MARILYN MONROE (Chapter One)
Birth to June 1961
At 9.30 on the morning of Tuesday 1 June 1926, in the fortress-like confines of the charity ward of the Los Angeles General Hospital, Dr Herman M. Beerman unwittingly delivered his most famous baby. Originally called Norma Jeane Mortenson, the illegitimate child would later become known as Marilyn Monroe, the world's most celebrated movie star.
Her mother was a 24-year-old motion-picture negative film cutter, Gladys Pearl Monroe Mortenson. Described by her work colleagues as a 'talkative, short, cute blonde' and 'a lot of fun when she wanted to be', at the time of the birth, Gladys was so broke that, to help pay her hospital costs, colleagues at the Consolidated Film Industries, where she worked, were obliged to share her medical expenses. The problems did not end there. According to those who would treat her, Gladys soon developed schizophrenia.
Her family had a history of mental instability. Both of her parents, Otis Elmer Monroe and Della Monroe Grainger, lived out their twilight years in mental institutions, and her brother, Marion, had suffered from a problem best described at the time as paranoid schizophrenia. Though Gladys herself was most likely a manic-depressive, it was not uncommon during the 1930s and 1940s for those suffering from manic depression to be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics. Whatever the exact nature of her mother's disorder, Marilyn Monroe naturally came to possess a morbid fear of genetic insanity.
Marilyn's paternity remains a subject of debate to this day. Although the name of Norwegian immigrant Edward Mortenson, Gladys's second husband (her first being a man named Jasper Baker) was listed as the father on the certificates pertaining to Norma Jeane's birth and Marilyn's marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, it was never the case. Other men have been suggested as candidates. As Donald Spoto pointed out in his 1993 book, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, these included 'Harry Rooney, a co-worker who was besotted with her; the adoring Clayton MacNamara or, perhaps most likely of all, Raymond Guthrie, a film developer who ardently courted her [Gladys] for months...' Marilyn, however, perhaps wistfully, believed Mortenson to be her father, having been shown a picture of the man as a child and primed 'this is your father'. In fact, however, he was Charles Stanley Gifford, born on Sunday 18 September 1898 in Newport County, Rhode Island.
In her posthumously published 1974 memoir, My Story, Marilyn recalled of the man in the picture that 'There was a lively smile in his eyes and he had a thin moustache like Clark Gable', while her mother told her he had been 'killed in an auto accident in New York'. As surviving images prove, however, the man in the picture was evidently not Edward Mortenson, but Gifford, who did bear a strong resemblance to Gable. And her mother was wrong that the man had been killed in a motor accident. Gifford was not killed in a motor accident, Mortenson, however, was. The fateful collision occurred on Tuesday 18 June 1929, at approximately 5pm, and in Ohio rather than New York; Mortenson was riding his motorcycle along the road from Youngstown to Akron and when he tried to overtake a car in front of him, he smashed into a sedan, breaking both of his legs. He fell to the ground unconscious and paralysed. Mortenson passed away just as the ambulance he was travelling in reached the nearby hospital. (To add to the confusion, a second man bearing the name, Martin Edward Mortenson, also entered the scene claiming to be Marilyn's true biological father. When he died of a heart attack on Tuesday 10 February 1981, aged 83, in Riverside, California, a copy of Norma Jeane's birth certificate was found among his possessions.)
The actress's mother had become besotted with the stout, dark-haired Gifford during his stint in charge of the day shift at Consolidated Film Industries in early 1925. Gifford's employment with the motion picture plant Thomas H. Ince Studios in Culver City had recently been terminated and his wife, Lillian Priester, was suing him for divorce. Her claims against him (he associated himself with low-life women, was addicted to narcotic drugs and had beaten her on numerous occasions) made it abundantly clear what kind of man he was. In an attempt to rebuild his life and earn some useful dollars, Gifford took a post at Consolidated as a hypo-shooter and developer and, within months, had worked his way up to the position of superintendent of the night crew. By the spring, the pair were having an affair and on Wednesday 6 May, his divorce became final. Twenty days later, on Tuesday 26 May, Gladys walked out on her husband, Mortensen. Her intention was clear to everyone; she had set her sights on becoming the next Mrs Gifford. However, he saw Gladys as just another fling and, by Christmas Eve 1925, had tired of it and promptly fled. But there was a catch: Gladys was now three months pregnant. Norma Jeane would become that child.
The idea of placing Norma Jeane with neighbours Albert and Ida Bolender on Sunday 13 June 1926, just 12 days after the baby's birth, came from Gladys's mother, Della. She had asked the couple, who lived across the road at 215 Rhode Island Avenue in Inglewood, Los Angeles County, to watch over her granddaughter while she travelled to South America to reconcile with her husband.
Contrary to the long-held belief that Gladys totally abandoned her daughter, she actually resided with Norma Jeane at the property and dutifully paid Albert and Ida $25 a month rent. Della knew Gladys and Norma Jeane would be in good hands and that a visit to them would always be just a short distance away. 'Mrs Baker [i.e. Gladys] was with me,' Ida confirmed in 1956. 'She stayed in Hollywood when working nights as a negative cutter, and stayed with me while working days...She [Norma Jeane] was never neglected and always dressed nicely. Her mother supported her all the time and bought all her clothes.'
Incontestable proof that both Gladys and her daughter lived under the Bolenders' roof can be found in an official census of Inglewood Township, Los Angeles County (enumeration district no. 19). Details of that Rhode Island Avenue house, as registered on Tuesday 1 April 1930, revealed that, besides Gladys and Norma Jeane, the other occupiers of the building were Albert, aged 46, Ida, 42 and their son Lester, 3. (Albert made a mistake when he filled out the form, noting Gladys as being 27 years of age and Norma Jeane as 63.)
In spite of his carefree, unconcerned exterior, Gifford did not (despite what we have been told before) wash his hands of the child. When Norma Jeane was just one or two years old, after learning of the child's placement with the Bolenders, the concerned father actually came forward and tried to adopt her. However, Gladys now despised the man; still smarting at how he had absconded during her pregnancy, she was having none of it and his request was denied.
With the Bolenders ably watching over her child, Gladys returned to work at the Consolidated Film Industries. Each Saturday she would take her child on an outing, usually a walking tour to the streets outside the movie stars' homes in the Hollywood hills. Another of Gladys's favourite journeys was to the recently opened Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, famous for its red-carpet movie premieres. Norma Jeane and her mother would stare down adoringly at the world-famous foot and hand prints captured in cement outside the building. Norma Jeane would intently place her small hands and feet over the imprints.
Despite her mother's warmest intentions to display love and affection to her daughter, however, Norma Jeane would forlornly recall Gladys only as 'the woman with red hair' or 'the pretty woman who never smiled'. She did not regard her as her real mother. In her primary years, she looked upon Ida and Albert as her true parents and would call them 'Mama' and 'Daddy'.
It is intriguing to see how often Monroe's childhood has been portrayed in despondent, dull, quite depressing tones, insisting that she was, for the better part of her young life, unloved, unpopular and poor. The truth is that, from birth until she was eight years old, Norma Jeane lived in only one place, the cosy yet austere, old-fashioned six-room home in the middle-class city of Inglewood belonging to the devoutly Catholic Albert and Ida Bolender. Even as far back as 1952, Hollywood spokespeople were dramatising Marilyn's upbringing at the Bolenders' by saying that she was pounded with religious precepts that dictated damnation for her slightest transgression, brainwashed into thinking that 'drinking, smoking and dancing was the works of the devil', made to promise she'd never drink or swear, ordered to scrub and polish the house's floors and forced to attend church several times a week. True, the young girl did attend church with the Bolenders, but quite happily.
However, some truly disturbing incidents did happen to her in that time. First, in July 1927, her grandmother Della attempted to smother her with a pillow. For no perceptible reason, she walked over to the Bolenders' home in a state of complete undress, smashed her way in through the glass in the front door and made an unprovoked attack on the young child. The ramifications from the incident were immense. A few weeks later, on Thursday 4 August, she was committed to Norwalk's Metropolitan State Hospital where, just 19 days afterwards, she died of a heart attack. She was found to be suffering from manic-depressive psychosis.
The second incident came when Gladys attempted to murder her. 'Her mother tried to kill her three times,' Marilyn's third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, shockingly revealed in an April 1968 interview for the BBC. 'Her mother was quite mad.' Throughout most of her life, Marilyn often remarked how she could still vividly recall these horrific encounters.
Due to the highly dependable statements of both Miller and the Bolenders, I believe these events did happen; most of the other accusations about Norma Jeane's time with the family were, however, untrue. 'People like to make things sensational,' Nancy, the youngest Bolender sibling and by then the only surviving family member, admitted in 1996. 'Because she [Norma Jeane] was moved around later, they want to make it sound like it was all awful, but it wasn't. She was happy in our home.' Over the ensuing years, Nancy naturally became resentful and angry about the way Monroe's time in Inglewood was inaccurately portrayed. In a 1966 interview for the Daily Breeze newspaper, Ida Bolender added, 'When my mother was alive, she was very upset about it. We treated her [Marilyn] like our own child because we loved her.'
Quite possibly, the only accusation one could hurl at the Bolenders was that Norma Jeane was inadvertently made to feel like an outsider in their home. For instance, during the regular, once-a-week bath time, the children would all share the same water and, according to her, she would always bathe last. Another example came on Christmas Day morning 1926, when she happily made her way over to her first gift-laden festive tree. Aware that she was going to receive a present from Albert and Ida, she waited patiently for her turn while the other children unwrapped their expensive gifts of huge toys and bicycles. However, when her present was brought out, it was nothing more than a cheap trinket purchased from the five and ten cent (nickel and dime) store. Frantically, she tried to hide her dejection. She knew then that she was regarded as an outcast in the family. (Marilyn often remarked how extremely vivid her memories as a young child were. 'I can remember when I was just six months old,' she once admitted. 'I know you're not supposed to, but I do.')
Norma Jeane was, in general, lovingly doted on by Ida and her husband, Albert, a postman by trade. In time, she went on to enjoy a warm relationship with the dwelling's five other siblings, Lester, Mumsey, Alvina, Noel and Nancy. She grew particularly close to Lester. Norma Jeane also relished normal schoolgirl activities, such as playing hopscotch, learning the piano and (from December 1933, at 7.30 each Friday evening) listening to her favourite radio show, The Lone Ranger, starring Earle W. Graser. (It has long since entered Marilyn folklore that she also used to enjoy tuning in to The Green Hornet during this time, but that is incorrect. The show did not reach American radio until January 1936, by which time she was living away from the Bolenders' home.)
Other pleasurable pursuits for the young child were her frequent visits to the cinema and her play-acting the role of a detective, prowling up and down the nearby streets, intently jotting down the numbers of the local motor car licence plates. Gambolling with her small black and white dog, Tippy, was another favourite pastime. However, their time together was cut short when the pet was tragically sliced in two by Raymond J. Ernest, her hoe-wielding next-door neighbour, who became enraged over the dog's incessant barking. 'I loved that dog,' Marilyn sorrowfully announced, 'and he loved me. He was the only one who did love me in all those years. I told him everything.'
Deprivation was an occasional occurrence for Norma Jeane. Once, when she requested from her mother a white pair of shoes, she was given a black pair instead, because they were cheaper. Yet in her posthumously published, ghost-written, highly embellished 1974 book, My Story, on the subject of her childhood, Marilyn paradoxically wrote, 'When I look back on those days, I remember, in fact, that they were full of all sorts of fun and excitement. I played games in the sun and ran races.'
In 1962, she reminisced to American show business columnist Bob Thomas, 'When I was five, I think that's when I started wanting to be an actress. I loved to play. I didn't like the world around me because it was kind of grim.' Two years later, at the age of seven, Norma Jeane became fascinated by screen actress Jean Harlow. 'I had white hair,' she recalled. 'I was a real towhead and she was the first grown-up lady I had ever seen who had white hair like mine.'
In July 1934, Norma Jeane and her mother moved out of the Bolenders' home. Using money saved from her job as a negative film cutter, and an advance from the California Mortgage Company at Long Beach, Gladys managed to put down a payment on a three-bedroom, six-room bungalow situated at 6812 Arbol Drive, a short distance away from the world-famous concert venue, the Hollywood Bowl. 'It was a pretty little house,' Marilyn recalled in 1961, 'with quite a few rooms. But there was no furniture in it, except for two cots that we slept on, a small kitchen table and two kitchen chairs. The living room was entirely empty, but I didn't mind. It was a very pretty room.'
The house's most prized fixture was an early 20th century white baby grand piano, a belated eighth birthday present from Gladys to her daughter. Previously owned by eminent Tinseltown actor Fredric March, it had been secretly secured by Gladys at an auction of his household effects (although others say she actually purchased it on credit, along with the other furniture in the home). 'After several weeks,' Marilyn continued, 'my mother came home from work in a truck. I watched two men carry in the first furniture she had bought for our house. It was a wonderful-looking white piano. It was put in the living room. There wasn't any piano bench. It just stood there by itself. Neither my mother nor I could play it. But it looked very beautiful to me...I always remembered the white piano. I saw it in my mind every night as I grew up.'
Procuring hospitalisation and life insurance and even paying regular deposits of money into her bank account for emergencies, Gladys seized every means possible to ensure her daughter's new-found home life would be permanent. Marilyn excitedly recalled how, during this period, she and her mother would attend all the openings at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, positioning themselves outside to watch the glamorous stars arrive. Sometimes they would wait for several hours until the movie ended just to see a very special favourite of theirs walk by. Unfortunately, it was at this point that another truly harrowing incident in the young child's life occurred.
In the second half of November 1934, to safeguard further the life she had envisioned for her daughter, Gladys decided to raise extra money by renting out three rooms of her house to a married English couple; people who were employed in the Hollywood film industry. The woman was working on the fringe, earning a wage as a movie extra. It has often been stated that her husband was Mr Kimmel, the stand-in for the Academy Award-winning 20th Century-Fox actor, George Arliss. In fact he was 45-year-old, London-born Murray Kinnell, who had been instrumental in acquiring actress Bette Davis's first big break in the movies. By the time he and his wife moved in, Kinnell's main claim to fame was as a co-star to Arliss on five of his productions, namely Old English (1930), A Successful Calamity and The Man Who Played God (both 1932), Voltaire (1933) and The House of Rothschild (in 1934). A suggestion by Marilyn biographer Donald Spoto that actor George Atkinson was the boarder was inaccurate; he and Arliss worked together only once, in 1929 on the film Disraeli, some five years prior to the time Gladys and her daughter moved into the property.
However, Norma Jeane would not see the Kinnells as stars of the silver screen. Instead, she would view them as nothing but unpleasant, foulmouthed alcoholics. The problems began soon after the couple moved in. Her already frail self-confidence was shattered further when the uncouth thespians asked if she would perform a dance for them. Suggestions of the Spanish fandango, the hula-hula and the sailor's hornpipe were offered. She agreed. But instead of applause, they laughed. Further attempts to appease Kinnell and his wife were greeted with similar callous rebuffs, and in turn, Norma Jeane would come to expect identical putdowns from each new set of adults she would confront. And one afternoon in January 1935, just six months after moving into the delightful new home, eight-year-old Norma Jeane horrifyingly, in her own, rather embellished words, 'found out about sex without asking any questions'.
She recounted the shocking, life-changing tale as follows: 'I was passing his room when his door opened and he came out. I literally collided with him...I tried to see beyond him, but there was nothing to look at but this monstrous man standing in the doorway...He said quietly, "Please come in here, Norma."' As Marilyn remembered, Kinnell closed and locked the door behind the cowering young girl, who stood motionless and stared back at the man.
When he put his arms around me, I kicked and fought as hard as I could but I didn't make any sound. He was stronger than I was and wouldn't let me go. He kept whispering to me to be a good girl. 'I'll be just a moment washing my hands,' he said, as if my being there was an everyday matter. He came towards me, his hands outstretched, palms upward, as if pleading with me that, whatever he might have in mind to do to me, his hands were clean.... He then picked me up bodily, carried me to the sofa beyond the chair, sat down on it and dropped me into his lap. 'Just take it easy and keep your mouth shut, kid and I won't have to get rough with you.' I tried to console myself by remembering scenes in which little girls I knew were placed in this special place by fond fathers. I myself had missed such a demonstration of fatherly affection, so was it possibly coming to me now? A moment later one of those enormous hands was travelling the way of the Ashman, only it was a hand much firmer and more determined in its course...I cried out lustily with my pain, but it appeared to make that relentless hand more determined.
Thankfully for the child, the torment soon ended. 'When he unlocked the door and let me out, I ran to tell my aunt [i.e. her mother] to tell what Mr. Kinnell had done,' she recalled. But when she came face-to-face with Gladys, she was unable to fully explain what had happened. Her traumatic experience had precipitated a stammer. 'I want to tell you something, about Mr. Kinnell. He...he...'
However, her mother was uninterested and moved swiftly to interrupt her troubled daughter. She smacked her across her mouth. 'Take this for lying about a friend of mine. Don't you dare say anything against Mr. Kinnell,' Gladys screamed. 'He's a fine man. He's my star boarder.' The actor walked out of his room, handed Norma Jeane a nickel and told her to go and buy herself an ice cream. She picked up the coin, threw it back at his face and ran out of the house. Marilyn later revealed that that night, when recalling the horrendous incident, she cried herself to sleep and 'wanted to die'.
'A week later, the family, including Mr Kinnell, went to a religious revival meeting in a tent,' Marilyn recalled to the London Observer in 1958. 'My aunt [i.e. mother] insisted I come along. The tent was jammed. Everybody was listening to the evangelist. Suddenly he called on all the sinners in the tent to come up and repent. I rushed up ahead of everyone else and started to tell him about my sin. I fell on my knees and began to tell about Mr Kinnell and how he had molested me in his room. But other sinners started wailing about their sins and drowned me out. I looked back and saw Mr Kinnell standing among the non-sinners praying loudly and devoutly for God to forgive the sins of others.' She was innocent, yet had been abused and discarded like a piece of soiled linen.
It's worth noting that--regardless of what we have been led to believe in the past, thanks mainly to the actress's somewhat inflated recollections--Marilyn was not raped during the incident. Her first husband, James Dougherty, was among those who would verify the fact, saying he knew it was a lie on their wedding night. 'She was a virgin, as I soon found out,' he recalled in 1976. Eight years earlier, in a conversation with American reporter Darwin Porter, he had gone one step further by explicitly confirming that 'her delicate threshold had never been crossed before'. In fact, Norma Jeane went into her marriage to 21-year-old Dougherty in 1942 so ignorant of sex that her aunt Ana had to purchase for her a guide book of 'useful tips' for the bride-to-be.
And there were doubts about the tale's legitimacy. 'Over the years, she told me three different versions of the same story, forgetting what she had said previously,' Marilyn's close friend, room-mate and fellow actress Shelley Winters once admitted. 'In time, I think Marilyn could no longer distinguish between what was real and what wasn't...Don't get me wrong, I loved the girl dearly, but the biographers of Marilyn's early life each bought into her fantasy.'
Whatever the precise details, the story goes that, immediately after this traumatic event, Norma Jeane began suffering from insomnia and night terrors. Along with her other childhood frights, the occurrence would return to haunt her in twisted shapes during her briefest snatches of slumber. Later in life, Marilyn compensated for her inability or disinclination to rest by reading or talking to friends or colleagues, usually by way of late-night phone calls. Also, before she attempted any kind of slumber she would place her pillows over her telephones. She did this for two reasons: first, pillows served as a frightening reminder of the suffocation attempt; and second, in order to avoid the risk of having her sleep disturbed she would sometimes (but not always) place her head rests in that position to deaden the noise of any possible telephone rings. Naturally, Gladys was also distressed by the assault. On Tuesday 15 January 1935, her brave new attempts at motherhood came to a shuddering halt when she suffered a nervous breakdown, precipitated no doubt by her continuing failure as a mother and the molestation of her child, and was forced to move out of their new home. But there was another reason why she had to do so. A fact that has been somewhat lost over the ensuing years is that, in the opening weeks of 1935, shortly after the incident with the young child, actor George Arliss left Hollywood to travel to Paris to shoot the movie Cardinal Richelieu with Maureen O'Sullivan. Naturally his co-star and close friend, Kinnell, travelled too. The loss of Kinnell's rent money was so significant that Gladys had no option but to relinquish the premises and move into other, more squalid accommodation.
In a 1956 interview, Marilyn revealed she could remember the precise moment when her mother's fragile mind finally snapped. 'I will never forget how my mother stabbed a friend in front of me as I sat crying,' she recalled.
The incident she was recalling occurred when, late one evening, Gladys sat talking with her good friend, divorcee Grace Atchison McKee. The pair were working together at Columbia Pictures: McKee as film librarian, Gladys as a film cutter. Their encounter became heated when Gladys accused Grace of trying to poison her. She lunged at her with a kitchen knife and stabbed her. The police were called and Gladys was immediately escorted to California's Norwalk State Asylum, where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Gladys spent much of the next 35 years in various institutions; despite making monthly provisions for her care in 1953 when, after months of allowing the press to believe that both of her parents were dead, the true details of Marilyn's parentage became known, the actress rarely contacted or visited her mother. On Monday 26 October, however, Marilyn created a trust fund for Gladys, to which she transferred 100 shares of preferred stocks of 'Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc.'
With Gladys now institutionalised, Norma Jeane had once again lost her mother. 'No one will ever quite understand the warmth and sweetness between my mother and me until the day the police broke into our house and plucked her out of my life,' Marilyn would later recall. Unsurprisingly, Grace was installed as both guardian of the child and custodian of Gladys's estate. Her home and the furniture within were promptly sold off, except for the white baby grand piano, which was held for Norma Jeane by Grace's aunt Ana.
Naturally, the child moved in with McKee. However, their time together was short: just seven months. In 1962 Marilyn recalled, 'Grace was my legal guardian...But when she remarried all of a sudden the house became too small and someone had to go and you can guess who that someone was. On Monday 9 September 1935, she packed my clothes and took me to her car. We drove and drove without her ever saying a word.
'When we came to a red brick building she stopped the car and we walked up the stairs to the entrance of the building. At the entrance there was this big black sign with bright gold lettering...emptiness came over me. My feet absolutely couldn't move on the sidewalk. The sign read "Orphan Asylum--The Los Angeles Children's Home Society". I began to cry, "Please, please don't make me go inside. I'm not an orphan. My mother's not dead. I'm not an orphan. My mother's just sick and can't take care of me."'
The building has often been depicted as a shabby, run-down wreck. In fact it was a fine, well-kept 18th-century style mansion. At the front of the privately endowed, 24-year-old building, in the middle of a large playing field, there was a flag pole on which the Stars and Stripes proudly flew. At the rear, there were five acres of land, on which the children could run and play. Visitors, keen to see where the young Marilyn lived and expecting to discover a dingy, dirty, depressing-looking place, were shocked to find the orphanage was sparklingly clean and extremely well-equipped.
Norma Jeane became child number 3463. The young girl later learnt that Grace McKee cried all day afterwards. 'When a little girl feels lost and lonely and thinks nobody wants her, it's something she doesn't forget as long as she lives,' Marilyn remarked in 1958. 'I think I wanted more than anything in the world to be loved. Love to me then and now means being wanted and when my aunt Grace put me in that place, the whole world around me crumbled. It seemed nobody wanted me, not even my mother's best friend.'
Unsurprisingly, no doubt borne out of the horrifying suffocation attempt, the molestation and the deep-rooted realisation that no one wanted her, Norma Jeane's stammer continued to blight her. 'The day they brought me there [the orphanage], after they pulled me in, crying and screaming, suddenly there I was in the large dining room with a hundred kids sitting there eating, and they were all staring at me. So I stopped crying right away [and] I stuttered.' Her speech impediment became so bad that she could not even finish her sentences. In a 1955 discussion with the American columnist Maurice Zolotow, Marilyn recalled, 'I guess you might say I gave up talking for a long while. I used to be so embarrassed in school. I thought I'd die whenever a teacher called upon me. I always had the feeling of not wanting to open my mouth, that anything I said would be wrong or stupid.' One day, the young girl managed to escape from the orphanage. However, her attempt to flee was thwarted by a policeman who immediately escorted her back.
Each day at the institute began at 6am and before the 60 other children went off to school, they would have to do their chores. 'We each had a bed, a chair, and a locker,' Marilyn remembered (although officials for the orphanage would dispute her account of daily life there). 'Everything had to be very clean and perfect because of inspection. And I worked in the kitchen, washing dishes. There were a hundred of us, so I washed a hundred plates and all those spoons and forks. I did these three times a day, seven days a week. But it wasn't so bad. It was worse to scrub out the toilets.'
Dressed in a blue dress and white shirt-waist, Norma Jeane earned five cents a month for cleaning those dishes, one penny of which went into a Sunday church collection plate. The remaining cent allowed the young girl a little childish luxury: a ribbon for her hair. Despite her solitary attempt at fleeing, Norma Jeane's conduct in the orphanage was best described as 'prim and proper'. An early report on her time at the institution read, 'Norma Jeane's behaviour is normal and she is bright and sunshiny.' Grace McKee visited the child every week and regularly handed over clothes and gifts. Thanks to her constant support, many close to Marilyn would see McKee as an unsung hero in the woman's life. (Later, she would even pay for the girl's singing and dancing lessons.)
Norma Jeane slept at nights in a room crammed with 27 beds, and as a prize for good behaviour the children could work their way up to the 'honour bed'. But her own time in the room's most comfortable berth was short-lived. 'One morning,' the actress recalled, 'I was late and was putting on my shoes when the matron said, "Come downstairs!" I tried to tell her I was tying my shoes, but she said, "Back to the 27th bed."'
The festive season was always a poignant time for the young child. In 1951, Marilyn remembered, 'When Christmas came there was a big tree and all the kids in the house got presents but me. One of the kids gave me an orange. I can remember that Christmas day, eating that orange all by myself...and I could look up and see the RKO [film studios] water tower. I cried because I knew my mother had worked there. I think that was when I decided that some day, I would be an actress and maybe I would get inside that studio.'
Norma Jeane's veneer of self-confidence naturally became increasingly vulnerable and seemingly began to crack apart at the slightest repulse. For instance, during her second Christmas at the orphanage, she was given a part in a school play, but lost it when her current teacher, fearing she would forget her lines and embarrass the class, asked the person in charge of the production to give the part to someone else. Another knock-back to her confidence came one Easter when she was on a stage for the first time, at the Hollywood Bowl as one of 50 black-robed youngsters forming a cross.
'We all had on white tunics under the black robes,' Marilyn recalled in 1951, 'and at a given signal we were supposed to throw off the robes, changing the cross from black to white. But I got so interested in the people, the orchestra and the hills that I forgot to watch the conductor for the signal and there I was; the only black mark on a white cross.' As she grew older, Norma Jeane became tall and gawky with short, straw-like hair. Her manner was still described as hesitant, shy and scared, and she still suffered from her stammer.
On Saturday 26 June 1937, Norma Jeane left the orphanage and briefly moved back in with Grace McKee, who at this time was living with her husband, amateur inventor Erwin 'Doc' Silliman Goddard, in a small town near Los Angeles. Despite being most welcoming, they had their faults. With little prospect of being properly fed, due to Grace's new and quite unexpected penny-pinching ways, the young child would while away the hours in the local food stores, picking up whatever items she could and consuming them when no one, in particular the proprietor, was watching. She favoured stores selling fruit, particularly small peaches, cherries and plums. Acquisitions not eaten on the spot, such as the extremely large Wolf River apples, were discreetly hidden in her apron and transported home for consumption later. As Marilyn horrifyingly recalled, 'he [Erwin] was terribly strict. He brought me up harshly, and corrected me in a way I think they never should have; with a leather strap.' (It's worth pointing out that, despite the account of a previous Monroe biographer, at no point during his time with the young child did Goddard ever sexually molest the young child.)
Legend has it that, when news of what happened leaked out, Norma Jeane was palmed off to another foster home and thus found herself, during a three-month period, embarking on a nightmarish roller-coaster ride of 11 different foster homes and successive real-life horror stories such as being scalded for merely flushing the toilet at night. But that was completely untrue. 'After the orphans' home,' child carer Ida Bolender revealed in 1956, 'Norma Jeane stayed with Aunt Ana and Grace McKee Goddard until she got married...I don't know where those stories came from about her staying in 12 foster homes.'
So, just where did this tale start and, most importantly, why? To answer these questions we must go forward to Tuesday 1 January 1952, when a new year was dawning and a pristine men's calendar was being pinned to the walls of garages, warehouses and barbershops across America.
Represented on each was the colour photograph of a beautiful young lady, lying nude across a red velvet drape. The female in question was Hollywood's hottest new movie star, Marilyn Monroe.
When news of it reached 20th Century-Fox, the studio to which she was contracted, and RKO Pictures, the producers of her latest movie, the drama Clash By Night, a crisis of epic proportions was almost reached. Studio heads attempted at first to dismiss it, but that was not easy to do. America in the early 1950s was a country rife with strait-laced public morals. As panic began to intensify, RKO even contemplated delaying the release of their new film because of it. A strategy was urgently needed.
Following a hastily called meeting between one of the movie's producers, Jerry Wald, studio executives and the actress herself, an exercise in damage limitation was decided upon and 39-year-old, Montana-born UPI Hollywood film columnist Aline Mosby was drafted in to help. Between them, in an attempt to gain public sympathy, a story about how Marilyn did the nude shoot simply because 'she was broke and needed the money badly following a sorrowful upbringing in a string of foster homes' was hastily concocted. They figured that nobody on earth could be angry or disgusted by the sad tale of a young girl who had been forced to exploit her body just to survive.
The story confirming that Marilyn was in fact the nude on the calendar was released to the American press on Tuesday 11 March 1952. It appeared one day later. As Mosby wrote:
A photograph of a beautiful nude blonde on a 1952 calendar is hanging in garages and barbershops all over the nation today. Marilyn Monroe admitted today that the beauty is she. 'Oh, the calendar's hanging in garages all over town,' said Marilyn. 'Why deny it? You can get one any place. Besides, I'm not ashamed of it. I've done nothing wrong.'...In 1949, she was just another scared young blonde, struggling to find fame in the magic city, and all alone. As a child she lived in a Hollywood orphanage. She was pushed around among twelve sets of foster parents before she turned an insecure sixteen.
This first part of the narrative was quite true. The session, in a cramped Los Angeles studio belonging to photographer Tom Kelley, had taken place on Friday 27 May 1949. Twelve years later, Monroe recalled truthfully, 'I was hungry. I needed the $50...I'd do it again if I had to.' Since she was too embarrassed to pose during the day, the pictures had to be taken at night.
'Modelling jobs were few and far between then,' she remarked in another March 1952 interview. 'I had some modelling jobs but not enough to pay the bills. There was this photographer [Kelley] I had worked for and he kept telling me he would pay me $50 if I posed in the nude as a calendar girl. I kept telling him, "No, thanks." Not that there was anything wrong in posing for a calendar, but it just wasn't something I would do. But when I had no work and no money, out of desperation, I called him up and said, "Kelley, I need that $50 but promise you won't tell anyone." He promised no one would know except for his wife, who was also his assistant.'
Her reasons for doing the shoot had escalated by the time she met the Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons one month later. 'The truth is, I was not only one month behind in my rent but four months,' Marilyn announced. 'I expected to be thrown out in the street. I didn't have enough money even to eat, and when Tom Kelley asked me to pose, I was glad to accept.'
'The session took three hours,' Kelley admitted to the American Weekly in 1955. 'I must have stood about ten feet above her. She was lying on the floor.' When it came to signing the model release form, due to her nervousness, embarrassment and attempts at anonymity, she signed her name as 'Mona Monroe'. 'I sold all my rights in it [the pictures] for a lousy $500,' the photographer solemnly announced. 'A guy out in Chicago, John Baumgarth, he made a fortune on it. Sold close to 8,000,000 calendars!' (In fact two different Marilyn Monroe nude calendars were released: one entitled Golden Dream, the other A New Wrinkle. The former was the bigger seller.)
Four and a half years on, in December 1953, a new men's magazine appeared on the American news-stands. It was called Playboy. Its creator was Hugh Hefner. The first issue sold over 54,000 copies, an amazing tally for a new journal with no advance publicity. The startling sales of that first copy can be attributed to Hefner's good fortune of finding an exceptional double-page, centrepiece 'Sweetheart Of The Month' photo to lure America's hot-blooded males to the news-stand. Inside that maiden edition was Kelley's photo of the nude 22-year-old Monroe lying outstretched across a red velvet sheet.
However, the second half of Mosby's March 1952 report, the part about 'twelve sets of foster parents', was far from the truth. This had actually been unveiled to the American public in the Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper, among others, nine weeks earlier on Sunday 7 January 1952, just six days after the calendar first appeared. In the article, Mosby wrote, 'Marilyn had eleven sets of foster parents before she was 16. She was shunted from one set to the next, unloved and unwanted.' Hastily prepared comments by the actress accompanied the piece. 'They'd keep me for six months, or a year,' she declared, 'then they'd say, 'You make me nervous,' and the county would find me another home. The families I lived with were all poor.'
The true catalyst of Marilyn's foster-home stories was in fact her adopted sister, Beebe Goddard, a girl who truly did encounter an unhappy childhood and a string of different guardians. (Marilyn's last encounter with Goddard took place in June 1953, when the actress celebrated her 27th birthday.) During their occasional encounters, Goddard held Monroe captive with her mournful tales. The actress would later use these as the nucleus for the grand deception perpetrated by herself, Fox and RKO.
Indeed, aside from the revisionist work of Marilyn's overzealous Hollywood publicists, a great part of this misinterpretation of the truth--as we know--regrettably came from Monroe herself, who enjoyed perpetuating the myth of what a poor, sad, orphaned girl from a deprived background could achieve. In June 1952, with the Hollywood news wires awash with the news that the actress was an orphan, Marilyn came clean--possibly out of guilt--and exclusively revealed to the Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson that Gladys was still alive and that, after urging from Fox, she was actually helping to support her. Her confession just happened to coincide with Redbook magazine's current article on the actress, entitled 'Orphan's Life', in which they naturally focused on the sad loss of Marilyn's parents. However, the actress was unrepentant about the misleading information she had contributed and drafted a note to the publication's editor, Wade Nichols, telling him so. In part, it read, 'I frankly did not feel wrong in withholding from you the fact that my mother is still alive...Since we have never known each other intimately and have never enjoyed the normal relationship of mother.'
In 1955, Life magazine's Hollywood correspondent Ezra Goodman was another writer to face a brick wall when attempting to decipher the conflicting stories about Marilyn's formative years. Due to the conspiracy of silence still surrounding it, he encountered first-hand the many people who were determined to either hinder his research or complicate matters. As he wrote in his finished article, 'much of what she and her publicists have said about her past simply do not ring true'. 'The truth is,' as her future publicist, Arthur P. Jacobs, would recall, 'she loved to create gossip. She didn't need Confidential magazine; she touted her own dirty linen.'
'She made up those stories to win the public sympathy,' her first husband, James Dougherty, corroborated in 1968. 'When she was revealed as the model who had posed for that nude calendar hanging in every men's toilet, in every garage in America, she got the sympathy vote.' The deceit worked. Public sympathy was achieved, a new legion of fans gained and, with all the extra publicity, crowds flocked to see Clash By Night when it was released in June 1952. To this day, fans, historians, documentary makers and movie columnists repeat how Marilyn grew up as an orphan in a succession of foster homes. On both counts, that was totally incorrect.
In fact, in September 1937, at the age of 11, Norma Jeane was moved to West Los Angeles to live with Grace McKee's childless 62-year-old aunt, Ana Lower. It was there that she finally found the warmth and maternal affection she had so badly been deprived of.
'This woman was the greatest influence on my whole life,' Marilyn recalled in a 1962 interview with photographer George Barris. 'I called her aunt Ana. The love I have today for beautiful and simple things is because of her. She was the only person I ever really loved with such a deep love you can give only to someone so kind, so good and so full of love for me.
One of the reasons why I loved her was because of her understanding of what really mattered in life...She was quite a person...She didn't believe in sickness or disease or death. She didn't believe in a person being a failure either. She believed the mind could achieve anything. She changed my whole life.'
Inside Lower's home was an item she had retained for Norma Jeane, the one symbol of life with her mother: her white baby grand piano. Lessons for the instrument began anew. Aunt Ana taught the young Monroe how to play the one-fingered piano waltz 'Chopsticks'.
Marilyn's reunion with the instrument was brief and, as her career began to blossom, she once more found herself estranged from it. But not for long. In 1962 she recalled, 'I got my first good part, in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and I had enough money to do what I'd always dreamed of doing. I started looking for that white piano. I went to all the warehouses and old auction rooms in Los Angeles and after a month I found it. It was just as white and beautiful as ever, I knew it was the same piano because Fredric March's name was engraved on it. I bought it for $100 and took it home. It stood in my room for several years without a piano bench, just a white piano I couldn't play.' The instrument would nevertheless stay by the actress's side, coast to coast, house to house, marriage to marriage, for the remainder of her short life. To her, it symbolised the permanency of a home and the family security she never had.
In September 1938, the miracle of Norma's young physique ripening into womanhood arrived, and with it came a change in her fortunes. A survival instinct instilled in her made her aware that her frame, while wearing a borrowed tight white sweater, was attracting an unusual amount of attention: envious glances from other girls and desire in boys. The change in the attitude of the latter was startling; their previous gibes of 'Norma Jeane, string bean' had changed into appreciative wolf-whistles.
'The boys knew better than to get fresh with me,' Marilyn recollected in 1953. 'The most they ever got was a good-night kiss.' In her posthumously published 1974 book, My Story, she wrote, 'I wasn't aware of anything sexual in their new liking for me...I didn't think of my body as having anything to do with sex. It was more like a friend who had mysteriously appeared in my life, a sort of new friend.' She was now attracting the attention she had so desperately wished for.
In 1941, at the age of 15, because of aunt Ana's advancing years and ill-health, Norma Jeane was forced to move again--back to the home of Grace McKee and Erwin Goddard, who by this time were living in a rambling bungalow on Odessa Street in Van Nuys, California. During her stay there she met Goddard's 11-year-old daughter, Nona Jeannette, who later became famous as the Columbia Pictures movie star Jody Lawrance. 'I remember she was a shy, introverted little girl,' Lawrance recalled to reporter Ezra Goodman in 1955. 'We made a tree house with boards in a pepper tree in our front yard. We used to crawl up there when we thought we'd get in trouble. We knew my father and stepmother could not climb up there. That tree house was our escape.' Local boys on bicycles would happily drop by and watch while Norma Jeane hung upside-down from the tree. 'I used to look like a monkey,' she remembered in 1952. 'I guess I was a little shy about coming down but I did get down to the curb...I would ask the boys, 'Can I ride your bike now?' And they'd say, 'Sure,' and I'd go zooming, laughing in the wind, riding down the block. They'd all stand around and wait till I came back.'
In 1942, due to Erwin's job transfer, the Goddards were forced to move to West Virginia and they were unable (or unwilling) to take Norma Jeane with them. So she was faced with a dilemma. 'I'd had enough of the orphanage,' she remarked, 'more than enough. What could I do? So I got married.' Grace's matrimonial eye soon chanced upon their 21-year-old neighbour, James Dougherty, an employee at Lockheed Aircraft. Their marriage, at 8.30pm on Friday 19 June 1942, was held at the home of the Goddards' close friends, Mr and Mrs Chester Howell, because of its winding staircase, similar to those which appear in the movies. Grace made the arrangements for the wedding just prior to her departure for West Virginia. Ana Lower gave the bride away. She was the only representative of Norma Jeane's family present. It was, in truth, a marriage of convenience.
It was shortly after Marilyn's divorce from Dougherty in 1946, and when she was taking her first tentative steps in Hollywood, that she was introduced to tranquillisers. During her early teens, along with the miracle of new-found happiness and burgeoning womanhood, had come the agony of menstruation. For several unaided years, Marilyn endured violent cramps and excruciating stomach tortures until one day, to help ease her discomfort and to aid with her sleep, she was handed some barbiturates. Initially she consumed Seconal. Other, more fashionable tranquillisers such as Miltown, Equanil and Librium followed. However, Nembutal soon became her drug of choice.
Marilyn first took the pills in October 1947, when she was at 20th Century-Fox shooting her brief walk-on part in the Jeanne Crane/Dan Dailey romantic musical You Were Meant For Me. (The role would end up on the cutting-room floor.) Although it was the actress's third for the studio, no one really expected her to linger in the industry. As Fox photographer Leon Shamroy, who shot her first screen test, once disparagingly remarked, 'When you analyse Marilyn, she is not good looking, had a bad nose, bad posture and her figure is too obvious. She has a bad profile. Hers is a phoney sex.' Even her first acting agent, Harry Lipton, was heard to comment, 'She was thought of as a joke by many people and that hurt her badly.'
'I was fired from Fox at 22, and fired from Columbia at 23,' Monroe recalled in 1953. 'They told me I should go home.' Along with her intermittent physical pains, the horrifying thought that her chosen profession might well be a fleeting one was enough to direct the actress towards pills. She needed help to alleviate her anxieties. Slowly and imperceptibly her life began to be centred on these drugs; nobody outside her immediate circle of friends was aware of just how many pills she was beginning to pop, not only during the day but also at night. Subsequently, they began to transform both her emotions and thinking processes.
As with all barbiturate addicts, alterations in Marilyn's personality began to take place, sometimes manifesting themselves in violent outbursts aimed towards either her family, friends or colleagues, while at other times she seemed crazy, eccentric and peculiar. By the 1950s, if you were a star of her calibre, you could get away with such behaviour. But she also had good days when she was sparkling and radiant and seemed absolutely fine to those around her. Such dramatic personality changes are typical of those living under the influence of Nembutal.
The lure of alcohol had already beckoned for Marilyn. Her consumption of spirits had increased in 1942 during her marriage to Dougherty. Aged just 16, she grew to love vodka, wine, occasionally sherry and especially champagne. But as her success in the movie business increased, so too did her intake. Monroe found in alcohol, as well as chemistry, a solution to all kinds of discomfort, not only physical pain but the pains of daily life; a solvent for her internal tensions and demons.
With a difficult childhood and a drug-fuelled adulthood, and with so much insanity running through her family, it would have been amazing had Marilyn turned out completely normal. Lack of emotional bonding in her very formative years, due to a sick and disturbed mother, generated an immense black hole of emotional insecurities that could never be filled. In truth, Marilyn was always ten years of age in some place in her heart, frequently being dragged to the Los Angeles Orphan Home.
She had grown up as a sad-faced little girl, devoid of any firm structure and, aside from her time at the Bolenders', of any consistent experience of living within a good, honest, loving family she could call her own. Unsurprisingly, since her efforts to gain affection and acceptance were sometimes rejected, she became an isolated, frustrated individual who never grew up. The cumulative result of her drug dependencies, childhood terrors and uneasy confrontations with the prejudices and peculiarities of different families was a grave sense of insecurity, low self-esteem and loneliness.
Conversely, despite her poor self-esteem, she became a survivor, motivated to succeed, and a seeker for love wherever she could find it. As Marilyn confided to her friend, leading Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Oettinger Parsons, the so-called 'First Lady of Hollywood', she had a fierce desire to be loved. Having known or experienced so little affection, she was anxious to have visible signs that someone cared for her. In effect, Monroe's entire life was plagued by fear, anxiety and self-doubt, and this emotional dependency often alienated those who were attracted to her. Such was the case with the men in her life. She divorced Dougherty in 1946, and her subsequent marriages, to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (in 1954) and the aforementioned Arthur Miller (in 1956), went the same way.
Despite its shaky start, her movie career eventually became decidedly more upbeat. With films such as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (all in 1953), Marilyn was launched as both a movie superstar and an international sex symbol. Immensely successful movies such as The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like It Hot (1959) soon followed.
Even then, she had gained a growing reputation for unreliability on the film set. As Joshua Logan, the director of Marilyn's 1956 movie Bus Stop, recalled. 'She'd run in apologising, take a look in the mirror and then go through an agonising process of getting herself in the mood.' On a typical day's shooting of her most recent film, The Misfits, co-star Clark Gable would be on the set between 7.30 and 8am with lines memorised and ready to go. Monroe would not usually arrive until noon. A similar scenario had been played out during the production of her preceding movie, Let's Make Love. Actor Tony Randall recalled how he reported for work for three days running but, due to the actress's continual absence, did not perform once. On another day, when Marilyn did succeed in coming to the set, he ended up shooting his first scene of the day at 3pm, just two hours before filming was due to wrap.
And more recently, box-office success was not assured. The produced-in-England movie, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the comedy Let's Make Love (1960) alongside co-star Yves Montand and The Misfits (1961), written by Arthur Miller, were all far from fruitful at the box office.
Amid fears that her fame was in decline, in the middle of 1961 she was back in Los Angeles, where matters concerning her final movie for 20th Century-Fox were hijacking her life. But on a happier note, she had just celebrated her latest birthday. This is where our astonishing tale of Marilyn Monroe's final years--as it was, as it happened--begins...
MARILYN MONROE Copyright 2010 by Keith Badman