“What’s in a Name?”

The mere mention of a name can recall specific ideas to mind. Renowned names like Chanel or Ferrari suggest luxury and high fashion or speed and ingenuity. Like the names of cherished movie stars, others remind us of the allure of cinema. Those names can include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Marlon Brando. One unforgettable name that has remained iconic for decades is that of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe became a household name and one of the most recognizable faces worldwide, representing the ultimate platinum bombshell, oozing sensuality, a mysterious aura, strength, and vulnerability at a time in history when cinema was at its peak of influence. As a Hollywood icon and sex symbol with over 30 films, Monroe also took part in many memorable public appearances and maintained superstar relationships as well as powerful private connections, further adding to her enigma.

Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe
Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe, 1962, Archival Digital Pigment Photograph

A Modern Greek Tragedy Brought to Life

Her singular onscreen persona represented the changing times of the 50s and 60s through her unique sex appeal. At the same time, her pop culture legend and turbulent personal history captivated the public’s attention with her humble beginnings, rise to fame, and ultimately, her tragic ending. A modern Greek tragedy brought to life, who starred on the silver screen and gripped the country’s imagination, Marilyn Monroe embodied the sexual revolution and the post-war boom in America, to become a living, breathing American dream, although only for a brief time. Throughout her career, many photographers were captivated by the unique radiance of Monroe. Photographers like Lawrence Schiller, Bert Stern, and Bruno Bernard are remembered through their Marilyn Monroe portraits, capturing the longevity of her career through the varied facets of her life.

Bruce Davidson, Marilyn Monroe, 1960, Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bruce Davidson, Marilyn Monroe, 1960, Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn Monroe in a Black Dress, Contact Sheet from The Last Sitting for Vogue, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn Monroe in a Black Dress, Contact Sheet from The Last Sitting for Vogue, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph

Norma Jeane from Los Angeles

Marilyn Monroe’s rags to riches success story and accomplished multifaceted career is one of the most noteworthy American narratives of the 20th century. And unsurprisingly so since the iconic actress would have a tumultuous time in her earliest years. Her life began as Norma Jeane, born in Los Angeles. Her mother, who suffered from mental health issues, was institutionalized, which would leave the young Norma to live in and out of several foster homes. Eventually, a friend of her mother’s would take her in, but the future actress would suffer abuse at the hands of her caretakers.

Consequently, to remain outside of the orphanage, Norma Jeane married her 21-year-old neighbor at 16. After getting married, her new husband was deployed to the Pacific. She started working at the Radio Plane Munitions factory in Burbank, where she would meet a photographer and swiftly embark on her career behind the camera.

Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe, 1962, Digital C-Print
Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe, 1962, Digital C-Print
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood), Marilyn Monroe in White I, Seven Year Itch, 1954, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood), Marilyn Monroe in White I, Seven Year Itch, 1954, Archival Pigment Photograph

Becoming Marilyn Monroe

Within a short time, the appeal of Marilyn Monroe gained momentum and started to take shape. In a few years, she gained notoriety by posing for dozens of magazine covers. She dyed her hair blonde and straightened it. By 1946, the aspiring actress signed an acting contract with 20th Century-Fox, ended her marriage, and selected her stage name as Marilyn Monroe with the help of a studio executive. The name Marilyn would come from a famous Broadway star, Marilyn Miller. Miller’s accomplished work in the 1920s and 30s playing rags-to-riches, happily ever after tales contrasted the hardships of her personal life and untimely death in her late 30s, an ominous symbol. The surname Monroe was Norma Jeane’s estranged mother’s maiden name.

Monroe’s first feature-length film role as a supporting character came in the late 1940s. At the same time, she pursued acting school and studied theater at the famous Actor’s Studio. Working several jobs at film studios, returning to modeling, and appearing in advertisement commercials, Monroe laid a foundation in the entertainment industry for herself, working her way through the thick world of Hollywood. Yet, in the 1950s, Monroe would land more significant roles and become a top-billed actress while at the same time establishing personal relationships with studio executives, directors, and artists. She engaged in romantic relationships that were covered in the press, which garnered the public’s sympathy and increased interest in not only her onscreen work but also her personal life.

Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood), Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, 1952, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood), Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, 1952, Silver Gelatin Photograph

The 1950s

The 1950s would prove to be Monroe’s most prolific period. After gaining influence and a following through movies like Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, As Young as You Feel, and Love Nest, Monroe would soon become a star celebrity name. This rise mainly happened after her role in the movie Niagara, which cemented her status as one of a kind. Monroe acted alongside some of the biggest names at the time, such as Lauren Bacall and Jane Russell, in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, and The Seven Year Itch.

Bruno Bernard, a German immigrant, who made a lifelong friendship with Monroe, made his first important pictures of Marilyn beginning in 1947.

Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood) Marilyn Monroe, Pin-Up 1, c. 1952, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood) Marilyn Monroe, Pin-Up 1, c. 1952, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood) Marilyn Monroe, Pin-Up 2, c. 1952, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bruno Bernard (Bernard of Hollywood) Marilyn Monroe, Pin-Up 2, c. 1952, Archival Pigment Photograph

Here Comes the Bride, Again

Her stardom would continue to skyrocket. In 1953 she posed for the first cover of Playboy and married Baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio. Although the superstar couple was noteworthy, the marriage lasted under a year. Monroe continued working with accolades and wedded again in 1956 to American playwright Arthur Miller. Photographer Eve Arnold recorded the couple on set.

Eve Arnold, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits, 1960, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Eve Arnold, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits, 1960, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

In 1959, Monroe received the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy for the movie Some Like it Hot. She played in the film The Misfits along with the King of Hollywood Clark Gable. Monroe’s husband had written her part for her in what would be her last completed film. Divorcing Miller after four years, Monroe experienced an emotional decline afterward. In the early 1960s, rumors that Marilyn Monroe had a special relationship with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy circulated through the in

The Ups and Downs of Stardom

In 1962, Monroe endured the ups and downs of celebrity stardom under the pressure of her personal life and the obsessive attention of the tabloids. In her last appearance in a movie, photographer Lawrence Schiller captured Marilyn poolside for Something’s Got to Give.

Schiller’s pictures of Marilyn in and out of her swimsuit were dazzling examples of the spell she cast on the public.

Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe
Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe, 1962, Archival C-Type Color Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn with Pink Roses, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn with Pink Roses, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph

The Last Sitting

She would be dismissed from the set of Something’s Got to Give for repeated absences yet also be named “World Film Favorite” at the Golden Globes of the same year. In July of 1962, at the Bel Air Hotel in California, photographer Bert Stern had a photo session with Marilyn called “The Last Sitting,” they are known as the last portrait sessions Marilyn posed for. Tragically a few months later, Marilyn Monroe would be pronounced dead from an apparent overdose in her home.

Although her passing was sensationalized, her life, full of zest, mystery, promise, and fragile beauty, defines her legacy. Marilyn Monroe continues to exemplify unrestrained beauty, still calling to us with her unique look, smile, and wit, saying in her own words:

“Beneath the makeup and behind the smile, I am just a girl who wishes for the world.”

Elliott Erwitt, The Misfits, Reno, Nevada, 1960, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Elliott Erwitt, The Misfits, Reno, Nevada, 1960, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn in Vogue, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph
Bert Stern, Marilyn in Vogue, 1962, Archival Pigment Photograph