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How Marilyn Monroe struggled with being lesbian

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate sex symbol, we examine evidence that her marriages really concealed her true lesbian sexuality

How Marilyn Monroe struggled with being lesbian

Marilyn Monroe, considered by many as the world’s female sex symbol may not have been the man-eating femme fatale, rather the world’s most gorgeous lipstick lesbian.

With next month marking the 50th anniversary of her death it is surprising that there are still some aspects of her life that usually remain hidden.

Perhaps the most iconic modern image of female sensuality, reproduced time and time again, was of Monroe in a white halter neck dress blowing up as she stands over a grate above the New York subway on the set of her film The Seven Year Itch.

Her white dress blown by hot air  blasted out from the vents of the New York Subway, a perfect heterosexual fantasy.

She became the world’s archetypal blonde, the most desirable woman on the planet.

In the many films Monroe was cast as a gorgeous (often dumb) blonde with a flirtatious yet mysterious sexuality. The image of her as sexy, fun, rich, famous, successful, admired and man’s woman – was perfect for ambitious yet prudish 50s America, which viewed homosexuality, at the time, as sinful or a horrible disease.

But Monroe sex symbol image may, in fact, have trapped her.

From the start she didn’t have an easy life; born Norma Jeane to a poor and mentally unstable mother who had to give her up. She never knew her father. 

Norma spent most of her childhood with foster parents, with Grace McKee, becoming her guardian and inspiring in her a love for cinema. Her childhood was far from idylic, moving between orphanage and fosters homes, some of which abused her. 

She was dyslexic and even suffered from stuttering, yet she surmounted these and transformed herself into the glamorous Marylin Monroe that is now part of iconic feminity (see also the recent biography by Lois Banner).

Shortly after her acting career started, Ben Lyon, a 20th Century Fox executive who was impressed with Norma Jeane, insisted that a new name, Marilyn Monroe, was sexy, had a ‘nice flow’ and would be more suitable for a cinematic career. Monroe reinvented herself successfuly and left her past behind.

It wasn’t the only thing she had to sacrifice. She was married and divorced three times, although biographer Morgan suggests they were unhappy and unfulfilled.

After Monroe became a sex goddess, her first husband, Jim Dougherty, quoted by the Daily Mail, used to brag: ‘Never had I encountered a girl who so thoroughly enjoyed a sexual union. It made our lovemaking pure joy.’

But Martin Evans, a friend of Dougherty at the time, throws this assertion into serious doubt.

He is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: ‘She was scared. From my information, she even asked if it were possible for her to never have sex with Jim. “Could they just be friends?” she wondered.

‘To be honest, I don’t think they had a good sex life ever — despite what Jim later claimed,’ he said.

Jean Negulesco, director of the Monroe film How To Marry A Millionaire, was due to visit her a day after her untimely death.

‘I still think I might have saved her if I could have got to her in time,’ the Daily Mail quoted him as saying.

‘Her whole existence was a search for identity, and her sexual identity was a complete lie.

‘She told me once she had never had an orgasm with a man in her entire life,’ he said.

These testimonies are also corroborated by the taped transcripts of Monroe’s sessions with Dr Ralph Greenson, the psychoanalyst she saw towards the end of her life.

‘What I told you is true when I first became your patient,’ she says in the transcripts.

‘I had never had an orgasm. I well remember you said an orgasm happens in the mind, not the genitals.’

While a recent biography by Banner attributes this to an alleged childhood ‘sexual abuse’ and her ‘bipolar moods’ later in life, other biographers hint that the struggle may have been more existential rather than an overly psychoanalytic interpretation. 

Monroe once said: ‘Everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like sort of a chunk of you. They kind of… take pieces out of you. I don’t think they realize it, but it’s like "rrrr do this, rrrr do that…" but you do want to stay intact – intact and on two feet.’

Monroe’s success and the pressure to keep her fresh, energetic, beautiful, flirtatious must have been immense.

It seems she was trapped by her celebrity sex goddess status, unable to lead a fulfilled life that would suite her sexuality.

Her heart and passion was, according to the Mail’s Michael Thornton, oriented towards women.

In the session transcripts Monroe also admitted to having sexual encounters with actresses Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1969, another star, Betty Grable, stated that she had found Monroe’s pursuit of her ‘sometimes scary’.

Apparently another female star Monroe pursued and propositioned was Judy Garland, who married three gay men among her five husbands.

She also seemed to have been in love with her acting coaches, Natasha Lytess and Paula Strasberg.

Shortly before Monroe signed with Columbia Pictures in 1948, she met Natasha Lytess, with whom she seemed to have had a love relationship.

In 1950, Monroe moved into Lytess’s apartment along with her father-figure, the venerable Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde.

When Hyde died from a heart attack in December 1950, Natasha rescued Marilyn from a suicide attempt with a drug overdose.

Monroe told her close friend, actor Ted Jordan, that she and Natasha were sleeping together: ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘Sex is something you do with people you like. What could be wrong with a natural act?’

The biography reveals baseball player Joe DiMaggio, whom Marilyn started to date in 1952 and later married, understandably didn’t get along with Natasha.

The relationship with both fell apart.

Later Monroe began studying at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula, with whom she seems to have developed a romantic relationship.

Monroe eventually married Arthur Miller which was as loveless and dispassionate as her other marriages and they divorced in January 1961.

Contrary to the popular rumors connecting her in secretive liaisons with the Kennedys, Dr Ralph Greenson testified that Monroe ‘was not sexually involved with either Kennedy brother or with any other man at the end of her life.’

In fact, it seems, she became a loner and recluse.

Whether hidden sexuality or a broken heart was piled on to that pressure or not, it seems to have been a huge problem.

On 5 August 1962, at 4.25am, Dr Ralph Greenson called the Los Angeles Police Department informing them he found Monore dead at her home. She was 36 years old. An autopsy recorded cause of death as ‘acute barbiturate poisoning’, resulting from a ‘probable suicide’.

Her untimely death made her an icon to this day so her image is still used as the symbol of eternal youth and beauty.

But the woman behind the glossy images was real and her life and work deserves responsible exploration, avoiding the temptation of gossipy titillation.

The truth about Monroe’s tragic death as well as sexuality may well have gone with her to her grave, but it seems she indeed struggled between the demands made on her and the need to stay ‘intact and on two feet’. If so, it’s a poigniant tale and we can only hope that, 50 years later, Norma Jeane aka Maryiln Monroe, can rest in peace.

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