While the legend of Marilyn Monroe will always be closely associated with LIFE—her first cover shoot for the magazine, in April 1952, made by the great Philippe Halsman, remains one of the most famous and collectible covers in the history of the magazine—it might surprise some people to learn how seldom she actually appeared in the magazine itself.
There’s little question that LIFE recognized Marilyn’s singular, profound appeal from early on in her career, but she only graced LIFE’s cover six times while she was alive. (She appeared on several more covers after her death in August 1962, including later editions after the magazine ceased publishing as a weekly.) Six times—that’s fewer than Dwight Eisenhower, for example, while Liz Taylor holds the record with fourteen appearances on the cover of the premier photographic magazine of the age.
And yet . . . when one considers that Marilyn’s run of six covers occurred during a span of a mere 10 years, and that had she lived she might well have challenged Taylor’s supremacy, her close connection to the magazine—and, by extension, her centrality to the American conversation around fame, celebrity, sex and media in the 20th century—is cast in a much clearer, brighter light.
On top of all that, when one recalls that several of her covers are regarded as classics—her debut and a later Halsman, from 1959, of her jumping, glancing back over shoulder; the Ed Clark shot from 1953 featuring Marilyn and Jane Russell in form-fitting red sequined dresses; a Lawrence Schiller shot of a smiling Marilyn by a pool in June 1962, just two months before her death—the notion that Marilyn helped define what LIFE looked and felt like in the 1950s takes on far greater force.
(Speaking of the 1950s, please note what might be the most incongruous clash of word-and-image ever to appear on the cover of LIFE—or on the cover of any magazine, for that matter. In the very first slide in the gallery, and quite easily overlooked by anyone whose eyes are, understandably, drawn solely to the gorgeous woman gazing out from the April 17, 1952, issue of LIFE, one can read these rather dramatic, if head-scratching, words: THERE IS A CASE FOR INTERPLANETARY SAUCERS.)
In the end, the LIFE covers on which Marilyn appeared—we’re featuring seven here in this gallery, as well as spreads from the articles that accompanied them—are really just reminders of what a true movie star looked like six long decades ago. Seen today, more than 50 years after her death at the age of 36, do these pictures of Marilyn assume another, deeper resonance than they might have had for, say, a LIFE subscriber in Omaha or Minneapolis or a small town in North Carolina encountering them for the first time?
Probably, yes. But if we can, even for a little while, look at these LIFE covers of Marilyn with fresh eyes, keeping at bay the knowledge of what ultimately lay in store for the still-young, troubled, enigmatic superstar, there’s a chance that we, too, can see them all over again, as if for the very first time.