles as sexpots and sex objects. Generally, their careers followed a pattern of early affiliation with a particular studio, followed by freelance assignments in increasingly unappetizing productions.

This lower-echelon group of Marilyn imitators includes MGM's Joi Lansing, Columbia's Beverly Michaels and Cleo Moore, and RKO's Diana Dors.

Provocative though they were, these MM acolytes never progressed beyond bit parts in major films or starring roles in such B-movie favorites as The Atomic Submarine, Blonde Bait, One Girl's Confession, and Blonde Sinner, respectively.

Perhaps the closest to Marilyn's physical presence and bold sensuality was Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, though Ekberg lacked Marilyn's touch of innocence and flair for comedy. She also chose a different path than Marilyn, appearing in mostly European films -- including Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita -- after 1958.

The statuesque Anita Ekberg.
The statuesque Anita Ekberg.

Marilyn's life has been examined at length in book and film. For a look at some of the biographies she has inspired, see the next section.


Marilyn Monroe Biographies

The best of the Marilyn books offer fresh insights                              about her. Some of the others are brazenly exploitative.
The best of the Marilyn books offer fresh insights about her. Some of the others are brazenly exploitative.

It is the job of biographers to sort out fact from folklore and to analyze Marilyn Monroe's significance to our culture. Some biographers take to the task quite readily, while others miss the mark, adding to the mountain of misinformation already in existence.

The best biographies are by authors who have thoroughly researched her life by interviewing former associates and friends, reviewing original publicity articles and news accounts, and assessing the effects of certain films and photographs on her career.


Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles and Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers offer the most detailed and straightforward biographies.

Though some estimates claim that more than 300 books about Marilyn Monroe have been written, very few accounts of her life were authored before she died. The best of these remains Maurice Zolotow's Marilyn Monroe, first published in 1960.

Sometimes a picture is truly worth a thousand words; Monroe: Her Life in Pictures by James Spada with George Zeno, Marilyn: An Appreciation by Eve Arnold, and Marilyn Monroe and the Camera chronicle the actress's career with a selection of poignant and provocative photographs.

Most suspect of all publications on Marilyn Monroe are personal accounts by acquaintances who knew her only slightly or as employees and tell-all stories by male associates who claim to have had a physical relationship with her. (If all those who claimed to have been one of Marilyn's lovers are telling the truth, then she would hardly have had time to make any films!)

As a cultural figure, Marilyn Monroe has inspired important authors and playwrights to analyze her life and career and her impact on our society. Two interesting -- and contradictory -- points of view are offered by Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem in their respective books.

Despite the title, Mailer's Marilyn: A Biography is not a factual, straightforward account of her life. Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author took the bare outline of the actress's life and career and filled it in with his impressions, creating what he called a "novel biography."

He hypothesizes about what Marilyn thought of certain events and interprets her feelings about the people in her life. In the end, Mailer tells us more about Marilyn Monroe's effect on the men of his generation than he does about the actress herself.

Marilyn's appeal to magazine editors -- and readers -- is undiluted by time.
Marilyn's appeal to magazine editors -- and readers -- is undiluted by time.

In contrast to Mailer's male-oriented interpretation is the feminist perspective of Gloria Steinem's Marilyn: Norma Jeane, composed of a series of essays on topics related to the star's life and image.

Steinem approaches her subject insightfully, and with a unique point of view that became possible only after the advent of the women's movement. The forces that affected Marilyn's life and career are reinterpreted through a woman's eyes.

Though one might expect Steinem to be critical of Marilyn's persona as a sex symbol, the feminist empathizes with the actress's struggle for success and respect. Steinem's approach emphasizes Marilyn's humanity by downplaying her sexuality.

Playwrights have made use of Marilyn's larger-than-life image in a wide array of works since 1955, when George Axelrod parodied the world's most famous blonde in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?.

Some plays have used Marilyn as a symbol of exploitation, as in Tom Eyen's 1964 off-off-Broadway drama The White Whore and the Bit Player, while others have chronicled Marilyn's life as a tribute to her, as in the 1983 British musical Marilyn!.

Other playwrights evoke the myth surrounding Marilyn Monroe, commenting on its longevity and its cultural significance; notable works of this type include Patricia Michaeis's Marilyn: An American Fable and Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children.

A particularly heart-rending theatrical interpretation of Marilyn Monroe provides the focus of After the Fall, a drama by Arthur Miller detailing the turmoil of their union. Fans have assumed that the 1964 play contains personal references to the Miller-Monroe marriage, making for a gut-wrenching viewing experience.

In 1986, Norman Mailer turned his preoccupation with Marilyn into a play entitled Strawhead, starring his daughter Kate Mailer. It ran for two weeks at the Actors Studio in New York, receiving mostly poor reviews.

More popularized stage productions involving the figure of Marilyn Monroe include the Las Vegas-based revue Legends in Concert, which features convincing impersonations of Marilyn, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, and other show-biz icons.

While stage incarnations of Marilyn tend to be used as metaphors or symbols, most representations of her on film and television amount to little more than two-dimensional impersonations used in superficial retellings of her life story.

One of the most difficult tasks in interpreting Marilyn's life, particularly on film or television, has been the matter of appropriate casting. The actress playing Marilyn must capture all of the legend's signature gestures and poses without resorting to caricature.

At least 30 stage and film actresses have attempted to recall or recreate Marilyn's charismatic persona -- most have failed. Some of the more embarrassing theatrical-film attempts include Misty Rowe's vapid performance in Larry Buchanan's Goodbye, Norma Jeane and Paula Lane's go-round in Buchanan's conspiracy-oriented Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn.

Television biopics run the gamut of quality. The Sex Symbol starred Connie Stevens as a fictionalized Marilyn Monroe. Badly miscast, Stevens could do no better than to exaggerate Marilyn's gestures and voice to the point of parody.

Based on Alvah Bessie's 1966 novel The Symbol, this tasteless drama first aired in 1974. With its lack of sympathy and respect for its title character, The Sex Symbol merely exploited Marilyn; prints that played in theaters in Europe exploited the Marilyn myth further with nude scenes that were not aired on American TV.

Many film and TV actresses have portrayed Marilyn; few have been as credible as Catherine Hicks.
Many film and TV actresses have portrayed Marilyn; few have been as credible as Catherine Hicks.

Catherine Hicks's performance in the 1980 made-for-television biography Marilyn: The Untold Story is generally regarded as the best biographical portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

Produced by Lawrence Schiller, the photographer who took the famous nude photos of Marilyn on the set of Something's Got to Give, Marilyn: The Untold Story was based on Norman Mailer's "novel biography."

The film was enhanced by the participation of three talented directors, including Hollywood veteran Jack Arnold. The impressive roster of behind-the-scenes personnel ensured pleasant entertainment, but the three-hour drama lacks insight into Marilyn's personality and fails to add anything new to the Monroe lore and literature.

Hicks, whose thoughtful performance is the highlight of the production, managed to capture Marilyn's voice and mannerisms and suggest her alluring presence without resorting to caricature.

Hicks received a well-earned Emmy nomination. (In an ironic twist, Monroe "replacement" Sheree North appears in this film in the role of Marilyn's mother.)

A more thoughtful and intriguing depiction of Marilyn Monroe is found in director Nicolas Roeg's Insignificanc, a provocative film version of a British stage play by Terry Johnson.

Released in 1985, the movie is not really about Marilyn but rather is a speculation on fame and the threat of nuclear war. The narrative revolves around the hotel-room liaisons of a group of unnamed characters -- a movie star, a ballplayer, a scientist, and a Red-baiting senator -- who bear striking resemblances to Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Theresa Russell, costumed in a white dress very much like the one worn by Marilyn in the subway-grate scene of The Seven Year Itch, portrays the movie star. Though Russell does not physically look like Marilyn, she successfully evokes her presence and image.

Other portrayals of various Marilyn-like characters include Kim Stanley in the title role of the 1958 drama The Goddess, Faye Dunaway as Maggie in the 1974 television adaptation of After the Fall, and Linda Kerridge as a Marilyn look-alike in the 1980 thriller Fade to Black.

In each of these films, the Marilyn figure was used to symbolize themes and ideas that were larger than the events of the plot.

Marilyn's iconic image has even appeared in works of art. Find out more on the next page.


Marilyn Monroe and Fine Art

Marilyn has fascinated fine artists for many years. This striking, 40-inch clay sculpture is by Canadian artist Christopher Rees.
Marilyn has fascinated fine artists for many years. This striking, 40-inch clay sculpture is by Canadian artist Christopher Rees.

The enormous popularity of Marilyn Monroe and her widespread identification as a sex symbol has led to the appropriation of her image by fine artists. Often, their intention is to use her image and to comment on its power as they evoke ideas regarding sexuality, commercialism, and exploitation in our society.

Marilyn's career corresponded to an era in American art when painters began to explore the potential of popular imagery for expression. This exploration would culminate in the pop-art movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Pop artists were inspired by the ability of the mass media and advertising to generate images and emblems that quickly settle into our culture as commonly shared experiences. They were fascinated with the manner in which popular images could immediately suggest a product or communicate an idea.

Some of these artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg, took familiar popular images out of their original contexts and transformed them into fine art, elevating them to the level of abstract ideas. In effect, the artists blurred the line between popular culture and fine art.

Marilyn Monroe, with her emblematic quivering lips and trademark white-blonde hair, became the high priestess of pop art -- often celebrated as a symbol of female sexuality but sometimes used to condemn society's commercialization of sex.

Early examples of her image in fine art include a 1954 painting by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Though not a pop artist per se, de Kooning depicts Marilyn in his characteristic painterly style.

Broad brushstrokes of raw paint create a thick texture from which Marilyn's image is suggested, only to collapse again into the chaos that momentarily gives her form.

In de Kooning's painting, Marilyn Monroe has been reduced to her most recognizable features -- a black beauty mark and a broad, red mouth.

Perhaps her first appearance in a pop-art context was in "This Is Tomorrow," a famous 1956 exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery. A photo of Marilyn from the The Seven Year Itch, with her skirt blowing high above her hips, was integrated into a work by Richard Hamilton that involved popular imagery from that era.

That Marilyn's popularity reached worldwide proportion is indicated by her presence in European art as well, including a 1964 pop-art collage by Mimmo Rotella called "Marilyn Decollage."

A large photo of a bare-shouldered Marilyn occupies the center of the piece. The photo is strategically ripped at her cleavage, underscoring the play on words between "collage" and "d├ęcolletage."

The most memorable use of Marilyn's image in fine art is in Andy Warhol's silk-screened paintings, which offer a disturbing commentary on the commercialization of Marilyn Monroe.

Warhol first used Marilyn's image in 1962 for a silk-screen-on-canvas entitled "The Six Marilyns," or "Marilyn Six-Pack."

He chose a promotional photograph of the actress from the film Niagara, blew up her face to tremendous proportions, and silk-screened the image onto a canvas six times. He manipulated the image slightly by using garish greens and magentas for the eyes and lips and by placing the color slightly off-register.

Marilyn's fame rested on her face, especially her red, luscious lips. During her life, she worked hard to accentuate her lips, using a blend of three shades of lipstick plus a secret mixture of petroleum jelly and wax.

Warhol's painting purposefully distorts her face and lips, emphasizing the artificiality of her image and implying that it was a crass commercialization of that image that led to Marilyn's downfall.

Warhol recycled his portrait of Marilyn in a number of silk-screens-on-canvas throughout the 1960s, occasionally using it as wallpaper in installation pieces. He often changed the colors on the mouth and eyes, but always used the same photograph.

No matter which of the versions of the piece is looked at, it remains the ultimate expression of Warhol's interest in the nature of fame and celebrity.

Sculptors of another variety altogether dedicate themselves to turning out blatantly commercial items such as this mug and salt-and-pepper set.
Sculptors of another variety altogether dedicate themselves to turning out blatantly commercial items such as this mug and salt-and-pepper set.

The use of Marilyn's image in fine art reached its high point during the beginning of pop art's decline in the late 1960s.

In an acknowledgment of her identity as the high priestess of pop art, the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan curated a 1967 exhibition entitled "Homage to Marilyn," which included Marilyn-inspired works by de Kooning, Warhol, Oldenburg, George Segal, and Salvador Dali. Culturally speaking, then, Marilyn is as much a figure of the 1960s as of the 1950s.

If fine artists have sometimes utilized Marilyn's movie-star image to represent an abstract idea, then popular art embraces her image to celebrate the woman. Three decades after her death, Marilyn's face and figure adorn a wide array of items -- from greeting cards to playing cards, from ceramic figurines to bedsheets.

Appealing to a more fan-oriented crowd, a figure of Marilyn graces Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. The wax figure, created in the late 1950s, has been periodically updated to reflect changes in Marilyn's public persona.

In a less commemorative fashion, her image continues to be used to move merchandise and promote products in commercial advertisements, including print ads, billboards, and television commercials.

The art, the products, the books, the films, the rumors, the commemorations -- all of these -- are reflections of Marilyn's unique longevity. Despite the fact that her life, career, and problems are deeply rooted in the 1950s, she continues to delight us with her talent and astonish us with her beauty.

Figurines are a familiar element of the Marilyn Monroe-merchandise phenomenon.
Figurines are a familiar element of the Marilyn Monroe-merchandise phenomenon.

In the hearts of many, she remains unsurpassed. Yet, her death casts a dark shadow over her image.

We see that her innocence made her vulnerable, and that her personal tragedies carried her life to a sad and premature conclusion. The circumstances of her death continue to haunt us, for in death she has accomplished something she could not in life.

We see her today as something more than just Marilyn Monroe the sex symbol. Her image has a duality to it now: Though she remains an icon of sexuality, that part of her image is undercut by the harshness of her life.

Often used as a symbol of Hollywood, the image of Marilyn Monroe at once celebrates the town's glamour while reminding us of its pitfalls.

The longevity of Marilyn's celebrity may result in part from the lessons she continues to teach us. In addition to the symbolic powers of her visual image, her life and career have been used to demonstrate any number of issues, from the hypocrisies of the film industry to the frequent victimization of women in a male-dominated society.

Undeniably -- and perhaps most important of all -- her image and legend have the power to move us in ways that cannot be intellectualized. On a basic, visceral level, she is a remarkably powerful part of our lives and our culture.

She belongs to us now -- something Marilyn herself acknowledged in her unfinished autobiography. "I knew I belonged to the public and to the world," she wrote, "not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else."