Marilyn Monroe was the definition of a “blonde bombshell.” How did she keep herself so healthy-looking and so slim? Well, it took work: work her movie audiences never saw. Recently, though, some cookbooks have been discovered that contain samples of Monroe’s own handwriting, and they help reveal how she managed it.
These cookbooks were revealed to the wider world in June 2021 when Siegel Auction Galleries auctioned them off. The books, expected pre-sale to bring in about $75,000, were packed full of little tidbits fascinating to Monroe fans. Within the pages of the books she’d scribbled shopping lists and even, most excitingly, some extra recipes.
The two cookbooks were first put up for sale in October 1999 as part of a big Christie’s auction of items owned by Monroe. Clothes, furniture, and even Monroe’s driving license were included in the sell-off, but it was the very personal cookbooks that drew the most attention. They were sold for roughly $45,000.
Close at hand
It’s not known who actually bought them, but decades later the cookbooks were back on the market again. Siegel Auction Galleries wrote a detailed description of them for prospective buyers, noting, “A few pages have small stains from cooking — no doubt the cookbook was kept close to the stove as she cooked these elaborate meals.”
The auction house also observed, “These cookbooks provide a window into the personal daily life of someone whose personal life was often not her own. One imagines [Monroe] cooking many meals at home to escape the incessant limelight, or cooking beef bourguignon for Joe DiMaggio.” It noted there were also hints that the movie star ordered her ingredients from the local delicatessen, as evidenced by cards kept inside the cookbooks.
There was a lot of media interest when the books went back on sale in 2021. John Zuckerman of Siegel Auction Galleries told The Times newspaper that year, “Being so famous and going out for dinner was difficult... The paparazzi weren’t quite as big as they are today but they were certainly following her around... there was no Uber Eats or anything like that.” So Monroe generally stuck with home cooking.
The first book is called The New Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and it was published back in 1951. It seems to have been quite a treasured volume of Monroe’s because she frequently added to it. Among the recipes she inserted is one for Avery Island French dressing.
The second book is called The Joy of Cooking, written by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. This one contained several newspaper clippings that Monroe had cut out and inserted into the pages. And it was also an appropriately named volume because Monroe apparently always did find joy in cooking.
Escaping bad memories
Monroe’s early life was full of poverty, and food was naturally scarce. Her mother Gladys suffered from mental illness and couldn’t care for her young daughter, while her father was out of the picture. The young Monroe, a.k.a. Norma Jeane Baker, was passed around orphanages and foster homes as she grew up.
Doing what she could to eat
It’s thought Monroe turned to modeling in order to escape that poverty. In 2001 some old interviews with her from 1962 were uncovered and aired on the BBC. In them, Monroe spoke about her troubled life and said the reason she decided to pose nude for magazines was simply, “I was behind in the rent and I was hungry.”
Cooking meals as a housewife
But then Monroe married her first husband, Jim Dougherty. Though she did by all accounts like him at least, it seems the marriage was really more of a way for Monroe to escape her disrupted childhood and forge a new future. She became a housewife, and cooking meals was one of the duties expected of her.
Salt in the coffee
Monroe was excited to be a homemaker and picked out all the housewares for her new home by herself — right down to the kitchen utensils. Unfortunately, she was a terrible cook at first. According to one possibly apocryphal story, Monroe was once told that a tiny bit of salt in coffee would improve it, but she added a whole spoonful instead.
Displacement of the senses
Apparently, Monroe liked to serve her new husband peas and carrots, and there’s a theory as to why. In Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography of Monroe, he learned from Dougherty that she “liked the colors” and had a “displacement of the senses.” In other words, she may have had what we now know as synesthesia.
A lot of fun
Synesthesia or not, Monroe soon got the hang of cooking and started to enjoy it. In a 1942 letter to her foster mother she wrote, “[Dougherty] really keeps me busy cleaning the house and fixing meals, everybody told me that it is quite a responsibility being a housewife, and boy, I’m finding it out. But it really is a lot of fun.”
As time went on Monroe became more and more accomplished at cooking. After she married Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, she soon learned to cook Italian-American food for his family. But as we know, she wasn’t about to stay a housewife forever: she had a movie career to consider.
It’s thought the reason Monroe divorced DiMaggio was because he wanted her to be a housewife and she wasn’t having it. She was one of the most famous women in America at that point and a major sex symbol to boot. She may have enjoyed cooking, but she wasn’t going to do it full-time for a husband.
In 2014 friend of the DiMaggio family Robert Solotaire told the New York Post newspaper, “Joe misunderstood Monroe. Like, here’s this young, beautiful woman on the verge of becoming one of the most successful and famous actresses in the world, and she’s going to give it all up to make lasagna for Joe and spend her days changing diapers?” As it was, Monroe never had any children.
DiMaggio and Miller
Monroe and DiMaggio divorced only nine months after their wedding. It’s thought that an already discomfited DiMaggio decided enough was enough after Monroe’s famous skirt scene in The Seven-Year Itch. But then Monroe found her third husband, respected playwright Arthur Miller, a man seemingly different from her in every way.
The butt of the joke
Miller was known for being stoic and studious, while Monroe was usually portrayed in the media as a dumb blonde. One unkind joke bandied around at the time involved Miller’s family serving Monroe matzo ball soup, to which Monroe would say, “Gee Arthur, these matzo balls are pretty nice, but isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?”
In truth, Monroe was a long way away from the ditzy girl as portrayed in all the newspapers. And after her marriage to Miller, she learned to cook traditional Jewish food too. She’d converted to Judaism in order to marry him.
Menus and lists
The recovered cookbooks don’t just tell us the kinds of food Monroe rustled up, though, they tell us exactly what she cooked. In The New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book Monroe handwrote recipes for corned beef and cabbage, marrowbone soup, and beef bourguignon. Included with that last concoction was a shopping list for the ingredients.
And The Joy of Cooking featured a meal schedule. Monroe’s choices for that day, it showed, were hot cereal, toast and milk or weak cocoa for breakfast; spaghetti or boiled egg with butter or tomato for her midday meal, and broiled meat for supper with rice pudding for dessert. Then she had an unusual choice of evening drink — eggnog — at 11:00 p.m.
But that’s not all we know about Monroe’s diet. She spoke about it herself in a 1952 interview with Pageant magazine, and she also described it as “bizarre.” Her breakfast, she said, was warm milk with two eggs beaten into it, and a vitamin supplement. She declared, “I doubt if any doctor could recommend a more nourishing breakfast for a working girl in a hurry.”
The actress then told the magazine, “My dinners at home are startlingly simple. Every night I stop at the market near my hotel and pick up a steak, lamb chops or liver, which I broil in the electric oven in my room. I usually eat four or five raw carrots with my meat and that is all.”
Monroe added, “I must be part rabbit; I never get bored with raw carrots.” And she was right to eat them so much, because they have a lot of health benefits. They’re thought to lower cholesterol, for a start, and some scientists think they may reduce the risk of cancer. Plus, they’re good for losing weight.
Monroe often treated herself to ice cream, too. She told Pageant, “In recent months I have developed the habit of stopping off at Will Wright’s ice-cream parlor for a hot fudge sundae on my way home from my evening drama classes. I’m sure that I couldn’t allow myself this indulgence were it not that my normal diet is composed almost totally of protein foods.”
Apparently, Monroe was also fond of grapes. Actress Renée Taylor met Monroe in the ’50s, and she told the New York Post newspaper in 2018 that she immediately asked the blonde bombshell, “What do you eat, to look like that?” Monroe told her she ate grapes, just not very many.
Some bloggers have tried out Monroe’s diet for themselves. Sarah Rainey, a journalist for the Mail Plus website, gave it a go in 2021, but she soon realized how much tastes had changed over the years. Marrowbone soup, she said, was “a watery, grayish liquid with unappetizing chunks of what I can only assume is marrow — the soft, spongy tissue inside the bone — floating in it.”
Rainey didn’t much like Monroe’s egg-and-milk concoction, either. She wrote, “I’m praying the eggs have cooked a little, as I don’t want Marilyn giving me salmonella from beyond the grave, and I confess I have to add a few teaspoons of sugar to make it bearable. But it’s not bad. Nor is it good… in fact, it tastes a bit like I’d imagined: hot, gloopy, eggy milk.”
Tomatoes and spaghetti
Other foodies have had more success. The blog Silver Screen Suppers tried out the diet in 2021 and especially approved of the tomatoes-and-spaghetti recipe. One of its authors wrote, “I just chopped up a few cherry tomatoes and sweated them down with a tiny bit of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and lots of black pepper. That was surprisingly delicious. A lovely, easy, and tasty lunch dish.”
Silver Screen Suppers also observed, “So much milk in this menu! Two cups of milk, milk in the cereal, milk in the rice pudding, and milk/cream in the eggnog.” But milk is better for you than you might think. It can help make the bones stronger, and interestingly it’s also thought to curb appetite, great if you’re trying to lose weight.
The 80-20 rule
Despite Monroe herself calling aspects of her diet “bizarre” it’s thought by modern-day dieticians to have actually been very healthy overall. She seemingly followed what’s known as the “80/20 rule” before that was ever talked about. Basically, she ate healthily 80 percent of the time but treated herself 20 percent of the time.
How she stayed in shape
The interview Monroe gave to Pageant was titled “How I Stay in Shape” and as well as talking about her diet she gave some advice on exercise as well. She said, “Each morning after I brush my teeth, wash my face and shake off the first deep layer of sleep, I lie down on the floor beside my bed and begin my first exercise.”
Monroe said this first exercise was “a simple bust-firming routine which consists of lifting 5-pound weights from a spread-eagle arm position to a point directly above my head. I do this 15 times, slowly. I repeat the exercise another 15 times from a position with my arms above my head.”
Still, Monroe indicated in the interview that she didn’t really like workouts all that much. She told the magazine, “I couldn’t stand exercise if I had to feel regimented about it,” and also, “I have never cared especially for outdoor sports, and have no desire to excel at tennis, swimming, or golf. I'll leave those things to the men.”
Monroe did, though, like yoga. In fact, she’s considered to be one of the first Hollywood stars to have practiced it. It’s thought she learned it during the 1940s from Indra Devi, who was known as “The First Lady of Yoga.” Devi went on to teach it to other stars, including Greta Garbo.
In the Pageant interview, Monroe described herself as having a “languorous disposition” and said, “I hate to do things in a hurried, tense atmosphere, and it is virtually impossible for me to spring out of bed in the morning.” She said she could spend two hours waking up on Sundays — surely many of us can relate to that?
Monroe also took a moment in the interview to talk about her skin. She said, “Despite its great vogue in California, I don’t think suntanned skin is any more attractive than white skin, or any healthier, for that matter. I’m personally opposed to a deep tan because I like to feel blond all over.” The advice there is clear — if you want to look like Monroe, stay away from the rays.
Monroe’s final thoughts
There’s one particular quote from the interview that is perhaps the most interesting of all. Monroe said, “Frankly, I’ve never considered my own figure so exceptional; until quite recently, I seldom gave it any thought at all. My biggest single concern used to be getting enough to eat. Now I have to worry about eating too much.”
Eat what you love
So that’s something to bear in mind if you want to try out Monroe’s diet. Despite the whole world singing the praises of her hourglass figure, and continuing to do so in the modern-day, Monroe herself thought it was nothing special. It’s best to eat what makes you happy at least some of the time, and even in Monroe’s case that included ice-cream sundaes! If we had to name another fashion icon whose everyday diet we wish we could see, it would be Princess Diana. The gorgeous royal had a stunning figure, after all. And while we may not have her recipe books to hand — apparently, Diana was an awful cook — her private chef has revealed all about what the princess used to eat. She, too, had a favorite dessert — just like Monroe.
Darren McGrady, aka “The Royal Chef,” is — you guessed it — caterer to the world’s finest diners. Seriously, his credentials are bonkers. He cooked for the British Royal Family for 15 years, which included stints as the personal chef for Queen Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales. Oh, and he’s also catered for a host of American presidents including Clinton, Reagan, and both Bushes. The guy’s accomplished.
Going with Diana
McGrady’s stint in Buckingham Palace began in 1982. But after more than a decade cooking up a storm for the Queen and Prince Philip, he decided he wanted a change and took the gig as Diana’s private chef. At the time, she was living in a spacious home in Kensington Palace and her marriage to Prince Charles was on the rocks. Only those behind the palace’s closed doors would have been privy to what was really going on, though.
Downton Abbey dinners
Regarding the royals, McGrady spilled the tea on their eating habits in a 2017 Marie Claire magazine interview. He revealed that dinner-times were extremely formal, with the royals arriving for afternoon tea next to a log fire in Buckingham Palace, before putting on their dinner attire. Next, “they’d come down in dressy ball gowns, and sit at the table – like a Downton Abbey dinner.”
A different dinnertime for one
“All the fine china was brought out,” McGrady continued. “At the end of the meal, a bagpipe player would walk around the table.” Amusingly, he revealed that the Queen Mother was always told dinner would be served at 8:15 p.m., even though it didn’t actually start until 8:30 p.m. Why? She’d never turn up on time, so they wanted to give her some leeway!
The Queen’s favorites
According to McGrady, Queen Elizabeth loved “any food from the estate – so game birds, pheasants, grouse, partridge.” And she positively hated garlic, both in terms of taste and smell. She was a sucker for chocolate, too — but none of that milk chocolate nonsense. “It has to be dark chocolate,” he explained. “The darker the chocolate, the better.”
The happiest times
After Diana scooped up his services, McGrady stayed with her for four years. In 2017 he told HuffPost, “They were the happiest times at Kensington.” Being around Diana was a completely different experience than the other royals, according to McGrady. While he’d previously cooked for large, Downton-style banquets, Diana preferred eating in a more intimate setting.
A more relaxed setting
“If she was on her own for lunch, she’d actually come and eat in the kitchen on the countertop,” McGrady explained. “I’d make a tray for her, and I’d just be tidying up the kitchen and things as we were chatting.” Even if Diana was entertaining, she’d want nothing bigger than a circular table that could seat ten at most.
The Royal conundrum
This idea of the royals being normal behind all the opulence and centuries of tradition seems simultaneously improbable and yet also understandable. Some people believe that royal life’s so privileged that royals exist in a different world to the rest of us. But others think that, at the end of the day, they’re just people like everyone else. They just live in a palace!
Diana was different
For what it’s worth, McGrady believes that Diana was different from the other royals he’d worked for. Eating lunch with him in the kitchen isn’t something any of them would’ve done, for example. He also revealed that Diana’s attitude towards him and his staff was different to that shown by her fellow royals.
Reverence for the Queen
For example, McGrady said that all his staff ceased whatever they were doing the second the Queen came into the kitchen. They were instructed to shift aside their utensils, before moving backwards a few steps and bowing. It was all very formal and regimented, with reverence needing to be demonstrated.
Diana was more down to earth
By contrast, McGrady claimed Diana would enter the kitchen with no fanfare. She was more likely to be found saying, “Darren, I need a coffee — oh, you’re busy. I’ll make it. Do you want one?” It all paints a picture of the Princess of Wales being much more down to earth than most royals.
Diana preferred lunch parties
Interestingly, in 2016 McGrady told Hello! magazine that when Diana was entertaining, she preferred to invite people over for lunch rather than dinner. She had a couple of motives for doing so. The first was that “she liked an early night. She used to get up at six, seven in the morning. She didn’t like going across to the palace for the big dinner parties because they went on too late.”
The media spotlight
Diana’s second reason, though, was a keen insight into a life lived in the spotlight. McGrady claimed she also told him, “I can’t invite men back for dinner because the media would find out and then I’m in real trouble, all sorts of things happen. So, whenever I do an event or a charity do or have a friend round, I have to have them for lunch.”
A natural bond
McGrady, to his credit, was quick to point out to Hello! that he was under no illusions about his relationship with Diana. He knew that he was a hired hand and not truly her pal. But he did still feel that they enjoyed a stronger affinity than many employer/employee relationships. For instance, occasionally she talked to him about her problems.
Diana the joker
“I was always there, so sometimes she’d come in and vent about things she wasn’t happy with,” revealed McGrady. “Other times I’d see her burst into tears, and it was like, ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ Other times she told a dirty, risqué joke and you think, ‘I can’t believe Princess Diana just said that!’”
A terrible person in the kitchen
This ability to share a joke is probably why McGrady felt able to tell HuffPost that Diana truly needed him at home. Why? She was an awful cook! He chuckled, “She was just the worst, a terrible person in the kitchen.” In fact, she was so bad that, when McGrady pre-cooked her meals for the weekend, he would leave instructions on them telling her precisely how long to microwave them for.
William and Harry
While McGrady was at Kensington, he didn’t only cook for Diana — he was also in charge of what Princes William and Harry ate. When he started, William was only 11 years old and Harry was the tender age of nine. McGrady told the Daily Mail that they loved it when he made them “comfort food.” What did that entail, we hear you ask?
“The boys would love to eat things like shepherd’s pie and banana flan,” McGrady revealed. “When I was cooking for the princes, they loved pizza and potato skins stuffed with mozzarella.” On top of that, they also adored fish fingers. It all points to something very relatable about the princes’ food favorites — they may have been royalty, but they were still kids and liked to eat accordingly.
The princes also loved something else — a brand of food a million miles away from McGrady’s gourmet cooking. In 2017 McGrady told Marie Claire magazine, “I remember the princess came into the kitchen one day and said, ‘Cancel lunch for the boys, I’m taking them out, we’re going to McDonald’s.’” Yes, they liked fast food, too!
Kids love a Happy Meal
McGrady replied, “Oh my God, your royal highness, I can do that, I can do burgers.” But Diana then admitted that there was something extra about McDonald’s that the princes were keen on. She said, “No, it’s the toy they want.” That’s right, even royalty wants a Happy Meal every now and again.
Diana’s favorite breakfast
In terms of Diana’s favored foods, McGrady once revealed on his YouTube channel that she was a sucker for some old-fashioned Heinz baked beans. He said, “I used to cook beans for breakfast at Buckingham Palace and Princess Diana loved them.” Alongside her baked beans, Diana would often have a pink grapefruit, orange juice and coffee.
The secret behind baked beans
“She’d actually eat a whole tin of beans for breakfast,” McGrady explained. “Sounds crazy, but when you think about it, there’s only seven grams of sugar in the English-style baked beans. They’re rich in protein, high in fiber, very low in fat. So, they’re perfect for her to eat that really big carb boost ready for going to the gym and doing a workout.”
U.K. vs U.S. – the baked bean controversy
Unfortunately for McGrady, though, the British attitude to baked beans isn’t quite the same as across the pond. After he left the royals and moved to the U.S. to continue his career, he made the mistake of assuming that Americans also love the tomato sauce-laden breakfast staples. It didn’t exactly go over well.
The cardinal sin
McGrady confessed, “I remember cooking for a family when I first came over here, and I made the cardinal sin of serving baked beans for breakfast like it was the norm. They didn’t eat them.” Maybe the American disdain is because U.S. baked beans have a much thicker sauce and include brown sugar and pork molasses. The U.K. version seems less heavy-duty and more suitable for breakfast-time. But who are we to judge?
The healthy eater
Indeed, her love of baked beans was emblematic of Diana’s eating habits as a whole. According to McGrady, she generally shunned unhealthy meals and had a particular aversion to eating carbohydrates. If that wasn’t possible, she’d reportedly joke with McGrady, “You take care of the fats, I’ll take care of the carbs at the gym.”
Having lamb with Clint Eastwood
One of Diana’s favorite foods was the humble stuffed pepper, and she’d generally avoid red meat. The only times she’d venture into that territory would be when she was having company over and, even then, she’d specifically ask McGrady to make lamb. In fact, he remembered her doing just that when Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood dined with her.
Another favorite was Eggs Suzette, which Diana reportedly had for lunch multiple times per week. On his YouTube channel, McGrady described it as “a baked potato scooped out with wilted spinach in the bottom and a poached egg on top. Then a little hollandaise sauce, a tiny amount, with some potatoes piped around the edges.” Yum!
Bread and butter pudding
When it came to dessert, Diana loved a quintessential English favorite: bread and butter pudding. It’s been said that the U.K. version of this treat is like a U.S. bread pudding mixed with a crème brûlée. McGrady recalled that she would only indulge when the princes were there and would always limit herself to a fairly modest slice.
Keeping her healthy habits to herself
Diana didn’t necessarily want to push her food preferences on her growing princes, though. McGrady revealed, “We used to trick the boys. We used to feed them roast potatoes and roast chicken but take the skin off.” Diana’s potatoes would be more health-conscious, parboiled and thrown together with paprika and egg whites.
The ruse worked
McGrady continued, “She’d cut out the fat, so it was always poached chicken, no skin, no fatty potatoes.” By contrast, the princes would be eating chicken so rich that when they bit into it, fatty juices would dribble from their lips! All in all, the ruse worked, as William and Harry believed they were tucking into the same dish as their mother.
Incredibly, her children weren’t the only ones who’d have the wool pulled over their eyes by Diana — she even enlisted McGrady to trick famous guests such as Oprah Winfrey. When she and Oprah were tucking into his delicious tomato mousse, Oprah reportedly asked, “Diana, how do you stay so slim eating rich food like this?”
A fat-free version
McGrady said the bashful princess replied, “I just eat small portions and work out.” In reality, though, Diana wasn’t eating the same thing as Oprah. Her mousse was a fat-free version created specially, while Oprah was enjoying the real deal, made with heavy cream, mayo, and sour cream. McGrady chuckled, “Diana never did tell her the truth.”
A history of bulimia
McGrady was also able to offer some insight into what prompted Diana to turn to a healthy diet. It wasn’t always her way — after all, the princess had earlier suffered from bulimia. A 1992 biography by Andrew Morton claimed that the condition took hold following Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles.
A decade of struggle
The biography was actually based on recordings made by Diana, and she was heard saying, “The bulimia started the week after we got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome. My husband put his hand on my waistline and said, ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’” And that triggered off something in me…”
A secret disease
During her infamous interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, Diana addressed the topic candidly. She said, “I had bulimia for a number of years. And that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable.”
The vicious cycle
“You fill your stomach up four or five times a day — some do it more — and it gives you a feeling of comfort,” the princess continued. “It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporarily, temporary. Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again.”
Pretend the whole way through
Diana admitted that she kept her bulimia a secret from the other royals, as she felt a strong sense of guilt. “The thing about bulimia is your weight always stays the same, whereas with anorexia you visibly shrink,” she added. “So, you can pretend the whole way through. There’s no proof.”
We changed everything
When Diana came clean with everyone at the palace, McGrady sprang into action. He told Marie Claire, “We changed everything. I threw out my Buckingham Palace recipe book and got into healthy eating… It wasn’t until she confronted it, and everyone put two and two together, that she started really healthy eating…”
The right place at the right time
All in all, McGrady remembered his time with Diana and her young princes very fondly. “I was just honored to be in the right place at the right time and watch William and Harry grow up,” he told Hello! magazine. “She absolutely adored the two of them. She would be so thrilled right now with both of them.”