Marilyn Monroe's Early Life

Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles to Gladys Raker Mortenson.
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles to Gladys Raker Mortenson.

"I was never used to being happy, so that wasn't something I ever took for granted. You see, I was brought up differently from the average American child because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy." -- MARILYN MONROE, 1954

Though Marilyn Monroe's difficult journey along the path to Hollywood stardom is often traced back to her early career as a model, her connections to the movie industry go back much further. With the benefit of hindsight, it would be easy to claim that these childhood brushes with Hollywood foretold her future career in show business, but in reality, many Los Angeles natives at one time or another have found themselves connected to "the industry."

Marilyn was no exception. Her mother, Gladys Baker Mortenson, worked as a film cutter at Consolidated Film Industries, a processing lab for the Hollywood studios, at the time of Marilyn's birth.

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, at Los Angeles General Hospital. Gladys, not oblivious to the glamour and magic of the movies, named her child after Norma Talmadge, who ranked among the most popular of screen idols during the early to mid-1920s.

Norma Jeane began life with one significant strike against her: She had no father to help raise her, to protect her, or to love her. Though her birth certificate identifies her father as "Edward Mortenson," who was Gladys's second husband, most biographers agree that Norma Jeane's father was actually C. Stanley Gifford. Gifford also worked at Consolidated Film Industries, but he abandoned Gladys after being told of the pregnancy.

When she was a little girl, Norma Jeane asked her mother about a photo hanging on the wall. The photo showed an attractive man who wore a pencil-thin moustache, much like the one Clark Gable wore for most of his career. Gladys told her daughter that the photo was of her father.

Gifford was known to have resembled Gable, if only because of the moustache, and Norma Jeane fantasized for some time afterward that her father was Clark Gable. She often told her classmates that she was the daughter of the famous movie star.

Norma Jeane (who was baptized "Norma Jeane Baker") would never formally meet Gifford, the man that she believed to be her father. When she was a teenager, she tried to speak with him by telephone. She identified herself as "Norma Jeane, Gladys's daughter," but the party on the other end of the line simply hung up.

After Norma Jeane became the sensation called Marilyn Monroe, she supposedly attempted contact with Gifford again, this time in person. More than once, she drove south from Los Angeles with a close friend in tow to a small dairy farm near Hemet, California. On each occasion, she got out of the car, which was parked some distance from the farm, and walked toward the house alone. When she returned to the car, she informed her companion that her father had refused to see her.

Whether Marilyn actually spoke with Gifford on any of these occasions is not known. Perhaps she never found the nerve to actually knock on the front door; perhaps the farm did not belong to Gifford; perhaps Gifford was not her father at all.

Occasionally, the name "Edward Mortenson" crops up in early interviews and stories as the alleged father of Marilyn Monroe. Martin Edward Mortenson married Gladys Baker in 1924, but the couple had been separated long before Gladys became pregnant with Norma Jeane. Mortenson, an immigrant from Norway, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1929.

It's difficult to overemphasize the significance behind these stories. Marilyn felt a profound loss at having never known a father. It left a scar that never healed. Her conflicting stories and fantasies about her father seem to represent her attempts to put her parentage in perspective or to come to grips with her hazy past.

Ultimately, these attempts were not enough. Just before her death in 1962, Marilyn filled out an official form in front of her secretary, who witnessed the melancholy star bitterly scribble "Unknown" on the line marked "Father."

Monroe biographers have learned that Marilyn's contradictory stories about her family point out a problem in uncovering the facts of young Norma Jeane's past. Marilyn often exaggerated, embellished, and fantasized about the dismal events of her childhood. Though a truly honest person at heart, she obviously felt the sting of her unfortunate beginnings to such a degree that it colored her interpretation of them.

Consequently, Marilyn's conflicting accounts of certain incidents in her life make putting together a definitive version of her formative years quite difficult. Some of what we do know about her childhood, including her time spent in an orphanage and in foster care, can be found on the next page.