What a story. Born Norma Jean Baker as the illegitimate daughter of a poor woman with mental illness, passing her youth in foster homes and orphanages, then marrying a future-cop neighbor at age 16 who frowned on her modelling, leaving him and becoming Playboy's first centerfold in 1953, then making 29 movies (and these sad poems), all turning her, Marilyn Monroe, into the world's greatest star.
And then she was gone, at age 36.
"I never knew Marilyn Monroe," her first husband James Dougherty said after her death. "I knew Norma Jean. They were two different people."
Marilyn, and Norma Jean, died 50 years ago on August 5. Marilyn fan clubs are hosting plenty of events around LA in early August, including a pool party, bus tours of her sites and a 50th anniversary memorial ceremony. The biggie though is the August 4 luncheon at 20th Century Fox, where many of her films were made. The $75 luncheon gives you the rare opportunity of a lot tour too.
If you're interested in more Marilyn than just a rerun of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" or that Elton John song can provide, these sights can help:
An LA girl all the way, Marilyn was born 1 June, 1926 at the Los Angeles County Hospital, lived at several homes including the 1929 Spanish-revival home in Brentwood where she died in 1962. It's not open for view -- and down a rather private, dead-end road -- but there are several places you can visit.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Old interviews with Marilyn in "The Legend of Marilyn Monroe," a documentary narrated by her first/last director John Huston two years after her death, tells of how she used to try to fit her hands and feet in stars' spots on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She got one for herself in 1953, along with her co-star in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Jane Russell, outside the Grauman"s Chinese Theater. (The theater offers 20-minute tour for a whopping $13.50.) You can find Marilyn's star nearby, at 6774 Hollywood Blvd (Jane Russell's is at 6850).
This local attraction always goes big for Marilyn, but their temporary "Marilyn Monroe: The Exhibit" (through September 2, 2012) is the biggest collection of Marilyn memorabilia in the world. The exhibit includes first-time looks at photos of the star, her million-dollar honeymoon dress when she and Joe DiMaggio went to Tokyo, and even the Decadron vial left by her bedside at her death.
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park
Many stars are buried at this Westwood resting place (Farrah Fawcett, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Frank Zappa), but Marilyn was the first of them. Her remains are above-ground, in a crypt towards the northeast corner of the grounds. It's simply marked "Marilyn Monroe: 1926-1962." It's on the south-facing side of the wall of crypts -- and easy to spot, with the flowers and smears of lipstick fans have left. It's also just below a certain Richard Poncher, whose widow tried to sell the space on eBay for over $4 million in 2009. But didn't. You want it?
New York City
Manhattan served occasionally as Marilyn's home away from home, and she lived at several places, including a stint at the Waldorf Astoria.
That subway grate
Shot as a promo gimmick in 1954 for "The Seven Year Itch," Marilyn stood over a subway grate as gusts sent her skirt in all directions. It was shot outside 590 Lexington Ave, near 52nd St., while up to 5,000 onlookers snapped photos of the scene (see the photo in this New York Times piece). The actual scene in the film was redone at he Hollywood studio, but it's the New York one that captured the nation, along with angering new hubby Joe DiMaggio (who soon left her). The area looks a lot different now -- big office buildings everywhere -- but you can stand atop it yourself. Then go have a drink. A few blocks away, Subway Inn (143 E 60th St.) is a still-going dive bar that opened in 1937 and is fond of noting that it served Marilyn a time or two during the film shoot.
The Actors Studio
Marilyn was never happy with her "dumb blonde" image, so she did something about it. In 1955, she moved to New York and hung out with New Yorker-New Yorker intellectual types like Carl Sandberg and Truman Capote and studied at the famed non-profit The Actors Studio (432 W 44 St.), in a new location in a former church built in 1859. The director of the time Lee Strasberg -- perhaps best known as Hyman Roth in "The Godfather (Part II)" -- gave Marilyn's eulogy, and his wife Paula served as Marilyn's on-set acting coach till her death (much to the annoyance of directors). There are no tours, but you can audition.
The best place to get a sense of a Marilyn stomping-ground is around E 57th St. and Sutton Place, near the East River. She lived at 2 Sutton Place, then next door on the 13th floor of 444 E 57th St. with husband Arthur Miller. Two blocks down, the luxe 36 Sutton Place is the site of the penthouse from "How to Marry a Millionaire." Incidentally, Marilyn enjoyed going to the small park overlooking the Queensboro Bridge at E 58th St. -- the same spot Woody Allen used for the memorable dawn bench scene with Diane Keaton in "Manhattan."
Madison Square Garden
A couple months before her death, Marilyn sneaked away from the Hollywood set of "Something's Gotta Give" to jet across the country to sing "Happy Birthday" at JFK's birthday party May 29, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, at 34th and Seventh Ave. I'm sure the emcee regrets introducing her as the "late Marilyn Monroe," a joke regarding her famous tardiness and no-shows on set. She'd be fired from the film within two weeks, after repeated no-shows, then die a couple months later.
Misfits Flat, Nevada
About 20 miles east of Dayton, Nevada -- near Carson City -- two huge careers came to an end in a dry lake in a stark setting off any roads, where Marilyn protested a wild horse being tied down. "The Misfits," written by Marilyn's husband Arthur Miller (perhaps the wild horse was Marilyn?), was the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn. Gable would be dead before the premier (and Marilyn broken up with Miller). The area, at least, was renamed for the film, as Misfits Flat. It's quite the movie, a clear attempt to leave behind the dumb-blonde image for something more serious.
Hotel del Coronado
Some Like It Hot, one of the USA's most popular comedies of all time, sees Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis cross-dressing at a luxurious beach hotel -- all to escape the attention of mobsters they accidentally saw commit crimes, and then to woo Marilyn's affections. It's supposed to be Florida, but was shot in 1958 at the very real, very Victorian Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, which has been a star-studded spot since shortly after it opened in 1888. If you stay, book the original section of the hotel (not a new wing) and use the Del's antique elevator, complete with uniformed attendant.
In "Citizen Kane," Charles Foster Kane's last words (spoiler alert!) were for a lost sled from his childhood called "Rosebud." What was Marilyn's "Rosebud?" Well, per John Huston in "The Legend of Marilyn Monroe," the "symbol of a childhood that never happened" was the white lacquered piano her mom gave her during their short time living together. It's still around. But if you want to see it, you"ll have to talk to Mariah Carey, who bought it for over $600,000 in 1999.
-- Robert Reid is Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor and has stood on the famed subway grate (but not in a halter dress).
Originally published as Top Marilyn Monroe Sights Across the US on LonelyPlanet.com