Initially, [James Baldwin's] novel was meant to be a testimonial of the lives of slain civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it’s in his prophetic narration of race relations (delivered eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson) from the 1960’s paired with contemporary footage of protests in Ferguson that creates a cohesive bridge from the past to the present.
You might wonder why I have such an admiration of a dead white actress who lived and died before I was even thought about. But like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt, Marilyn Monroe had to fight the sexist current that would sweep away lesser women in the entertainment industry.
When Marilyn Monroe died from a barbiturate overdose on Aug. 5, 1962, devastated fans searched for a way to cope. LIFE Magazine, whose cover Monroe had graced six times, offered up a tribute in a manner befitting not only its mission, but also its relationship with the star: a collection of photographs. As the editors wrote:
Her death has diminished the loveliness of the world in which we live. Her life was filled with sadness—a bleak childhood, three unhappy marriages, her inability to have children. But for all her seeking, trying, hoping and never finding, she has left us many beautiful images to remember.
Here, in that spirit, are LIFE’s most timeless images of one of the most celebrated, emulated and complicated celebrities of the 20th century.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.