50 Years Later

Why Young Women Love Marilyn Monroe

Yes, she was beautiful and stylish. But it’s her strength and survival skills that make her our role model.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Marilyn Monroe died 50 years ago. But she is as much a role model to cutting-edge young women today as she was in 1962.

The world said goodbye to Marilyn on Aug. 5 of that year, after she was found dead in her Brentwood, Calif., home by her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson. An autopsy concluded that her death was a “probable suicide” by drug overdose. (Much of the evidence for that, however, is controversial, and a suicide note was never found.)

When you remember Marilyn Monroe, you might think of the sexy “Happy Birthday” she sang to John F. Kennedy, her enticing performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or her convincing portrayal of the seductive neighbor in The Seven Year Itch.

But for many young women then and today, Marilyn was more than a sex symbol. She was a role model—even if she drank, did drugs, and smoked.

The Marilyn we love isn’t really Marilyn Monroe. It is Norma Jean Mortenson (later Baker), the girl who had been abandoned to a series of foster homes by her mother and who never knew her father. Norma survived being smothered at age 2; at 6 she was nearly raped. She later lived in a Los Angeles orphanage, where she earned a nickel every month for her work in the kitchen (and was forced to hand over a penny every week to the local church). As a 16-year-old model, she married a man she called “Daddy” after meeting him in the aircraft plant where she worked. He went off to war, and they divorced in 1946.

Later, she studied at the Actors Studio and the University of Southern California. After that, she worked for Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures and was featured in movies like The Asphalt Jungle and Ladies of the Chorus. Then Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast her in All About Eve. From then on, she was Marilyn.Marilyn was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. But she was more than that: she was a role model who showed young women that they could triumph over a troubled past and still grow up to be anything they wanted. Even though she was the sex icon of her time, she was never a Barbie. She wasn’t especially skinny; she had a good sense of humor, and she seemed always to be trying to be herself.

Marilyn wasn’t a perfect person. She had drug problems and alcohol problems and man problems. But the woman who died at 36 had survived a horribly dysfunctional family. She changed forever the way we look at women, sex, and acting.

For generations of young women—those who watched her in movie theaters and the girls who in 2012 watch cuddled up to computer screens in their bedrooms—Marilyn is an icon and a role model. And we love her as much now as we did 50 years ago.