The cars of Marilyn Monroe, 60 years after her death

Share
marilyn monroe - 1953
Alfred Eisenstaedt

Marilyn Monroe is such a colossal cultural and entertainment icon that she remains popular today, six decades after her death. We know Marilyn’s movies, her famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” performance for John F. Kennedy, and all those iconic black and white photos—particularly the image of her standing on a ventilation grate in New York City while the wind blows up her dress.

It’s hard to fathom that the world’s most famous Marilyn passed away 60 years ago on August 5, 1962, long before many of her contemporary admirers were born. Officially, the 36-year-old actress died of a drug overdose, but conspiracy theorists believe something more sinister happened. (Feel free to go down that internet rabbit hole yourself.)

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, Marilyn’s magnetic personality and show-stopping looks rocketed her to stardom. In addition to her love for acting, singing, and, of course, the spotlight, it appears she also had a fondness for automobiles. Marilyn especially liked convertibles. While some researchers suggest she owned a Ford or Pontiac convertible in the late 1940s—which was repossessed and resulted in her posing nude for a calendar so she could pay to get it back—multiple media sources could find only three cars registered in her name. All were ragtops.

1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible

1953 Cadillac 62 Eldorado special convertible
Marilyn Monroe received a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible similar to this one from Joe DiMaggio. Cadillac/GM

In 1952, recently retired New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio asked a friend to arrange a date with the Hollywood siren, and the two were immediately smitten with each other, much to Marilyn’s amazement. “I was surprised to be so crazy about Joe,” Monroe wrote in her autobiography. “I expected a flashy New York sports type, and instead I met this reserved guy who didn’t make a pass at me right away. I had dinner with him almost every night for two weeks. He treated me like something special. Joe is a very decent man, and he makes other people decent, too.”

The two stars fell in love, and DiMaggio—12 years her senior—quickly became Marilyn’s advisor and protector. They were married in January 1954, the second marriage for each. During their courtship, DiMaggio gifted Marilyn a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, which oozed opulence and packed a 5.4-liter V-8 that delivered 200+ horsepower. Priced at an astronomical $7750 (about $86,000 today), only 532 Eldorados were built that year.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alas, the car (later immortalized as a diecast toy) remained with Marilyn longer than DiMaggio did. Her flirtatious personality made the more-reserved Yankee Clipper jealous, and he didn’t appreciate how much his wife flaunted her sexuality. DiMaggio was on the set—and reportedly became furious—when she filmed her famous flying skirt scene for Some Like It Hot, and he later asked her to retire so they could start a family. In October 1954, after only nine months of marriage, Marilyn filed for divorce, claiming she was a victim of “mental cruelty.” The movie star would go on to wed playwright Arthur Miller in 1956 (see below), and their marriage also ended in divorce, in 1961.

Apparently, Marilyn and DiMaggio never lost their affection for each other, and the baseball star even tried to counsel her as she battled depression and drug use in the months leading up to her death. His lawyer and friend Morris Engelberg said DiMaggio was so devastated by Marilyn’s demise that he reportedly refused to eat in any restaurant that had her photo on the wall, and he placed roses on her grave three times a week for decades. When DiMaggio died in March 1999, his final words were, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.”

Perhaps someday we’ll also get to see the car. Its whereabouts are unknown.

1954 Cadillac Series 62 convertible

Marilyn Monroe 1954 Cadillac Series 62 convertible
Marilyn Monroe received a 1954 Cadillac Series 62 convertible for appearing on Jack Benny’s CBS television show. Facebook/The Hollywood Garage/Milton Greene

Although not quite as upscale as the Caddy that DiMaggio gave her, Marilyn’s 1954 Cadillac Series 62 convertible comes with a great backstory. On September 13, 1953, the movie star faced her fear of performing in front of a live audience and made her first television appearance on CBS’ The Jack Benny Program. Flawlessly performing a comedy skit with Benny, who clearly adored her, Marilyn’s appearance gave the show a significant ratings bump.

At the end of the program, Benny told the audience, “I’m really quite quite flattered, and I feel highly honored that I was able to have Miss Monroe for my first show (of the ’53 season), and I do want to thank 20th Century Fox [which owned Marilyn’s contract] so much.”

Although some reports suggest Benny showed his appreciation after the fact by giving the actress the triple-black Series 62 convertible, The Hollywood Garage says it was agreed upon beforehand. Images of the contract were posted on Facebook.

“Artist’s compensation for this performance of services hereunder shall be a new 1954 Standard soft-top Cadillac convertible automobile, which shall be delivered to Artist in 1954,” the contract reads. “In this connection, in order to facilitate the delivery of such automobile to Artist as soon as possible, CBS shall promptly place an order for the same with a Cadillac Distributor, and CBS will exercise its best efforts to ensure that no unnecessary delay occurs with respect to such delivery.”

The contract was signed two days prior to Marilyn’s appearance. Although it called for a “standard Cadillac soft-top,” she received Eldorado wire wheels.

Marilyn Monroe and Jack Benny 1953
CBS

A 1954 Series 62 convertible retailed for $5738 (about $63,700 today), so the network’s generosity was impressive, considering that at the time few celebrities were paid for television appearances. Marilyn, in fact, inadvertently endorsed Chanel No. 5 perfume without compensation when, in a 1952 interview, she said she went to bed each night wearing nothing but “five drops of Chanel No. 5,” an eyebrow-raising revelation that immediately boosted sales.

The 1954 Cadillac was lower and sleeker than previous Cadillacs, and Marilyn’s featured a 230-hp, 5.4-liter V-8 mated to a four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, along with exhaust tips that exited through upswept bumper extensions.

What happened to the car? No one knows for sure—or is willing to say—but The Hollywood Garage has a guess. “We strongly believe she sold it to [actor] Robert Wagner, but have yet to confirm that.”

1956 Ford Thunderbird

Ford Thunderbird rear three-quarter
Julien's Auctions

Perhaps Marilyn’s best-known car—likely because it’s the only one in the public eye—is her 1956 Ford Thunderbird. The Raven Black convertible T-Bird sold for $490,000 at Julien’s “Icons & Idols: Hollywood” auction in November 2018, which speaks volumes about Marilyn Monroe’s iconic status, since a 1956 Thunderbird in #2 (Excellent) condition and without celebrity provenance carries an average value of $41,600.

Julien’s explained that Monroe’s business partner and personal photographer, Milton Greene, purchased the Thunderbird from Westport Motors in Westport, Connecticut, on December 20, 1955 and gave it to the legendary movie actress as a Christmas gift, registering it under the name of Marilyn’s corporation, Marilyn Monroe Productions.

Greene’s wife, Amy, said she and Monroe would often go for rides in the car. “Marilyn liked to drive,” Greene said in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. “We’d take the convertible and with the top down, we’d go sailing along the highway. We both liked to feel the wind in our faces and the warmth of the heater on our legs.”

Monroe Miller Thunderbird high angle wave
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Fans are likely familiar with the car because of a more frequent riding companion of Marilyn’s—her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman). When Monroe and Miller married on June 28, 1956, published reports at the time suggested the couple drove the Thunderbird to both their civil ceremony and private wedding two days later.

The historic T-Bird is powered by a 225-hp, 312-cubic-inch V-8 engine mated to a Ford-O-Matic automatic gearbox. Top speed is 110+ mph. The Thunderbird features a black-and-white interior, Continental kit, and both a removable hard top with porthole windows, and a canvas convertible top.

After more than six years of ownership—and a year after her divorce from Miller—Marilyn gifted the car to young John Strasberg, son of Monroe’s acting coach Lee, for his 18th birthday in 1962. She died several months later.

The Thunderbird’s whereabouts were unknown for more than five decades until a collector tracked it down and purchased it from the Strasberg estate. The anonymous owner then hired Prestige Thunderbird, Inc., of Santa Fe Springs, California, to restore it, and the minty fresh T-Bird sold for nearly a half-million dollars four years ago.

Other cars Marilyn flirted with

Marilyn Monroe Chrysler 300 convertible Hollywood Hills Los Angeles California
Marilyn and a 1962 Chrysler 300 convertible, photographed just months before her death.

Marilyn was photographed with so many cars over the years—like MG, Kaiser-Frazer, even Land Rover, to name a few—that some have mistakenly assumed that one or more of them belonged to her. Case in point: a 1962 Chrysler 300 convertible used in a photoshoot with famed photographer George Barris. As writer Patrick Smith explains, while Marilyn was shooting Something’s Got to Give, a film that was plagued by her emotional struggles and never completed, the actress bought a home in Brentwood. Although her new home may have been considered for a shooting location, a photo session with Barris in June 1962 was held outside instead, with Marilyn sharing the limelight with the Chrysler 300.

“The house, the backyard, and the car were borrowed props belonging to George’s friend Tim Liemert, who lived in North Hollywood Hills,” Smith wrote in 2012. “The truth was Marilyn’s house was largely vacant at the time. She was waiting for lots of furniture and decorations she purchased in Mexico to arrive, so a nearby house was used. In all likelihood, the 1962 Chrysler 300 convertible belonged either to George Barris or Tim Leimert. It’s a shame in a way, because if Marilyn had to choose a glamorous car other than a Cadillac, a 300 convertible fits the bill.”

It certainly does. It was, after all, a convertible.

Marilyn Monroe's driver's license, 1956
California DMV

Comments

Share Leave comment
Read next Up next: According to You: 5 ways to beat the summer heat in your classic