[On the early morning of August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her LA home, in a moment that quickly became as mythic as everything else about young Norma Jean Mortenson. So this week I’ll remember the iconic and singular Marilyn through posts on her life, career, and legacy as well as her tragic death.]
On three telling, American stages and details from Norma Jean’s early life.
1) Her Names: What last name to use for young Norma Jean reflects both the complex life of her single mother (at the time of Norma Jean’s birth) and Norma Jean’s own evolving identity. Norma’s mother Gladys Pearl Monroe first married John Baker in 1917 and had two children with him, but they were divorced in 1921 and he took those children to Kentucky. In 1924 she married Martin Mortenson, but they apparently separated just a few months later. They were still legally married when Norma Jean was born in LA in June 1926, but the identity of her father is unknown; so while her legal birth name was Norma Jean Mortenson, she most frequently used Baker as her last name—until she adopted her mother’s maiden name, Monroe, as part of her stage name for her first acting agency contract in 1946. Divorce and single parenthood are often described as late 20th century trends, but Monroe’s life—like Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”—highlights their cultural presence and significance far earlier than that.
2) Ward and Orphan: Gladys wasn’t just a single mother, though—she was also someone who struggled throughout her life with psychological problems that were eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, young Norma Jean moved frequently between her mother’s care and different homes and situations: Gladys’s friends Albert and Ida Bolender in nearby, rural Hawthorne (CA); an LA boarding house shared with actors George and Maude Atkinson; and then, after Gladys was diagnosed and committed to Metropolitan State Hospital in 1934, Norma Jean became a ward of the state, living briefly with a number of foster families and then at the Los Angeles Orphans Home for two years beginning in September 1935. That’s not even the complete list, but it reflects how within just her first decade of life Norma Jean had experienced many different American settings and social spaces, experiences that no doubt contributed to her own malleable and evolving adult identity.
3) World War II: Norma Jean was still a teenager during the war, but she still experienced two significant shifts into adult identity. When the war started she was living with her mother’s friend Grace McKee Goddard and her husband Doc, who sexually molested Norma Jean. Doc’s job was relocated to West Virginia in early 1942, but fortunately child protection laws made it impossible for the Goddards to take Norma Jean out of state. Rather than return to the orphanage, a few days after her 16th birthday Norma Jean married a 21-year old neighbor, factory worker Jim Dougherty. Jim enlisted in the Merchant Marine in 1943 and Norma Jean moved with him to Santa Catalina Island, but when he shipped to the Pacific Theater in April 1944 she took her own wartime job, going to work for the Radioplane munitions company in Van Nuys. Before her 18th birthday Norma Jean had thus become both a wife and a professional, and both those social roles would continue to inform her life and identity throughout her remaining 18 years.
Next Marilyn memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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