Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on this day in Los Angeles, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) lived with her single mother, Gladys for only 12 days, then spent most of her sad, lonely childhood in different foster homes.
"My mother... was a pretty woman who never smiled," Monroe once recalled. "I'd seen her often before but I hadn't known quite who she was. When I said, 'Hello mama,' she stared at me. She had never kissed me or held me in her arms or hardly spoken to me."
After an unsuccessful marriage, she launched a modeling career in 1944. Two years later the beauty signed with 20th Century-Fox for $125 a week, using her mother's family name Monroe.
"I'm going to be a great movie star some day," she said, appearing in All About Eve (1950), then hitting it big three years later with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire. "I am not interested in money," she explained about success. "I just want to be wonderful."
On screen, she was wonderful: alluring, yet innocent; sexy, but vulnerable. A sex symbol for the postwar era, her personal life was complex. She studied literature at UCLA and was a fan of Beethoven and Mozart
She married baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio in 1954 and just nine months later, they divorced. Her 1956 marriage to playwright Arthur Miller lasted five years. "Miller wouldn't have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde," she told a reporter.
Biographer Joyce Carol Oates agreed, "Her problem wasn't she was a dumb blonde, it was she wasn't a blonde and wasn't dumb."
Monroe longed to be taken seriously as an actress and tried to take control of her career by forming her own production company in 1955. At the time of her death, she had $2,200 in her checking account, but a two-day October 1999 Christie's auction of her belongings raised $13.4 million.
Her books alone raised $475,000 and the money was donated to Literacy Partners, an organization that teaches 1 million New Yorkers to read and write.
Even in death, she remains center stage. Celebrity photographer John Kobal tried to explain her enduring image: "She stood for life. She radiated life. In her smile, hope was always present. She glorified life, and her death did not mar this final image. She had become a legend in her own time, and in her death, took her place among the myths of our century."