Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated female
icons over the past sixty years
– dead at 36.
Kurt Cobain, grunge/rock artist that was the voice
of a generation with music that is still instantly recognisable today
– dead at 27.
Princess Diana, the people’s princess, loved by the
public during and after her time as royalty and as a humanitarian
– dead at 36.
James Dean, an actor that portrayed a voiceless
generation and became a fashion icon in his own right
– dead at 24.
These people have all gone down in history as some of the most important and influential figures of a life time. But were they really the best at what they did, or did they die at an age before they became forgettable or could be bettered?
Kurt Cobain formed the band Nirvana with long time friend Krist Novoselic in 1985. Together they released their début album Bleach via an independent label in 1989. It was when Cobain signed with DGC Records and released the album Nevermind with the smash-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit that he became an icon and a “spokesman of a generation”. Cobain and his band had millions of fans worldwide, selling 25 million albums in the United States, and over 50 million albums worldwide. Cobain’s personal life – much to his dismay – was also a figure of much public appeal. His relationship with Courtney Love, his subsequent child with her and his battle with depression and drug-addiction were all magnified and scrutinized by the media, the public and his fans. Cobain’s misery and hate were poured into his music and his music was bought and cherished by his fans. But his public success all came to a shocking and abrupt end on April 8th in 1994. Cobain was found in his Lake Washington home by an electrician; his death was officially ruled as suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. He was 27.
Diana Spencer was the fourth of five children, born into a wealthy family who were close allies to the Royal Family dating back many generations. Spencer, whilst having known the Prince Charles of Wales for many years, began dating him in the summer of 1980. It was soon after, in February of 1981 that they announced their engagement, and were subsequently married on the 29th of July that year. During her time as a Princess, Diana bore two sons – William and Henry (Harry) – and was heavily involved in AIDS and leprosy charities, and was well-known for her work with the homeless, drug-addicts and youth. It was through her overwhelming popularity with the general public that she came to be known as the ‘People’s Princess’. However with her infamous divorce with Prince Charles in 1990, Diana was in the public eye for a very different and bitter reason. Private phone-calls between the pair to each of their secret lovers (Charles to Camilla Shand and Diana to James Hewitt) were both leaked and published by the media through Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story. Following her divorce, Diana was romantically linked to both Hasnat Khan and Dodi Fayed. Khan, who she referred to to friends as “the love of her life” was never to be. Within a month of their relationship ending she began seeing Fayed, a film producer. After a nine-day vacation on the yacht of Fayed’s father on the French and Italian Riviera, both he and Diana headed to Paris en-route back home to London. It was whilst leaving Hôtel Ritz Paris just after midnight on the 31st of August, 1997, that the pair made a quick escape out the hotel’s rear entrance where they were swiftly followed by the waiting paparazzi. It was three minutes later, travelling at a speed of 105 km/h, that the 1994 Mercedes-Benz S280 they were travelling in collided head-on with the 13th pillar in the Place de l’Alma underpass. Her last words addressed the paparazzi, all taking photos of her dying body. “Oh my god. Leave me alone” she said. She died at the scene. She was 36.
James Dean was only nine years old when his mother died, leaving only he and his father behind. Sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Dean spent the rest of his childhood growing up on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana. After graduating high school, Dean moved to Santa Monica where he studied Pre-Law and moved back in with his father and his new step-mother. Although after one semester at Santa MonicaCollege, Dean changed his major to Drama at UCLA which resulted in estrangement from his father. Two years later, Dean moved to New York City to pursue more heavily a career as an actor, and quickly acceptance into the Actors Studio alongside peers such as Marlon Brando. After two years of minor roles in commercials and tele-movies, Dean was cast as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. Playing the misunderstood outcast young Cal made Dean and the film a hit and helped him secure his most famous and iconic role, as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. Stark was a moody, rebellious teenager, outcast from his peers on his first day of school. With the word ‘teenager’ only being around for less than a decade when the film was released, it is said that in this role, Dean gave a voice and a face for the misunderstood youth of the day, and set about becoming the poster boy for what it was to be a teenager. Dean’s costume in the film; blue jeans, white t-shirt and red windbreaker also became must have items for teenagers all around the world. Alongside his passion for acting, Dean also had a love for fast cars and racing. Whilst he was barred from racing by the director of Dean’s third film Giant, Dean entered in three races between March and May in 1955, coming in the top three in two of them. It was in July of this year that Dean put down a deposit on a Porsche 550 Spyder and nicknamed it, “Little Bastard” after a nickname given to the actor by Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studios for being difficult. Dean being the proud owner of such a car showed it off to actor Alec Guinness shortly after he bought it, Guinness took an immediate dislike to the car and told Dean, “if you get that car, you’ll be found dead in it this time next week”, seven days later, Dean met his end whilst at the wheel of “Little Bastard”, heading west on Route 66 wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt and a red windbreaker, he collided head on with a car taking a left turn onto a country road. He died instantly. He was 24.
Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson to a single mother, Gladys Baker (nee Monroe), a mentally unstable woman who left her third child to be raised by foster parents. When Mortenson was seven years old, her mother visited her foster home in a rage and demanded that she be allowed to take her daughter back, when the foster mother refused, Gladys ran into the home, stuffed Mortenson into a duffel bag and tried to flee the scene. Months later, after Gladys bought a home, Mortenson was made to move back in with her mother – but only a few months later she was declared a ward of the state after Gladys was put into the Norwalk State Hospital. Mortenson met her first or three eventual husbands, James (Jim) Dougherty in 1942, and they married months later. One year on, at the beginning of World War II, Dougherty was shipped to the Pacific and Mortenson was left to live with his mother. During Dougherty’s time at war, Mortenson worked alongside other women inspecting parachutes and spraying aeroplanes with fire retardant. During her work, an army officer was sent to her workplace to shoot “morale boosting” photographs of women helping the war-effort back home, Norma was chosen as a subject and after being photographed the photographer encouraged her to pursue modeling as a career. The naturally brunette Mortenson bleached her hair blonde to fit in with the desired look from casting agents and was quick to receive work. After being offered a six-month contract, her agent decided that Norma Jeane was not an appropriate nor successfully viable name for a star, and the name Marilyn Monroe was created from her mother’s maiden name, Monroe, with Marilyn given to her because two M’s was thought to be lucky in a name. During her illustrious career Monroe starred in thirty-three films, one of the most iconic being Some Like It Hot, which features one of Monroe’s most famous scenes in which her white dress billows above her whilst standing on a subway exhaust fan – this scene also brought about her divorce from third husband Arthur Miller who became jealous after seeing the scene taped multiple times. Monroe was featured on the first ever cover of Playboy magazine in December 1953, with nude photographs of Monroe from 1949 appearing in the magazine. Monroe is also credited as a talented singer, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President John F. Kennedy on his forty-fifth birthday and ‘Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend’ in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe suffered many issues throughout her life, from her disturbing childhood watching her mother forcibly taken to a mental hospital “screaming and laughing”, two miscarriages and one ectopic pregnancy, Monroe also had acquired an extensive variety of drugs to deal with her insomnia and sinusitis, though it is stated that she wasn’t addicted to drugs as “she could give up use without withdrawals”. It was August 5th, 1962 at 4:25am, after a final phone call to President Kennedy that Monroe was found at her home. She had died of a barbiturate overdose. She was 36.
These four stars have all kept their shine intact since their untimely demises, but why?
Both Dean and Monroe were notoriously hard to deal with whilst on set, and made many enemies throughout their careers. Dean was nominated for two Oscars, both posthumously, and won one Golden Globe for his final role in Giant. Monroe was nominated for two BAFTA awards, and won one Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot, so both were talented actors in their own right, but not every actor is remembered and held in such esteem as Dean and Monroe. Is it their untimely, and undeniably fascinating, demise that make their talents timeless, or did they leave enough of a mark on the world whilst they were alive to deem them unforgettable to society?
Cobain, much like Dean, was a voice for the voiceless, with songs so powerful and full of the angst of so many worldwide. Cobain was a fearless, yet reluctant leader, and brought the grunge genre to mainstream music. His rises and falls, and rises again, with drugs and near-death experiences were lapped up by his fans who celebrated his numerous returns to the stage after these countless incidents, although his eventual death was seen as a shock and an unspeakable tragedy. Cobain and Nirvana’s music is still as popular and as relevant today as it was upon its release, and his death at the age of twenty-seven marks him as a member of the ’27 Club’ with other celebrities such as Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix who all died at the same age.
Princess Diana, the People’s Princess, is remembered as much for her stint as part of the royal family as she is for the charitable work during her time in and out of the palace gates. Her celebrity lifestyle brought a new life to that of the royals, and brought t he tabloids into the life and relationships of the family. Her death further cemented Diana and her life as more celebrity than royal, and the public outpouring of emotion ensured that Lady Diana was known more for her own doings than simply her marriage to Charles.
These four icons are just as popular now as they were during the peak of their careers, and they continue to outshine their peers and successors even in death. The certain ‘x-factor’ that they all possess means that their names are not to be soon forgotten, nor the message that their lives brought forth.
“Live fast, die young, and leave behind a beautiful corpse” – James Dean