There was only one Marilyn Monroe. But if you ask any proud Salvadoran, they might tell you that there were actually two. Or at least that there was Marilyn Monroe and “the Salvadoran Marilyn Monroe,” Maribel Arrieta. Sure, it sounds like a throwaway title for any woman who’s blonde, attractive, and has a touch of that indescribable star quality. But with her penetrating green eyes, impeccable coiffure, and movie star smile, Arrieta actually looked a whole lot like the real-deal. In fact, throughout her tragically short life the Central American beauty queen, actress, diplomat, and painter was forever hounded by the comparison, brushing off suggestions that she copied Monroe’s style with a deft turn of the phrase: “Maybe she’s copying me.”
But Arrieta was much more than a second-rate celebrity impersonator, and to this day Salvadorans remember her as an illustrious citizen that put their small country on the map of mid-20th century global high society. From her hard-fought second place finish at the 1955 Miss Universe competition, to her brief stint in the Mexican film industry, and finally to her diplomatic post in Europe and eventual marriage to a French baron, Arrieta was a fixture of the international jet set who was renowned for her poise and sensitivity.
Arrieta’s rise to global fame started when, as a teenager, she was sent to Los Angeles to live with an uncle. There the young immigrant discovered her love for painting and design, joining the Los Angeles Watercolor Society and eventually winning a prize for one of her lithographs. But despite her artistic talents, it was Arrieta’s physical endowments that ultimately won her the opportunity to represent El Salvador at the 1955 Miss Universe pageant in Long Beach.
There her second-place finish earned Ms. El Salvador a place in the history books as the only Central American to ever place among the pageant’s top five finalists, and the charismatic beauty queen was voted Ms. Congeniality by her fellow contestants. Nevertheless, some of her fiercest defenders were convinced that a harsh sunburn from an afternoon at the beach cost Arrieta the top slot on the last day of competition. Be that as it may, Arrieta was thrust into the international spotlight by the event and quickly took an acting contract from Universal Studios.
But even with overtures from movie magnate Howard Hughes, the devout Catholic was unimpressed by the glitz, glamour, and sexual promiscuity of the Hollywood industry; and after several months kicking around the Universal lot, Arrieta made her way back to El Salvador to be closer to her family. Later that same year, famed Mexican director Andrés Soler accomplished what Universal couldn’t, and Arrieta made her first and only film appearance alongside actor Ramón Armengod in the feature Nos Veremos en El Cielo.
After her brief sojourn in Mexico City, Arrieta was definitively not interested in the salacious world of film production, and took a diplomatic post in Belgium from then-president Óscar Osorio. Dubbed the “most beautiful diplomat in the world” by LIFE magazine, Arrieta soon caught the eye of French Baron Jacques Thuret and the two were married in 1963. But even though she would live the rest of her life in Europe, Arrieta famously turned down the possibility of adopting French citizenship in order to retain her Salvadoran nationality.
After her marriage, Arrieta spent the rest of her life tending to her diplomatic duties and painting while raising her three children with Thuret. In 1989 she was tragically diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and died at 55 years old. To this day Arrieta is remembered as one of El Salvador’s most visible international figures, known worldwide for her beauty and elegance, and perhaps underappreciated for her humility and sensitive artistic spirit.