Untold numbers of books, magazine and newspaper articles have been written about the all-too-short Greek tragedy of a life that was Marilyn Monroe’s. Her sad childhood, career struggles, failed high-profile relationships, alleged substance abuse and finally her still-mysterious death have all been chronicled, explored and analyzed by many who knew her, and more still who didn’t. In this age of the internet, just about every detail of the movie star’s life can be located: the addresses she lived, schools she attended, cars she drove, her astrological chart, the LA County Coroner’s autopsy report…you name it and it’s probably online. The veracity of that information is another story, however. We do know for sure that the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson (later Baker, then Dougherty before becoming the Hollywood construct that was Marilyn Monroe) on June 1, 1926, died August 5, 1962, and even now—54 years later—her transcendent beauty, charisma and legend live on. Seems that people still can’t get enough Marilyn Monroe.
She was a Los Angeles native, perhaps the original California Golden Girl. Through determination, hard work and a little luck, she parlayed her natural assets into a spot at the highest reaches of the film acting business. Marilyn was a true star, one whose every move, every love affair, every setback and travesty was chronicled by the tabloid press of her day. Her face and figure were familiar all over the globe…and they still are today.
And Marilyn, like so many others then and now, succumbed several times to the tempting siren call of the Monterey Bay area. The Salinas Californian documented her first known visit of August 5, 1948: “…she came here to help promote a diamond sale at Carlyle’s Jewelers…the store had hired a starlet named Noreen Nash, but Nash had to cancel. So Monroe filled in. Patrons squeezed in. Marilyn flashed her brilliant smile. She chatted in an amiable way and autographed pictures of herself. That day the jewelry store sold lots of diamonds.”
No doubt. Diamonds, after all, are a girl’s best friend.
The starlet stayed around for about a week, staying at the Jeffrey Hotel on Main Street. While here, she evidently made appearances at several service club luncheons. It was at one of those meetings that representatives of Castroville, an agricultural town 15 miles from Salinas that— then and now—specializes in the growing of artichokes, had the bright idea to make the ambitious future movie star the “California Artichoke Queen. ”
There are many stories about this event, with many, many different versions and details of what occurred that day and why. In fact, if published photos of Marilyn wearing the Artichoke Queen sash didn’t exist, the whole seemingly implausible episode could easily be viewed as apocryphal, an urban myth.
One particularly far-fetched story claims that the California Artichoke & Vegetable Growers Corporation enlisted Monroe to “put some shine on an industry for decades controlled by New York mobster Ciro “the Artichoke” Terranova,” according to a 2011 Bloomberg article. Another says that Marilyn enjoyed her fresh artichoke hearts covered in sugar.
A few years later, Marilyn returned to Monterey County, this time to do what she had set her sights on doing: act in a Hollywood movie. Some scenes for the 1952 potboiler “Clash by Night” were filmed on Cannery Row, then a still-bustling sardine-processing district. She was by no means the international superstar she was to become: Marilyn’s salary for this film was $500 per week.
Still, that was an improvement. Three years earlier when she appeared in the Marx Brothers’ “Love Happy,” she was paid a paltry $100 per week. Incidentally, Groucho Marx told the story of how the movie’s producers asked three actresses vying for a part in that film to walk past the comic icon. The one Groucho decided was the best walker would be awarded the role. The third girl was Marilyn. He said about her : “How could you possibly choose anyone but that last one?”
Already established as a big box-office draw, actress Barbara Stanwyck is the star of “Clash by Night,” and Marilyn plays the role of Peggy, the girlfriend of Stanwyck’s character’s brother. We first see Peggy as she awakes for her shift in a cannery—she is luminously beautiful, in the way Hollywood depicts women in the morning— fully made up, every hair in place. The next scene has her sorting fish, then meeting her boyfriend after work, strolling down what was then Ocean View Boulevard, munching a candy bar. She’s dressed in work clothes, jeans and a man’s shirt, but somehow she manages to exude simmering sex appeal—even in that drab costume. Marilyn was never what one would call a virtuoso actress, but here, she is still very green. In commenting on Stanwyck’s patience and professionalism, the movie’s director Fritz Lang said: “When Marilyn missed her lines—which she did constantly—Barbara never said a word.”
In 2010, Vanity Fair published excerpts from the book “Fragments,” a compilation of Marilyn’s own writings. The book contains reams of letters, diaries and poetry jotted down during the course of her 36 years. This diary entry (grammatical errors are hers) is thought to date from the time of the filming of “Clash by Night.” It’s also around this time that the actress began dating one of the most famous baseball players of his time, recently retired New York Yankee (and Italian-American) Joe DiMaggio:
“caught a Greyhound Bus from Monterey to Salinas. On the Bus I was the person woman with about sixty Italian fishermen and I’ve never met sixty such charming gentlemen—they were wonderful. Some company was sending them downstate where their boats and (they hoped) fish were waiting for them. Some could hardly speak english not only do I love Greeks [illegible] I love Italians. they’re warm, lusty and friendly as hell—I’d love to go to Italy someday.”
Two years later—when Marilyn was a big star—she put in an appearance a little bit south of Monterey County. She and the Yankee Clipper tied the knot in a San Francisco civil ceremony on January 14, 1954, and proceeded south toward Los Angeles by automobile. The newlyweds spend their first night as man and wife at the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo.
The next day, a reporter from the local newspaper spotted the celebrities having lunch at that establishment and phoned his newsroom to summon a photographer. San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune snapper Paul Nelson arrived on the scene and immediately spotted them. According to a November 13, 2013 story published by that paper (now the Tribune), Nelson said to DiMaggio, “I’m with the press. I would like to shoot your picture but I know you’re on your honeymoon. You name it.”
“My wife doesn’t have any make-up,” Joltin’ Joe replied. “I’d really rather not.” And that was that. Respecting their privacy, Nelson retreated. What a contrast that story illustrates. In today’s tabloid press, the couple would probably have a name like “Marjoe,” or “Monaggio” and be relentlessly hounded by paparazzi.
Had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would have celebrated her 90th birthday on June 1, 2016. As with many much-too-early celebrity deaths, it’s interesting to speculate on what kind of work she would have produced, if she had been able to tame her inner turmoil and sustain a stable, healthy life. We’ll never know.
But chances are, as do so many of the rich and famous, she most certainly would have come back to the Monterey Peninsula to relax and enjoy all the pleasures it has to offer.