Marilyn’s accomplishment in Hollywood was nothing less than miraculous. She started her life as a nobody: an “illegitimate” child (as fatherless children were known to be in the 1920s), to a mentally ill mother who would never be well enough to care for her. She was born into poverty in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital. She was fostered out at 8 days old to the Bolenders, who raised Marilyn until she was 8 years old. The most devastating memory Marilyn had of the Bolenders was the day she called Mrs. Bolender “mama.” Bolender hissed in the child’s face. “Don’t you call me mother. I’m not your mother!” So hurtful was this comment that Marilyn mentioned it possibly 27 or 28 years later, during the last interview of her life to Richard Merryman.
Marilyn wasn’t a particularly pretty child. She was plain and gawky and generally no one took notice of her. At the age of 9, the child was forced to live in an orphanage for one to two years. She was devastated and had to be dragged into the institution screaming “I’m not an orphan! My mother is alive!” Imagine the trauma the little girl suffered and the sense of abandonment by both her mother and the Bolenders. Her sense of stability was probably shattered at this time in her life.
Marilyn was fostered out after spending one year in the orphanage to several foster homes, most of which were neglectful and substandard. She recalled one home where her foster mother forced her to drive around in her hot, stuffy car all day while she made deliveries. Marilyn remembered another family that didn’t want her in the house pestering them, so they gave her money to go to the movies every day. it may have been at this point in her life that Marilyn began to dream about becoming a movie star. In total, Marilyn lived in 11 foster homes and had 13 foster brothers and sisters. She was sexually abused on two occasions in two separate foster homes, wounds that never healed. So unhappy was the child that she actually asked Grace McPhee if she could return to the orphanage.
Finally she was taken in by Ada Lower, a close friend of Gladys Baker’s friend Aunt Grace, who kept Marilyn for one year. Aunt Grace decided to move out west. At 61, Ada Lower wasn’t able to continue to care for Marilyn. By now Marilyn was 15 years old. She would soon be turning 16. Marilyn’s only options were either to return to the orphanage or to marry a young man she barely knew, a friend of a foster sister named Jim Dougherty. After Dougherty agreed to marry the lonely girl, at the age of 16, Marilyn became a bride.
Although Dougherty accepted her as his wife, he wasn’t a faithful or particularly loving husband as he would have the public believe. He had ongoing affairs with women, and one in particular was an ex-girlfriend and beauty pageant winner who was approximately two years older than Marilyn. Marilyn discovered the affair and was devastated. Perhaps she wasn’t hurt at the betrayal: Norma Jean was used to it. It might have been that her sense of security was threatened; what if Dougherty left her and she had to return to the orphanage?
Modelling and Movies
After Dougherty was sent overseas with the marine corps, Marilyn was left to fend for herself financially. The bit of money Dougherty sent her wasn’t enough to live on. Marilyn began modeling, appearing in All-American girl outdoor type photographs. She soon discovered that cheesecake or pin-up girl photographs were worth much more. By then she had gone completely blonde and she posed for sexy cheesecake photographs to bring in better money. The Blue Book Modelling Agency had a great deal to do with Marilyn’s connection to 20th Century Fox. Emmeline Snively presented her photographs and persisted until Marilyn was signed to a short contract with the studio.
Marilyn would appear in a series of mostly unremarkable films, playing very minor roles. Her first role in the movie Scudda-Hoo Scudda-Hey! was edited from the final film. It was her association with Johnny Hyde, a William Morris agent, that truly launched her career. Marilyn was a clever woman. She knew a strong connection in the industry when she saw one and she allowed Johnny to cut her a seven-picture deal with Fox. Years later, after Marilyn became famous, she was forced to star in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business, she told her housekeeper she hated the film and was obligated to perform in it as, “part of an old contract. I had nothing to say.” After Hyde died unexpectedly, Marilyn was again thrown to the wolves without any assurance that her contract with Fox would continue. At one point during this rocky ride, MGM picked her up but after Marilyn refused to spend the weekend with the president of MGM on his yacht, he fired her. She never walked through the gates of MGM again.
One thing Marilyn did was to persist. No matter who insulted her, discouraged her, used her and left her, Marilyn kept working toward her goal. She took courses in ballet, jazz, singing and acting. She poured over her photographs for hours, asking photographers why one shot worked and another didn’t. Years after her death someone commented, “if models these days worked half as hard as Marilyn Monroe on their careers, they’d be a lot more successful than they are now.”
Throughout her slow, painful climb to the top of the Hollywood ladder, Marilyn’s mother was another obstacle. She disapproved of Marilyn’s career and made no secret about it. Whenever Marilyn visited her mother in the psychiatric hospital, her mother argued with her daughter about her career and insisted she quit working as a model and actress. Usually their meetings ended poorly. Even at the end of her life, after Marilyn had died, Gladys commented to the press, “It was her career that killed her. It never did her any good.”
That DiMaggio was a sincere, kind-hearted man who loved Marilyn implicitly, there can be no doubt. But he, like Gladys, disapproved of Marilyn’s career. He was exceedingly jealous when other men ogled his gorgeous wife. Marilyn’s publicity stunt for The Seven Year Itch, where she stands over the subway grating, her white sundress over her head, caused a major row between the couple who nearly broke up over it. DiMaggio wanted Marilyn to “get out of Hollywood.” It was the only way he could remain married to the most desirable woman in the world.
Against all odds, Marilyn achieved spectacular success and became arguably Hollywood’s most famous movie star. Never was there a deck more stacked against a person’s hand that somehow ended with a win.