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Marilyn Monroe: Larger than life, and even larger in death

The 1964 painting “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” by Andy Warhol, shown in Christie's showroom in New York City on May 8, sold for more than $195 million, becoming the most expensive 20th-century artwork to sell at auction. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)


That was the front-page headline on an Aug. 6, 1962, Los Angeles Times story that began, “Marilyn Monroe, a troubled beauty who failed to find happiness as Hollywood’s brightest star, was discovered dead in her Brentwood home of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills Sunday.”

More than 60 years after her death at age 36, the “blonde bombshell” is as much of a sensation as she ever was.

The longevity is fueled in part by bizarre speculation that the actress was murdered, with suspects ranging from the Kennedys and the CIA to Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa and the Mafia. But mainly Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal has lasting commercial appeal, as capsulized by a 1973 headline in the Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal: “MM: Still Making Money.”

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Just this year, Andy Warhol’s silk-screen portrait “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” sold for more than $195 million at Christie’s, a record for a 20th-century artwork sold at auction. On Wednesday, Netflix will release a widely anticipated film about Monroe, “Blonde,” based on a 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. The closest equivalence to the Marilyn phenomenon is the adulation for Britain’s Princess Diana 25 years after she died in a car crash.

Monroe never was nominated for an Academy Award, but she was the most famous actress in the world. She grew up as Norma Jeane Mortenson (and later Norma Jeane Baker) in Los Angeles-area orphanages and foster homes. She dropped out of high school and soon became a photo model, first as a brunette then as a bleached blonde. In 1946, at age 20, she signed a movie contract with 20th Century Fox, which changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. (Monroe was the maiden name of her mother, who was in a mental institution.)

Netflix's "Blonde," starring Ana de Armas, focuses on the tragedies of Marilyn Monroe's life. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

By 1953, the curvaceous actress was a worldwide sex symbol, starring in the musical comedies “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Already others were cashing in on her fame. In December 1953, Hugh Hefner published his first Playboy magazine with a photo of Monroe on the cover and a calendar photo inside of a nude Marilyn against a red velvet curtain. Hefner paid a photographer $500 for the calendar photo, equal to about $5,500 today. Monroe was paid nothing. “I never even received a thank-you from all those who made millions off a nude Marilyn photograph,” she said, according to the 1995 book “Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Wordsby photographer George Barris.

Monroe’s private life was less successful. In 1942, at age 16, she married the boy next door; they divorced four years later. In 1954, she wed retired New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio and divorced him nine months later. Her 1956 marriage to playwright Arthur Miller ended in divorce in 1961.

That year, Monroe became enamored with new President John F. Kennedy, and the feeling was mutual. According to numerous biographies, they spent a night together at the Palm Springs, Calif., home of singer Bing Crosby. In May 1962, the actress created a sensation at Madison Square Garden when she sang a sultry “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy while wearing a dress so tight it had to be sewed on. “I can now retire from politics,” JFK quipped. (This year, Kim Kardashian caused a stir at a Metropolitan Museum of Art gala by wearing the Monroe dress, which she borrowed from Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. Ripley’s purchased the dress in 2016 for $4.8 million.)

By early 1962, Monroe had begun taking prescription drugs to cope with anxiety. In June, 20th Century Fox suspended her from the filming of “Something’s Got to Give” after she kept missing work. She stayed secluded in her Spanish-style home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. That’s where, in the early morning of Aug. 5, her psychiatrist found the dead actress “nude, lying face down on her bed clutching a telephone receiver in her hand,” an empty pill bottle nearby, the Los Angeles Times reported. The county coroner ruled her death “a probable suicide.”

Monroe was buried in a crypt in Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. But her legend lived on. In 1973, Newsday reported a “resurgence of interest” in Monroe. “By mid-October the shelves of department stores and gift shops throughout the country will be stocked with Marilyn Monroe jigsaw puzzles,” playing cards, date books and calendars, Newsday wrote, adding, “From Paris came word that ‘the Marilyn Monroe look’ — tight skirts, tight sweaters, high heels — is back in vogue.” Said a former Monroe publicist: “Everyone who can make a buck off Marilyn’s memory is trying to do it.”

Everybody from Monroe’s housekeeper to novelist Norman Mailer wrote books about the star. In his best-selling 1973 book, “Marilyn: A Biography,” Mailer included previously published claims that Monroe had an affair with married Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and was murdered by the CIA. In a TV interview with Mike Wallace, Mailer admitted he didn’t believe the speculation but included it to sell books because “I needed money very badly.”

By 1982, Monroe was more popular than ever, the Associated Press reported. That year, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine for the 19th time, more than any other movie star. “Monroe’s estate is still earning thousands of dollars by licensing the late Hollywood star’s image,” the AP reported, noting that an opera titled “Marilyn” was “among the most successful attractions in Italy during the 1982 season.”

Monroe murder theories continued to surface that year. One was that Teamsters leader Hoffa had the actress killed out of revenge for Robert Kennedy’s investigations of him. Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp ordered a new autopsy on Monroe’s body. His office concluded there was “no credible evidence supporting a murder theory.” Van de Kamp expressed “the faint hope that Marilyn Monroe be permitted to rest in peace.”

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But the rumors raged on. A 2017 documentary, “Unacknowledged,” claimed Monroe was murdered because she threatened to reveal classified information proving the existence of space aliens.

The Monroe legend has thrived mainly on her made-in-Hollywood sex image. “Forty years after her death,” the Hartford Courant reported in 2002, “Monroe is still Hollywood’s most successful invention, its most instantly recognized product.” When Playboy founder Hefner died in 2017, he was buried at Westwood cemetery next to Monroe in a crypt he had purchased in 1992 for $75,000, about $160,000 now. Hefner had said, “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

More than a dozen films have been made about Monroe. Netflix promotes its new movie “Blonde,” starring Ana de Armas, as “a boldly reimagined fictional portrait” of the Hollywood legend. The movie is rated NC-17 because of graphic “sexual content.” Despite her sex-symbol image, Monroe’s films rarely ventured beyond what today would be PG-13 territory. In a 1962 interview, she expressed surprise she could show her navel in a movie for the first time in “Something’s Got to Give.” “I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everyone has a navel,” she said.

Six decades after her death, Monroe’s image still rakes in big box-office dollars. Yet the real-life Monroe remains mysterious. In the book by photographer Barris, she is quoted as saying two months before her death: “I’m not the girl next door — I’m not a goody-goody — but I think I’m human. As far as I’m concerned, the happiest time of my life is now. There’s a future, and I can’t wait to get to it. It should be interesting.”

Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again: The History Behind Today’s Headlines,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis columns.