Before Marilyn Monroe And Joe DiMaggio, There Was Norma Jeane And James Dougherty

Published May 4, 2018
Updated January 31, 2024

"I never knew Marilyn Monroe… I knew and loved Norma Jean."

James Dougherty And Norma Jeane Mortenson

Wikimedia Commons James Dougherty and his new bride, Norma Jeane Mortenson.

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, better known as Marilyn Monroe.

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

But to understand Marilyn Monroe is to understand Norma Jeane, 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 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 the Los Angeles Times reports that he was a football captain and the class president. After graduation, he started working the night shift for 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. Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys, 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 girl 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 and Norma Jeane got married?

“They wanted to move back to [West] Virginia, and they couldn’t take Norma Jeane,” he recalled in a 1990 interview, reported by the Los Angeles Times. “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 Norma Jeane hit it off. Dougherty took the teenager to a dance, where he found that they “got on pretty good.” Norma Jeane, 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, in June 1942. Norma Jeane had just turned 16.

How Norma Jeane Became Marilyn Monroe

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 Dougherty and Norma Jeane lived like any other newlywed couple. He joined the merchant marine; she worked as a housewife. They spent weekends on the beach and Dougherty fell deeper in love with his “feisty” “funny” wife, recalling that he felt like the “luckiest guy in the world.”

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.

There, she 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. “I’m going to take your picture for the boys in the Army to keep their morale high.”

Norma Jeane During The War

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

After modeling for Conover, Norma Jeane signed with the Blue Book Model 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” after her mother’s maiden name — and Marilyn Monroe was born.

With that, Norma Jeane Dougherty disappeared.

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

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 explained. “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.”

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.

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 barbituates.

“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.”

Listen above to the History Uncovered podcast, episode 46: The Tragic Death Of Marilyn Monroe, also available on Apple and Spotify.

Dougherty’s second marriage ended in divorce, and he soon remarried. His third wife didn’t have a problem with Dougherty’s past, and he slowly started taking 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,” Dougherty said. “I knew and loved Norma Jean.”

After learning about James Dougherty, Marilyn Monroe’s first husband, take a look at these photos of Marilyn Monroe, when she was still Norma Jeane. Then, check out these iconic Marilyn Monroe quotes.

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.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.