Before Marilyn Monroe became one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, she was a regular girl called Norma Jeane Mortenson. Back then, she had brown, curly hair, and her prospects looked much the same as those of many other young women of the era: get married, be a housewife and have a family. And, in fact, the future actress was barely 16 years old when she wed for the first time – although this move may have been made more out of desperation than anything else.
After all, Monroe’s early life was a very far cry from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, marked out as it was by poverty and abuse. And while her beauty and comedic talents helped her to break away from her difficult past, fame would turn out to come at its own price.
Apparently, Monroe struggled under the spotlight and saw her real self and her on-screen persona as two totally different people. There’s a well-known anecdote about her strolling with a pal through New York, hiding from paparazzi with a scarf over her head. Turning to her friend, Monroe supposedly said, “Do you want me to be her? Watch.” Then she undid her jacket, removed the shawl and went into the iconic Marilyn Monroe strut. After that, it’s said she was accosted by fans within seconds.
And while Monroe was undeniably beautiful, she was also a talented actress. The ditzy blonde whom she portrayed in many movies was apparently not at all reflective of her true personality, either. You see, Monroe not only loved to read, but she also reportedly owned hundreds of books. According to fellow actress Shelley Winters, the sex symbol was attracted to smart men, too.
Monroe’s third husband, Arthur Miller, was certainly an intellectual. In fact, the media mocked the couple when they married in 1956, with Variety running the wry headline “Egghead Weds Hourglass.” And many found it hard to believe that the blonde bombshell and the writer could possibly make a good match. Unfortunately, they were proved more or less right.
Monroe split from Miller in 1961 at around the time that her movie The Misfits turned out to be a commercial flop. And she received some negative reviews for her performance in the flick, too. The New York Times, for instance, called the actress “blank and unfathomable” in her role as divorcée Roslyn Tabor.
That said, some of Monroe’s bad press may have been down to anxiety rather than lack of talent. “I liked Marilyn, but she was God-awful to work with,” her one time co-star Richard Widmark told The Daily Telegraph in 2002. “Impossible, really. She would hide in her dressing room and refuse to come out.”
And Monroe’s deeper personal issues couldn’t be hidden from her co-stars, either. “When she finally would show up, she was a nervous wreck,” Widmark continued. “It was all a result of fear. She was insecure about so many things and was obviously self-destructive. She was a wounded bird from the beginning.”
In fact, Monroe’s mental health apparently reached such a low at around the time of her divorce from Miller that she was treated in a psychiatric ward. It’s also claimed that the actress’ ex-husband Joe DiMaggio – to whom she had been married before Miller – was a big support for her during this period. That said, her relationship with DiMaggio has been the subject of several controversial rumors over the years.
Monroe and DiMaggio’s short-lived marriage was apparently both passionate and tumultuous. Reportedly, the baseball star had certain hang-ups about his wife’s public persona – so much so that the relationship began to turn sour. In fact, legend has it that DiMaggio wanted Monroe to be a housewife rather than an actress. But Monroe was a sex symbol, and being flirtatious was part of her job.
For instance, there’s a dark tale behind the iconic picture of Monroe in a billowing white dress. That famous snap, as you may know, comes from a scene in Billy Wilder’s movie The Seven Year Itch. And, apparently, on the day that the sequence was shot, DiMaggio came to watch. But according to some reports, he didn’t like what he saw – and some sources say that he became agitated as a result.
In the 2014 book Joe and Marilyn: Legends in Love, C. David Heymann discussed the violence that Monroe may have experienced at the hands of her husband. “When [Monroe] didn’t respond the way [DiMaggio] wanted her to, he became physical,” Heymann claimed. “On one occasion, he ripped an earring from her lobe and scratched her face.”
Then when Monroe filed for divorce from DiMaggio, it was reportedly on the grounds of “mental cruelty.” Yet it’s said that the sporting legend remained preoccupied with his ex even after their split. And despite all that had supposedly occurred throughout the course of their tumultuous relationship, the actress ended up more or less going back to him.
But why would Monroe have returned to a man who is said to have treated her badly? Well, many biographers have pointed out that, sadly, much of Monroe’s short life featured abuse in some form or another. Even back when she was the beautiful but ordinary Norma Jeane Baker, she had experienced awful things in her early childhood.
Monroe entered the world in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was Gladys Pearl Baker, who had come from an impoverished family; her father wasn’t in the picture. In fact, it’s said that Monroe was eight years old before she even saw a photograph of her dad, who is believed to be a man named Charles Stanley Gifford.
And Gladys also suffered from mental health issues that included schizophrenia, meaning she couldn’t look after her child alone. So, when Monroe was just a couple of weeks old, the newborn’s mom dropped her off with foster parents Ida and Wayne Bolender.
Monroe was subsequently brought up for the most part by the Bolenders, who were evangelical Christians. And Monroe apparently knew from a young age that she wanted to be in showbiz. “When I was five, I think, that’s when I started wanting to be an actress. I loved to play,” Monroe told Life magazine in 1962. “I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim, but I loved to play house.”
But although the Bolenders provided care for Monroe and put a roof over her head, her childhood was nonetheless difficult. The family were utterly devoted to their religion, for one thing, and they seemed to expect their ward to be as well. In fact, Monroe once claimed that she wasn’t able to sing or dance in the Bolenders’ presence.
Then in 1933 Gladys apparently came to take her daughter back – even though the Bolenders had planned to officially adopt her. After that, Monroe and her mother moved into a Hollywood home that they shared with another family called the Atkinsons. But as it turned out, Gladys wasn’t well enough to look after her child. And the following year, she suffered a breakdown that led to hospitalization.
Monroe was then bounced around various foster homes and schools. And later, she told the press that at this point in her life, she was sexually abused. The star never outright named the perpetrator during her lifetime, but some biographers have since suggested that the individual responsible may have been the father of the Atkinson family.
And as Monroe’s childhood went on, she reportedly felt more and more unwanted. “Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house, and there I’d sit all day and way into the night,” she revealed to Life in 1962. “Up in front there with the screen so big – a little kid all alone.”
Then, at around the age of nine, Monroe was placed into an orphanage – a place about which she would later speak harshly in interviews. For one thing, the star claimed, she had had to wash hundreds of dishes, knives and forks every day while being paid almost nothing for her work. Other sources have disputed these allegations, however.
But regardless of whether Monroe was actually exploited at the orphanage, she certainly didn’t enjoy life there. And, finally, a friend of her mother’s named Grace McKee Goddard removed her from the institution and took her in. Unfortunately, though, Monroe may have also suffered sexual abuse at this new home – allegedly at the hands of Grace’s husband, Doc.
And while Monroe tried finding alternative places to live, she eventually ended up back at the Goddard home. Then in 1942 the Goddards had to move state along with Doc’s company. Monroe couldn’t go with the couple, however, leaving her confronted with the prospect of being sent back to the orphanage.
Yet there was actually an answer to this problem: Monroe could get married. And a suitor duly came along in the form of a 21-year-old neighbor of the Goddards’ named James “Jim” Dougherty. The pair had already gone out on several dates, and Dougherty seemingly had no objections to wedding a beautiful girl like Monroe.
So, three weeks after Monroe’s 16th birthday, she and Jim married. And her gown for the occasion – a gift from one of her foster parents – was fairly simple. Made of white lace and with lengthy sleeves, it was a far cry from the bold fashion statements that Monroe would later make at her next two weddings.
Furthermore, at this first ceremony, Monroe is said to have wept. Was it because she was happy, or was it because she had realized that she didn’t want to walk down the aisle after all? Well, after Monroe was no longer his wife, Dougherty insisted that the marriage had been a harmonious one. But some of Monroe’s letters and notes, which were published in 2010, seemingly reveal her true thoughts on the relationship.
Historians who have analyzed these documents think that Monroe may have first written about Dougherty at the age of 17. “My relationship with him was basically insecure from the first night I spent alone with him,” she penned to herself. And other asides she made on the union weren’t particularly flattering, either.
In fact, Monroe’s writing about her first husband sheds light on some of her most personal musings. She was attracted to Dougherty, she said, because he was “one of the few young men [she] had no sexual repulsion for.” Monroe went on, “It gave me a false sense of security to feel that he was endowed with more [overwhelming] qualities which I did not possess.”
Of her marriage to Dougherty, then, Monroe wrote, “On paper it all begins to sound terribly logical.” That said, the same message sees her describe herself as “a young, rather shy girl” and make note of her “desire to belong and [develop].” Indeed, it seems from these letters as though the future star was prone to self-introspection. “I had always felt a need to live up to that expectation of my elders,” she wrote.
But Monroe’s first marriage isn’t the only turning point in her life to be documented in these letters. For instance, she also made extensive notes about her stay in the psychiatric hospital following her divorce from Miller, and these in turn make for sobering reading. “I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic,” she wrote.
And in a letter to her therapist Dr. Greenson – a man who some biographers think was far too attached to her to be useful to her mental health – Monroe described some of her specific experiences at the hospital. “I said to [the doctors], ‘If you are going to treat me like a nut, I’ll act like a nut,’” she wrote.
Some of the notes that Monroe sent also mentioned how bad her mental health had become. “I wish I knew why I am so anguished,” she wrote to her friend Paula Strasberg in an undated letter. “I think maybe I’m crazy like all the other members of my family were. When I was sick, I was sure I was.”
And it may have been these demons that eventually contributed to Monroe’s death in August 1962. While rumors and conspiracy theories have circulated about what – or who – killed the actress, Los Angeles County coroners claimed that she may have committed suicide. There were a lot of drugs in her system, you see, and they seemed to have all been taken in one go.
Then when three psychiatrists were assigned to investigate Monroe’s mental state at the time of her death, their findings spoke of the actress having gone through extreme distress. “Miss Monroe had suffered from psychiatric disturbance for a long time,” read the report. “She experienced severe fears and frequent depressions. Mood changes were abrupt and unpredictable.”
Inevitably, the reactions of Monroe’s lovers were scrutinized following her death. It was noted, for instance, that DiMaggio planned the funeral with Monroe’s business manager and invited only a handful of people to the event; those who turned up unsolicited were kept away by police. And the baseball star would send roses to Monroe’s grave thrice-weekly for some 20 years.
Miller, meanwhile, didn’t go to the funeral, which led some Monroe fans to cast him as a cold-hearted ex who never truly cared for the actress. But in 2018 an unpublished essay written by Miller was released. And in it, he gave his real reason for not attending that day. “I decided to stay home and let the public mourners finish the mockery… Most of them there destroyed her,” he wrote.
As for Dougherty, when he spoke of his ex-wife’s passing to the Associated Press in 2002, he too seemed to place some of the blame on Monroe’s celebrity. “I had almost been expecting it,” said Dougherty, who had gone on to become a police detective. “Fame was injurious to her. She was too gentle to be an actress.”
Dougherty died in 2005 of leukemia-related complications at the age of 84. And while his whole life he had fielded questions about Monroe, the words he spoke to United Press International in 1990 are truly poignant. “I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don’t claim to have any insights to her to this day,” he said. “I knew and loved Norma Jeane.”
And while very few ever truly knew Norma Jeane, Marilyn Monroe was adored and loved by millions. Yet in the end, nobody could save her. In one of the letters that the star wrote while she was married to Miller, she admitted, “I have always been deeply terrified to really be someone’s wife, since I know from life one cannot love another, ever, really.”