Why Marilyn still stays magical -- even after all these years
With her diaries about to be published and two biopics due, John Costello looks at the enduring legacy of the ultimate icon
Marilyn Monroe's body was found stretched out and naked on her bed clutching a telephone. An empty bottle of sleeping pills lay nearby. It was early on Sunday, August 5, 1962 when the tragic overdose robbed the world of its most iconic female movie star aged just 36.
Days before Monroe had spent a weekend at the well-known Mafia haunt, the Cal-Neva Lodge, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She was joined by her former lover Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr, the Mafia godfather Sam Giancana and singer Buddy Greco.
Monroe was not well at the time, according to Greco who recently revealed details of a drunk and distressed movie star days before her death. Robert Kennedy, who inherited Monroe as a mistress from his brother JFK, had just ended their five-year affair. The Hollywood legend was left distraught, heartbroken and feeling abused by the Kennedy clan.
Now nearly half a century later her life and death continue to intrigue. So much so that even though the 20th century's quintessential sex symbol left behind an estate valued at a mere $92,781, the blonde bombshell now regularly rakes in a cool $8m every year, according to Forbes magazine.
Her image has been used to sell perfume, Dom Perignon champagne, Volkswagens and Visa cards, not to mention T-shirts, coffee mugs and posters.
"Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul," Marilyn once claimed. And it is this naked fragility that has the world hooked on paying whatever it takes to embrace a little bit of Monroe.
The star born Norma Jean Mortensen suffered an almost Dickensian childhood of hardship, which culminated in an arranged marriage to a neighbour's son when she was just 16. But on the silver screen Norma Jean created a glittering, carefree and carnal image that made her Hollywood's most enduring sex symbol. It is that sensuously hedonistic yet innocent image fans still fall head over heels in love with.
But while the ditzy and dizzy sex-bomb image made Monroe a screen legend, it also imprisoned Norma Jean. She had an appetite for literature and yearned to play more serious parts, such as her impressive starring role in the 1956 drama Bus Stop.
Her diaries, due to be published in October, give an insight into her more intellectual side, featuring poems and musings on Italian renaissance art. The writings, the publishers Bernard Comment and Straus and Giroux hope, will remind the public that Monroe was more than just a pretty face.
"She was a great reader and someone with real writing flair," Courtney Hodell, an editor at Straus and Giroux revealed. "There are fragments of poetry that are really quite beautiful, lines that stop you in your tracks." Other diary entries reflect the star's reluctance to be typecast as the token sex symbol, a role that ultimately defined her.
"Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered," Monroe revealed in an interview. This inner conflict between the sex kitten and vulnerable spirit behind the sultry lipstick-laden pout keeps the mystery of Marilyn as alluring now as when she was alive.
In addition to promoting products, the auctioning of Monroe memorabilia, such as the gold Rolex she gave to President John F Kennedy, which fetched a tidy €100,000, rakes in millions each year.
In June her iconic pink satin dress, worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and in which she sung 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend', was sold for €256,000, smashing the original asking price of €200,000.
Her glamorous name also earns millions from a series of signature products, from ballerina purses to customised roses.
But who gets all the money?
Marilyn's will established a $100,000 trust fund to provide her mother with $5,000 per year and Mrs Michael Chekhov, the widow of a former acting coach, $2,500 a year. She left $10,000 to her half-sister, Berniece Baker Miracle, and $10,000 to her former secretary and friend, May Reis. The poet and playwright Norman Roster and his wife were left $5,000.
And, bizarrely, she also left a hefty sum to further the work of her psychiatrist, Dr Marianne Kris, who briefly had Marilyn locked up in a padded cell in New York's Payne Whitney Clinic in 1961, when she was simply suffering from insomnia and exhaustion. But the biggest benefactor was Lee Strasberg.
In 1955 Strasberg and his wife Paula, who ran America's most prestigious acting school, the Actors Studio, took Monroe under their wing.
Marilyn has repaid her debt to the Strasbergs in tens of millions of dollars from the licensing of her image over the last 48 years. But this fortune has accrued to a woman Monroe barely knew -- Lee Strasberg's third wife, the Venezuelan-born actress Anna Mizrahi Strasberg.
In 1967, Mizrahi auditioned for a place in the acting studio wearing only a black bra and panties, according to the actress Lee Grant. She did not get the audition -- she lost out to Jack Nicholson -- but she did get Mr Strasberg, almost 40 years her senior. The now 66-year-old widow maintains the right to market Marilyn and earns millions every year.
With two new Monroe movies due to hit the big screen in 2010, it seems unlikely that this money-making machine will falter any time soon.
Kenneth Branagh is set to star as Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn alongside Michelle Williams. The story is based on a diary from the perspective of Colin Clark, a personal assistant to Olivier unofficially assigned to Marilyn Monroe on the set of 1957's The Princess And The Showgirl. Meanwhile, a second movie, based on Joyce Carol Oates' faux memoir Blonde, has Naomi Watts rumoured to play the star.
Marilyn Monroe once said, "I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful." But it appears, at least for the widow of her former acting coach, even after all these years she is still wonderful at making money.