The Day Norma Jean Died

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On February 23, 1956—60 years ago today—Norma Jeane Mortenson changed her legal name to Marilyn Monroe (though she had been using it as a stage name for years). Mirror UK runs through the actress’s convoluted history with names:

She was baptised Norma Jeane Baker, but the name on her birth certificate was Norma Jeane Mortenson. Later, when she married James Dougherty, she became Norma Jeane Dougherty. The star didn’t change her name legally to Marilyn Monroe until 1956, although she’d been known publicly by the moniker since 1946. And when she married playwright Arthur Miller she liked to be called Marilyn Monroe Miller.

Norman Mailer wrote about the Monroe-Miller marriage for our August 1973 issue. The full article is still under copyright, but my old colleague Alexis Madrigal pulled some key quotes from the archive:

How beautiful they look in their wedding pictures. Staid Arthur Miller has been a scandal to his friends ... for he and Marilyn sit in entwinement for hours. Like Hindu sculpture, their hands go over one another’s torsos, limbs, and outright privates in next to full view of company ...

But ... like everything else in Marilyn’s life, she lived in the continuing condition of a half-lie, which she imposed upon everyone as an absolute truth--it was that Miller adored her out of measure. Like a goddess. Since Miller was also a man with such separate needs as the imperative to write well ... this half-lie or half-truth that he adored her without limit had to collapse ... Now there was an absolute denial, equally ill-founded. He did not love her at all. He wished only to use her ...

She, with her profound distrust of everyone about her, begins to suspect him. Has he married her because he can’t write anymore? Is his secret ambition to become a Hollywood producer? ...

She has lived with the beautiful idea that some day she and Arthur would make a film that would bestow upon her public identity a soul. Her existence as a sex queen will be reincarnated in a woman.

For our March 2013 issue, Caitlin Flanagan wrote “Inventing Marilyn,” a book review of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. On the day Marilyn Monroe died:

Just like that, a few months after her 36th birthday, she was gone—the brilliant platinum head yanked back down the hatch forever. Never has death been so good for the back catalog. Billy Wilder was correct in the one compliment he reliably paid her: she really did have perfect timing. Almost as soon as she’d choked down the last of the Nembutal, the culture took a sharp turn away from everything she seemed to represent.

Think of it this way: at the time of her suicide, the Rolling Stones had just played their first gig; Timothy Leary was two years into his experiments with LSD; and the Vietnam War was about to turn a pinup girl’s visit to the troops into a sexually reactionary act, so there would have been only a slow, ugly death coming for her if she hadn’t cashed out when she did. The next few years made a mockery of women like her, banishing them to television variety shows and gag roles: the bottle blonde with the chinchilla stole and the sugar daddy, stuck like a La Brea Tar Pit mammoth in the hardening pastel Bakelite of ’50s populuxe. Only a veterinary-level dose of barbiturates stood between Marilyn and a second callback for Eva Gabor’s role on Green Acres. Maybe she even saw it coming: “Please don’t make me a joke,” she is supposed to have said, not long before the end.

And so began the hibernation of Marilyn Monroe, starting off with a New York Times obituary printed the day after her death that clearly understood she was a phenomenon—the “golden girl of the movies”—but casually listed her measurements as a relevant matter of public record, marveled at her “flesh impact,” and mentioned by name only four of her movies: one she’d been fired from, one in which she’d had a tiny part, one that was apparently significant only because it had led a deranged Turk to slit his wrists while watching it, and one bona fide stinker, which she’d caused to go $1 million over budget. In essence, the obituary correctly identified her—as Gloria Steinem, conducting a very different bit of business, would also later identify her—as a minor American actress. [...]

Time passed and passed, until the strange and wonderful year of 1973 rolled around, and Marilyn Monroe was located by the strangest search-and-rescue team in history: Norman Mailer and Elton John.

On the latter’s famous ode to Marilyn, “Candle in the Wind”:

The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust.

A reader gets the last word:

I don’t know whether this factoid shows up in any of the biographies of Marilyn Monroe, but I have always been struck by a comment of her first husband, James Dougherty, who married her during the Second World War and was divorced before he was out of the service. He went on to an ordinary career with the LAPD. In any case, he didn’t cooperate with one of the early biographies. Asked why, he said: “I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don’t claim to have any insights to her to this day. I knew and loved Norma Jean.” I always liked that.