Marilyn Monroe is one of the most well-known celebrities of all time. As a household name whose work has been referenced in everything from “Moulin Rouge” to “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” the Golden Age actress was able to make a widespread impact during her short career.
With such great notoriety, comes a tendency for mythmaking. Monroe’s personality has been transformed into a larger-than-life caricature, her most iconic looks have come to define her entire image, but in many ways her legacy has been misunderstood.
Here are ten things people tend to get wrong about Marilyn Monroe.
1. Her name was Marilyn Monroe
Though it’s the name she’s best known by, the name Marilyn Monroe was not the first name to be donned by the California native Norma Jeane Mortenson. After her birth, she was baptized with her mother’s name: Norma Jeane Baker. She carried that name with her through foster care until she married a neighbor at age 16 and became Norma Jeane Dougherty.
It wasn’t until she signed her first acting contract with 20th Century Fox that she began to contemplate the perfect stage name. Monroe and studio executive Ben Lyon put their heads together to come up with the moniker that would help catapult her to superstardom. Lyon suggested Marilyn after actress Marilyn Miller and Norma Jeane suggested Monroe after her mother’s family.
Thus, the name Marilyn Monroe was conceived; her iconic look and personality soon to follow.
2. She was a natural blonde
Monroe’s iconic platinum blonde locks were bottle-born, like many other stars’ at the time.
Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images
For women hoping to make a name for themselves in the film industry in the 1940s, blonde was considered the most versatile hair color. Monroe, who joined her first modeling agency as a curly haired brunette, was dedicated to doing whatever it took to get noticed. She started lightening her hair in the mid-1940s and was instantly hooked.
“For Marilyn, going blonde, it was like the Hollywood star-building machine,” said photographer Nancy Lee Andrews, “she saw what it could do for her.” Over the years, Marilyn continued to lighten her hair until it eventually reached its iconic platinum blonde shade, or as she referred to it “pillow case white.” The color is still associated with her to this day, referenced everywhere from magazines to Billie Eilish’s Met Gala appearance.
3. She was discovered while babysitting
With a name locked in and a new hairstyle, the next step for the up-and-coming starlet was crafting a good origin story. The publicists at 20th Century Fox pitched Monroe to the press as a young orphan who was discovered while babysitting for a Fox talent scout.
In reality, Monroe fought for her opportunities and was eager to learn the ins and outs of the film industry. As Sarah Churchwell, author of “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe” puts it, “Marilyn was not waiting for powerful men to come find her. She was pounding on the door of the studio. She was doing absolutely everything that she could to break into the movie business.”
4. She gained fame easily
Stardom did not simply fall into Marilyn Monroe’s lap. Beauty and talent were seen as basic necessities for any woman hoping to work in the male-dominated film industry and actors needed a contract with the “Big Five” – Warner Brothers, RKO, MGM, Paramount or 20th Century Fox – to succeed.
Monroe struggled to gain a long-term contract. She landed small roles with 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures before finally getting a seven-year contract with Fox in 1951. What she lacked in immediate success on-screen, though, she gained back with a tenacious understanding of her audience off-screen.
Monroe was able to use press coverage, like leveraging her relationship with Joe DiMaggio, to keep her name relevant. As Alicia Malone of Turner Classic Movies explains, Marilyn was, “very, very smart about publicity and very funny. Marilyn always seemed to know what publicists wanted, what photographers wanted. So whenever she was presented with an opportunity, she made the most of it.”
5. She had no control over her sexuality
Sex sells, and if anyone knew this, it was Monroe. While she was frustrated with the tendency for the press and film executives to reduce her to a sex symbol and nothing more, Monroe understood the power her unique sexuality could get her. Over and over, she was typecast in roles meant to look good on-screen and little else, but she wouldn’t allow the transaction to go one way.
“She manages to be sexually attractive, and the object of the male gaze in all of the ways that she needs to be,” says Sarah Churchwell of Monroe’s early performance in “Ladies of the Chorus,” “but she’s also making fun of it. And that is the moment at which Marilyn discovered how this performance was going to work for her.”
Not only did Monroe lean into her status as a sex bomb, she also refused to be ashamed of it. Early in her career, Monroe posed nude for a photographer while strapped for money. Rather than capitulate to the popular conservatism of the time when the photoshoot was exposed in the press, Marilyn stood by her decision.
“They said, “Did you pose for a calendar?’” recalled Monroe, “and I said, “Yes, anything wrong?’ ”
6. She never spoke out against sexism in Hollywood
The studio system in the 1940s and 1950s treated women like commodities; sex and relationships were exchanged and often expected in return for auditions and contracts.
Monroe was not exempt from participating, and she received a lot of unwanted advances as she worked toward a career in acting. At Columbia Pictures, studio head Harry Cohn invited Monroe on a trip on his yacht. Monroe suggested she would only come along if Cohn’s wife was also invited. Soon after her rejection, she was dropped from her contract.
Decades before the Times Up movement, Monroe detailed the harassment she faced in an article called “Wolves I Have Known” published in “Motion Picture and Television Magazine”. She wrote, “there are many types of wolves. Some are sinister, others are just good-time Charlies trying to get something for nothing and others make a game of it.” She called out the powerful men she’d faced as an up-and-comer and shined a light on the unsafe conditions women were forced to endure if they wanted a career in motion pictures.
7. She wasn’t a serious actor
Monroe is known for her iconic roles where she played ditzy blondes, but behind the scenes she was anything but mindless. Early in her career, she sought out guidance from Natasha Lytess, the head of drama at Columbia Pictures. According to “Marilyn Monroe: The Personal Archive” author Cindy de la Hoz, Lytess brought a “wealth of knowledge about theater [that] was very enticing to Marilyn. She wanted to get this kind of serious education about acting.”
Even after she’d achieved major success in her career, Monroe continued to seek out opportunities to become a more serious actor. She enrolled in classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York, where her peers looked down on the flashy careers of movie stars like her. But Monroe was a dedicated student of method acting, and she gained the respect of her classmates with her hard work.
Actress Ellen Burstyn witnessed Marilyn’s portrayal of Anna Christie at the studio. “Everybody who saw that says that it was not only the best work Marilyn ever did, it was some of the best work ever seen at Studio,” she recalled. “She achieved real greatness in that scene.”
8. She wasn’t politically active
Marilyn Monroe had strong political convictions. After her marriage to Joe DiMaggio in 1954, Marilyn took a detour from their honeymoon in Japan to tour American military bases in Korea. She performed for an estimated 100,000 military men over the course of ten shows.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Monroe supported her friends at home as well. She was very close to singer Ella Fitzgerald and a big advocate in her career. When the popular nightclub Mocambo refused to book Fitzgerald, Monroe called the club and proposed that if they booked Fitzgerald for a week, she would sit in the front row for every performance. After the club agreed, Fitzgerald sold out and was subsequently booked for a second week. The success brought her career to a whole new level.
In a 1972 interview with Ms. magazine, Fitzgerald recalled her relationship with Monroe saying, “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…she was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
9. She was paid like a big star
Though she was one of the most talked about actors of the time period, Marilyn’s star power did not always result in a hefty paycheck. At the end of her career, she was making a fraction of the money her contemporaries were making. In the last film she worked on, “Something’s Gotta Give,” Monroe was set to earn $100,000, much less than the reported $1 million Elizabeth Taylor was making for “Cleopatra” around the same time.
The pay disparity was even worse earlier in her career, but Monroe put up a fight. In 1954, Monroe was set to begin working on the film “The Girl in Pink Tights” when she learned her costar Frank Sinatra was set to make over three times her weekly salary. In protest, Marilyn refused to show up to the set, forcing the movie to delay and eventually stop production entirely.
“For anyone who thinks Monroe was a perpetual victim, she walked off the set of ‘Pink Tights,’ ” noted film critic Molly Haskell. “Enough said.”
10. She didn’t impact the industry
Though she loved to act, Monroe was largely unhappy with the roles she was offered with 20th Century Fox. She longed to add more diversity and depth to her characters. After shooting wrapped for “The Seven Year Itch,” Monroe broke her contract and fled Los Angeles.
Despite threatening phone calls from Fox’s legal teams and studio head Daryl Zanuck, Monroe took up a new life in New York City. She and her friend, photographer Milton Greene, created Marilyn Monroe Productions, making her the first woman since Mary Pickford to start her own production company.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Fox tried to diminish Monroe’s accomplishments by proposing that they could find a dozen actresses just like her, but Marilyn’s brand only grew bigger. She couldn’t be replaced. At the end of 1955, Fox surrendered and Monroe received a new, landmark contract. Not only was her salary boosted, but she was also granted story approval, director approval, and cinematographer approval – an accomplishment “veterans of the movie scene said … was one of the greatest single triumphs ever won by an actress” reported the “Los Angeles Mirror.”
The studio system that dictated so much of Monroe’s career was beginning to break. Though she was not around to experience the development of the industry in the ’60s and beyond, the rippling effects of her efforts can still be seen today.
For updates on CNN’s Original Series and Films, sign up for our weekly Keep Watching newsletter.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com