Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox

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by Lois Banner

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With revelatory new information, from a leading feminist scholar and biographer, a nuanced and sympathetic biography of Marilyn Monroe to be published on the 50th anniversary of her death.

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With revelatory new information, from a leading feminist scholar and biographer, a nuanced and sympathetic biography of Marilyn Monroe to be published on the 50th anniversary of her death.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Nobody is one thing all the time. Yet Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner's new biography…which behaves a little like its subject. Weaving together exclusive interviews, material from previous books and, most significantly, the contents of Monroe's two long-lost personal filing cabinets…Banner presents a rich and often imaginative narrative of Marilyn's life. By the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being—an almost-friend—and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.
—Zoë Slutzky

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The Passion and the Paradox
By Lois Banner


Copyright © 2012 Lois Banner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60819-531-2

Chapter One

Mothers, 1926–1933

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in the charity ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital on June 1, 1926. Her mother, Gladys Monroe Baker, was a poorly paid film cutter in a Hollywood editing studio. Her father never recognized her, and Gladys placed her in a foster home when she was three months old. In 1933, when Norma Jeane was seven, her mother brought her to live with her in Hollywood. Soon after, Gladys broke down emotionally, leaving Norma Jeane with her best friend, Grace Atchison McKee. When Gladys was declared paranoid schizophrenic and admitted to a state mental hospital, Grace became Norma Jeane's guardian. During the next eight years, until Norma Jeane married in 1942 at the age of sixteen, Grace placed her in eleven foster homes and an orphanage. Why Gladys broke down and why Grace kept moving Norma Jeane are central issues in examining her childhood.

Five women dominated Norma Jeane's childhood. They included Gladys and Grace, plus Della Monroe, Gladys's mother; and two of Norma Jeane's foster mothers, Ida Bolender and Ana Atchinson Lower, Grace McKee's aunt. All five women were working class or lower middle class, with little money or education. All moved to Los Angeles with their families from the Upper South and the Midwest between 1900 and 1920, during the great migration to the city. That movement turned a small provincial city into a major metropolis, with suburbs and cities radiating out from a downtown core.

Della Monroe, Marilyn's grandmother, came from Missouri by way of Mexico in 1902, with her husband, Otis Monroe, and her daughter, Gladys, then two years old; they settled near downtown Los Angeles. Grace came from Montana in the 1910s in her late teens, looking for a film career; she settled in Hollywood. Ida, an Iowa farm girl, arrived with her husband, Wayne, in the early 1920s and settled in Hawthorne, in the South Bay area southwest of downtown. Ana, considerably older than the other four, was born in 1880 in Washington State. She came to Los Angeles by way of Sacramento, eventually settling in the Sawtelle area on Los Angeles's West Side.

Like most participants in the great migration to Los Angeles, these five hoped for better lives in the Southern California paradise of beaches, mountains, exotic vegetation, and a Mediterranean climate. The Hollywood film industry was there, with its ethic of leisure and plea sure. So was a major evangelical movement, among the largest in the nation, with imposing churches and a doctrine that promised individual rebirth through renouncing sin and uniting with Christ. The pulpit and the screen—an uneasy pair—would profoundly influence Norma Jeane.

The story of Marilyn's childhood, like much of her life, contains texts and counter-texts, with hidden episodes beneath surface narratives. Most families have secrets; alcoholism, marital discord, and mental issues are possibilities. The Monroe family had all these, and more. Della and Gladys had up-and-down moods. Both were divorced several times; in divorce petitions both accused husbands of alcoholism and physical abuse. Ida, Norma Jeane's first foster mother, between 1926 and 1933, disciplined her for childhood sexual experimentation, and Grace couldn't prevent her from being sexually abused in several foster homes. Della, Grace, Gladys, Ana, and Ida clashed over religion. Ida was an evangelical Christian; Della was a follower of evangelist maverick Aimee Semple McPherson. Ana, who provided foster care for Norma Jeane between 1938 and 1942, was a Christian Science healer, while Gladys and Grace were flappers who lived sexually free lives and didn't faithfully attend any church during Norma Jeane's early childhood. She got caught in the middle, a pawn for a while in a rivalry among the five of them.

Marilyn's paternal ancestry is obscure because of uncertainty over the identity of her father. The best candidate is Stanley (Stan) Gifford, a su pervisor at the Hollywood editing firm where Gladys worked. Stan was Gladys's boyfriend and bed partner, although she had a husband from whom she was separated, not divorced—Edward Mortensen, a meter reader for the gas company. Stan was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of a wealthy shipbuilding family whose ancestry went back to the found ers of Providence and beyond them to Pilgrims on the Mayflower. If Stan was Marilyn's father, she came from revered American roots.

Gladys Monroe, Marilyn's mother, also claimed distinguished descent. Her heritage came through her father, Otis Monroe, who traced his roots to James Monroe of Virginia, fifth president of the United States. But Otis can't be trusted. Born in Indiana in 1866, he spent much of his adult life as an itinerant painter, traveling through the Midwest and the Upper South, painting buildings to make money and occasionally selling his landscapes and portraits. Wearing fancy clothes, he passed himself off as a gentleman and spun fantasies of moving to Paris and living on the Left Bank. His death certificate lists his mother and father as unknown. Something of an eccentric, he was not the last unusual character in Marilyn's ancestry.

On a swing through Missouri in 1898, Otis met Della Hogan. Born in 1878, she was twenty-two, still living with her mother and siblings. Her childhood had been difficult. Her father, Tilford Hogan, was an itinerant farm laborer who worked long hours for low wages, following the harvests and doing odd jobs. He married Jennie Nance, a Missouri farm girl, in 1870. Living in tenant cabins and farm shacks, they nonetheless had three children in eight years.

Yet Tilford's financial woes weren't unusual in post- Reconstruction Missouri. The building of railroads as well as a dramatic population growth through immigration caused a rise in prosperity in the state—for those able to exploit it. Most Missourians remained tenant farmers or landless laborers employed part-time to harvest crops or do odd jobs. Pro-slavery and secessionist during the Civil War, Missourians remained loyal to the South for de cades. Jennie Nance, Marilyn's maternal great-grandmother, was raised in Chariton County, settled by migrants from the Upper South who owned slaves. It was called "Little Dixie." As Tilford's wife, Jennie moved with him as he sought employment, often in Ozark hillbilly country, moving her children from school to school. When Marilyn played Cherie, the hillbilly singer in Bus Stop, she could draw on her family's past to create the character.

Tilford had a quirky independence and a love of learning. He taught himself to read and write so that he could read the classics of Western literature. In an era when ordinary people memorized Shakespeare and distinctions between high and low culture weren't rigid, such learning wasn't that unusual. He suffered from chronic arthritis but remained pleasant and well liked. But it wasn't enough for Jennie. In 1890, after twenty years of a difficult marriage, Jennie and Tilford divorced, violating the strictures against divorce in a region dominated by conservative Baptists. Each moved in with a relative; the children went with Jennie, who showed an in de pen dent streak in divorcing Tilford—a streak that would run through the Monroe women.

Nearly nine years after the divorce, in 1898, Otis Monroe appeared in Della's town and swept her off her feet with his rakish, upper-class air, fashionable clothing, and fantasies about moving to Paris. He was ten years older than she. He offered her a way out of Missouri, where she seemed stuck as an old maid at the age of twenty-two. Captivated by him, disregarding the objections of her parents, she overlooked the reality that he was, like her father, an itinerant laborer.

The marriage was disappointing. Instead of moving to Paris, they moved to Mexico, to the town of Porfirio Díaz, now Piedras Negras, on the border with Texas. Otis found a job there painting railroad cars for the Mexican National Railway. The town was dirty, with poor sanitation, and Della didn't like it. Family lore held that, despite her discontent, she served as a midwife for impoverished Mexican women. Once her daughter, Gladys, was born in 1902, she and Otis moved to Los Angeles, where he found a job as a painter with the Pacific Electric Railway. That company operated the "red line" trolleys that ran throughout the Los Angeles region, linking its far-flung, expanding communities. Otis and Della's son, Marion, was born in 1905. Shortly thereafter, Otis was promoted, and they bought a small house near downtown—or Otis built it himself. They seemed to be achieving the American Dream.

Then it fell apart. Otis began to suffer from memory loss, migraines, and bouts of mania. Seizures and paralysis followed. Della thought he was going insane. He was admitted to Patton State Mental Hospital in San Bernardino, a sprawling structure that housed several thousand patients. It was one of seven such hospitals in the state built in the late nineteenth century to house the insane, chronic alcoholics, aging people with dementia, and individuals with syphilitic paresis, the final stage of syphilis, in which the infection destroys the connective tissues in the brain. Overcrowded, with insufficient doctors or trained staff, the hospitals provided minimal treatment.

Otis was diagnosed with syphilitic paresis, probably of the endemic variety, caused by a bacteria spread by mosquitoes, not through sexual intercourse. He probably picked up the bacteria in Piedras Negras, with its poor sanitation. He died in 1909. To hide two shameful diagnoses—syphilis and psychosis—Della claimed that he had died from breathingpaint fumes.

With two children to support, Della cleaned houses and rented rooms in her house to male boarders, while she looked for another husband. In 1913 she married Lyle Graves, one of Otis's co-workers at the trolley company. A year later she divorced him on the grounds of "habitual intemperance" (alcoholism) and failure to provide financial support. The charge may have been true or trumped up to obtain the divorce. Adultery, physical abuse, and alcoholism—these were the only legal grounds for divorce in this era. Spouses wanting a divorce often colluded in making up tales of bad behavior, and wives brought most of the actions because of the belief that men were more likely to be abusers and alcoholics than women. Della won by default, since Graves skipped town. He may have had a nasty streak. According to Gladys he killed her cat by throwing it against a wall. Della then married a man named Chitwood, and she and her children moved with him to a farm in Oregon. Gladys liked Chitwood and the farm. She had happy memories of picking blueberries in Oregon as a child. But Della soon divorced her third husband. The charge was alcoholism, which again may have been true or trumped up, as was the custom, to provide a legal grounds for divorce.

Della, not yet forty, was adventurous. Moving back to Los Angeles, she settled in Venice, a town on the Pacific Ocean twelve miles west of downtown. A fantasy place dreamed up by developer Abbot Kinney, Venice combined the look of Coney Island in New York with Venice in Italy. Neo-Renaissance buildings bordered canals where gondoliers plyed gondolas. There was a St. Mark's Square with jugglers and mimes, a promenade along the beach, and a pier jutting into the ocean, containing a large dance hall as well as concessions: rifle shoots, ring tosses, pretty-girl dunks, and penny arcades. Until the late 1920s, Venice had the largest amusement zone on the West Coast.

It wasn't entirely honky-tonk. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford had second homes on the canals, and film scenes were shot there. Elite groups held dances in the dance hall on the pier, and film stars mingled with ordinary people on the streets. Colored eggs were handed out on Easter and flowers to mothers on Mother's Day. There were bathing-beauty contests, boxing matches, bicycle races, and a Mardi Gras festival each year.

Once in Venice, Della got a job managing a small apartment building. She sent her son, Marion, to live with a relative in San Diego; as a single mother she found raising a son difficult. Such arrangements weren't uncommon in that era. Child-care experts of that time didn't regard bonding with parents as necessary for a child's healthy development; living in an intact family was their only requirement. Della, like her daughter, Gladys, and her granddaughter, Marilyn, was prone to emotional highs and lows. Marion was also moody. What ever mental issues Gladys and Marion inherited, their tumultuous childhoods didn't help them to cope with emotional ups and downs.

On New Year's Eve 1917, Della met her fourth husband, Charles Grainger, at the dance hall on the pier. Marilyn claimed that Della was the real beauty in the family, and she did, indeed, attract men. Grainger was an oil driller for Shell Oil. A smooth talker, well dressed, he had just returned from drilling jobs in India and Burma. Like Otis Monroe he was adventurous, with a similar air of distinction. Some Marilyn biographers contend that Della and Charles never married, but on a 1925 passport application Della gave the date of their marriage as November 20, 1920.

Angry over her father's death, the two stepfathers, and the moving, Gladys became difficult. Fifteen years old in 1917, she was a full-fledged adolescent. Like her mother, Gladys was small—five feet tall—and she was beautiful, with a voluptuous body, green eyes, and reddish-brown hair. She also had a ladylike quality attractive to men, a quality that Marilyn internalized. Della had been raised in Missouri, a border state influenced by the Southern tradition of tough women with genteel veneers. She passed this gentility to Gladys. In 1946, Emmeline Snively, the head of Marilyn's first modeling agency, described Gladys as the most ladylike woman she had ever met.

The Venice pier, with its temptations, was not far from their apartment, and Gladys often went there. In the 1910s urban adolescents, especially working-class girls, rebelled against Victorian conventions by going to dance halls and amusement zones to meet men. The 1920s flapper, in de pen dent and free, already existed before World War One, and female screen stars shaped her behavior. Gladys was passionate about films, and she avidly read movie fan magazines. Like many girls of her era, she patterned her behavior after the stars.

Then Gladys became pregnant. The father, John Newton Baker, called Jasper, was twenty-six years old and the owner of the apartment building Della managed. They married on May 17, 1917. Why a fifteen-year-old girl would marry a twenty-six-year-old man is puzzling, although Jasper had been an officer in the army cavalry and a trick horse back rider; he had dash. In addition, bearing an illegitimate child was a disgrace in that era. Even in the 1920s, when young people "parked" in cars with their dates and "petted," which could mean more than simply kissing, mainstream society scorned unmarried women who became pregnant. They were considered outside the bounds of respectability.

Della swore in an affidavit attached to the marriage license that Gladys was eighteen. But she lied; Gladys was fifteen. The lie was necessary to get around the law requiring girls to be sixteen to engage in consensual sex. Before then intercourse was classified as rape, and the man involved could be brought to trial and sent to prison. Gladys and Jasper's son, Jackie, was born seven months after their wedding. A daughter, Berniece, was born in 1920.

With Della and Gladys married, the Monroe women seemed stable. But the stability didn't last. Both of them were difficult and moody, hard to live with. Della and Charles began arguing, and Della moved to a house they bought in the newly developed city of Hawthorne, southwest of downtown, not far from the beach and on the trolley line. It was a good investment, although Charles wasn't there that much. Still, the 1925 Hawthorne City Directory lists him as living there with Della.

In 1922 Gladys experienced a mother's worst nightmare. She threw the pieces of a broken drinking class into a trash can, and Jackie rummaged through the trash and embedded a shard of glass in an eye, damaging it. Several months later, Jasper and Gladys drove to Flat Lick, Kentucky, his hometown, for a visit. On the way there they quarreled ferociously, failing to notice that a back door to their car had opened and Jackie had fallen out, injuring his leg. Jasper and Gladys didn't have a good marriage, and they struggled with alcohol, violence, and appropriate parenting.


Excerpted from Marilyn by Lois Banner Copyright © 2012 by Lois Banner. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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