From Hollywood Starlet to Timeless Icon
Exploring Marilyn Monroe’s Enduring Symbolic Legacy

Publicity portrait of Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis in the 1953 film "Niagara"


To this day, Marilyn Monroe is one of the most immediately recognized names in the history of cinema. In honor of the Galerie de Buci’s current exhibition, POP ART POP-UP: Marilyn Monroe vs. Brigitte Bardot (on view at the gallery until June 16th), in this article we explore the life, challenges and later significance of this icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, known as much for her status as a sex symbol, her troubled personal life and the commercial successes of her cherished movies.

Marilyn Monroe is perhaps one of the most renowned icons of Hollywood glamor, her image synonymous with the allure and tragedy of the silver screen. Yet, beyond the glossy magazine covers and the Hollywood lore, lies a complex woman whose influence extended far beyond the confines of the film industry, touching art, culture, and even politics in ways that are often overlooked. Join us in this article to understand how her mythical status was achieved, in many ways, through her attachment to arguably the one of the most significant movements of her time—Pop Art—, her very image epitomizing the values of American culture.

The Early Years: A Challenging Childhood
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California, endured a tumultuous and challenging childhood that starkly contrasted with the glamorous life she would later lead. Her early years were marked by instability and uncertainty, primarily due to her mother's struggle with mental illness, which led to Norma Jeane spending much of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage. Gladys Baker, her mother, was emotionally and financially unable to care for her, resulting in young Norma Jeane moving between various guardians and care facilities. Despite these hardships, she found solace in the world of cinema, where she would often escape to movie theaters, captivated by the stars on the silver screen. This early exposure to films planted the seeds of her aspirations to become an actress. At 16, to avoid returning to the orphanage, she married James Dougherty, her neighbor, a decision that provided her with a semblance of stability and marked the beginning of her journey towards reinvention. She started taking jobs as a commercial model for brands, companies and other positions in which her beauty was all that counted. Norma Jeane's early years, characterized by adversity and resilience, played a crucial role in shaping her drive and determination, ultimately propelling her towards her transformation into Marilyn Monroe, a name that would become synonymous with beauty, talent, and an enduring cultural legacy.

Postcard photo of Marilyn Monroe, late 1940s.
Photo: Teichnor Bros., Boston

Initial Steps in the Industry:
From Sex Symbol to Promising Actress
As Norma Jeane transitioned into her twenties, she began to pursue modeling opportunities, utilizing her natural beauty and charm to capture the attention of photographers and fashion designers. It was during this time that she caught the eye of David Conover, a photographer for the U.S. Army's First Motion Picture Unit, who was struck by her photogenic qualities. Conover's photographs of Norma Jeane caught the attention of military publications, leading to her first taste of public recognition in an age when women wanted to feel more sexually free. Following her divorce from Dougherty in 1946, Norma Jeane fully committed herself to her dream of becoming an actress. She dyed her hair blonde and adopted the stage name Marilyn Monroe, choosing "Marilyn" after the actress Marilyn Miller and "Monroe" from her mother's family name. Determined to break into the film industry, Marilyn tirelessly pursued acting classes and auditioned for various roles, facing numerous rejections along the way. Despite the initial setbacks, Marilyn's perseverance paid off when she signed her first contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946. She began appearing in small film roles, gradually gaining attention for her undeniable screen presence and charisma. It was her breakout performance in "Niagara" (1953) that catapulted her to stardom, showcasing her sultry allure and captivating the hearts of audiences worldwide.

Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Niagara directed by Henry Hathaway.
Photo: Digital trailer from SabuCat Productions.

Ascending Stardom: The 1950s
Following her role in "Niagara" (1953), Monroe's career soared to new heights, establishing her as one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses. Capitalizing on this newfound acclaim, Monroe starred in a series of successful films that solidified her status as a major box office draw. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) and "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), she demonstrated her comedic talents and further cemented her persona as the quintessential "blonde bombshell." These films highlighted her remarkable screen presence and charisma, making her a favorite among audiences and critics alike. However, Monroe was determined to avoid being typecast and sought more challenging roles. She moved to New York in 1955 to study at the prestigious Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg, where she honed her craft and developed a deeper understanding of method acting. This period of intense study culminated in one of her most acclaimed performances in "Bus Stop" (1956). Despite her professional success, Monroe's personal life was tumultuous. Her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller were marked by intense media scrutiny and personal strife. Nonetheless, Monroe continued to deliver memorable performances, with "Some Like It Hot" (1959) standing out as one of her most iconic roles. As the 1950s drew to a close, Monroe's legacy as a Hollywood icon was firmly established, but her quest for personal and professional fulfillment remained a driving force in her life.

Marilyn Monroe while filming The Seven Year Itch on the streets of New York, 1955.
Photo: Corpus Christi Caller-Times page 20 via

Her Last Chapter: Turbulence and Adversity
After the success of “Some Like It Hot,” Marilyn lived through a series of deep personal problems that stemmed from her lack of happiness in her relationships. In the summer of 1960 the filming of one of her movies had to be stopped for a week to allow her to be treated in a disintoxication hospital. After her divorce with Arthur Miller in 1961, and despite her efforts to regain control over her life and career, she struggled to find stability and fulfillment. Her unfinished final film, "Something's Got to Give" (1962), became emblematic of the turmoil that plagued her last years, due to her health problems and the infighting that they caused with the studio, which wanted Monroe to prioritize the film. On August 5, 1962, Monroe's tragic death at the age of 36, which was deemed a suicide, shocked the world, leaving behind a legacy that nevertheless transcended her tumultuous life.

The front page of the New York Daily Mirror published on August 6, 1962
Photo: New York Daily Mirror

Achieving Immortality:
Monroe and the Pop Art Movement
Monroe’s impact on culture extended into the visual arts, particularly through her association with the Pop Art movement. In the 1960s, artist Andy Warhol immortalized her in his famous series of silkscreen paintings, "Marilyn Diptych" (1962). Warhol’s work, which juxtaposed vibrant, repeated images of Monroe’s face with monochromatic versions, highlighted the interplay between celebrity and mass media. In fact, Warhol had begun experimenting with the silkscreen painting only days before Monroe’s death, a factor that undoubtedly promised even more success for the series as the public grew more interested in knowing who the “real” Marilyn had been. The series is a poignant commentary on Monroe's life: by means of repetition and alteration, it reflects the consumerist values of America, which had turned Monroe into an impersonal icon, a product that can be manufactured and consumed. Warhol based his depiction of the actress on a promotional photograph of Monroe’s film “Niagara” (which can be seen on this article's cover), the film that brought her from success to stardom, thus capturing the actress in the most recognizable way, in the year she became one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. Before the end of that year, Warhol managed to paint and publicize at least 23 Marilyn silkscreen paintings, that have echoed the star’s legacy well into the present days, helping to understand her legacy and significance by the meaningful association with the Pop Art movement, which looked to popular culture and mass media to revalue imagery from advertising, comic books, and mundane cultural objects.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, 1962
Photo © Galerie de Buci

In reflecting on Monroe’s life, one must appreciate her as more than just a Hollywood starlet. She was a trailblazer in her own right, an intellectual, and an artist whose influence on popular culture and art continues to resonate. Monroe’s story is a poignant reminder of the complexities of fame and the enduring power of an image. Come to the Galerie de Buci until June 16th to be faced by Marilyn Monroe just as Andy Warhol immortalized her, accompanied by Brigitte Bardot and the Campbell’s Canned Soups to reflect on the nature of popular art and culture.

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