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by William H. Benson

June 1, 2006

     Norma Jean Baker, also known as Marilyn Monroe, was born June 1, 1926.  She would have turned eighty today.  She grew up in Los Angeles, during Hollywood’s golden age, a glittering dreamworld where any pretty face could become a famous actress, which was Norma Jean’s dream and obsession.

     Her friends could not quite believe she had movie star talent.  Captivatingly beautiful she was, but she had a sugary breathy voice and an had an odd habit of licking or twitching her lips.  But she was intelligent and fiercely driven to succeed, and she could use men to introduce her to other men even more powerful.  Entranced by her good looks, men were pleased to help her.

     One of her teenage friends, Eddie Friedman, met her in the summer of 1946 at the Lido Club’s pool behind the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when she was modeling bathing suits for a photo session.  Eddie later became the actor Ted Jordan, and he told the story of his sixteen-year friendship with Marilyn Monroe in his book, Norma Jean.

     Gradually he learned that “he was dealing not with an innocent and naïve girl with stars in her eyes but with a multifaceted personality of extraordinary complexity.”

     He soon discovered that Norma Jean’s family was filled with ghosts.  She had no home, but had lived in an orphanage and foster homes.  She had never met or known her father.  Her mother, Gladys Baker, suffered from bouts of insanity that drove her into an asylum.  Years before, Gladys’s husband, a guy named Baker, had deserted Gladys when he had moved to Kentucky, taking with him their two daughters, Norma Jean’s older half-sisters.  Then, Norma Jean called her foster mothers her “aunts.”

     And then Eddie discovered that Norma Jean had married a guy named James Dougherty, the boy next door, when she was sixteen.  She claimed that it was “a marriage of convenience” to avoid going back to the orphanage.  The navy drafted him during the war, and she divorced him.

     They were all ghosts: her father, mother, sisters, aunts, and husband.

     And then she found a two-minute role in a Marx Brothers movie, Love Happy.  Groucho made his famous eyebrows wiggle when Norma Jean walked away from him.

     She died her hair blonde, changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, and found an agent, Johnny Hyde; Twentieth-Century Fox first gave her a contract, and her wish came true.  She became a star and over the years acted in thirty movies.

     Along the way she married baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio.  The marriage lasted all of ten months in 1954; he had not appreciated the way the soldiers in Korea had ogled and whistled at her when she was performing on stage there.  And then she married the playwright, Arthur Miller, but after four years she had divorced him also.

     Rumors linked Marilyn romantically with the President, John F. Kennedy, and later with his brother, Bobby Kennedy, both whom she had met through the actor, Peter Lawford, who was married to one of the Kennedy sisters.  Unfortunately, it was Peter Lawford who kept Marilyn well stocked in pills.

     At the age of thirty-six, she died on the morning of August 5, 1862 in her Brentwood home.  The coroner ruled it an accidental suicide, but the conspiracy theories have spun tales that the Kennedy’s, the Mafia, Jimmy Hoffa, or the CIA were involved in a murder and a coverup.  Her close friend Ted Jordan believed otherwise.  He said, “No one had to murder Marilyn Monroe, for she was intent on murdering herself.”  The champagne and pills had directed her life for ten years, and they finally took it.   

     Six years later on June 5, 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Bobby Kennedy, about fifty feet from the pool where Norma Jean Baker had stood in her bathing suit before a camera in 1946.

     Another popular culture icon, actually does turn eighty-years-old today—Andy Griffith.  His career began in 1962, the same year that Marilyn Monroe’s ended.  His life was a steady and respected television presence, but hers was a Fourth of July firework that exploded with a bang, lit up the sky with color and design, and then was gone.