Almost as soon as Norma Jeane Dougherty signed a contract with 20th Century Fox on August 24, 1946, the search for her new stage name was underway…
It’s been 72 years since studio executive Ben Lyon suggested she change her name to Marilyn Monroe, the actress whose name became synonymous with blonde bombshells she played in films.
And now her fans can see — and even own — proof of the origins of her name.
The above photograph — inscribed by Marilyn Monroe to Lyon: “Dear Ben, You found me, named me and believed in me when no one else did. My thanks and love forever. Marilyn” — will be on display at The Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles, beginning this Saturday Aug. 18 until Sep. 30. The photo of the duo, taken during the filming of The Seven Year Itch (1955), is expected to hit the auction block at the end of October. Considered to be one of the most important photographs in Hollywood history because it debunks myths about how she got her iconic stage name, it could fetch more than $100,000, according to Profiles in History CEO Joseph Maddalena, who runs the auction house that specializes in Hollywood memorabilia. He said photos autographed by Monroe usually fetch between $20,000 and $30,000.
So how was the name Marilyn Monroe chosen?
It was a team effort, according to one account of how it happened by Monroe biographer Donald Spoto. At the time, Lyon thought there were too many possible pronunciations of “Dougherty,” the surname of her soon-to-be ex-husband. The 20-year-old model — who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and later baptized Norma Jeane Baker — suggested Monroe, another surname on the mother’s side of the family, while Lyon came up with Marilyn because she reminded him of Marilyn Miller, the Ziegfeld Follies Broadway musical star who starred with him and W.C. Fields in Her Majesty, Love. (Miller and Lyon were also thought to have been romantically involved at one point ) It would be apt that the two performers would share the same name, in more ways than one. Spoto points out that not only were they similar on the surface — both blonde in appearance — but also because they both had complicated personal lives, including failed marriages.
It would also end up being an eerily prescient name choice because Miller died at 37, while Monroe died at 36.
But the story doesn’t end there, as many people continued suggesting other names before she settled on Marilyn Monroe. In an Oct. 1946 letter to a friend, she wrote that Clare Norman was also being considered as a screen name, and the names “Meredith” and “Carol Lind” were also reportedly floated, according to another Monroe biographer Lois Banner.
Marilyn Monroe clearly won out. However, it would be another decade before she legally changed her name to her stage name, which was in Feb. 23, 1956 (four months before she would marry Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller).
Correction: Sep. 5
The original version of this article misstated the name that appeared on the Aug. 24, 1946, contract with 20th Century FOX. It was Norma Jeane Dougherty, not Marilyn Monroe.