In the annals of Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe remains an enduring icon of glamour and grace. Her name is synonymous with stardom, but behind the dazzling allure lay a childhood scarred by the ominous shadows of her mother’s paranoid schizophrenia. Marilyn Monroe’s journey from a foster home in Hawthorne, California, to the silver screen was punctuated by a tumultuous relationship with her mother, Gladys Baker, one that rarely found solid ground throughout the 36-plus years they knew each other.
A Fragmented Beginning: Foster Care and Early Stability
Marilyn Monroe, then known as Norma Jeane Mortenson, was introduced to the world on June 13, 1926, when her mother, 26-year-old Gladys Baker, delivered her to the home of Ida and Wayne Bolender. There was no trace of a father, officially unknown, although Baker would persistently claim it to be a colleague from Consolidated Studios named Charles Stanley Gifford. Della Monroe, the baby’s grandmother, was conspicuously absent, having made arrangements with the Bolenders before embarking on a journey to India.
The poignant episode marked the first fracture in the complex relationship between young Norma Jeane and her mother. Their connection was one marked by instability, one that rarely found solid ground.
Despite this inauspicious start, Norma Jeane’s early years proved to be the most stable phase of her life. The Bolenders, with their devout religiosity, provided her with a firm yet compassionate upbringing. The young girl formed close bonds with her foster siblings, and during this period, Baker remained genuinely committed to her daughter’s well-being. Baker had already lost custody of two older children, Jackie and Berniece, from a previous marriage, and was determined not to suffer the same fate with Norma Jeane. She visited her frequently and, as the child grew older, even took her for occasional sleepovers at her Hollywood apartment.
However, even during this relatively stable period, Baker exhibited signs of the mental instability that ran in her family, making her unpredictable and, at times, dangerous. As detailed in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” an agitated Baker once arrived at the Bolenders’ home, locked Ida Bolender out, and tried to abscond with her 3-year-old daughter stuffed in a duffel bag. The attempt was thwarted by the vigilant foster mother.
An End to Shared Living: Baker’s Institutionalization
Although Baker’s attempts to regain custody of Norma Jeane were denied, when the child turned seven, Ida Bolender decided it was time for mother and daughter to be reunited permanently. At first, Baker stepped up to the challenge. She secured a loan to acquire a new home near the Hollywood Bowl and hosted boarders George and Maud Atkinson to provide financial support and companionship.
However, a series of misfortunes cast a shadow over their lives in the fall of 1933. Baker received the distressing news of her 13-year-old son Jackie’s death due to kidney disease, leading her to resent her own daughter for surviving. Within weeks, more heartbreak followed as Baker learned of her grandfather’s suicide and her studio’s labor strike.
By mid-1934, under the mounting pressure, Baker reached her breaking point. Norma Jeane witnessed her mother’s violent outbursts and the subsequent police intervention. Baker was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, marking the beginning of a series of institutionalizations at the Norwalk State Hospital.
Norma Jeane’s life was forever altered, shuttling between her new legal guardian, Grace Goddard (Baker’s close friend), her maternal aunt Edith Ana Lower, and the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home. Stability was regained when she was placed under the care of “Aunt Ana,” Edith Ana Lower, a woman of Christian Science faith, who managed to influence both Norma Jeane and Baker.
Around this time, Baker revealed to Norma Jeane that she had an older half-sister, Berniece. Thrilled by this connection, Norma Jeane started corresponding with Berniece in Kentucky, forming a significant bond that persisted until her final days.
Turbulent Years: A Mother’s Disapproval
In 1946, Baker was released from San Jose’s Agnews State Hospital, resuming her residence with Norma Jeane at Aunt Ana’s home. This period marked a transitional phase in Norma Jeane’s life. Her modeling career was taking off, her marriage to Merchant Marine Jim Dougherty was faltering, and she was on the cusp of signing with 20th Century Fox under her stage name, Marilyn Monroe.
The arrival of Berniece for an extended stay brought a semblance of familial happiness to Norma Jeane’s life. However, Baker’s condition was visibly deteriorating; she began to dress like a nurse and grew emotionally distant. When she did engage with her daughter, it was often to express disapproval of Norma Jeane’s career choice of becoming an actress.
In September, shortly after Norma Jeane’s divorce was finalized, Baker suddenly announced her desire to live with her Aunt Dora in Oregon. What Norma Jeane later discovered was that her mother had not gone to Oregon as claimed. Instead, she had married a man named John Stewart Eley, who was already married to another woman in Idaho.
Escaping the Past: The Lie That Haunted Monroe
Despite initial alarm over her mother’s disappearance, the absence of Baker proved opportune for Monroe’s burgeoning career. She agreed to adopt the studio’s public relations narrative that both of her parents were deceased. This narrative, portraying a tragic childhood spent shuttling between relatives and foster homes, fit perfectly with Monroe’s image.
However, the truth resurfaced to haunt her in May 1952 when news reports declared Baker to be alive and working at the Homestead Lodge nursing home in Eagle Rock, near Los Angeles. Compelled to explain her actions to the press, Monroe was forced to address this revelation.
By the fall of the same year, with her husband’s recent passing, Baker found herself spending tumultuous months with Berniece’s family in Florida. While she rejected Monroe’s invitation to return to California, she accepted a train ticket and arrived at Grace Goddard’s home, where her arrival was met with manic behavior. Monroe watched as her mother was restrained and transported to the hospital once more.
A Final Meeting: The Legacy of a Complex Relationship
As Monroe solidified her status as a Hollywood star, featuring in films like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) and “The Seven-Year Itch” (1955), Baker continued to correspond regularly, often imploring her daughter to secure her release. However, beneath Monroe’s screen success lay her own challenges, including troubled marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, as well as increasing dependence on medications.
In February 1961, after contemplating suicide, Monroe’s path paralleled her mother’s as she was committed to the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York. Though her stay was brief, the press got wind of it. Shortly after, Monroe was forced to reckon with a new crisis when it was revealed that Baker had been discovered unconscious in her room at Rock Haven Sanitarium, her left wrist slashed.
Their final encounter took place in the summer
of 1962. While trying to secure a prescription for Thorazine, Monroe took the doctor to visit her mother at Rock Haven. Despite Monroe’s plea, Baker steadfastly refused medication, insisting that prayers, not pills, were her salvation. As they parted ways, Monroe slipped a flask into her mother’s purse, a small gesture that elicited a brief smile. “You’re such a good girl, Norma Jeane,” Baker remarked before leaving without a farewell.
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe succumbed to the years of drug abuse. Remarkably, Baker outlived her daughter by 22 more years, ultimately finding release from the psychiatric institutions that had long confined her. Theirs was a relationship marked by tragedy and complexity, forever etched in the annals of Hollywood history.