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Marilyn Monroe’s troubled childhood in foster homes

Marilyn Monroe in 1946 | Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

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Marilyn Monroe’s troubled childhood in foster homes

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Norma Jean Baker,  better known by her stage name Marilyn Monroe had a rocky life that was full of upheaval and tragedy before she became a Hollywood actress and the epitome of an iconic blonde bombshell.

On June 1, 1926, Monroe was born in Los Angeles, California, to a model, pianist, and American cinema actress. She embodied the sexual liberty of her era and was a well-liked sexual object in the 1950s and early 1960s. She was widely known for her amusing “blonde bombshell” performances. On August 4th, 1962, she passed away in California.

When Gladys Baker, Norma Jean’s mother, first put her in foster care, she was only 2 weeks old.

During that time, there was no sign of any father – officially unknown, though Baker would insist for years that it was a Consolidated Studios co-worker named Charles Stanley Gifford – nor of the baby girl’s grandmother, Della Monroe, though she had at least arranged things with the Bolenders before running off to India.

Norma Jeane Baker with Ana Lower and other family friends | Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was the Roaring Twenties, a time of Jazz and gin and wild living. The world was plunging into a new era of licentiousness, and women were freeing themselves of corsets and moral restraints.

Reinventing themselves as the Jazz Baby, women were smoking, dancing, and rouging their knees. Among them was Gladys Baker. At 26, she was twice divorced, a cutter at a film studio –Consolidated Film Industries — and pregnant.

Monroe was given to friends of her mom and foster care units for upkeeping. The unfortunate thing about this was her mom had an issue of mental illness and an unstable sense of unconsciousness.

Monroe knew her father only as a nameless photograph hanging on her mother’s wall. In Monroe’s unfinished autobiography, My Story, she revealed that she often fantasized as a child about what her father might be like – and how her life might have been different with him in it.

Just two weeks after she was born, Monroe was left for the first time with a foster family: Ida and Wayne Bolender, a religious couple living in small-town Hawthorne, California. According to AmoMama, Monroe’s grandmother, Della Monroe, left her with the Bolenders before she headed off to India.

Ida devoted herself to the newborn, and years later, Norma Jean would describe her years with the Bolanders as the happiest in her life.

Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1928 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Baker was also showing signs of the mental instability that was plaguing her own mother and making both women dangerous to be around. As detailed in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, by J. Randy Taraborrelli, an agitated Baker showed up at the Bolenders’ one day and demanded to take her three-year-old daughter home. She locked Ida out the back door and attempted to run off with Monroe stuffed in a duffel bag, before the foster mom succeeded in thwarting the attempt.

Fortunately, her attempt was foiled, but from then on Ida watched the interactions between mother and daughter with a wary eye. As Della Monroe’s neighbor, Ida was aware that she too was becoming deranged, and her main concern became protecting Norma Jean.

Their shared living time ended when Monroe’s mom was institutionalized.

Monroe remembered hearing a “terrible noise” on the stairs one day before rushing out into the hallway, only to see Baker being dragged away to the hospital.

Even though Baker’s requests to adopt Monroe were rejected, when Monroe was seven years old, Ida decided it was time for mother and daughter to reunite for good.

“My mother was on her feet. She was screaming and laughing,” Monroe recalled in My Story. “They took her away to the Norwalk Mental Hospital. I knew the name of the hospital in a vague way. It was where my mother’s father and grandmother had been taken when they started screaming and laughing.”

Naturally, Monroe was traumatized by seeing her mother be forcibly institutionalized. She was hastily moved into the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home, where she wore a uniform and felt nameless and abandoned.

When Norma Jean was 7, Ida finally agreed to allow an apparently stable and grounded Gladys to take her daughter home. Gladys had purchased a house and took in actors and actresses as boarders, providing herself and Norma Jean with a home and a steady income.

However, a series of unfortunate events prompted things to take a turn for the worse in the fall of 1933. First, Baker learned that her 13-year-old son Jackie, taken from her as an infant, had died of kidney disease, resulting in mom lashing out at Monroe for being the one to live. Within weeks, Baker also discovered that her grandfather had hanged himself and that her studio was going on strike.

The twin tragedies pushed the already-fragile Gladys over the edge. She ranted at the shocked Norma Jean, telling her she should have been the one to die, not Jackie. The horrified 7-year-old watched her mother taken away by the police.

Gladys was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized. Little Norma Jean, having been taken away from the only family she had ever known — the Bolanders — was now alone. Legal guardianship of the 7-year-old was attributed to a friend of her mother’s Grace Goddard.

She remembered Aunt Grace as an inconsistent yet loving presence in her life. Eventually, Monroe would also stay for a time with Ana Lower, Goddard’s aunt.

Goddard, who became Monroe’s legal guardian after Baker became a ward of the state, was a film librarian who struggled to scrape together a living after she was let go. Although Goddard cared for Monroe, she often sent her to live with foster families because of her own struggles with money.

“The families with whom I lived had one thing in common – a need for five dollars,” Monroe recalled ruefully of her time in foster care. “I was, also, an asset to have in the house. I was strong and healthy and able to do almost as much work as a grownup. And I had learned not to bother anyone by talking or crying.”

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