Norma Jeane Before Marilyn: The Troubled Childhood Of The Girl Who Would Become Marilyn Monroe

While Marilyn Monroe's image graced the covers of magazines, movie posters, and film screens for much of the latter half of the 20th century, the true story of her childhood is far less romantic than the Hollywood starlet's reputation may lead you to believe. Born to a mother with undiagnosed schizophrenia and an essentially nonexistent father, Norma Jeane Baker (who would later change her name to the well-known moniker Marilyn Monroe) spent much of her childhood and adolescence moving between orphanages and foster homes, seeking out any semblance of familial stability she could find. 

In Marilyn Monroe's early years, there were few signs to suggest she would one day become a beloved Hollywood icon. The star of films like Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe created an image for herself based not on her tragic upbringing but her ability to mesmerize audiences with her beauty, wit, and charm. Though her demons never ceased to follow her, Monroe was able to leave behind her troubled childhood and, at least for a short time, bask in the spotlight of international adoration.

  • At 2 Weeks Old, She Was Sent To Live With A Foster Family
    Photo: Dell Publications, Inc. New York / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At 2 Weeks Old, She Was Sent To Live With A Foster Family

    Norma Jeane Baker was born to Gladys Baker on June 1, 1926, but her time with her mother was short-lived. Baker, who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues as well as financial difficulties, gave up her daughter to a foster home only two weeks after giving birth.

    The foster home was located in Hawthorne, CA, and run by Ida and Wayne Bolender, a kind, religious couple. It was Baker's hope that she would be better able to maintain a long-term relationship with her newborn daughter by making this sacrifice right away, as she had already lost custody of two children, Jackie and Berniece, from a previous marriage. Norma Jeane ended up living with the Bolenders for most of the first seven years of her life.

  • When Norma Jeane Was 3, Her Mom Stuffed Her In A Duffel Bag And Tried To Run Away With Her

    When Norma Jeane was in the foster home in which she'd been living since just after her birth, she found herself in perhaps the closest semblance of a family unit she would have until her adolescence. However, this time of stability was also fraught with difficulties primarily having to do with her mother's mental health. 

    One such instance occurred when Baker arrived unexpectedly at the foster home in a manic state requesting to take her daughter back home to Hollywood with her. When Norma Jeane's foster parents Ida and Wayne Bolender refused, sensing the unpredictability of Baker's state of mind, Baker proceeded to lock Ida out of the house, hide Norma Jeane, all of 3 years old, in a duffel bag, and attempt to escape with her. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the Bolenders retained custody of Norma Jeane.

  • She Never Knew Her Father, Whose Identity Remains Unclear
    Photo: Department of Health of State of California / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    She Never Knew Her Father, Whose Identity Remains Unclear

    According to her birth certificate, Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson, and later baptized Norma Jeane Baker) was born to Gladys Baker Mortenson and Edward Mortenson at Los Angeles General Hospital on June 1, 1926. But as with many things in the future star's life, even these details were unreliable at best.

    Despite his name being on her birth certificate, there is little evidence to suggest that Mortenson was Norma Jeane's biological father. Though he had once been married to Baker, the pair had separated before the pregnancy.

    Throughout her life, Norma Jeane struggled to confirm the true identity of her father. Many believe it was C. Stanley Gifford, whom Baker had worked with while employed as a film cutter at Consolidated Film Industries prior to Norma Jeane’s birth. However, Gifford repeatedly denied being Norma Jeane's father. Despite numerous attempts on her part to meet with him during her adult life, Gifford refused to speak with her.

  • After Her Mom Was Diagnosed With Paranoid Schizophrenia, Norma Jeane Became A Ward Of The State
    Photo: Edward William Cronenweth / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After Her Mom Was Diagnosed With Paranoid Schizophrenia, Norma Jeane Became A Ward Of The State

    Though Norma Jeane spent the first seven years of her childhood living in a foster home in a Los Angeles suburb, she still remained in contact with her mother, Gladys Baker. After numerous failed attempts at regaining custody of her daughter, Baker finally managed to convince Ida Bolender, the foster mother, that she was stable enough to care for Norma Jeane again.

    After Baker received a bank loan to help her buy a home in Hollywood, she and Norma Jeane were finally able to live together under the same roof for the first time.

    The arrangement didn't last long. A short time after the two were reunited, Baker learned that her son, Jackie, and her grandfather had both passed. This, along with mounting financial strain, precipitated a breakdown so dramatic, the authorities had to be called. Shortly after this event, Baker was institutionalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Norma Jeane became a ward of the state and was sent to live in another foster home.