She was discovered by chance on a wartime production line and propelled to Hollywood stardom - or so the myth goes.
But, as the 50th anniversary of her death approaches, we reveal Marilyn Monroe's 'natural beauty' was, in fact, the product of meticulous calculation. And her campaign began while she was still at school...
Typing cool: Marilyn strikes a pose in 1946. It was her 'magic red sweater' that helped catapult her into the limelight
It all started with a red cardigan. The ‘sweater girl’ look, launched by Lana Turner in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget, was coming into vogue across America. But it hadn’t reached Emerson Junior High School, Los Angeles – until Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Marilyn Monroe as she was later to be known, found her own distinctive way.
Teenage girls in that era often wore a front-buttoned cardigan over a white blouse with a prim collar. Norma Jeane eliminated the blouse as well as the bra and camisole worn under it. She then took a red cardigan, turned it around, and buttoned it up the back. The sweater clung to her breasts; she called it her ‘magic sweater’.
And so began one of the most remarkable transformations in the history of Hollywood – a time-consuming and often quite inspired campaign to turn an abandoned girl, mocked by her classmates, into the sexual icon of the age.
The fact was that Norma Jeane didn’t think that she was beautiful, a point of view she retained even when she was celebrated as the most beautiful woman in the world.
Indeed, the years between the age of nine and 12 had been unhappy ones. She had already reached her adult height of 5ft 6in, making her much taller than her peers.
Budding beauty: Marilyn in the 1940s
Flat-chested, with short and scraggly hair, she looked like a boy. Her school classmates made fun of her, calling her ‘Norma Jeane, string bean’ or ‘Norma Jeane, human bean’.
But by the summer that followed her 12th birthday, her breasts and hips had grown and she attracted boys. Realising her appeal, she devised a strategy.
After the ‘sweater’, came a pair of tight blue jeans. When the school head teacher warned her they were immodest, she wore a tight skirt instead.
Shocking the girls and intriguing the boys, she also wore a lot of make-up – a habit that would prove invaluable during her Hollywood years.
Her primping paid off. Emerson boys began walking her home and vying for her attention. When her name was mentioned in a class, the boys sometimes breathed a collective sigh. ‘Mmmm . . . ’
Even the girls noticed her, since she was winning the competition among them for boys – an important part of their culture.
As graduation approached, she was elected the school’s Oomph Girl of 1941.
Norma Jeane had other skills at school, too. She began to show an appealing wit, often directed at herself. Despite her poor grades, she was a good writer and she contributed articles to the school newspaper, including one on the ideal dream girl for men.
She often struggled to get her words out – she stuttered – but this did not end her aspirations to be an actress. She would go to the movies and then act out the roles in her bedroom, practising body movements and facial expressions in front of a mirror until she got every gesture right.
She noticed that many film actresses had previously been models, so that would be her route too: she would first be a model and then act in films.
In December 1944, she was working at the Radioplane factory where the first aerial drones were made when a film crew visited to make a training movie. David Conover, a pin-up photographer, was among them. When he saw Norma Jeane he was immediately attracted, and asked if he could photograph her.
He told her to put on a sweater, since he was taking ‘morale-boosting’ photos and the shape of her body needed to show. Needless to say, she obliged.
Within two years she was a leading West Coast pin-up model and a contract player at Twentieth Century-Fox studios. It took her six more years and a change of name to achieve stardom, but she demonstrated creativity, guts, and a major ability at manipulation in achieving it. Those early lessons at Emerson School were paying off.
An astute observer of human behaviour, Marilyn knew men liked the little-girl look, while it stirred women’s maternal feelings. But she could drop the childlike persona in a heartbeat to become the sexy Marilyn of the pin-ups.
The Hollywood fan magazines at the time were calling for a more extreme sex symbol to compete with sultry Italian actresses such as Gina Lollobrigida who were invading Hollywood.
Marilyn saw her future: she created the synthetic sex symbol which would give her all the stardom she could have wished for, but would exact a terrible price. There was little that she could do to alter her legs, too short for the fashion ideal, her hips were broad and, from some angles, she looked double-chinned.
Make-up, lighting and camera angles hid some of these deficiencies. But then it was decided that her gum lines were too visible, so she was told to lower her upper lip when she smiled.
Marilyn was told to lower her upper lip when she smiled because her gums were too visible
She practised lowering it in front of a mirror until she got it right, but she never managed to eliminate the quivering upper lip that is apparent in her films.
During the early Fifties she had surgery to remove the bump on the end of her nose and insert a plate in her chin to give it more definition. It wasn’t wholly successful but Marilyn was also becoming masterful at self-publicity.
She went to Hollywood cocktail parties because journalists attended them, and a clever self-presentation might get a line in a gossip column.
Part of her strategy was to arrive late and make an entrance. She wore a black or bright-red dress, moulded to her body, cut very low, nearly exposing her nipples.
She felt she had to do it. ‘Going out socially,’ Marilyn wrote, ‘was the hardest part of my campaign to make good.’
Marilyn used her body to attract reporters. She frequently didn’t wear knickers, purportedly so they didn’t spoil the line of her tightly fitted dresses, but she knew it also gave men tantalising flashes of naked flesh. According to columnist Joe Hyams: ‘She would knock your knees under the table; vamp you from time to time.’
To charm journalist Jim Henaghan, she stood up and turned around so that her buttocks faced him. She asked him if her skirt was tight enough. Henaghan thought: ‘This little animal is learning.’
She was also picking up on-camera tricks. Lauren Bacall was annoyed by Marilyn’s habit of looking at her forehead rather than her eyes: looking up made the eyes seem larger.
A perfectionist, Marilyn spent hours at the make-up table. Part of the bump on her nose remained even after surgery, so she covered it. She had freckles on her skin and hair on the sides of her face that she also concealed with make-up. She put on fake fingernails to cover up the ragged edges of the ones she had bitten.
To make her lips larger and more lustrous, she applied four layers of lipstick and drew her lip line outside its natural shape.
She put Vaseline on her lips to make them look wet. It was part of what her clothes designer, William Travilla called her ‘f***-me’ look, especially when she held her lips in an O, as she often did.
She would darken the mole on her face near her mouth to draw attention to them and used eyebrow pencil to darken her eyebrows and make them heavy and straight.
‘Whitey’ Snyder, her personal make-up artist, said she knew techniques that she kept secret even from him: one was to put white make-up on her eyelids to make her eyes seem larger.
Although it could take up to three hours to get her look right, if she found the slightest flaw she would take it all off and start again.
She used special creams and often went for facials at Elizabeth Arden’s in New York. To intrigue her fans, in her early movie career she changed her shade of blonde for each film.
‘Some girls prefer to change hats,’ she said. ‘I just prefer to change my hair colour.’
That hair remained difficult. She had it straightened and then re-permed into soft curls. Her widow’s peak gave her problems, because its roots didn’t take dye well. The lock of hair that often falls casually over her eye in photos was teased into place to hide those roots.
With typical Marilyn aplomb she once said: 'I like to be really dressed up or really undressed. I don¿t bother with anything in between'
After about 1949 there are no photographs of her with her naturally kinked brown hair. Being blonde had become central to who Marilyn was.
She liked dresses that were strapless or with a low V-neckline, and she wore them with dangling diamond earrings to draw attention to her bust and face. She often said she didn’t wear jewellery, but she meant necklaces.
Even then she wore pearls, a standard fashion accessory, because they have a reflective lustre that softens the face.
As she moved into her elegant phase in the mid-Fifties, she often wore black. In 1954 she said she loved to wear clinging black dresses and black gloves up to her shoulder.
It was a look that combined elegance with eroticism. The long gloves, adopted by striptease artists in the Thirties, could take time to get off.
With typical Marilyn aplomb she said: ‘I like to be really dressed up or really undressed. I don’t bother with anything in between.’
She even chose her shoes for maximum effect. After 1951, when stiletto heels arrived, Marilyn made them part of her signature style because she knew men found them sexy and they made her legs look longer.
Making of Hollywood icon: Marilyn Monroe... actress, singer and model
Some Hollywood writers accused her of knowing nothing about fashion, but in 1952 she hit back: she was too buxom, she said, to wear Parisian fashions. Like most women, she didn’t have a boys’ figure, as did the Parisian models. In ordinary life Marilyn dressed casually: T-shirts, capri pants and pedal pushers.
When she was broke, in her younger years, she bought blue jeans at army-surplus stores, wore them into the sea, and then let them dry to the shape of her body, giving a tight fit.
That moment when she was spotted on the factory production line might have been a stroke of good fortune, but it would have happened anyway, if not that day, then on another.
Even when she was on the threshold of global fame in Hollywood, Marilyn knew how to get what she wanted.
In her own words, she summed up her approach: ‘As soon as I could afford an evening gown, I bought the loudest I could find. It was a bright-red, low-cut gown and it infuriated half the women in the room because it was so immodest.
‘I was sorry in a way to do this, but I had a long way to go, and I needed a lot of advertising to get there.’
Marilyn: The Passion And The Paradox, by Lois Banner, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. To order your copy for £15.99 inc p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or go to mailshop.co.uk/books.
Marilyn: Intimate Exposures, by Susan Bernard, is published by GMC Distribution, priced £25. For your copy at £19.99 inc p&p, contact the Review Bookstore or website as above.
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