44 Photos That Reveal The Early Life Of Marilyn Monroe, From Her Troubled Childhood To Her Very First Photo Shoot

Published June 11, 2024

Before Marilyn Monroe was one of the most famous women in the world, she spent her youth in foster homes and orphanages, got married when she was just 16, and worked in a munitions factory.

Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women in modern history. Her transformation from a child in the foster system to a Hollywood icon is an American success story unlike any other. So, how did the young Marilyn Monroe do it?

Gladys Pearl Baker Holding Baby Norma Jeane
Norma Jeane Baker At The Beach With Her Mother
Norma Jeane Baker As A Toddler
Norma Jeane Baker With Mother And Friends
44 Photos That Reveal The Early Life Of Marilyn Monroe, From Her Troubled Childhood To Her Very First Photo Shoot
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After a tumultuous childhood in and out of orphanages, Monroe got married when she was just 16 to avoid returning to state custody. Two years later, while working in a factory during World War II, she caught the eye of a photographer — and the rest is history.

Despite her rapid rise to fame, however, Monroe never escaped her turbulent past. She struggled with addiction throughout her later career, and she died from a barbiturate overdose in August 1962 at age 36.

Above, look through rarely-seen photos of young Marilyn Monroe. And below, learn more about the early life of one of history's biggest stars.

The Troubled Life Of Young Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles. From the very beginning, her life was unstable. Her mother, 24-year-old Gladys Pearl Baker, already had two children from her first marriage to an abusive man named Jasper Baker. However, when Gladys filed for divorce in 1921, Jasper fled to Kentucky with their kids.

Gladys married again in 1924 to Martin Edward Mortensen, but they separated after just a few months. Still, Gladys named him as Norma Jeane's father on her birth certificate (though she misspelled his surname). It was later discovered that the future star's actual father was a married man named Charles Gifford, according to a 2022 report by Variety.

Shortly after Norma Jeane was born, Gladys Baker changed the baby's last name to match her own, and she went by Norma Jeane Baker until she got married herself in 1942.

Marilyn Monroe Young

Public DomainBaby Norma Jeane Baker in 1927.

By the time young Marilyn Monroe was two weeks old, her mother had placed her with a foster family. Gladys lived with them for the first six months of Monroe's life, but she soon started visiting her only on the weekends.

When Monroe was seven, Gladys bought a house and moved her daughter in with her permanently. Just a few months later, however, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and institutionalized, forcing Monroe back into the foster system.

For the next decade, young Marilyn Monroe was in and out of foster homes and orphanages. This rough period of her life inspired her to pursue acting. In an interview published in LIFE shortly after her death that was reprinted by The Guardian in 2007, Monroe told Richard Meryman, "Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I'd sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it."

In 1942, the family Monroe was living with had to move out of the state, and California law said they couldn't take the 15-year-old with them. So, Monroe's foster mother set her up with their neighbor, a 21-year-old man named James Dougherty. They got married a few days after Monroe's 16th birthday so the teen wouldn't have to return to an orphanage.

While Dougherty served in World War II, Monroe took a job at a munitions factory in Van Nuys, California. In 1944, photographer David Conover visited the factory to take photos of working women to serve as a morale boost for troops overseas. He snapped a now-famous picture of Monroe, and this eventually led to her joining Blue Book Modeling Agency in August 1945.

Just one year later, Norma Jeane Dougherty signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and took on the iconic stage name Marilyn Monroe.

How Marilyn Monroe Made It Big In Hollywood

At the beginning of her career, young Marilyn Monroe bounced between modeling and acting. She learned the tricks of the industry while studying at the Actors' Laboratory Theater during her contract with 20th Century Fox.

In 1948, Monroe signed with Columbia Pictures and starred in Ladies of the Chorus, which tanked at the box office. Despite the disappointment, the budding actress was determined to become the best she could be.

"I knew how third rate I was," she wrote in her autobiography My Story. "I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn! To change, to improve!"

Norma Jeane Dougherty On Catalina Island

Bill Waterson / Alamy Stock PhotoNorma Jeane Dougherty posing on Catalina Island, where her husband James Dougherty taught sea safety for the Merchant Navy, c. 1943.

Her first break came with the 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle, which performed well at the box office. This landed Monroe another contract with 20th Century Fox. That year, journalist Ed Clark received a call from a friend at the studio telling him about "a hot tomato" who had just signed with them, according to LIFE. Clark met up with 24-year-old Monroe at Griffith Park in Los Angeles to snap a few photos of the upcoming star.

"I sent several rolls to LIFE in New York," he later recalled, "but they wired back, 'Who the hell is Marilyn Monroe?'" She would appear on the cover of the magazine two years later.

Monroe quickly became 20th Century Fox's biggest star, appearing in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Some Like It Hot (1953), and The Seven Year Itch (1955). Her iconic skirt-blowing scene and performance in the musical number "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes quickly became ingrained in pop culture.

During her rise to fame, young Marilyn Monroe divorced her first husband, married New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio in 1954, and divorced him as well a year later. In 1956, she married playwright Arthur Miller, and their marriage lasted until 1961. Her love life was always making headlines, especially when she allegedly became involved with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy.

By the late 1950s, the young Marilyn Monroe had become a household name, and her rise to stardom seemed unstoppable. But it all came to an end when the star's housekeeper found her dead in her bed in 1962.

An Unfortunate End To A Hollywood Icon

Early on the morning of Aug. 5, 1962, Monroe's housekeeper, Eunice Murray, noticed a light on in the star's room, but when she knocked, nobody answered. Murray called for Monroe's psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, who found the bedroom locked and broke in through a window. There, Greenson found Monroe dead in her bed.

An investigation later found that Monroe had fatally overdosed on barbiturates between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 4. Because the dosages found in her system were so high, the authorities ruled her death a suicide.

Marilyn Monroe's Funeral

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock PhotoA hearse carrying Marilyn Monroe to her burial on Aug. 8, 1962.

Her Los Angeles funeral was organized by her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio and her half-sister, Berniece Baker Miracle. The service was private, but hundreds of people crowded the streets to pay their respects.

Although the world remembers Monroe as the glamorous blonde bombshell the media portrayed her as, the star never forgot her humble beginnings. "I never wanted to be Marilyn — it just happened," she once said. "Marilyn's like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane."

After reading about the life of young Marilyn Monroe, look through this gallery of celebrities before they were famous. Then, read about nine stars who overcame difficult childhoods.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
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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Morgan, Amber. "44 Photos That Reveal The Early Life Of Marilyn Monroe, From Her Troubled Childhood To Her Very First Photo Shoot." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 11, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/marilyn-monroe-young. Accessed June 21, 2024.