Was Marilyn Monroe Going Bald…?

American Masters: Marilyn Monroe

Like most people I had always considered Marilyn Monroe to be a flawless beauty in every way, even though we all know she battled many demons in her private life.

Her golden hair really did seem to be her crowning glory – in fact you can buy ‘Marilyn Monroe’ wigs to this day.

It really did seem that despite all the bleaching, processing and Hollywood styling of this former brunette to tease it into that signature coiffure, not to mention the years of sleeping tablets, waking up tablets and anti-depressants Marilyn famously took (all of which can wreak a catastrophic effect on hair in terms of side-effects alone), she had been extraordinarily lucky with her hair.

I was therefore startled to read a newspaper article this week about a late British female newspaper columnist from the 1950s and 60s – Olga Franklin – whose private letters to her sister Beryl about what she really thought of the VIPs and stars she interviewed, were being published. One of her letters contained the following passage about meeting Marilyn Monroe when Marilyn came to England in 1956 to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Lawrence Olivier, accompanied by her new husband, playwright, Arthur Miller..

Dear Beryl,

Marilyn Monroe, who arrived here this week with husband Arthur Miller, is extraordinary. A woman with two faces. Perhaps we’re all like that? Only her two faces seem to contradict each other somehow.

Her first appearance was with someone’s overcoat over her head, you know the way they smuggle criminals into the Old Bailey, to avoid the cameras. Inside the door when they pulled the coat off, she was safe because no one could recognise that this was the star. Easy to see why she is renownedly unpunctual because the make-up and hair-do must take a long time. She looked like one of those girls who used to work in the old ABC cafes before the war, with white exhausted face and sweaty messy hair dyed too often.

Then our cameraman sent me climbing on the stair banisters high up to hold his flashlight and I got a shock looking down, seeing the famous blonde head was clearly bald on top, with the pink scalp showing through the sparse hairs.

A few days after we were all in attendance again, but this time at the studio, fenced off so that when the two ‘royals’ Miss Monroe and Mr Miller strolled in front of us, we were held in check behind a barrier.

Her looks were even more astonishing. The crumpled ABC waitress with no looks to speak of was gone, not a trace remaining.

The hair was freshly washed and set exquisitely with two soft loops forward over her cheeks leaving still enough hair for a chignon behind. The face, too, was transformed and was not just beautiful but with a luminous prettiness and charm.

Marilyn would have been 30 years old at the time and there is no reason to believe that Olga made up this startling revelation, being as it was never intended for public consumption, just her sister.

Of course if someone were to hold a flash bulb above say, Scarlett Johannson today and find that she had a bald patch, it would be all over the newspapers tomorrow, complete with phone image. However the 1950s were different times where a star’s cosmetic secrets were safe and their privacy better respected, save for any love affairs or other scandals, which were considered fair game.

My guess is that Marilyn may have suffered from Alopecia at some time as her front hair looks thick throughout her career and it is almost always brushed back in every photo which would have made hair loss hard to hide in an era pre-undetectable bonded lace. In addition she adopts this look in informal photos as well as the the obviously groomed studio portraits and stills..

So hat’s off to Marilyn Monroe if she achieved screen goddess status despite battling secret hair loss!  Thank goodness life is so much easier now  for those of us who don’t have access to an army of make-up artists and stylists, but DO have access to all the cosmetic advances which have been made since Marilyn’s day to achieve our own Hollywood hair.

*Extract from new book: ‘A Letter From Oggi’: The Letters of Olga Franklin, edited by RIchard Jaffa and published by Book Guild*