Although she was to become one of world's most glamorous icons, Marilyn Monroe's start in life was very, very far from glamorous. Born in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, Norma Jeane Mortenson spent most of her childhood in and out of foster homes and orphanages. "No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl," she once said. "All little girls should be told they're pretty, even if they aren't."
By 16, Norma Jeane was a high school dropout and married. (A voracious reader and lover of the classics, she would later take literature courses at UCLA.) When her merchant marine husband was sent to the South Pacific, a 19-year-old Norma Jeane worked in a munitions factory in Southern California.
David Conover, a photographer working on a story for Yank magazine about women helping the war effort, photographed the curly-haired brunette assembling an airplane. He then referred her to another lensman, Bill Carroll, who was seeking a "good looking plain jane" to photograph for his portfolio and gave her $20 for the gig. From there, her modeling career was launched. She landed an agent and a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and divorced her first husband. Marilyn Monroe, the platinum-haired bombshell, was born. As Monroe later said, "It takes a smart brunette to play a dumb blonde."
Throughout her all-too-short life, Monroe had the rare ability to combine an intense sensuality with a genuine innocence. As her friend and favorite photographer, George Barris, observed. "She was a sweet little girl in a woman's body." In fact, when Barris photographed Monroe beside the waves in Santa Monica just weeks before her death at 36, she wore little makeup, but still conjured those special qualities. Monroe herself once explained she knew what the photographers said about her: "Don't let anyone tell you it's in her hips or her bosom. You know where it is. It's in her mind."
To see a lifetime of Monroe's milestones, click on this story in Parade.