She was the most photographed woman in America, and very likely the most peripatetic. There was something of the pilgrim about her, for she was a ceaseless wanderer in search of herself. And even after 20th Century-Fox had rechristened her Marilyn Monroe, she briefly took the name Journey Evers, as if to signify the continuous motion of her life.

The official certificate of her birth in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, records her name as Norma Jeane Mortenson, but no one was quite certain of her father’s identity. “I was probably a mistake,” she said years later. “My mother didn’t want me. I probably got in her way, and I must have been a disgrace to her.” This was an accurate assessment, for Gladys Baker, a nomadic flapper terrified of responsibility, gave her two-week-old baby over to the care of a foster family. For seven years the child lived with her grandmother’s neighbors, Albert and Ida Bolender, a sober and devout couple, in a four-room bungalow in Hawthorne, near what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“She didn’t come very much,” Monroe later said of her mother. “She was just the woman with the red hair.” But in 1933 Gladys swept out to Hawthorne, packed her daughter’s meager wardrobe and moved with her into a cramped apartment at 6012 Afton Place in Hollywood, near the studios where she worked as a film cutter alongside her equally bohemian friend, Grace McKee. Frequent trips to the movie palaces on Hollywood Boulevard—the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Pantages—now replaced Sunday school and hymn singing.

Within three months Gladys had obtained a bank loan, and in one afternoon moved everything she and her daughter owned into a six-room house at 6812 Arbol Drive, not far from the Hollywood Bowl. The item that settled Gladys’s mind on this particular residence was a Franklin baby grand piano, painted white. For Gladys Baker, as for most Depression-era moviegoers, a white piano was a totem of better times.

Alas, they did not come, for Gladys, suffering from a violent reaction to some pills she’d taken for nervous tension, was carted off to a hospital psychiatric ward. “I haven’t known my mother intimately,” Monroe said, “but I always tried to help her financially when I could. We never enjoyed a normal mother-daughter relationship, just as I never had anything like a permanent home.”

In 1935, after living with Grace McKee and then McKee’s mother, Norma Jeane was moved to the Los Angeles Orphans Home. Her file described “a normal, healthy girl. . . who seems content and uncomplaining and also says she likes her classes.” Even more, Norma Jeane liked the escape provided by the movies, and she was enchanted by McKee’s suggestion that, with the right hair and makeup, she might be the next Jean Harlow.

“I was never used to being happy in those years,” Monroe recalled. Indeed, a supervisor at the Orphans Home noted that by 1937 she seemed “anxious and withdrawn . . . and at such times she stutters slightly. . . . If she is not treated with much reassurance and patience at such times, she appears frightened. I recommend her to be put with a good family.”

That advice was not taken. During the next few years Norma Jeane was shuttled back and forth between the homes of friends and relatives. Fearing a return to the orphanage, in 1942, just weeks before her sixteenth birthday, she dropped out of high school to marry a handsome twenty-one-year-old named James Dougherty. “I never had a choice,” she said. “There’s not too much to say about it. It was like a dream that never really happened. I guess we were too young.”

Ensconced in a one-room bungalow in Sherman Oaks, she tried to rise to the demands of being a suitable housewife for an independent if kindly fellow who was soon to ship out to war, and from whom, after four years of mostly separate lives, she would be divorced. “I knew she was too young,” Dougherty reflected, “and that her feelings were very easily hurt. She never held a grudge in her life. She called me ‘Daddy,’ and she called herself my Baby.”

She brought with her some books, pictures and records and her wardrobe. These were her possessions until shortly before her death.

When Dougherty was sent to the Southeast Asian war zones, Norma Jeane felt abandoned once again. A drab life with her mother-in-law in North Hollywood was relieved by work at the Radioplane Company in nearby Burbank—where she was first photographed by an army motion-picture unit in 1945. “An army corporal by the name of David Conover told me what to wear and what shade of lipstick, etc.,” Norma Jeane wrote to Grace McKee, “and he said that by all means I should go into the modeling profession . . . that I photographed very well. He is strictly business, which is the way I like it.”

By the spring of 1945 she was becoming known among Los Angeles photographers as a dream subject. Cooperative, eager and full of good humor, she tossed her curly, chestnut-colored hair, flashed her blue-green eyes, smiled brightly and gazed unblinkingly at the camera, maintaining even an awkward stance with no display of impatience or discomfort. Something fresh and lively seemed to spring to life just before the shutter clicked or the film rolled.

An appointment with a movie studio was perhaps inevitable, and a screen test at Fox in July 1946 led to the name change and a contract that paid her seventy-five dollars a week. Only when it was renewed for a second six months was she finally cast in her first too-negligible roles (in Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! and Dangerous Years, both in 1948). But no one took much notice of just another pretty contract player.

In 1948, with help from Lucille Ryman (director of the talent department at MGM) and her husband, actor John Carroll, Monroe moved to the Studio Club in Hollywood, a two-minute walk from the Los Angeles Orphans Home. “I felt like I was living on my own for the first time,” she would say. From there she went to Columbia Studios, at Sunset and Gower, where she sang in a B movie called Ladies of the Chorus (1948). There too she met her first drama coach, an intense woman named Natasha Lytess. By the summer of 1949 she had also met the powerful William Morris Agency executive Johnny Hyde. Thirty-one years her senior, he was instantly besotted, left his family and moved with Monroe into a rented house at 718 North Palm Drive, which she tried to enliven with reproductions of great art she had clipped from books—Fra Angelico, Dürer and Botticelli were among her favorites. At her bedside she placed a framed photo of Eleonora Duse. “Johnny inspired me to read good books, to enjoy good music, and he started me talking again. I’d figured early in life that if I didn’t talk I couldn’t be blamed for anything.”

She cared little for things and owned no jewelry. “I’m not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.”

But she still maintained a one-room cinder-block apartment at the modest Beverly Carlton Hotel on Olympic Boulevard, where she got mail. Thanks to Hyde, she also began to receive paychecks—for small roles in (among a half-dozen pictures) The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve (both 1950). Her screen time was brief, her impact tremendous.

In 1950, just before Hyde’s death, Monroe accepted an offer from Natasha Lytess to share her one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. She brought with her some books, pictures and records, and her wardrobe, which consisted of a few sweaters and skirts. This constituted her entire list of possessions until shortly before her death; she cared little for things, owned no jewelry and vigorously denied that diamonds could ever be a girl’s best friend. “I’m not interested in money,” she once told an agent who arrived with news of a hefty bonus and a salary increase. “I just want to be wonderful.”

Life with her coach was appropriately simple: She slept on a living room daybed, helped care for Lytess’s daughter, studied plays, demolished the apartment’s neatness and (ever conscious of her aborted education) dashed out for a ten-week evening course in world literature at UCLA.

Her first starring role, as a psychotic baby-sitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), was a remarkable achievement: In a performance of extraordinary density and subtlety, Marilyn portrayed not a stereotypical madwoman but the recognizable casualty of a wider urban madness. “I’m trying to find myself now, to be a good actress and a good person,” she told a reporter outside the Beverly Carlton one morning. “Sometimes I feel strong inside, but I have to reach in and pull it up. It isn’t easy. Nothing’s easy. But you go on.” And with that she leaped on her bicycle for the ten-minute ride to Fox.

In 1951 and 1952, swiftly attaining stardom, Marilyn had nine films in release—and added no less than three addresses to her biography. She paid little attention to her surroundings and lived in a sparsely furnished apartment on Hilldale Avenue in West Hollywood and, two blocks from that, in a small one-bedroom at 882 North Doheny Drive, at the corner of Cynthia Street. There she began her romance with Joe DiMaggio in 1952. “Almost any place would have done for me,” she told a friend, “but I tried to make it homey for Joe.” To that end, she learned to cook spaghetti (which pleased him) and to decorate a room with framed, instead of taped, art reproductions (to which he was indifferent).

The marriage of two American icons, Monroe and DiMaggio, took place in January 1954, and for several months they rented a furnished mock-Tudor house at 508 North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. Soon both the rooms and the marriage were in disarray, at least partly because her star was on the ascendancy and DiMaggio was in retirement. From the house she drove to the studio for There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), and on the front lawn in October 1954 she and her attorney announced the end of her marriage to DiMaggio after less than a year.

In New York, with the help of John Moore, she played decorator.

Unwilling to be treated capriciously by either a boss or a husband, Marilyn Monroe walked out on her studio contract in 1955 and lived in Weston, Connecticut, with photographer Milton Greene and his wife, Amy. For the next three years she and Greene were partners in Marilyn Monroe Productions. “I am tired of the same old sex roles,” she told the press. “I want to do better things. People have scope, you know.”

Also in 1955 she began attending classes at the Actors Studio in New York. For her Manhattan base, the fledgling production company took a six-month lease on a twenty-seventh-floor suite in the Waldorf Towers (whose other residents included Cole Porter, the duke and duchess of Windsor and General MacArthur). The apartment’s furnishings were almost all white, her favorite color scheme since she believed it was also Jean Harlow’s. She invited the press —and Arthur Miller, whom she was dating regularly and whom she married in the summer of 1956.

Earlier that year she moved back to Los Angeles for interior studio work on Bus Stop. She and the Greenes rented a furnished house at 595 North Beverly Glen Boulevard in Bel-Air. When they left just three months later, the house was a shambles—the result of wild parties, an overburdened photographer trying to cope with his new responsibilities as a producer, an occasionally unstable star and an atmosphere in which there was a prodigious consumption of alcohol and drugs. “I want to live quietly in the country,” Monroe told Arthur Miller after completing her brilliant performance as Cherie the “chantoosie” in Bus Stop.

She got her wish later that year in England, when after their marriage the Millers were installed at Park-side House for the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Situated on ten acres, the house had an oak-beamed living room, five bedrooms and quarters for servants. From this serene environment the actress traveled to the studio, where things were far less congenial. She and costar Laurence Olivier had different methods of preparation and performance; she suffered a miscarriage; Marilyn Monroe Productions was badly organized and managed; and the marriage to Miller was already in jeopardy. Despite all this, she shone in a comic and poignant triumph.

Back in New York, the Millers rented an apartment at 444 East Fifty-seventh Street and, with the help of designer John Moore, Monroe played interior decorator. She had a wall removed and made one large room of two, creating a living/dining area; she mirrored several walls and had others painted stark white, like the ceiling. Everywhere, in fact, there was white: a white sofa, white tub chairs and white tables; even her grand piano was hauled out of storage. But to Monroe, the apartment, like her performances, was never “right,” and she was constantly remodeling, changing furniture, draperies and accessories.

In 1958, having endured the collapse of her production company and the end of her relationship with the Greenes, three miscarriages and severe depressions in the aftermath of each, Monroe went back to work in Hollywood. The film, Some Like It Hot(1959), was her second with Billy Wilder, for whom the experience was exhausting. Her marriage was now in trouble, she was drinking far too much, and doctors were prescribing sedatives in dangerous amounts. “There were days I could have strangled her,” Wilder said years later, “but there were wonderful days too, when we all knew she was brilliant.”

Monroe returned to East Fifty-seventh Street in 1959 weary and worn out, but she worked with Miller on improvements to their house in Connecticut—the first one she had ever owned with anyone. There and in Manhattan, she invited such luminaries as Carson McCullers, Isak Dinesen and Carl Sandburg for simple suppers. “Marilyn was a good talker,” said Sandburg, “and very good company. We did some mock play-acting and some good, funny imitations. She told me how she had come up the hard way, but she would never talk about her husbands.” Empty hours depressed her, however, as her friend Susan Strasberg remembered, “and she was bored with the role of country housewife.” In 1961, just before the premiere of The Misfits, her last film, she divorced Miller.

Returning to California, Monroe lived mostly in hotels—though she moved back to her old address on Doheny Drive. An apartment there became available just when she needed it in 1961, and Monroe brought in some hastily bought furniture. The rooms were merely a base from which she dashed out for visits to doctors and a psychiatrist, and for meetings with agents, publicists, writers and producers.

Finally, a few months before her death, she found a home. In the Brentwood section of west Los Angeles, the actress fell in love with a snug Spanish-style hacienda at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive. Secluded and private, the small (2,300-square-foot), single-story house needed refurbishing, but it had a tile roof, thick white stucco walls, a beamed cathedral ceiling in the living room and arched doorways throughout. The property also had lush plantings and a swimming pool —all nestled on a quiet cul-de-sac.

In early 1962 she planned a partial renovation of the house and went to Mexico to buy furniture. In Cuernavaca, Toluca, Taxco and Acapulco, she shopped for native furnishings, cushions and tapestries and looked for Mexican tiles to install in her new kitchen and baths. “Marilyn was very happy,” recalled her friend Ralph Roberts. “She was really taking control of her life and asserting herself.” All those close to her agreed.

Most of her purchases were still undelivered when she died, and so her dream of a place of her own was never fulfilled. But her desire to leave a legacy was—in twenty-nine films. She still stands for something funnily unsolemn about sex, something truthful and vulnerable.

Director Joshua Logan called Monroe “one of the great talents of our time—warm, witty, extremely bright and totally involved in her work. Hollywood shamefully wasted her.” To this day, that assessment is endorsed everywhere by millions. When Marilyn Monroe died on August 4, 1962, her life was not in decline but full of promise.