3 Life Lessons We Learned From Marilyn Monroe
By: Mies Allen
This month 59 years ago, the world learned of the shocking death of Hollywood’s most popular starlet, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn’s death is still shrouded with controversy and coupled with a lasting reputation as a sex symbol and history’s favorite “dumb blonde.” Unfortunately, this reputation often overshadows her legacy as a talented comedienne and a woman who fought against relentless abuse and exploitation.
When you think of Marilyn Monroe, what comes to mind? Perhaps her string of failed marriages, her infamous affair with JFK, or her sexy renditions of Happy Birthday Mr. President and Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend. The truth is, behind this carefully curated image of the vapid, gold-digging blonde bombshell existed a champion of civil rights driven to make it in show business and desperate to be loved.
To honor Marilyn’s long-lasting legacy, we’re highlighting three life lessons we’ve learned from Sugar Kane herself, along with rare photographs that show the actress in a new light.
1. Always be willing to learn
Marilyn began her acting career with the close assistance of her coach, Paula Strasberg, who helped her hone her natural skills. Paula Strasberg taught her how to work the camera, move her body, and emote a feeling from a single look. In short, Strasberg was almost as important as the actress herself was in creating Marilyn’s iconic comedic performances, such as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot, as well as those that were critically acclaimed, such as Elsie Marina in The Prince and the Showgirl.
Marilyn took her job seriously but was often crippled with the anxiety of failure, so she kept working with Paula Strasberg and Paula’s husband, Lee Strasberg, throughout her career. No matter how famous she became, Marilyn always wanted to learn more about the work she was so passionate about.
2. Make time for those in need
Having grown up in and out of abusive foster homes after facing neglect from a mother incapable of giving her the care she needed, Marilyn empathized with people, particularly children, who faced struggles and desperately wanted to provide the help she did not have. Along with the Milk Fund for Babies, Marilyn regularly donated to WAIF, an organization committed to helping abandoned children find safe homes.
She also visited hospitals and army stations to perform and raise money. In her will, Marilyn left 25% of her estate to the psychiatrist, Dr. Marianne Kris, “to be used for the furtherance of the work of such psychiatric institutions or groups as she shall elect.” This was given to the Anna Freud Children’s Clinic of London. Finally, Marilyn cared deeply for her step-children and families-in-law and was never out of reach to support them, regardless of her separation from her husbands.
3. Stand up for what you believe in
Two weeks after she was born, Marilyn was left to live with a foster family, Ida and Wayne Bolender, a couple living in small-town Hawthorne, California. Living with the Bolanders, Marilyn experienced life in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, which gave her a greater understanding of the prejudice and discrimination this community faced. It was this experience in her early childhood that likely influenced her lifelong championship for equality.
During the Civil Rights era, Marilyn Monroe played a role in supporting Ella Fitgerald’s career. Fitzgerald was not allowed to perform at the Mocambo, one of Hollywood’s most popular venues, because of her race.
Here, Ella tells the story of how Marilyn Monroe changed her life:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”