DISCLAIMER: I am not a Marilyn expert, but I’m studying to be!
Thanks for tuning in! This is a continuation of my series of blog posts titled “Breaking Down ‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’ the movie.” If you have not, please check out parts 1 & 2 of this review.
Links are here!
Links are here!
As always, thank you to April, my go-to Marilyn expert who this time specifically helped me source Jim's memoir.
Episode 1 continued: Marilyn’s marriage to Jim Dougherty + the beginning of her modeling career
In the last post, we ended on a breakdown of Marilyn’s foster homes; dates in which she was bounced back and forth between different houses and families as a child. Now we get out of her childhood and move on to her teenage years.
“The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” (the movie) paints a picture of the young Jim Dougherty, played by Giacomo Gianniotti, as a man who cared for then Norma Jeane, played by Kelli Garner, but who soon became frustrated with her lack of interest in sex and who quickly became unsupportive of her career.
On June 19, 1942, a sixteen year old Norma Jeane married 21 year old James Dougherty. James had been a neighbor of Marilyn and would often help drive her and Bebe Goddard (Doc Goddard’s daughter) back from school. However, Doc was preparing for a job transfer to West Virginia, and they could not afford to bring Marilyn along. She was still a minor at fifteen years old, so she would have been forced to go back to the orphanage, a place which she had previously lived for one year at age seven. Sixteen was the legal age in California, so this gave Grace and Ethel (Jimmy’s mother) an idea. Norma Jeane would soon turn sixteen, and if she wanted to avoid another boarding at Hollygrove, why not marry Jimmy? They had been out on a couple friendly dates together, so the two ladies felt this would be the perfect arrangement to give Marilyn a better living situation. And so, in June of 1942, Norma Jeane Baker dropped out of her sophomore year at University High School and became Norma Jeane Dougherty in an intimate ceremony at the home of the Howell family (friends of Grace) on South Bentley Avenue.
|Marilyn and James on their wedding day|
That same month, the newlyweds signed a 6 month lease for a small one room bungalow in Sherman Oaks. They spent their short honeymoon at Sherwood Lake for fishing and camping.
|Norma Jeane fishing at Sherwood Lake|
James Dougherty soon joined the United States Merchant Marine. Not long after, he was shipped off to boot camp on Catalina Island, which had been cut off from the public to become a training ground for the navy. The Doughertys moved into an apartment in Avalon, Catalina Island where the headquarters of the Merchant Marine Corps was located. The couple made a few friends there and Marilyn loved to keep in shape by taking the dog out for a run each day or lifting weights. Marilyn frequently wrote to Grace McKee, updating her on her life at Catalina and her marriage to Jim. Their marriage started out decently, they still didn’t know each other very well, but felt they could make it work and start a family. Marilyn, lacking a father figure in her life, sometimes subconsciously saw him as her father rather than her husband. After all, he was 5 years older than her, and the maturity level was a little different. Marilyn was a young girl looking for love and stability and clung to him for both. She loved Jimmy during their marriage, but for the most part, Marilyn later recalled it just became “boring.” Marilyn was too young at that point to become a mother, so the thought of starting a family was hardly more than a thought at all. Being a sixteen year old virgin thrust into marriage must have been a terrifying situation, and the film portrays this in the scene shortly after their marriage, where Jimmy is expecting Norma Jeane to sleep with him, but she suddenly begins panicking and begging him to stop. It would be these elements combined with Marilyn’s soon to be modeling career that would ultimately lead to their separation.
|From "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe"|
At this point in the movie, we return to the “present” time where Marilyn briefly leaves the room in which she is conversing with the fictional Dr. DeShields. Frantically rushing to Eunice Murray, her housekeeper, she quickly swallows some unknown type of pills. Marilyn struggled much of her life with taking too many sleeping pills, this is a commonly known fact. However, Marilyn did not constantly require pills to make it through the day. The medication she used was consumed at night when she could not sleep. She was not high every minute of every day swallowing down pills. So that was pretty disappointing to see portrayed. However, Kelli Garner, as Marilyn, says during her conversation with the fictional Dr. DeShields that she would rather be a symbol for sex than “some other thing they’ve got symbols for” and that she wants to be an “artist,” not an “erotic freak.” These are real Marilyn quotes! In her ghost written book (ghostwritten but still her book) based off her working with Milton Greene and Ben Hecht to create an autobiography titled My Story, she says “I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisical.” In Marilyn’s very last interview in July of 1962, she says: “If I’m gonna be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other thing they’ve got symbols of!”
|From "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe"|
In the film it is now 1944. We see Kelli as Marilyn walk into another average day at the Radioplane Munitions Factory. Marilyn herself landed this job in March of 1944 with the help of Ethel Dougherty after Jimmy was shipped off to Australia. Her job was to spray varnish on the fuselages before being promoted to inspecting parachutes. On this particular day, shown in the movie, photographer David Conover was assigned to Radioplane to photograph women on the assembly that were to be used in military magazines. Young Norma Jeane turns out to be a natural in front of the camera, and Conover suggests she take up modeling. Norma is surprised and excited at this suggestion, and it boosts her mood and her confidence in the pictures. David Conover is known as the first person to professionally photograph the soon to be Marilyn Monroe. And the film shows a super cute recreation! Just another example of why I adore the sets and costumes replicated on screen.
|From "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe"|
|Marilyn Monroe, 1944|
What I find surprising at this stage of the movie, however, is that Marilyn’s sister has not yet been mentioned. If you’re super new to the Marilyn world: yes, Marilyn had a sister! Berniece Baker was born to Gladys and Jasper Baker on July 30, 1919. She is still alive today, and is the half sister of Marilyn Monroe, they both share the same mother. Bernice married Paris Miracle in 1938 and they had a daughter together named Mona Rae Miracle in 1939. Norma Jeane had first learned of the existence of her older sister when she was twelve years old, but in the fall of 1944, at age eighteen, was when the two met for the first time in person after a trip to Detroit.
|Marilyn with her sister Berniece and Berniece's daughter Mona Rae, 1944|
Now we are at some point in what I would assume would be 1945. Norma Jeane has just lightened her hair, and returns home to find her mother Gladys sitting on her doorstep with some luggage. Gladys did in fact board with Marilyn at this time, but Jimmy was not a part of it, as is portrayed in the film. By 1945, Jimmy disapproved of Marilyn’s modeling career, he may have started out not thinking much of it, but he wanted her to stay at home and be a general housewife and have their children. Marilyn had quit her job at Radioplane and that August had signed with the Blue Book Modeling Agency. In the film, Jim angrily calls Marilyn and tells her he has been waiting for her to pick him up. Marilyn is caught up in trying to make her mother comfortable and has forgotten about her husband. He chooses to take the bus instead and meets them at the house. What really happened was this: Jim was on a short leave and called Marilyn. Gladys, at that time, was staying with her. Jim became angry and stayed with his own mother instead. And, unlike the movie, there was no crazy scene with a knife-wielding Gladys before the police were called and escorted her out of the house in handcuffs. Secret Life then follows up with a scene where Norma Jeane goes missing shortly after Gladys is taken away, then arrives several hours later, frantically scrambling back into bed claiming that a man was following her. According to Jimmy, this is true. In his memoir, he explains that he and Marilyn had a fight, she ran off, then returned later in the night panicking because she said a man had been stalking her. This all happened apparently after a fight, not as a result of her mother being taken away in handcuffs.
The meeting with Ben Lyon is, for the most part, entirely true. Marilyn began declaring that she was an orphan to protect the privacy of her mother, who had not been a healthy or present parental figure anyways. The name Marilyn Monroe was decided on when she signed her first contract with 20th Century Fox. Grace had to be her co-signer, because Marilyn was under 21 at the time. She used the name “Monroe”, after her mother’s maiden name, and “Marilyn” was decided by Lyon (casting director at Fox) after stage actress Marilyn Miller. Ironically, Marilyn Monroe would become Marilyn Miller in 1956 after her third marriage. This was the end for Marilyn and Jim. The two divorced in September of 1946 and Marilyn was free to pursue a dream career in acting.
|From "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe." Kelli Garner wears what appears to be a replica of one of Marilyn's dresses from 1949 (shown below)|
|Marilyn in 1949|
"I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don't claim to have any insights to her to this day. I knew and loved Norma Jeane." [- James Dougherty, United Press International, 1990]
Thank you for reading! I hope you learned something new. In the next post we’ll discuss Marilyn’s early acting career and how it is both similar and different to how it was portrayed in the film.