Sex goddess Marilyn Monroe overdosed in 1962.

By Douglas Mendini
July 31, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

When she went to bed, Marilyn Monroe would take her phone out into the hall, cover it with pillows, and close the door to sleep in the absolute solitude her celebrity prohibited by day. But at about 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1962, Eunice Murray, the housekeeper at Monroe’s Brentwood, Calif., home, noticed that there was no phone outside her bedroom. Murray called Monroe’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who arrived shortly to find the actress naked on her bed, surrounded by pill bottles, clutching the phone. Greenson summoned Monroe’s physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, who pronounced the 36-year-old sex queen dead—of an overdose of prescription drugs, an apparent suicide, the reasons uncertain. If all actresses hit a career wall at a certain age, Monroe was approaching one of forbidding scale. After parlaying her lusty girlishness into a 30-movie career that defined “sex symbol” for the postwar era, she was entering middle age, though still gorgeous and a gifted comedian. Clearly despondent in her final months, she was fired from her last film, the George Cukor comedy Something’s Got to Give, for missing more than a third of the film’s 33 shooting days. Hollywood whispered that she was finished. Personally, too, Monroe seemed stalled, unattached after a decade with the power to grab the best catches in the world—including Joe DiMaggio, playwright Arthur Miller (the last two of her three ex-husbands), and, allegedly, John F. Kennedy.

Though divorced from Monroe for seven years, DiMaggio organized her funeral, barring all but 35 of her friends from the ceremony. Today, Monroe’s grave at Westwood Memorial Park is a pop-culture shrine, visited by some 3,000 fans annually. Yet it’s just one among thousands of memorials in the form of books (Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography), films (HBO’s Norma Jean and Marilyn), songs (Elton John’s original “Candle in the Wind”), articles, and licensed products (Marilyn merlot) that, cumulatively, have made the former Norma Jean Baker not only one of the great pop legends of the 20th century but an all-purpose intellectual metaphor and an international industry.

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