By Laurie Lips
Reprinted from Sept. 2001
“Norma Jeane, look up in the sky!” shouted the 26-year-old, twice-divorced mother to her 6-year-old daughter. The girl tilted her head towards the sky and saw a small airplane flying close above her house. As the windows rattled, her small dog, “Tippy,” barked.
Norma Jeane was delighted when the pilot, wearing goggles and a thick leather jacket, typical gear for a 1930s pilot, brought the aircraft around in another circle. As he did, the long white scarf he wore knotted around his neck blew behind him in the wind.
Gladys Monroe Baker, who had recently dropped her second married name of Mortenson, had a friend who was a delivery pilot for the Columbia Broadcasting Studio. She had asked him to fly over her house as a birthday present for her daughter.
Norma Jeane was born on July 1, 1926, in Los Angeles. While down on her luck, Baker was forced to place her 12-day-old daughter with foster parents. Norma Jeane lived with Wayne and Ida Bolender, who lived across the street in Hawthorne, Calif.
Baker helped support her daughter with money earned working at Consolidated Film Industries in the company’s cutting rooms. Her job during the depression was glamorous; she edited images of popular actors and actresses such as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.
When Norma Jeane was 7, her mother retrieved her from the Bolender family. Her attempt to make a home for her daughter, however, was short-lived. After Baker developed a severe problem with depression, her close friend, Grace McKee, feared for Norma Jeane’s safety, and ultimately had Baker declared legally insane and admitted into a sanitarium. McKee then became Norma Jeane’s guardian. Norma Jeane’s mother was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and brain damage, causing some to believe that the toxic film processing fluids used in the new film business of “talkies” had caused her illness.
Norma Jeane, shy, soft-spoken and with few friends, lived with various foster families, relatives and friends, and also spent time at the Los Angeles Orphan’s Society. In her last years of middle school, a transformation began to take place. The boys in her school were quick to notice when the once relatively plain girl began to blossom into a beautiful young woman.
Off and on, Norma Jeane stayed with McKee, before and during McKee’s marriage to “Doc” Goddard. While living with the Goddards in Van Nuys, Calif., Norma Jeane attended Van Nuys High School. When the Goddards began preparing to move out of California, Mrs. Goddard and her close friend and neighbor, Ethel Dougherty, discussed where Norma Jeane would live.
Since Norma Jeane was a ward of the state, she couldn’t leave California. Both women agreed they didn’t want to see her back in an orphanage, but they didn’t have to worry long. Norma Jeane soon began dating Ethel Dougherty’s son, James Dougherty, five years her senior and an employee of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, the legal age to marry in California, Norma Jeane, now a high school dropout, became Dougherty’s wife. After exchanging vows, the newlyweds moved into a one-room bungalow, then into a house in Van Nuys.
After Dougherty joined the Merchant Marines, he was sent to Catalina Island, just off the California coast. Norma Jeane soon joined him there. Dougherty eventually shipped out, and Norma Jeane moved in with his parents in North Hollywood.
In 1939, after developing a series of unmanned aerial vehicles, Englishman Reginald Leigh Denny and two Americans, Walter Righter and Kenneth Case, formed the Radioplane Company, which was to later become Northrop’s Ventura division. During WWII, Radioplane built thousands of radio-controlled target drones, which were used by the Army for anti-aircraft practice.
In 1944, while working at Radioplane, Ethel Dougherty and her daughter-in-law joined the ranks of the millions of women known as “Rosie the Riveters” helping the war effort. During her 60-hour workweek at the nation’s minimum wage of $20 a week, Norma Jeane’s assignments included spraying glue on aircraft fabric and inspecting and folding parachutes.
As part of a publicity campaign to drum up support for the nation’s war effort and to elevate the soldier’s morale, the U.S. Army established the First Motion Picture Unit. Many movie stars were part of this unit, which soon became known as the “Celluloid Commandos.” Those in uniform at the time included Alan Ladd and Clark Gable. The unit, whose base was known as “Fort Roach,” was housed in the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City, Calif.
David Conover, an Army photographer, was assigned to Fort Roach. Actor Ronald Reagan was his commanding officer. In June 1945, Reagan, a friend of Denny, sent David Conover to Radioplane’s Van Nuys plant to take pictures of women involved in the war effort.
As Conover moved down the assembly line, his attention was drawn to one particular blue-eyed “Rosie the Riveter,” who was in the process of putting propellers on aircraft. Norma Jeane’s curly ash-blonde hair framed her pretty but dirt-smudged face. He snapped her picture several times, and continued down the assembly line. But he later returned to ask if she had a sweater with her; he wanted her to pose for him during her lunch hour.
Conover noted that 19-year-old Norma Jeane’s response to the camera was amazing. She seemed to “come alive” with an immediate and natural instinct. In fact, he was so excited by his discovery that he could barely hold the camera steady. He must have hidden his excitement from his subject, because the teenager timidly asked if she was photogenic.
After several photo sessions and with Conover’s influence, Norma Jeane applied at the Blue Book Modeling Agency. There she was groomed in the art of modeling and encouraged to lighten her hair. She soon had the attention of every producer in Hollywood. In July 1946, Norma Jeane signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox Studios, and shortly thereafter became known as Marilyn Monroe.
Her marriage to Dougherty lasted almost four years. Dougherty later wrote a book about his marriage to Norma Jeane, entitled “The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe.” And of course, Marilyn Monroe became a legend.