How much do we really know about Marilyn Monroe? Who was Norma Jeane Mortenson Baker? How many of us know that her modelling and acting career related to aeroplanes? Platinum blonde hair. Angelic features. A profile able to turn the heads of sportsmen, intellectuals and United States presidents. A muse, an icon, an unsolved mystery. Marilyn Monroe was and still is –over half a century after her death – the embodiment of a diva.
Born in Los Angeles on 1st June 1926, Norma Jeane had a troubled childhood and adolescence between orphanages and foster families, due to the financial and mental instability of her mother Gladys. The time she spent at her tutor and family friend Grace McKee’s house was life-changing. Norma Jeane started developing an interest in cinema, thanks to Grace’s job as a film archivist for Columbia Pictures. But when Grace had to move to Virginia, she couldn’t take Norma Jeane with her, so she pushed her to marry James Dougherty, the son of a neighbour, when she was just 16.
After just two years of marriage, in 1944, James enlisted in the Merchant Marine leaving Norma Jeane, his mother and his old job. Norma Jeane thus started to work at Radioplane, first packing parachutes, then dealing with the fireproof painting of aircraft fuselages.
Airplanes meant war during those years and the media were designed to show images able to comfort troops on the front line and public opinion. The photographer David Conover was commissioned by the Magazine Yank to shoot female workers at the Radioplane’s factory and he came upon a beautiful and ambitious Norma Jeane. Conover convinced her to start the modelling career under the name of Marilyn Monroe.
She became legend thanks to the big screen and to the most renowned photographers of the time such as Eve Arnold, George Barris, Elliot Erwitt, Milton Greene, Douglas Kirkland and Phil Stern.