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James Dougherty Was Marilyn Monroe’s Husband Before She Became Famous

Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (colorized) and Bettmann / Getty Images (colorized)
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (colorized) and Bettmann / Getty Images (colorized)

James Dougherty knew Marilyn Monroe before her fame. He knew her so well, in fact, that he married her while she was still Norma Jeane Mortenson. He once said, “I knew Norma [Jeane], not Marilyn Monroe.” Their marriage did not last long, and Dougherty went on to live his own life, but their relationship had a lasting effect on him.

James Dougherty and Norma Jeane went to the same high school

James Dougherty was born in Texas on April 12, 1921, and his family later moved to Arizona, then California. He attended Van Nuys High School and graduated in 1938 in the same class as American actress Jane Russell. She would not be the only famous woman Dougherty came to know in his lifetime.

Headshot of James Dougherty.
James Dougherty was actress Marilyn Monroe’s first husband. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys Baker, suffered from mental illness, resulting in her recurring institutionalization and overall inability to properly raise her daughter. As such, Norma Jeane was placed in the foster care system, moving from orphanage to orphanage. Eventually, she was put in the care of her mother’s friend, Grace Goddard, although in September 1935, Goddard placed her in an orphanage before becoming the girl’s legal guardian the following year and taking her out of the children’s home in 1937.

Norma Jeane’s second stay with Goddard came to an end after Grace’s husband, Erwin “Doc” Goddard, abused her. Unfortunately, she was returned to their care in early 1941 after the woman she’d been staying with, Grace Goddard’s aunt, experienced a decline in health. At this time, she too was enrolled at Van Nuys High School.

Dougherty saved her from the foster care system

In early 1942, the Goddards made the decision to move to West Virginia. However, Norma Jeane couldn’t go with them as she was still a minor at only 15 years old, and foster care laws didn’t allow it. Their departure meant she would be placed back into the foster care system.

James Dougherty and Norma Jeane Mortenson on their wedding day.
James Dougherty and Marilyn Monroe on their wedding day in Los Angeles, photographed in front of a fireplace in 1942. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images)

It was at this time that she was introduced to James Dougherty, who lived just across the way from the Goddards. After he graduated, Dougherty declined an athletic scholarship to the University of California and instead got a good job working at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.

Dougherty was four years older than Norma Jeane, but they went on a first date together regardless. He later described the date, saying that Norma Jeane acted “very mature” and that he believed they had gotten along well together. After a swift courtship phase, the two were married on June 19, 1942, just 18 days after her 16th birthday. Norma Jeane no longer had to deal with the foster care system.

At first, their marriage was a happy one

Their wedding was a joyous one, and the beginning of their marriage was filled with happiness. “We loved each other madly. I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world. It was like being on a honeymoon for a year,” Dougherty once said. He eventually left Lockheed, choosing to join the Merchant Navy, and Norma Jeane dropped out of school to accompany him to Santa Catalina Island. There, Dougherty taught sea safety.

A photograph of Norma Jeane Mortenson, James Dougherty, and another woman.
Norma Jeane Baker, future film star Marilyn Monroe, with her first husband, Merchant Marine James Dougherty, and a friend, circa 1943. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the loving couple would not stay together for long. In 1944, Dougherty was shipped off to the South Pacific. Norma Jeane moved in with her in-laws in Van Nuys but wasn’t really a fan of the housewife role and wanted more out of life.

She ended up taking a job at the Radioplane Company, where they made munitions to help in the war effort. It was while she was working there that she met photographer David Conover, who was photographing female workers on behalf of the US Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit.

When Norma Jeane was discovered, the marriage came to an end

Norma Jeane quickly caught Conover’s attention, and she began to do various modeling jobs for him – all while Dougherty was away. She was slowly starting to gain traction as a model and in 1945 she signed a contract with the Blue Book Model Agency.

Marilyn Monroe seated, posing for a photo.
Actress Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait in 1947. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Her modeling led to new opportunities, including a screen test with 20th Century Fox. Despite having virtually no acting experience, Norma Jeane was able to win a contract with the production company. However, this contract came with one very important stipulation: she could not be married.

Dougherty was not supportive of the career path Norma Jeane was going down. He tried to convince her against signing the contract, but she knew this was what she truly wanted. Having made her decision, she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. Dougherty received the divorce papers while on the Yangtze in Eurasia, and after four years of marriage, James Dougherty and Norma Jeane Mortenson separated in 1946.

James went on to marry two more ‘Mrs. Doughertys’

While Monroe went on to skyrocketing fame in Hollywood and around the world, becoming a global icon, James Dougherty continued to live a modest life. Not long after their divorce, he met his second wife, Patricia Scoman, and the two were married in 1947. They had three daughters together.

James Dougherty smiling for a photo while leaning on a shovel handle.
Marilyn Monroe’s first husband, James E. Dougherty (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

In 1949, he became a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and went on to help in the formation of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) group, serving as their first training officer. He also foiled a plan to kidnap actor James Garner.

Dougherty then married his third wife, Rita Lambert, in 1974, and moved with her to her hometown in Maine. There, he taught at the Criminal Justice Academy and served as a county commissioner until he eventually retired. Later in his life, James Dougherty developed leukemia, and he died on April 15, 2005.

He always followed her career

After their divorce, Dougherty and Monroe did not keep in contact. He did, however, follow her career until she died from an overdose on August 4, 1962.

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait in a strapless dress and a hairstyle favored in the mid-1950s. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

In 2002, he told the Associated Press, “Fame was injurious to her. She was too gentle to be an actress. She wasn’t tough enough for Hollywood. And once someone starts getting into pills –uppers and downers, the way she was –people can go downhill. They can’t sleep, so they take more and more pills.”

More from us: The Tragic Tales Of Elizabeth Taylor’s 8 Marriages

Dougherty was always willing to appear in documentaries and interviews about Monroe, discussing his relationship with her and her early life before she become Marilyn Monroe. He even wrote two memoirs, The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe and To Norma Jeane With Love, Jimmie, in which he recounted their marriage. A documentary about James Dougherty, called Marilyn’s Man, was released in 2004.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!