“I first truly discovered Marilyn Monroe on a postcard stand in Devon, England, during a seaside holiday in 1985 … the postcard of Marilyn in a gold lamé dress, blowing a kiss to the camera, triggered something inside of me. At a time when I felt like the most unglamorous person in the world, Marilyn’s beauty, style and sophistication spoke to my teenage heart.”
Michelle Morgan, author of The Little Book of Marilyn, has written several other books about Monroe, including Marilyn’s Addresses, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years, and The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist. A compact softback, The Little Book of Marilyn is part of a series from U.S. publisher Running Press. Previous subjects include Bettie Page and Audrey Hepburn, whose fame has endured like Marilyn’s, and whose appeal surpasses that of other pin-models and actresses, including some still living.
Michelle was also formerly president of the Marilyn Lives Society in the U.K., a name partly inspired by Joel Oppenheimer’s Marilyn Lives! (1981), which combined photographs of the iconic blonde with testimonies from her fans. This focus can also be found in The Little Book of Marilyn, which Michelle describes as “a celebration of the fans as well as the star.” The fandom has also been explored from an academic perspective in Marcelline Block’s Fan Phenomena: Marilyn Monroe (2015), while photographer Emily Berl explored the world of impersonators in her 2018 monograph, Marilyn; but Michelle’s informal approach and eye-catching format more closely parallels Mike Evans’ The Marilyn Handbook (2004.) In 2020 she will publish two further titles, endorsed by Monroe’s estate: Marilyn: Collectible Magnets and Mini Posters, and Day by Day with Marilyn: A 12-Month Undated Planner.
The Little Book of Marilyn begins with a biographical chapter, noting that while in early life she was often “sad and despondent,” Marilyn ultimately rose above her difficult childhood to become one of the world’s most successful women. “Marilyn’s star rose quickly,” Morgan writes, “thanks mainly to the fact that the public absolutely adored her, even in small roles.” She observes that Marilyn’s career brought her confidence, from starting out as a model to achieving fame in movies; and unlike some authors, she focuses less on Monroe’s love affairs and more on the independence she achieved as the defining thread in her life’s arc.
“For a time Marilyn’s ambitions were mocked by the studio and journalists alike,” Morgan says of her struggle to escape Hollywood’s rigid typecasting. “The idea that a so-called blonde bombshell could become a trailblazing businesswoman and actress was unthinkable to some, but Marilyn was full of surprises.” Her long-standing emotional and health issues – leading to miscarriages, divorces and an addiction to prescribed drugs – are not downplayed. “Her mental health and behaviour on set became fodder for the tabloids,” Morgan admits, “but Marilyn fought on.” In her final years she sought out therapy and a more settled existence, and despite its untimely end, Marilyn’s life was a work in progress.
Although Michelle still appreciates Marilyn’s glamour, it is her “inner strength, vulnerability and determination” which holds her interest. Scottish fan Fraser Penney, who became fascinated with Marilyn while working on a school project in 1976, agrees: “I felt I was on a mission to preserve her memory, and if I saw something with her image, I had to have it,” he recalls. “At first it was a comfort to me to have this little collection that I could look after and add to, like a hobby. But now as an older person there’s more of a fondness for Marilyn as an enduring presence in my life.”
Greg Schreiner first discovered Marilyn when his parents took him to a drive-in screening of Some Like It Hot in Monroe, Wisconsin. He later followed in her footsteps by studying at UCLA, and after meeting other fans at her graveside, he founded the Marilyn Remembered fan club which meets monthly at his home and holds a memorial service on each anniversary of her passing. “Marilyn is enduring to me because she captured my heart as a young boy and she has never left my life,” he says. “I feel that many things that have occurred to me were because of Marilyn, directly or indirectly.”
“Marilyn always helps me when I’m feeling upset or gloomy,” Vanessa Roden tells Michelle. “A simple action of putting on one of her films or watching an interview with her can bring a smile back to my face. I can’t really explain why, other than she gives off a kind of warm feeling when I see her onscreen.” Australian fan Marisa Vanderpest remembers watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on television with her grandmother. “I couldn’t believe someone couldn’t be that stunning, and I still can’t!” she says. “She also made me laugh. Funny and beautiful – just what I wanted to be.”
Leslie Sumney became a fan in her mid-forties, when she saw two unusual images which made her think about Marilyn differently. In a furniture store, she found a framed poster of Marilyn lifting weights (as captured by photographer Philippe Halsman.) “I could not stop staring at it because it was the antithesis of everything I’d ever seen of this woman,” she explains. Shortly afterwards, she saw Richard Avedon’s portrait of a weary Marilyn at the end of a photo shoot. “It was reminiscent of an old-fashioned cosplay,” Leslie says, “as if the cosplayer had been caught by the photographer just before getting into character.”
“I wish a good stylist would take over Marilyn Monroe’s clothes problem,” columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1952. “It’s hard for a girl with that gorgeous figure to go so wrong with clothes – but Marilyn accomplishes it.” At the time, Monroe’s style was often criticised as being too sexy; but today, her wardrobe is admired as eclectic – from the flamboyant costumes she wore onscreen to the more casual, modern clothing she favoured in daily life. “My main advice to all girls seeking glamour is very simple – be yourself!” Marilyn once said. “Glamour is not all low-cut gowns or the slinky look.”
British fan Megan Owen describes herself as “a vintage girl at heart,” while Kaylie Minzola has adopted the fifties bombshell style. “Sometimes people will ask for a photo with me,” she says. “I find that older people and young women are the most excited about my appearance, and I get a lot of questions about my hair and makeup.” Others, like Kaity Kinloch (aka Marilyn Performs) also work as tribute artists. “My appreciation for Marilyn doesn’t really start and stop with each performance. I dress in her style in my everyday life,” she says, adding that people often ask questions about Marilyn, and “they usually appreciate the truth.”
Another lookalike, known as Blonde Fox Entertainment, remembers meeting an army veteran who had seen Marilyn while serving in Korea. “He was so excited that I was there,” she says. “We brought him back for a special photo opportunity, and I sang songs just for him.” For Ashley Clark, adopting Marilyn’s persona boosted her self-esteem after being bullied. “I felt comfort in hiding myself behind theatrical roles,” she says. “I could vicariously stand behind her style choices with confidence, and if anyone were to say anything about it, I could brush it off much easier than if it had been directed at just me.”
Dress designer Allyson Scanlon makes and sells replica outfits (such as the leopard muff and cape from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) “I wanted to make copies of her dresses in comfortable, stretchy fabrics like lycra and jersey,” she says. Fellow dressmaker Esther Smith observes that the cut of Monroe’s dresses is “very flattering to a lot of people, and when you put on a dress styled after hers there is an instant transformation. It changes how you move and carry yourself.” Her image has also been used in haute couture by Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, and in 2013 the department store Macy’s launched a Marilyn-inspired collection.
While bullet bras have been largely consigned to history, Michelle notes that one can now achieve a similar effect (albeit more subtle and economical) with a regular seamed bra. Auction catalogues reveal that Marilyn owned many bustiers, which are still being manufactured by upscale lingerie brands like Victoria’s Secret, and vintage style retailers such as What Katie Did. However, once her starlet years were over Marilyn often preferred a softer, more natural look. While filming The Seven Year Itch, director Billy Wilder asked if she was wearing a bra underneath her nightdress (she wasn’t.)
The full-skirted look is often associated with 1950s fashion, but Marilyn gravitated towards the pencil skirt’s defined contours, often in neutral tones paired with a plain shirt, either tied at the midriff or belted at the waist. Her ‘wiggle dresses’ were also form-fitting, but more colourful. Similar styles can be found in online shops like Glamour Bunny, Pinup Girl Clothing, Collectif and Stop Staring! Marilyn’s modelling career began in the age of the Sweater Girl, and her career can be measured from the red sweater she wore for army shutterbug David Conover as a factory girl turned model in 1945, to the Mexican-style cardigan she sported on Santa Monica Beach for her last photographer, George Barris. She generally wore short or mid-length sweaters and cardigans in classic styles which can still be found in chain-stores like The Gap as well as more faithful versions available at Pinup Girl Clothing.
Marilyn was unquestionably a trailblazer in denim, as can be seen from her earliest photo shoots with Andre de Dienes, to films like Clash By Night, River of No Return, and The Misfits. “I have always felt comfortable in blue jeans; they’re my favourite informal attire,” she told Photoplay magazine, adding, “I have to admit that I like mine to fit. There’s nothing I hate worse than baggy jeans.” In later years, she was frequently seen in capri pants in varied patterns and colours, and she also liked wearing checked trousers, especially dogtooth.
In her days as a pin-up model, Marilyn posed in countless bathing suits; a typical two-piece would consist of high-waist shorts and a bra top, although she would sometimes experiment with ruffles or polka dots. Her most daring bikini was olive-green, with a strapless top tied in the middle with string, and low-waisted bottoms with string at the sides. She also wore one-pieces in bold colours, such as can be found today on the official site of Marilyn’s contemporary, ‘bathing beauty’ Esther Williams.
At parties and premieres Marilyn often held a small clutch-purse, but at work she carried her scripts in large leather handbags. She wore high-heeled pumps while out and about, and also owned strappy sandals like the gold pair she wore to sing for U.S. troops in Korea. For cheesecake shoots she had a pair of high-heeled lucite sandals, threaded with ribbons in various colours to match her swimwear. Her favourite shoe designer was Salvatore Ferragamo, and while filming The Prince and the Showgirl in London, she purchased platform shoes by Annello & Davide to wear at public events (including her fabled encounter with Queen Elizabeth II.) Marilyn often wore short gloves in public, and the British manufacturer Cornelia James still offers a wide range of longer evening gloves. In daily life, Marilyn often wore headscarves with sunglasses, berets, larger felt hats and straw sunhats. At the end of the style chapter, Marilyn’s Aunty Dawn (to whom this book is dedicated) offers tutorials in making floral appliques for hats, and a drawstring bag similar to the one Marilyn carried in Bus Stop.
Although she is famed for singing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, Marilyn owned mostly costume jewellery, sporting dangly rhinestone earrings at premieres and imitation pearl clip-ons at press conferences (her ears were not pierced,) She only wore items like rings, watches, braces and necklaces occasionally, but liked pinning rhinestone brooches to her jackets.
By the early 1960s, Marilyn had developed a passion for the vibrant, colourful designs of Emilio Pucci. Collector Scott Fortner owns the lime green Pucci shirt seen on Marilyn as she rehearsed her performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ at Madison Square Garden. “Marilyn was ahead of the fashion game,” says Kaity Kinloch, “and I have no doubt that this would have continued into the decade if her life story hadn’t ended so abruptly.”
Away from the spotlight, Marilyn wore little or no make-up. However, she would spend many hours preparing herself for the camera, applying Elizabeth Arden’s cream eyeshadows (the nearest modern equivalent shades are Something Blue and Bronzed) and eyeliner in brown or black; and nail polish by Revlon (try One Perfect Coral or Cherries in the Snow.) Perhaps her signature look was red lipstick, and in 2015, Max Factor launched a range in her honour. She also loved Erno Lazslo’s skincare products, including the Phormula 3-9 collection. Scott Fortner owns a jar of her skin cream: “There are still trails in the product from Marilyn’s fingers,” he says. “I call it my ‘Marilyn was here’ moment.”
Her love of Chanel No. 5 is well-known, but she also liked other perfumes such as Rose Geranium by Floris, which she discovered in England and continued to order after returning home. It was relaunched as an eau de toilette at the company’s Jermyn Street store in 2017. “We are very touched that Marilyn visited the shop,” says director Edward Bodenham, “and my grandfather was fortunate enough to have actually met her.”
Marilyn’s short, wavy hairstyles became her trademark, although she enjoyed letting her hair grow longer when she wasn’t working. Contrary to rumour, she was never a U.S. size 16 though her weight fluctuated over the years, and by 1962 she had slimmed down to 120 pounds. She had a healthy appetite and, of course, loved champagne (Dom Pérignon 1953, to be exact.) While not a sportswoman as such, she was ahead of her time in her devotion to exercise, from jogging to yoga. In later years she enjoyed regular massages, which helped to ease her insomnia. The ‘beauty’ chapter ends with two makeovers demonstrated by lookalike Suzie Kennedy.
“Some people make the mistake of seeing Marilyn as a victim of Hollywood, somebody who had little intellect and was easily taken advantage of,” Morgan writes. In fact, she made the most of every opportunity to learn, whether consulting with dramatic coaches and attending the Actors Studio, or taking courses in art and literature. She also accumulated a personal library of over 400 books. Perhaps because of her unhappy childhood, she felt great empathy towards animals and children.
She generally avoided public spats, such as when Joan Crawford criticised her revealing gown at an awards ceremony; and while she sometimes fell out with co-stars like Sir Laurence Olivier, she maintained a civil front in the press. But Marilyn was ‘nobody’s doormat,’ and did not hesitate in breaking off relationships which had become toxic. Her first two marriages ended partly because she felt her husbands, Jim Dougherty and Joe DiMaggio, were not supportive of her career; and she would leave her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, after he depicted incidents from her past in his screenplay for The Misfits. She also stepped away from professional relationships with colleagues like acting coach Natasha Lytess and business partner Milton Greene when she felt her trust had been compromised.
Marilyn was a loyal friend, exceedingly generous and ever ready to defend others in trouble. She stood by Arthur Miller during his legal battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even after their divorce she remained close to his father Isidore, and also invested in her friend Norman Rosten’s play although it quickly folded.
Marilyn’s first husband recalled that her domestic skills were limited, but she learned about Italian cuisine while living with Joe DiMaggio’s family in San Francisco’ and during her New York years, she honed her skills with the help of cookbooks, eventually devising her own recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing. Compared to some of her Hollywood peers, her lifestyle was relatively modest and even her weddings to famous men like DiMaggio and Miller were low-key events.
Neither was she drawn into gossip about other celebrities, like alleged ‘rival’ Elizabeth Taylor, and she bonded well with fellow actresses like Jane Russell (her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Betty Grable (How to Marry a Millionaire.) “The media made a great deal of how Marilyn arrived late on set and forgot her lines,” Morgan writes. But while she certainly wasn’t “the easiest actress to work with,” the author contends that Monroe was “a glorious role model for pushing through, even in times of distress.” She was suffering from appendicitis while filming Monkey Business in 1952, and continued working on The Seven Year Itch while her marriage to Joe DiMaggio was falling apart. Her role models included Clark Gable, her leading man in The Misfits, and the writer Carl Sandburg, who became a friend.
“I like my home, and am much more interested in it than people might suppose,” Marilyn said. “Yet that is natural, for having at last a place that is really my home is something I find very pleasant.” She decorated her New York apartment with glassware, works of art and the grand piano her mother had owned. Among the grander items sold at auction were her chandeliers and a pair of Louis XV Provincial-style chairs. For her Los Angeles ‘hacienda,’ Marilyn purchased chunky wooden furniture, tapestry wall-hangings, bright pottery and baskets, during her February 1962 trip to Mexico and in the months before she died.
“I’ve never collected the personal items because I never had the means to,” Fraser Penney says. “And I think it’s great that people do that and exhibit them for everyone to see.” One of the world’s largest movie costume collections is owned by Greg Schreiner, who started buying at auction during the 1980s. Among his prized possessions are the red Oleg Cassini dress with purple sash worn by Marilyn to the premiere of Monkey Business, and a director’s chair given to her during filming of There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954.) “Asking to choose a favourite is somewhat like asking a mother who her favourite child is,” Greg says. “I still continue to collect Marilyn, but her value has risen so much that I can no longer afford the big pieces I used to collect. Nevertheless, I still find an occasional piece that fits into my budget.”
A candid photo of Marilyn standing by a car in 1946 was given to her then-boyfriend, Bill Pursel, with copies owned by family members. Pursel allowed Morgan to use it for the cover of her 2007 biography, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed. She was also delighted to find a Mexican star lamp similar to Marilyn’s in an English antique shop. Among the more unusual fan-owned items from the Monroe estate is a receipt from Martindale’s bookstore in Hollywood, where Marilyn was a frequent customer. (She bought two books on that day in 1960, including The Great Gatsby.) Another fan owns a matchbook with an insignia bearing the initials of Marilyn’s company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. Objects with direct personal connections include a shot glass with the words ‘Just a Swallow’ on one side above a picture of the bird, given by Marilyn to James E. Gough, an electrician at Twentieth Century-Fox, when he visited her home one afternoon in 1962 with his son Jim. This penultimate chapter also features a tutorial by long-time fan and tribute artist Hanna Nixon, demonstrating how to paint a kitchen tile with the Mexican floral pattern that Marilyn chose for her last home.
“Although Marilyn was a down-to-earth woman,” Michelle writes, “she did still enjoy the finer things in life.” Many of Marilyn’s old haunts no longer exist, but some survived: including the former Villa Nova restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, now known as the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where she had her first date with Joe DiMaggio. Olvera Street still boasts an array of Mexican market stalls where Marilyn bought many items over the years, including Christmas decorations for the tree given to her by DiMaggio in 1961. The Los Angeles Farmers Market boasts multiple connections to Marilyn: she was crowned Miss Cheesecake there in 1951, after winning a readers’ poll from Stars and Stripes magazine. On June 1st, 1962 – her 36th birthday – a cake from Farmers Market was delivered to the studio where she was filming Something’s Got to Give. (Poignantly, it would also be her last day on the set before illness led to her being fired.)
In New York, celebrity hangouts like Sardi’s restaurant and the 21 Club are still thriving, as well as department stores where Marilyn frequently shopped, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. The Little Book of Marilyn ends with a comprehensive list of beauty and fashion outlets, and websites for tribute artists. With a layout of bold reds, yellows and pinks, it’s packed with photos not often seen in print, as well as the iconic glamour portraits. Its subtitle – ‘Inspiration from the Goddess of Glam’ – is well-deserved, but what sets this book apart are the personal touches. Or as Morgan says in a footnote: “Without Marilyn and the love she continues to provoke in people, this book would have no meaning.”