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Marilyn Monroe’s Sadness Was Deeper Than Anyone Knew (And Owed to Her Mother) — Here’s the Story of Their Relationship

Life before the big screen.


Although she’d become the most desirable woman on the planet, no one wanted Norma Jeane Mortenson when she was little. Born the morning of June 1, 1926, in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, the baby girl spent her childhood bouncing around a series of foster homes and orphanages. She lived with her mentally troubled mother, Gladys Baker, for only two weeks before being turned over to foster parents. It was quickly apparent the 25-year-old twice-divorced mom of two was unable to care for her baby. She didn’t even know for sure who Norma Jeane’s father was. She had put her ex-husband, Edward Mortenson, on the birth certificate. However, she suspected her lover from work, Charles Stanley Gifford, may have been the one. While her illustrious career is what we remember her by, Marilyn Monroe’s early life was by no means an easy one.

Norma Jeane’s First Foster Family

Norma’s maternal grandmother, Della Monroe, had handpicked the couple to raise her granddaughter. Ida and Wayne Bolender were devoutly religious neighbors who were paid $25 per week to care for Norma Jeane. But pretty soon, Monroe feared she’d made a big mistake — and let it be known in a frightening manner. In the summer of 1927, when Norma Jeane was around a year old, a hysterical Monroe broke into the Bolenders’ home, ranting that she knew the child was dead and they were keeping it secret. Ida brought Monroe to the baby’s bedroom to prove she was alive and well and then went to get the grandmother a glass of water. She returned moments later to a horror scene: Monroe was smothering Norma Jeane with a pillow! When police arrived, “They found a very mixed-up Della, babbling incoherently,” explained Mary Thomas-Strong, whose mother was close with Ida.

With the trauma of that event behind them, Norma Jeane and the Bolenders spent the next few years rather idyllically. “Because of the way things turned out for Norma Jeane, every one of her biographers over the years has wanted to make it sound like it was awful at our home,” said Nancy Jeffrey, one of the Bolenders’ foster children. “But I’m the only one of us still alive, and I can tell you that it wasn’t.” In fact, she adds, the family’s two-acre property in Hawthorne, California, was the perfect backdrop for a dream childhood.

“We grew up on fresh tomatoes, corn on the cob, watermelon, green beans and squash. We also had trees that were full of plums, apple and lemons. There was one huge fig tree that Norma Jeane and Lester — our foster brother, who was the only one Mother and Daddy actually adopted — loved to climb. They would drag blankets up there and make a fort for themselves.” But without a formal adoption, the fear that Norma Jeane’s biological mother, Baker, could come knocking any day always loomed over 459 East Rhode Island Street. One afternoon in 1929, she did just that.

Her Mother’s Mental Illness

Baker, deep in a state of paranoia, pushed her way into the Bolenders’ home, demanding to take back her daughter. When she found the 3-year-old in the backyard, she exclaimed, “You’re coming with Mommy, sweetheart,” and snatched up the confused Norma Jeane, who only knew her as “the woman with the red hair.” Baker somehow managed to push past Ida and locked herself inside the Bolenders’ home.

Terrified of what she might do to the child, Ida ran around to the front of the house just in time to see Baker emerge with Wayne’s military duffel bag slung over her shoulder — and she could hear little Norma Jeane’s muffled cries coming from inside the zipped-up bag. The two women tussled over the precious cargo right there on the front lawn. The bag eventually ripped apart, tossing the toddler on the ground. Ida scooped up Norma Jeane and ran into the house, locking the door behind her. Baker simply gave up and went home.

Until Norma Jeane legally became the Bolenders’ daughter, Ida could not rest easy, so she invited Baker over for dinner one night to talk about adoption once and for all. But it got her nowhere. According to Monroe and Bolender family members, Baker vowed it would “never” happen and left the house in tears. Three more years passed with little interference from Baker, although she did stop by from time to time for relatively peaceful get-togethers with her daughter. Still, Norma Jeane was far from flourishing.

A Troubled Childhood

At school, the 7-year-old struggled to relate to the other children and was described as “shy and withdrawn.” At home, she often butted heads with disciplinarian Ida. But there was one soul who accepted Norma Jeane as she was: her little dog, Tippy. Unfortunately, as Norma Jeane would come to learn throughout her life, any happiness she felt was often only temporary. Her four-legged friend was one of the first examples of that.

In Marilyn Monroe’s posthumous autobiography, My Story, she wrote that a neighbor, furious over the dog’s constant barking, had severed it in two with a garden hoe. But according to a Bolender family member, Tippy had actually been hit and killed by a passing car. Ida had then removed the dead animal from the street with a hoe and left it on the driveway for Wayne to properly dispose of when he returned from work — but Norma Jeane beat him home. “Obviously, she was devastated by the sight of her best friend’s dead body, mangled and lying in the driveway with a nearby garden tool,” described the relative.

Saying Goodbye to the Bolenders

The little girl refused to believe Ida’s tale of Tippy’s demise and emphatically insisted that the neighbors “finally killed him.” She obsessively held on to this belief to the point that “Ida wondered if Norma Jeane was starting to have delusions like her mother,” explains a relative, “because she wouldn’t let go of this crazy idea that the neighbors had hacked up her dog.” Coincidentally, around this same time, Baker had been telling Ida yet again that she wanted her daughter back. And now Ida wondered if maybe it was time for Norma Jeane to leave the Bolender household. “I think it would be best now if you came and took Norma Jeane,” she told Baker over the phone. “She’s very upset. I think she needs her mother.”

Returning Home to Her Mother

The very next day, Baker showed up at the Bolenders’ home to collect Norma Jeane. But it wasn’t a warm welcome. Baker simply honked her car’s horn and waited in the driver’s seat as her daughter struggled down the driveway with her suitcase. Once home with Baker, long gone were the two acres of endless fun and trees to climb. Now, Norma Jeane had to share a cramped Hollywood apartment with her mother and her mother’s best friend and roommate, Grace McKee.

The two women were coworkers at Consolidated Studios, where they spliced together film negatives, and had instantly bonded over their love of booze, men, and a good time. But it wasn’t just Norma Jeane who ended the party for the two women — Baker’s depression was worsening, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1933, just a few months after taking the girl in, Baker and McKee sent her to live temporarily with a British couple named George and Maud Atkinson while they figured out what to do next.

Lucky for Norma Jeane, it didn’t take too long. In August of that year, Baker purchased a three-bedroom home in Hollywood and moved her daughter back in — along with the Atkinson family. “They liked to drink a little, smoke, dance, and sing and play cards, all the things that I had been taught were sinful,” Marilyn would later recall. “And they still seemed like very nice people to me.”

Norma Jeane also took to her mother’s close confidant, McKee. A failed actress, she often brought Norma Jeane to the theater to see the latest films. Once Baker was institutionalized in 1934, McKee became the child’s legal guardian — and she soon began grooming her to become what she hadn’t been able to.

Norma Jeane’s Earliest Introduction to the Spotlight

“My mother told me that Grace would dress her up in the prettiest little outfits and bring her to work,” explained Dia Nanouris, whose mom was a film editor at Columbia. “She said that every time she brought the girl to work it was like an audition. She would have her prance about and pose or pout. ‘Show them how pretty you are, Norma,’ she would say. ‘Just like Jean Harlow! Or show them how you smile. Just like Jean Harlow. Show them.’ My mom thought it was strange. After all, Norma Jeane was just 8. The girl was wearing a little bit of makeup, she had her hair curled and Grace was talking about having her nose ‘fixed’!”

Walter Cicchetti/Shutterstock

But Norma Jeane’s time in McKee’s spotlight ended as quickly as it began. And just like all the other mother figures in her young life, she also broke the little girl’s heart. In September 1935, she sent the 9-year-old to live at the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home Society.

Norma Jeane Gets Passed Along Again

Now well into her 40s, Grace McKee Goddard was on her fourth husband, Ervin “Doc” Silliman Goddard, and was desperate to make it work. So when he told his new wife, “I think she has to go,” Grace packed Norma Jeane’s bags. “I thought I was going to a prison,” Marilyn would remember many years later. “What had I done that they were getting rid of me? I was afraid of everything and afraid to show how scared I was. All I could do was cry.”

Although McKee Goddard had removed Norma Jeane from her home, she remained in her heart. Every week, she would visit the little girl at the orphanage and bring her presents, like clothing and makeup. “While she was with her, they would talk about movies,” remembered her friend Bea Thomas, “and Grace used to tell Norma Jeane, ‘One day, you’ll be just like Shirley Temple. Just wait and see.’ She still had this idea that Norma Jeane was going to be in films.”

Searching For a Home

In June 1937, Norma Jeane was finally allowed to leave the orphanage and move back in with McKee Goddard. But it still didn’t feel like home. Doc would often drink too much and make the 11-year-old feel uncomfortable. “A couple of times he said, ‘Aren’t you going to give me a kiss?’ I would sneak out of the room,” said Marilyn years later. “He scared me.”

After he allegedly tried to molest her, Norma Jeane was sent to live with her aunt, Olive Monroe, in North Hollywood. The only problem was she had never met Olive, who had been married to Baker’s brother Marion until he abandoned her and their three children. “I was more alone and separated from anything than I had ever been,” Marilyn later said of that time. “I was feeling the predicament of my life, and that frightened and depressed me so much, I would get sick and couldn’t eat. When I did, I would often throw up.”

After Aunt Olive’s home, Norma Jeane was briefly placed with another stranger, McKee Goddard’s aunt Ana Lower, before she was allowed to move back into the Goddards’ home. Things were vastly different this time around. For one, Norma Jeane grew especially close to Doc’s daughter, BeBe, and the two attended Van Nuys High School, where Norma Jeane had become rather popular. To top it all off, there was a boy she liked: Jim Dougherty, the son of McKee Goddard’s friend Ethel Dougherty, who would often drive Norma Jeane and BeBe home from school.

Norma Jeane Says “I Do”

Although five years older, the former football player and student body president seemed
like a good match for the 15-year-old—to McKee Goddard. So she arranged for the two to attend a Christmas party as their first date. Sparks didn’t exactly fly between them, but still Norma Jeane and Doughtery went on a few more dates before the puppy love was fast-tracked. Doc got a new job in Virginia, and made it clear to his wife that Norma Jeane wouldn’t be relocating with the family. Where would she go? Back to the orphanage until she was 18, it seemed, so McKee Goddard quickly hatched a plan. “What if your son married Norma Jeane?” she asked Ethel. “That would keep her out of the orphanage, and it’s not as if they don’t already like each other.”

Norma Jeane and Dougherty reluctantly agreed to the idea, although the teen had some concerns. When she asked McKee Goddard if it would be possible for them to marry as friends and not consummate the union, she told her, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn.” On June 19, 1942, a few weeks after Norma Jeane’s 16th birthday, she and Dougherty married.

McKee Goddard wasn’t present, as she was already in Virginia. Norma Jeane’s mother didn’t attend either, since she was institutionalized. But her first real family, foster parents Ida and Wayne Bolender, were there for her big day. “I remember the winding staircase in the living room and all of us just staring at the top of the stairs until she appeared,” shared her foster sister Nancy Jeffrey. “What a beautiful bride.” Marilyn remembered it differently: “The Goddards couldn’t support me, and they had to work out something. And so I got married.”

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Marilyn: The Untold Story.

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