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In the wake of last fall’s revelations about sexual harassment in Hollywood, some were quick to point out that this was not a new phenomenon. Actress Joan Collins claimed that Marilyn Monroe had warned her about the ‘wolves’ who preyed on young starlets. Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, who played dual roles in a TV movie about the legendary star, revealed that they were later blackballed for resisting unwanted advances. And a producer on the 2011 biopic, My Week With Marilyn, recalled how disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein loitered on the set while Michelle Williams filmed a nude swimming scene.

Just as Monroe’s glamorous image has come to symbolise Hollywood’s golden age, she has also been linked to its darker side in a way that risks over-simplification. For not only was she one of the first to speak out about sexual abuse, she also battled for equal rights and fair pay, which women are still fighting today in Tinseltown and beyond. Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, paints a fuller picture in her new book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist.

The erstwhile Norma Jeane Dougherty was one of a generation of young brides to taste freedom for the first time when their husbands were serving overseas during World War II. A job in a munitions plant had led to her discovery by an army photographer, and she began a successful career as a ‘cheesecake’ model, which in turn led to a movie contract. This was more than Mr. Dougherty could handle, and when the war ended, she adopted a stage name and was single again.

As she waited for her big break, Marilyn routinely encountered predatory men, including a phoney producer who lured her to his office with the promise of a screen test. In 1948, she was dropped by Columbia Pictures after declining the overtures of studio head Harry Cohn. Her early film roles at Twentieth Century Fox exploited her pin-up status, but in private she studied acting and read widely. On the cusp of global stardom, it emerged that she had posed nude for a calendar while still broke and unknown. Her honesty and refusal to be shamed won public approval, blindsiding her studio bosses.

By 1954, however, all was not well behind the glittering façade. Marilyn was unhappy with the ‘fluffy’ parts she was given, and her recent marriage to baseball hero Joe DiMaggio was already showing cracks. DiMaggio, like other men of the era, expected his wife to tone down her image and put her marriage first. But after entertaining thousands of troops in Korea, Marilyn realised that fame had brought her power. Alongside her jealous husband, those vying for her favour included agent Charles Feldman and dramatic coach Natasha Lytess. On their advice, she had accepted a role in a film she didn’t like (There’s No Business Like Show Business), although withering reviews may have led her to regret that decision.

Her next role would be more rewarding. The Seven Year Itch was a hit Broadway comedy about Richard Sherman, a middle-aged man who becomes infatuated with ‘The Girl Upstairs’ when his wife and son leave New York for the summer. Dramatist George Axelrod worked with filmmaker Billy Wilder to make the play, which was racy for its time, palatable to the movie censors. ‘The Girl’, played by Marilyn, is less of a schemer – and thus more sympathetic – than her theatrical incarnation. Furthermore, any hint of an adulterous affair had to be removed. The Girl (who remains nameless) is “young and seemingly naïve,” but more worldly-wise than Sherman, who lives in a world of boyish fantasy.

Monroe’s glowing presence is all the more remarkable knowing that behind the scenes, her marriage was falling apart, and the carefree existence of her onscreen counterpart must have seemed like a distant dream. On location in New York that September, she filmed what would become one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, with her white dress blowing up around her as she stands over a subway grate. Among the crowd of gawkers was a furious Joe DiMaggio. The couple separated soon after, but Morgan believes the marriage was already doomed.

The wedding of the athlete and the pin-up was framed as a modern fairy-tale, and friends predicted they would soon reunite. But although Marilyn and Joe remained close, she had no intention of staying in a bad marriage. As Morgan relates, their troubled relationship struck a chord with women in unexpected ways. In October, a Santa Monica court reporter brought his wife to the divorce hearing. The woman, who had recently given birth to her second child, responded to Marilyn’s testimony with a drastic, and tragic gesture. And three years later, it was reported that a woman divorced her emotionally abusive husband, who had berated her for not looking more like Marilyn Monroe. (Ironically, Monroe would later confide to director Henry Hathaway that her ‘sex goddess’ image was impossible to live up to, even for her.)

In November, Marilyn was feted with a grand Hollywood party in her honour. However, she was already making plans with her new business partner, Milton Greene, to abandon her old contract and move to New York. “Marilyn, the Queen of Hollywood, was an illusion,” Morgan writes; “and a new woman was about to be born.”

Twentieth Century Fox, headed by Darryl F. Zanuck, went on the attack. Touting blonde starlet Sheree North as the ‘new Marilyn’, they threatened to postpone the release of The Seven Year Itch (while secretly moving the premiere forward.) Even Natasha Lytess, left in the dark about Marilyn’s plans, would claim the actress didn’t know her own mind. Only a few commentators credited her with the intelligence to take charge of her career, but Marilyn forged ahead. Instructing her lawyer that her contract was no longer valid, she set up an independent production company.

“I wish to grow as an actress and a person,” she said of her plans for 1955. “That means this must be a year of hard work and study for me.” After moving to New York she began attending lectures at the Actors’ Studio, as well as studying privately with Lee Strasberg, who believed in her “God-given talent.” She drank in high culture at the city’s theatres and galleries, and revelled in its bustling street life. Sam Goldwyn wanted her for Guys and Dolls, and she was also offered the coveted part of Grushenka in NBC’s The Brothers Karamazov.

As she won over the New York press with her wit and humility, there was talk of Monroe appearing on the Broadway stage or perhaps having a show written for her. She was leaving behind bad habits like the exaggerated diction favoured by Lytess, but as Morgan notes, she still lacked confidence and suffered from crippling stage fright. The Strasbergs welcomed Marilyn into their home and treated her like a daughter, telling columnist Louella Parsons that “nervousness indicates sensitivity and that’s what Marilyn has, great sensitivity.”

They also encouraged her to seek psychoanalysis, so that she could draw upon her emotional background as well as the technical skills she had learned. This could be extremely draining, as she now had to confront traumatic childhood memories, and a family history of mental illness. She was also a dedicated champion of children’s charities, and to this day, the Anna Freud Centre is a beneficiary of her estate, while a fundraising Norma Jean Gala is held annually at Hollygrove, a family outreach service based at the former Los Angeles Orphan’s Home, where she was once a resident.

The negative campaign waged by Zanuck and the Fox publicity department failed to hit home, as public interest in Marilyn showed no signs of abating. Company president Spyros Skouras insisted that she be reinstated, and on December 31, she signed a new contract. “It is a compromise on both sides,” she told journalist Earl Wilson. She would now be paid a higher salary befitting her star status and was also permitted to work outside the studio.

In March 1956, Marilyn returned to Hollywood. William Inge’s Bus Stop had been a hit on Broadway, with Kim Stanley playing Cherie. It was adapted for the screen by George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, and with Joshua Logan’s sympathetic direction, Marilyn gave what Morgan describes as “one of the most soulful performances of her life.” But while co-star Don Murray was nominated for an Oscar, Marilyn was ignored. She would win other prestigious awards later in her career, but the Academy never acknowledged her. “Perhaps if she had been nominated even once,” Morgan suggests, “her legacy would have the critical support it merits.”

The Prince and the Showgirl was co-produced by Marilyn’s company, and like her two previous films, adapted from a popular play. Her co-star and director, Sir Laurence Olivier, had played the same role onstage with his wife, Vivien Leigh. It was filmed in England with much of the original cast and crew, leaving Marilyn isolated and miserable. But if the movie was less commercially successful than expected, it is generally agreed that her charming and natural performance outshone Olivier’s.

Marilyn had recently married playwright Arthur Miller, but domestic life would bring neither stability nor the child she wanted. Feeling out of control, she fell into despondency and became increasingly reliant on pills, but never lost sight of her artistic and humanitarian goals. Of the handful of films she would make before her death, two are considered masterpieces, although she never strayed far from the showgirl archetype. She was offered the title role in a BBC radio adaptation of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ classic comedy about the battle of the sexes; and a Broadway play in verse based on Greek myths, Paul Osborn’s Maiden Voyage. As Morgan observes, Marilyn aspired towards more demanding roles but seemed to lose her nerve when the chance arose; perhaps if she had lived longer, she could have outgrown the sexpot mantle.

The Misfits, written for her by Miller even as their relationship faltered, was uncomfortably close to life. “It didn’t start out that way when I was writing the screenplay,” Miller told a reporter, “but she has such a strong personality I just couldn’t escape it.” In the months before Monroe’s death, she was once again fighting to save her career. “Hollywood tried to silence Marilyn,” Morgan remarks, and though she fought back valiantly, the continual pressure on her fragile psyche was finally too hard to bear.

The Brooklyn poet Norman Rosten, whom Marilyn befriended in 1955, felt that she would probably not have identified with the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s. Her experiences with women were not always positive, as many felt threatened by her powerful sexuality. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the company of smart, self-assured women like Amy Greene, Edith Sitwell and Sybil Thorndike, to name just a few. The writer and historian Virginia Nicholson, a teenager during Marilyn’s heyday, was turned off by her public image as “the personification of a dumb blonde,” but lifelong fan Maureen Brown had no such qualms. “Most kids had Elvis or Cliff Richard inside their desk lids, but not me,” she recalled. “I had Marilyn!”

More than fifty years after her death, Monroe continues to influence new generations of female fans, some of whom have also pursued creative careers. “Quite simply, I do not believe I would be working in the film industry if it were not for Marilyn Monroe,” says filmmaker Gabriella Apicella. While Marilyn has been discussed by feminist authors, it is usually from the narrow perspective of victimhood. But to her friends she was always a survivor, and it is time for her reputation to be reclaimed. “As far as a role model, she had many problems, challenges, setbacks, and some would say she should not be admired because of them, but I say she should,” adds Susan Griffiths, an actress and tribute artist. “Marilyn gives women hope that with all she faced, she still rose to the top.”

“Marilyn suffered frequent frustration because people wanted to pigeonhole her into being just one kind of personality,” Morgan writes. “This undoubtedly came as a result of her unique and modern outlook on life – one more fitting to the twenty-first century rather than the 1950s.” This fascinating period of Marilyn’s life is also covered in another recent book, Marilyn in Manhattan. Morgan follows Elizabeth Winder’s poetic tribute with a broader-based approach, setting the time, the place and the woman in a realistic context.

However, the way Monroe is represented today sometimes veers towards caricature. “History has been rewritten in the decades since her death,” Morgan argues, “and the woman who achieved so much in the 1950s lost in a haze of modern-day Internet memes and rumours … By humanising Marilyn, we are each given a lesson in empathy.” In The Girl, Morgan convincingly portrays Marilyn as an icon of female empowerment, and inspires her readers (irrespective of gender) to find that strength within themselves.

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