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The Troubled Life of Norma Jeane Before she Became Marilyn Monroe

Stefan Andrews
Norma Jeane aka Marilyn Monroe
Norma Jeane aka Marilyn Monroe

Before the world met her as Marilyn Monroe, she was known as Norma Jeane Baker. Born on June 1, 1926, everyone knows the life of this icon ended all too soon on August 5, 1962, at the age of only 36.

Her name by birth would also echo 11 years after her death, in Elton John’s memorable ‘Candle in the Wind’ honoring the late American icon. The song was re-released in 1997, then in memory of Princess Diana. During the first part of her life, before she gained such huge popularity, Monroe endured a lot of struggles and suffering.

Monroe as an infant, c. 1927.

Monroe as an infant, c. 1927.

For instance, she never came to really know her father, and she didn’t have fond memories of her mother either. Monroe allegedly recalled that Gladys, her mother, tried to choke her as a baby while she was laying in a cradle, using a pillow. Gladys was later admitted to a mental institution.

Marilyn and her mother.

Marilyn and her mother.

Monroe spent a great deal of her childhood with foster parents. In fact, she was relocated to 11 different couples. She spent probably a full year at the Children’s Aid Society Orphanage in L.A. Later on, Monroe would also testify she was the victim of abuse and rape at the age of only 11.

Norma Jeane Baker, future film star Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962). Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Norma Jeane Baker, future film star Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962). Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

At the beginning of World War Two, Marilyn, still a teenager, was a Christian Scientist and had already married her first husband, James Dougherty. Therefore, she was Norma Jeane Dougherty for a while.

She would later change religions, and husbands, and names… and obviously jobs. During the war years, the shy-looking girl was employed in a military factory. One of her tasks was to spray down aircraft with fire retardant.

Quotes from Marilyn Monroe

Photographer David Conover was lucky enough to take some of the first intriguing photos of the future actress, singer, and model. In the photos, she can be seen working in the factory.

This early set of images of Norma Jeane reveal how she looked before she became a star (and before starting to use peroxide too): a natural brunette with curly hair. Her smile is as beautiful as ever.

Monroe with her first husband, James Dougherty, c. 1943–1944.

Monroe with her first husband, James Dougherty, c. 1943–1944.

Conover would be commended for discovering Monroe. He was assigned to the factory where she worked in 1944 and on behalf the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit. The commanding officer of this unit was none other than Ronald Reagan, the future president of the United States.

Norma Jeane Baker, with a hornbill on her arm, c.1941.

Norma Jeane Baker, with a hornbill on her arm, c.1941.

Conover eventually pushed young Norma Jeane on a new life journey with his photography work. After this session, he recommended her to Bill Carroll, another photographer who was looking for a model. Carroll was reportedly looking for a girl who is “kind of kid you’d like to live next to.”

Norma Jeane Baker tries her hand at sand skiing, c.1943.

Norma Jeane Baker tries her hand at sand skiing, c.1943.

Norma Jeane looked like the perfect fit. She agreed to a session, and this generated her first income ever as a model; Carroll paid her 20 bucks.

U.S. army – June 26, 1945. YANK magazine photo (colorized version) of Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jeane Dougherty.

U.S. army – June 26, 1945. YANK magazine photo (colorized version) of Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jeane Dougherty.

It is also interesting that Carroll didn’t realize who he had really photographed for some four decades. He reportedly came across a news story in Time magazine explaining about Conover’s pictures. Only then did he recognize this was Monroe before she became famous.

After Carroll, young Norma Jeane sought out other opportunities to model. She also used different names during this period, including Mona Monroe and Jean Norman.

Monroe posing for a photo during her modeling career, c.1945.

Monroe posing for a photo during her modeling career, c.1945.

Until she officially took Marilyn Monroe as her legal name in 1956, she also used names like Zelda Zonk, Jean Adair, or Faye Miller. The latest of these three she used when admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Perhaps her game-changing year was 1953 when she starred in the Technicolor musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Monroe in a studio publicity photo taken when she was a contract player at 20th Century-Fox in 1947.

Monroe in a studio publicity photo taken when she was a contract player at 20th Century-Fox in 1947.

Around the same time, she also married her second husband, Joe DiMaggio. She completed two trips to Korea, where she was invited to entertain U.S. Marine forces deployed there for the Korean War.

Related Article: Joe DiMaggio and the Mysterious End of Marilyn Monroe

one callOn one of the journeys, she traveled to the distant Asian peninsula alone. Her audience was a group of 13,000 army men. Monroe would later praise her trips to Korea as a life-changing experience, and describe this was the first time she felt was a real star.

Indeed, by that point, the star–the blonde bombshell–was born.