Marilyn: What Size Was She Really?

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With Marilyn so often cited as an exemplar of ‘curvy’ beauty, comes the misconception that she was overweight. Several articles debunking this myth have appeared recently, on websites like Mental Floss and newspapers such as the Daily Mail.

The definitive article on this topic, however, comes from Immortal Marilyn’s Marijane Gray and can be read here.

UPDATE: Another excellent article on this topic has been posted by Scott Fortner on his MM Collection blog, measuring Marilyn’s true size from the original clothing in his possession.

Dr Gurdin and Marilyn

Ed Cronenwerth, 1948
Ed Cronenwerth, 1948

The upcoming sale of Marilyn’s medical files (at Julien’s in November) has spawned many sensationalist headlines. As I said in a previous post, I don’t approve of this sale. However, the files have raised some important points which have largely been overlooked – so I’m going to briefly address some of these issues here.

Most of these stories pertain to plastic surgery, but the files (from the collection of Dr Michael Gurdin) actually prove what sites like Danamo’s MM Pages have been saying all along – that Marilyn had very few surgical enhancements:

“1. Prior to the shooting of Ladies of the Chorus, (1948) Dr. Walter Taylor, an orthodontist specializing in cosmetic surgery, fixed her front teeth, which protruded slightly.
2. In 1950, Johnny Hyde arranged for her to have her nose and chin surgically perfected. The details are unknown. Rumor has it that they removed a piece of dead cartilage from her nose and added cartilage to her chin.”

The sale of the files was originally reported in an interesting article by Eric Kelsey and Sharon Reich for Reuters:

“The set of six X-rays and a file of doctors’ notes that offer a partial medical history of the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actress from 1950 to 1962, are expected to fetch between $15,000 and $30,000 at auction on November 9-10, said Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, California.

The notes written by Hollywood plastic surgeon Michael Gurdin appear to confirm speculation that Monroe, who epitomized glamour and set a standard of movie star beauty during the latter part of Hollywood’s golden era, went under the knife for cosmetic reasons.

The seller, who is so far unnamed, received the items as a gift from Gurdin.

Gurdin’s notes include references to a 1950 cartilage implant in Monroe’s chin, which he observed to have slowly begun to dissolve.”

What intrigues me most about the files is that they also mention the mysterious injury to her nose that Marilyn suffered in June 1962. It was attributed to a fall in the shower, although some biographers have disputed this.

Following the incident, Marilyn visited Gurdin’s office with her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson. These files are under the pseudonym ‘Joan Newman‘ – probably after Greenson’s daughter, Joan, and Leo Rosten’s novel, Captain Newman M.D., which was based on Greenson’s wartime experiences. Marilyn was reading the book in the weeks before her death. It was filmed in 1963, with Gregory Peck in the lead role.

At the time of her visit to Gurdin, Marilyn weighed 115 lb. And at 5 ft 6, this makes her quite slim – certainly not the plus-size beauty that some have claimed. Like all women, MM’s weight fluctuated at times – but even at her heaviest, she was still only 140 lb.

Finally, the files also reveal that Marilyn suffered from neutropenia – a low level of a white blood cell type, which can make patients vulnerable to bacterial infections.

Maybe this could help to explain why Marilyn was so susceptible to viruses throughout her short life. Also during filming of Something’s Got to Give, she caught a cold which quickly developed into acute sinusitis. Unfortunately, her bosses at Fox were unsympathetic, and her repeated absences from the set led to her being fired.

“The X-rays are dated June 7, 1962, after Monroe saw Gurdin following a late night fall and two months before the actress would die at age 36 from an overdose of barbiturates. The death was ruled a probable suicide.

The X-rays include Monroe’s frontal facial bones, a composite right and left X-ray of the sides of her nasal bones and dental X-rays of the roof of her mouth.

A set of three chest X-rays of Monroe from 1954 sold for $45,000 at a 2010 auction.

A self-published memoir by Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Norman Leaf in 2010 claimed that Monroe underwent cosmetic surgery on her chin in 1950, citing the same notes made by Gurdin, Leaf’s medical partner.

Leaf also states in his memoir that Monroe underwent a slight rhinoplasty procedure on the tip of her nose.

A radiologist’s notes included in the lot determined that there was no damage to Monroe’s nose from the fall, but a recent evaluation of the X-rays found a minute fracture, the auction house said.

Doctors used the name ‘Joan Newman‘ as Monroe’s alias on the X-rays which list her height as 5 feet, 6 inches (1.68 m) and her weight as 115 lb (52 kg).

Gurdin’s notes were first drawn up in 1958 when the actress complained about a ‘chin deformity’ and the note listed her married name, Marilyn Miller. She was married to playwright Arthur Miller from 1956 to 1961.

The notes also indicate that Monroe suffered from neutropenia, a low level of a white blood cell type, in 1956 while in England and had an ectopic pregnancy in 1957.”

Feminism, Body Image and ‘The Marilyn Meme’

Marilyn Monroe was celebrated for her ‘hourglass figure’ and was defiantly curvy in an era when most women didn’t consider gym membership a necessity.

While I’m glad that women feel empowered by Marilyn’s body confidence, there is a danger in turning her into something she wasn’t. Monroe watched what she ate and exercised, like actresses today.

This is one reason why I don’t much care for the internet memes which proclaim Marilyn’s body type as ‘hotter’ than other slimmer women, often contrasting her healthy shape with unflattering paparazzi shots of modern celebrities, some of whom may suffer from eating disorders.

I find it cruel to champion one woman’s body while mocking another. It is true that many women feel pressure to be thin, but this does not justify picking on slimmer women as unattractive.

‘The Marilyn Meme’ is now the subject of an article by Heather Cromarty, published at Shameless, a feminist magazine aimed at young women.

For the most part, I agreed with Cromarty’s argument, but she let herself down in the last paragraph with her one-sided, ill-informed view of Marilyn:

“The Monroe Meme seems about the furthest thing from healthy. This is a woman who abused alcohol and sleeping pills later in her life, this is a woman who (probably) died due to depression. But, hey, as long as someone thinks she looks good, I guess that’s what matters.”

I’m not saying that Marilyn didn’t have her issues with addiction and depression, but she also had many positive qualities and achieved a great deal in her life.

By condemning her because of the personal problems she faced, Cromarty under-estimates Monroe and the many women who admire her – not just for how she looked, but for all that she was.

Marilyn in the Age of the Hourglass

Marilyn on the set of ‘Let’s Make Love’, 1960 (photo by Richard C. Miller)

The recent passing of both Jane Russell and Elizabeth Taylor has stirred up nostalgia for the voluptuous sirens of the fifties – none more celebrated, of course, than Marilyn Monroe…

“In the hip, the bosom, the hair: More was more. Two curves were an hourglass. The arms carried a little flesh…

Lots of women, lots of movie stars were built like Taylor, full-figured, untoned, and uninhibited, with Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida completing an unmatched Trinity of mid-20th-century bodaciousness. From France, in the 1960s, there were Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.

Jane Russell died on the last day of February, meaning that, in less than a month, the movies lost two of its last legendarily heavenly bodies. In 1953, Russell and Monroe, the strapping brunette and the iconic blonde, left their footprints, handprints, and signatures alongside each other at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Russell and the Trinity embodied male sex fantasies while appearing to play shrewd roles in their own objectification. The gaze only made them stronger, which is what some exotic entertainers mention when talking about the thrill of their work…

It’s not just our feelings about stardom that have changed in the last 50 years. It’s our idea of the body. One of the joys of watching AMC’s Mad Men’ is the arch pleasure it takes in the archetypal body of the 1960s woman. The camera doesn’t ogle the hourglasses and pear shapes. It seems to study them with a kind of documentary care…”

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

Marilyn in Playboy: ‘The Juiciest Morsel’


“December 1953. Marilyn Monroe appears on the cover, and as the centerfold, of the first issue of Playboy magazine. Her three-page write-up begins with her measurements; even then, the dispute over them raged. They “have been reported as 35” 24” 37”, 37 ½” 25” 37 ½” and 37 ½” 23” 37”. Sometimes she’s 5’ 4” tall and weighs 120 pounds, but she may shift unexpectedly to 5’ 5 ½” and weigh in at 118.” Her BMI is thus either 20.6 or 19.3, both normal today. Even during a late-life depression, when her weight was a supposed 140 lbs, she was still in the normal range. According to Playboy, Monroe is “the juiciest morsel to come out of the California hills since the discovery of the navel orange.”

Book of Odds