The call came from 20th Century Fox studios, and the invitation was irresistible. The studio had just signed “a hot tomato” and wondered if LIFE magazine photographer Ed Clark wanted to take some pictures of her.
The “hot tomato” was an obscure 24-year-old actress and model called Marilyn Monroe. She’d had some small parts in movies, but nothing that put her name on a marquee. Clark took her to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where, according to LIFE, Monroe read poetry and he took pictures, several of which were shown on TODAY Tuesday.
Clark sent the film to New York. Though LIFE has not published a print edition since April 2007, it still exists as a Web site, which reports that the editors back then replied to Clark via telegram: “Who the hell is Marilyn Monroe?”
The editors had other complaints about the photos of a young woman with pouty lips. They voiced them in a note filed with Clark’s photos in the magazine’s archives: “This take was overdeveloped and poorly printed.”
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And so the pictures sat in their file from August 1950 until just recently, when LIFE discovered the never-seen shots while digitizing their photo archives.
With what would have been Monroe’s 83rd birthday passing on Monday, LIFE has released the photos of the woman who would shortly take Hollywood and the world by storm and become one of the 20th century’s most iconic symbols of glamour.
Within less than two years, everybody would know who the hell Marilyn Monroe was. In April 1952, LIFE put her on its cover with the headline “Marilyn Monroe: The Talk of Hollywood.”
In 1953, she starred in the classic hits “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.” “The Seven Year Itch” would follow in 1955 and “Some Like It Hot” in 1959.
By 1962, after marriages to playwright Arthur Miller and Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio — plus a rumored affair with President John F. Kennedy — Monroe was dead, the victim of an overdose of barbiturates that was ruled probably accidental.
Slideshow: ‘Hot tomato’ (on this page) But there are few hints of what was to come in the 1950 photos, even though Monroe had already had a hard life, growing up in foster homes and orphanages and getting married at the age of 16 to a merchant marine sailor.
A photo taken of her in 1945 when she was 19 and working in a munitions factory launched her modeling career. She signed her first film contract at the age of 20 in 1946 and continued to work as a model.
Despite her tough life, Monroe looks as fresh as a mountain meadow in Clark’s photos — a young, beautiful woman still seemingly unspoiled by her experiences.
“She was unknown then, so I was able to spend a lot of time shooting her,” Clark would say in a 1999 interview.
Finally, his work is seeing the light of day.
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