James Dougherty, The Little-Known First Husband Of Marilyn Monroe

Published February 24, 2024
Updated April 6, 2024

Before Marilyn Monroe famously wed baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, she married James Dougherty when she was just 16 years old and still known as Norma Jeane Baker.

James Dougherty had a full life. He married three times, served honorably as a Los Angeles police officer, and even had a hand in inventing the SWAT team. But he’s best remembered for his relationship with his first wife, Norma Jeane Baker — better known as Marilyn Monroe.

To most, Dougherty is a footnote in the story of Marilyn Monroe’s life. They were married for just four years, and she went on to become one of the most famous women in modern history after their divorce. As Dougherty toiled in anonymity, Monroe shot to superstardom as a fashion icon and a movie star.

James Dougherty

Wikimedia CommonsJames Dougherty and his new bride, Norma Jeane Baker.

However, to understand Marilyn Monroe, one must first understand Norma Jeane Baker, and there are few who knew her as well as her first husband did. James Dougherty loved her before her blonde hair, her success, and her ultimately tragic end.

James Dougherty And Norma Jeane Baker Meet

Born on April 12, 1921, James Dougherty had a fairly normal childhood and young adulthood. He attended Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles, California, where he was a football captain and the class president. After graduation, he started working the night shift at Lockheed Aircraft as World War II intensified.

Then, his life changed when a family friend asked for a favor. When Dougherty was 20 years old, he was contacted by Grace Goddard, a neighbor of the Dougherty family who had been taking care of a teenage girl named Norma Jeane Baker. Baker’s mother, Gladys Baker, had been in and out of psychiatric facilities and could not care for her daughter. But Goddard and her husband were planning to move and couldn’t take the 15-year-old with them.

Norma Jeane Baker At 15

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesNorma Jeane Baker in 1941 at the age of 15.

So what if Dougherty married the teen?

“They wanted to move back to [West] Virginia, and they couldn’t take Norma Jeane,” he recalled in a 1990 interview, as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “She would have gone back to an orphanage or another foster home, so her foster mother suggested I marry her.”

Though the circumstances were unusual, Dougherty and Baker hit it off. Dougherty took the teenager to a dance, where he found that they “got on pretty good.” Norma Jeane Baker, he remembered, “was a pretty mature girl and physically she was mature, of course.”

Despite their age difference, the couple fell in love and got married a few months later, on June 19, 1942.

Baker had just turned 16.

James Dougherty’s Marriage To A Future Icon

Marilyn Monroe And James Dougherty

Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images“We decided to get married to prevent her from going back to a foster home,” Dougherty later explained, “but we were in love.”

At first, James and Norma Jeane Dougherty lived like any other newlywed couple. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marine; she worked as a housewife. Dougherty fell deeper in love with his “feisty” and “funny” wife, recalling that he felt like the “luckiest guy in the world.”

They began their marriage living in a studio apartment in Sherman Oaks, but Dougherty’s career soon took him to Catalina Island off the coast of California. There, the couple spent weekends on the beach and basked in the honeymoon phase of their relationship.

James And Norma Jeane Dougherty

RGR Collection / Alamy Stock PhotoThe future Marilyn Monroe fondly called her first husband “Jimmie.”

As reported in The Catalina Islander in 2021, Dougherty wrote of their time in paradise in his memoir To Norma Jeane with Love, Jimmie.

“Sometimes, Norma Jeane and I would sit on the terrace of our apartment and gaze at the huge home [across the street],” he recalled. “We’d hold hands and dream and talk about owning a home like that one day, and we’d fill that home with kids and spend the rest of our lives there in happiness.”

But things soon changed for the couple. In 1944, Dougherty left California on an overseas assignment. Norma Jeane, doing her part for the war effort, started working at the Radioplane Company in Van Nuys.

How Norma Jeane Baker Became Marilyn Monroe

While working at the factory one day, the future superstar caught the eye of photographer David Conover, who was on assignment taking pictures of women involved in the war effort. “You’re a real morale booster,” Conover told Norma Jeane, as reported by Smithsonian Magazine in 2022. “I’m going to take your picture for the boys in the Army to keep their morale high.”

Norma Jeane Dougherty During The War

Public DomainDavid Conover’s picture of Norma Jeane Dougherty, which encouraged her to pursue a career in modeling.

After modeling for Conover, Norma Jeane signed with the Blue Book Modeling Agency. Then, she fatefully decided to try and become an actress.

A studio executive purportedly told her there were too many ways to say “Dougherty” and suggested changing her name: What about Marilyn? Norma Jeane added “Monroe,” her mother’s maiden name — and Marilyn Monroe was born.

With that, Norma Jeane Dougherty disappeared.

Then, Monroe filed for divorce. “I was on a ship in the Yangtze River getting ready to go into Shanghai when I was served with divorce papers,” James Dougherty recalled in 2002, per The Los Angeles Times.

Their marriage officially ended in September 1946. Dougherty later claimed that studio executives pressured Monroe to end her marriage — “they didn’t want a pregnant starlet” — but that she was open to staying together even if they weren’t married. Dougherty, who tried to change Monroe’s mind about the divorce, refused.

The Doughertys In 1946

Bill Waterson / Alamy Stock PhotoJames Dougherty and Marilyn Monroe at the Cocoanut Grove restaurant in Los Angeles in March 1946, six months before their divorce was finalized.

However, Monroe later told a different story: “My marriage [to Dougherty] didn’t make me sad, but it didn’t make me happy either,” she was quoted as saying in her 1993 biography by Donald Spoto. “My husband and I hardly spoke to each other. This wasn’t because we were angry. We had nothing to say. I was dying of boredom.”

After the divorce, Marilyn Monroe skyrocketed to fame and starred in films like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Dougherty started working as a policeman.

James Dougherty After Marilyn Monroe

Following his divorce, James Dougherty went on to marry twice more. Because his second wife was jealous of Monroe, Dougherty didn’t see any of her movies in theaters. He also burned all the letters she’d written to him.

Marilyn Monroe Smiling

Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesMarilyn Monroe posing for a photograph. 1954.

James Dougherty fully moved on from his first marriage. But it still stung when he got the news on Aug. 5, 1962, that Marilyn Monroe had died at the age of 36 from an overdose of barbiturates.

“It was like someone had kicked me in the stomach,” he recalled. “I had almost been expecting it. 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.”

Dougherty’s second marriage also ended in divorce, and he soon remarried once again. His third wife didn’t have a problem with Dougherty’s past, and he slowly started talking more about Marilyn Monroe than he ever had. But James Dougherty claimed that he didn’t have much to say on the subject.

“I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don’t claim to have any insights to her to this day,” James Dougherty said. “I knew and loved Norma Jeane.”

After learning about James Dougherty, Marilyn Monroe’s first husband, read about the star’s autopsy and the conspiracies behind it. Then, learn about her half-sister, Berniece Baker Miracle.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "James Dougherty, The Little-Known First Husband Of Marilyn Monroe." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 24, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/james-dougherty. Accessed June 25, 2024.