1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Marilyn Monroe — the diva, the icon

Ceyda Nurtsch mm
December 26, 2018

Questions have been asked time and again about the real person behind the myth that was Marilyn Monroe. A new exhibition gives fresh insight into the blonde bombshell's private life.

Finding the Unexpected: Sam Shaw – 60 Jahre Fotografie | Marilyn Monroe
Image: Sam Shaw Inc.

She is the timeless sex symbol par excellence and an unparalleled icon. While still alive, her unique features lifted her to the status of style queen. Following her tragic death aged 36, which has left many unanswered questions even to this day, she has become immortal. The blonde bombshell is a legend. The goddess.

Norma Jean Baker, a shy girl, was born in Los Angeles in 1926, growing up with foster families and in an orphanage. Reinventing herself in her teens, she went on to become the peroxide blonde Marilyn Monroe, the most photographed female Hollywood star and the archetypal sex symbol of the 20th century.

Behind the glamorous facade

Several attempts have been made to look behind Monroe's public image. Who was this woman with that certain inner radiance who, plagued by self-doubt throughout her life, embodied a 20th century Cinderella? It is often said that Marilyn struggled with being perceived as a sexy but stupid blonde. America in the 1940s and 1950s widely regarded sexuality and intelligence as mutually exclusive, and the film industry typically reduced women's talent, even more so than today, to little more than their physical beauty.

More than a thousand books and numerous documentaries have tried to explain the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon. Her show business colleagues and friends are still regularly interviewed about her life, while journalists continue to reinvestigate her sudden death in August 1962 — many of who question her links to the Kennedy clan and doubt her suicide.

Marilyn — the human being

Women's rights groups strongly reject the image of the blonde bombshell, who was passed from bed to bed by Hollywood's leading men. They want to see as her a symbol of emancipation and even quote her as such:

"A wise girl kisses but doesn't love, listens but doesn't believe, and leaves before she is left” is how one of Marilyn's motivational mantras goes, along with "Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition."

But there was also a calculating career woman behind Monroe's smile: She separated from her first husband Jim Dougherty, whom she had married at the age of 16 so as not to have to live in an orphanage anymore, after four years. Why? To ensure she won a part to which only unmarried women were being considered. Later, she founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc, in an attempt to win a more lucrative contract from 20th Century Fox.

She is also said to have had a talent for writing. When her diary entries appeared in German under the title "Tapfer Lieben" (Fragments) in 2010, the BBC hailed them as "records of a poet." She was also political and spoke out in support for equal rights for blacks and against FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and also Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led a witchhunt against left-leaning individuals in the civil service, academia and Hollywood. 

Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald
A legend suggests Marilyn got Ella Fitzgerald appearances at the "Mocambo Club," a popular nightclub in the 1950s. Before then, Fitzgerald had been excluded because of her skin colorImage: picture alliance /AP Photo/RHS

Exhibition: "Marilyn Monroe: The Unknown"

The new exhibition "Marilyn Monroe: The Unknown," opened recently at Museum Speyer, the historic German city that lies close to Heidelberg and Mannheim. A satin dressing gown from the film set of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a worn, dirty slipper and a box of artificial eyelashes; these are just three of some 400 exhibits on display.

Originally from Monroe's private estate, they are now part of the German collector Ted Stampfer's own catalog. The exhibition seeks to offer insights into Monroe's private life. Other personal items of clothing, accessories, care products and photographs  are also featured in the exhibition.

The organizers have described it as the most extensive collection of its kind in the world.

One of Marilyn Monroe's shoes
Monroe wore this leather sandal while taking photos in New York in 1957Image: Ted Stampfer

"Her myth had nothing to do with her"

Whenever Monroe's acting colleagues Jane Fonda and Tony Curtis talk about her, it is often tinged with sadness. Fonda explained on David Letterman's talk show that Monroe was an anxious young woman, who with today's therapy methods could undoubtedly have been better helped.

Curtis, who Monroe starred alongside in "Some Like It Hot," told Larry King's talk show that the myth that others had built up had nothing to do with her real personality. She was "very vulnerable, terribly needy, terribly distrustful," he said, later adding that Monroe was "mentally and physically ill."

As for her reputation as Hollywood's greatest sex symbol. he added that sex was, then as now, the only way to achieve anything.

Many people have tried to reveal the diverse, multi-faceted person behind the facade that is Marilyn Monroe, and to deliver some justice and perhaps closure posthumously. In the end, the different readings are just interpretations and projections about Monroe, a dazzling, now mythical figure, whose real self will won't ever fully be known.