25 Photos Of Norma Jeane Mortenson Before She Became Marilyn Monroe

Published November 22, 2021
Updated August 4, 2022

Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Norma Jeane Mortenson: a curly-haired brunette who never imagined she would be more than a housewife.

While Marilyn Monroe took America by storm with her glitz and glamor in the 1950s, this Hollywood icon had previously lived a tragedy-filled early life under her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson. To this day, few fans of the acting legend know the full story of Norma Jeane Mortenson and how Monroe’s troubled youth impacted her entire life.

Norma Jeane Mortenson Brunette
Norma Jeane Postcard
Teenaged Norma Jeane Baker
Norma Jeane Wedding Day
25 Photos Of Norma Jeane Mortenson Before She Became Marilyn Monroe
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Mortenson was born in California in 1926, the third child of Gladys Baker. Her mother struggled with paranoid schizophrenia throughout her life. For the first eight years of her daughter's life, Baker played only a small role, helping a foster family raise her child. In 1934, though, Baker a nervous breakdown and Norma Jeane Mortenson became an orphan.

She moved from foster home to foster home, going through traumatic horrors in almost every one. She was sexually abused in her first two homes and started to develop a stutter. In time, she settled in at the home of a friend of her mother's, where she was once again molested by her legal guardian, Erwin Goddard.

In 1942, the Goddards decided to move to West Virginia, leaving 15-year-old Mortenson behind. At her foster mother's suggestion, Mortenson married her neighbor, 21-year-old James Dougherty. The two barely knew each other, but it was the only way to keep her out of an orphanage. Their wedding was held 18 days after her 16th birthday.

The newlywed young woman prepared for life as a housewife. She dropped out of school and dedicated herself to her husband. Dougherty was thrilled. "I felt like the luckiest guy in the world," he would later say. "We loved each other madly."

His love wasn't reciprocated. "My husband and I hardly spoke to each other," she would say years later, after she'd become Marilyn Monroe. "We had nothing to say. I was dying of boredom."

In 1943, Dougherty became a Merchant Marine. Within a year, he was shipped out to the Pacific, leaving his wife behind. Bored, alone, and struggling to make ends meet, she started working in a factory building drone aircraft for the Army.

However, she was discovered at the factory by a photographer named David Conover. Soon, she quit her job and started modeling for the Blue Book Model Agency, posing in sensual pin-up photos that infuriated her husband.

In 1946, she moved on with her career and left her husband behind. She divorced Dougherty, dyed her hair blonde, and soon changed her named to Marilyn Monroe. From there, she would become a star in movies like Some Like It Hot and How To Marry A Millionaire. She would marry celebrities, have affairs with presidents, and leave her mark on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

She would become a legend unlike any the world has seen – and leave behind a life as a whole other person with a whole other name.

"I never knew Marilyn Monroe," James Dougherty would say years later. "I knew and loved Norma Jeane."

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

After this look at Norma Jeane Mortenson, check out these powerful Marilyn Monroe quotes and fascinating Marilyn Monroe facts.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
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.