On what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 91st birthday, an imagining of her most humble of childhoods. 3,038 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Della noted, as she held six-month-old Norma Jean, that Sister Aimee had said it was very foolish to even hesitate to trust God. Sister Aimee spoke every sentence with a building rhythm. One, two, three, FOUR; one, two, three, FOUR. Certain words clanged like cymbals.
Della held Norma Jean loosely as if waiting for the baby to be scooped up by the great Aimee Semple McPherson. Della listened for twenty more minutes as Sister Aimee preached, her black Bible rolled up and held like a microphone as her long white sleeves trailed down to the stage, a heavenly cord of electricity with all its rhinestones, cascading to earth like stars from the sky.
“What’s more illustrative of our faith than to dedicate one of God’s little lambs? Bring your babies to the front and give back the gift, which has been so graciously given you. To keep them safe and let them truly grow in the light of God.”
Della raised Norma Jean above her head and passed her to Sister Aimee. From the back of the tent the baby appeared to levitate in her white baby gown up to the center of the stage.
“I baptize thee, beautiful baby, Norma Jean Baker. In the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.”
“Norma, Norma, Norma.” Aunt Ida shook her head. “Why is this happening again?”
“I don’t know, Mother.”
“I told you not to call me that.”
Norma Jean knew Aunt Ida wasn’t her mother but had promised herself to keep trying until someone finally looked back at her with a warm conceding smile as if to say, “I don’t mind that one bit,” the way she’d always imagined Sister Aimee had looked at her with the wet flower dangling over her head like a nimbus of pale pink velvet. Years ago, in another life, Mrs. Ida Bolender had regularly repeated the story of Norma Jean’s baptism by the great lady evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as told by Norma Jean’s late grandmother Della.
“A single petal, plucked by an invisible angel, dropped onto your doll-like forehead and tumbled over your eyelashes and onto the silver buckle of Sister Aimee’s shoe as the flower floated above. You squealed with delight. Sister Aimee dabbed your brow with the carnation by the end of its long stem, like it was the wand of God. She held you proudly at her hip. You sparkled just like one those many crystals that covered Sister Aimee’s long white dress. Your grandma said you were blessed twice. Never forget that, child.”
That was the only story Norma Jean ever heard told by Mrs. Bolender that sounded like a magical fairytale. The rest of Aunt Ida’s conversation was about meal times and chores and Sunday School. And sometimes about the woman with the red hair, the one they claimed was Norma Jean’s real mother. But the young girl never believed it. Then one day, out of nowhere, the woman with the red hair became her mother and moved her away from the Bolenders.
Norma Jean and her mother for a short time had been happy in the house with the white baby grand. Then her mother was taken away, and, again, so was Norma Jean. During lonely nights in the orphanage, Norma Jean wished for that second blessing to kick in as she stared out the window at the RKO tower where her mother had worked. Now, Mrs. Bolender was gone, and so was Norma Jean’s grandmother. Once again the girl had no mother and, in her absence, men had hurt young Norma Jean, most recently her cousin Jack. Her life felt bankrupt of any blessing at all, especially as she looked up at Aunt Ida’s agitated expression.
“You keep quiet about your cousin Jack. He’ll be a man soon enough, and he don’t need this following him around.”
“I told him to stop. I promise,” Norma Jean pleaded.
“You ain’t that pretty yet, Norma Jean, but I’m afraid you might be before it’s all said and done. Either way, you already got something men want. Beauty’s nothing but violation. You’re better off hearin’ it now. Stop letting Grace put those curls in your hair, and learn to keep your head down. That’s the best I can tell you. But now you gotta go. Grace will find you a new home.”
As she spoke, Aunt Ida continued to brush out Norma Jean’s curls as if she were scrubbing a stain from the Davenport.
Grace was the best friend of Norma Jean’s mother. They had worked together as film cutters. Grace was Norma Jean’s legal guardian, and it was her job to find the girl a suitable home. Grace would often take Norma Jean gallivanting around Hollywood. Even on a Saturday when Grace couldn’t spend a lot of time with Norma Jean, the woman would at least drop off the girl at Grauman’s Chinese theater and pick her up after sunset. When Norma Jean was eight years old, she watched Cleopatra three times in one day, and most recently she had seen Saratoga starring Grace’s favorite actress as well as hers: the one and only Jean Harlow. Grace kept photos of the movie star sprawled in white feathers and silk in the guest bedroom, along with pictures of Clark Gable, his Cheshire smile, and the mustache that made him always seem happy even when he looked mad.
Grace had been a true friend to Norma Jean, but told the girl she couldn’t stay with her because of Grace’s new husband, Doc. He was one of the bad men. It was decided that Norma Jean would live with Grace’s aunt, Ana Lower.
“Ana, I don’t want go to church today. My pains are bad.”
“Child, they’re nothing but normal to becoming a woman.”
“I prayed and prayed, and nothing.”
“It’s all in the mind, Norma Jean,” explained Ana like she did about everything, “It’s only a test of faith. You’ll make it through just fine.”
“But the pills will work,” Norma Jean begged as she hugged herself around her lower abdomen.
“The pills will work for today, but your faith will work far longer. Besides, you have to go. You promised Marilyn and Bethany that you would come over for Sunday dinner. The Reverend is expecting you, and Mrs. Monroe already has an extra large roast in the oven. You’ll be feeling better by the time the sermon is over.”
Norma Jean did want to go play with the minister’s daughters, especially Marilyn. They would play dress up from Marilyn’s bedroom closet full of Sunday best. Norma Jean only had one dress nice enough for church, which she wore every week. It was green with tiny blue flowers. Norma Jean didn’t care for blue. There was already enough blue in the sky, she thought, and enough green on the ground. Marilyn’s closet was full of white dresses. She always wore white dresses, white bobby socks, and white patent leather shoes with silver buckles. Her hair was so blond it was almost white, and “fraught with ringlets,” as Ana always described it.
Ana often said things about the Monroes’ second child. “Marilyn has at least ten too many curls. I simply wonder why Mrs. Monroe doesn’t require that girl to tame them.” Ana always called Marilyn “that girl.” It was odd, in fact, because Ana never spoke ill of anyone. It was as if she thought Marilyn were a black mark on the holy demeanor of the Monroe family.
“Reverend Monroe does seem rather proud of that girl, and I’ll never figure out why. Bethany is so much more well-behaved, and modest.”
Norma Jean liked Bethany fine but just found her a bit of a snore. Bethany never wanted to play dress up, or act out Cleopatra. The sisters weren’t allowed to go to the movies, like Norma Jean was, at least with Grace. Ana didn’t like it, but she didn’t forbid it like the Monroes did. Marilyn longed to go to Grauman’s. She traded the use of her clothes for Norma Jean’s knowledge of the world and its movie stars. She often asked Norma Jean to repeat the story of the dancing flapper in her bathing suit wiggling her way through a nickel’s worth of time in the boardwalk Kinescope. She would become so starry eyed that they might as well have been talking about Claudette Colbert.
“Alright, Ana. I’m sorry. I’ll go get ready.” Norma Jean went to her room and pulled her green dress over her wavy auburn hair and slipped into her Huaraches, fussing with her socks so they wouldn’t stick out through the cracks.
“John 8:32, people. John 8:32.” Reverend Monroe guided the congregation to the passage for that Sunday’s message. “Then you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free! We all know what that truth is, don’t we men and woman of faith?”
The congregation nodded in awe as they listened to the stoic minister.
“It’s healing, brothers and sisters.”
Norma Jean looked over at Ana, watching her nod her head attentively. The girl’s cramps were gone now, but in their stead came boredom. Norma Jean half listened to the rest of the sermon and half daydreamed about dress up time with Marilyn.
“I’d like to call my family to the stage.” Reverend Monroe beckoned to his wife and daughters sitting in the front row. “We would like to thank you all for the flowers and letters of encouragement sent to us for the healing of Bethany’s headaches. She has not had a headache in over a month now.”
As the Reverend talked about Bethany’s plague of headaches, he never took his eyes off Marilyn. She stared back up at him smiling with contentment. He looked at Marilyn like a prized possession, only glancing at Bethany when he said her name. Flanked by his two girls, Mrs. Monroe stood behind him and off to the side. Bethany wore a sensible brown dress and a brunette ponytail with a plain red ribbon. Marilyn posed in a white dress covered in layers of tulle. She looked like a cupcake. Bethany’s attire seemed rebellious next to the spectacle of Marilyn. Norma Jean prayed in that moment, “Dear God, please let me try on that white tulle dress.”
Sunday dinner with the Monroes was always a sedate affair. The Reverend’s charisma seemed exhausted by the time they arrived at the house. He sat in his chair listening to old radio sermons, making notes in his Bible, as Marilyn, Bethany and Norma Jean scurried around setting the table. He would arise when everything was ready, and the only task left was to carry the hefty Graniteware roasting pan to the table. They sat in silence, except for the sound of tedious beef-chewing. He looked at no one, not even Marilyn, and as soon as he finished his last bite, he would go back to his chair while Mrs. Monroe cleaned. When Norma Jean was there, the girls didn’t have to help with the dishes, and soon the fun would begin, at least for Norma Jean and Marilyn. Bethany usually went to her room to read books like Little Women and Jane Eyre.
“And now for the wonderful, the fabulous, the terribly beautiful, Norma Jean Baker!” Marilyn giggled as she spread her arms wide, welcoming Norma Jean from the closet.
Norma Jean burst from the double doors. She walked slowly across Marilyn’s bedroom, audacious with confidence.
“Today we have Norma Jean! She’s wearing an outrageous white satin dress covered in tulle from the South Pacific. It was made by a fairy who grants only the wishes of the most beautiful little girls. Norma Jean was featured in Vogue and Cosmopolitan magazines. She is the next and the best version of Miss Marlene Dietrich ”
Norma Jean broke character with a slight cringe.
Marilyn looked over at her. “Excuse me. The next Carol Lombard!”
Norma Jean did a twirl, and the girls fell over laughing.
“I think my mother is making cupcakes. You think I should steal some batter?”
“Don’t forget to pray after you do it,” whispered Norma Jean.
They laughed some more, and Marilyn opened her bedroom door, crawling stealthily into the hallway after looking in both directions first. Norma Jean sat on Marilyn’s canopied bed soaking up the dream-like quality of the little girl’s room. The pale pink walls made her feel weightless and warm. The lampshade was sprawled with pink gingham, and nearby sat a white teddy bear with a pink ribbon. She noticed Marilyn’s Bible on the nightstand: even it was white with rose gold letters. She opened it to the first page. There was a note from Reverend Monroe, which read, “To Marilyn Monroe, my bright little star, and the most lovely daughter a father could have.” His signature was scrawled along the bottom of the page like an autograph.
To Marilyn Monroe. To Marilyn Monroe.
For the rest of the afternoon the phrase wafted through her mind like the scent of the California lilacs outside Ana’s screened-in-porch. Later that night, by the light of her bedside lamp, Norma Jena opened her own Bible, an old brown one with tattered leather that she had been given at the orphanage. She opened it to the first page. It was blank. She grabbed a fountain pen from the drawer and wrote a note to herself. She read it back out loud. “To Norma Jean Baker. My one and only. Signed Clark Gable.” She frowned, and threw it across the room.
May 19, 1962
She looked at herself one last time in her dressing room mirror. Norma Jean Baker, she thought, where are you?
Marilyn Monroe looked up and smiled. Her make up lady held out the pair of diamond drop earrings she had planned on wearing. She fastened them to her ears as she heard her name being called from the stage. She ran in tight little jaunts toward the microphone as if she were running directly into his arms, almost hopping like a baby bunny, ensconced by the fur of her white ermine coat. She reached the podium and flicked the microphone with a tongue-in-cheek irreverence, creating a humorous tone to camouflage the fact that she was intently looking around for John’s face, the focus of all her sexual longing and desperation. She went as far as to overtly shield her eyes from the lights with both of her hands, relying on a seemingly dubious transparency to prevent the crowd from thinking she was actually looking for anyone at all.
Marilyn had always found obviousness to be the easiest place in which to hide. Her dress was skin tight, nude and completely covered in rhinestones, and her hair was whiter than ever, exploding with glare as camera flashes enveloped her. She breathed into the microphone, gripping the stand more tightly than anyone could perceive. Marilyn began to sing.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Mr. President. Happy birthday to you.”
Her presentation was an exuberance of sensual fidgeting, which only furthered her vulnerable appeal. Out of all the words so militantly used to describe her, vulnerable was the one she loathed the most. She watched his face as she sang, looking for some hint that he was thinking, “I don’t mind that one bit.” But there was none — only some God-awful benevolent blushing.
The after party was worse. She felt like a street mutt following him around, trying to appear aloof and available all at the same time. He was just damn gracious to her as if she were any guest at all. She felt an undercurrent of disgust coming from him. Was he now regretting having ever touched her? Just like Doc and Cousin Jack? In all her rhinestones, diamonds, and fur, she felt untouchable. But she had been touched. Often. Men must have thought women disgusting creatures, she thought, and men only liked women because men liked disgusting things. She stared at him, Mr. President, and she seethed as she sipped on a flute of champagne.
The next afternoon, back in the sunshine of Los Angeles, she asked her driver to take her to Hollywood Boulevard before he drove her home to Brentwood. She buttoned herself up in a trench coat and pulled a brunette shag wig over her blond hair, securing it in place with a red scarf. She bought an ice cream sundae from Brown’s, and walked past Grauman’s noticing the marquee for West Side Story starring Natalie Wood. As she wandered around for over an hour, she spotted a sign for a peep show. Marilyn felt drawn to it. She looked over her shoulder, then walked closer to the poster. Live Nude Girls! It had little pictures of floating women, and next to them, their stage names. She assumed they were stage names. There was a blond woman, reclining on a red satin sheet, and next to her it read, Norma Jean! Oh My!
Marilyn entered the tiny theater, frantically fumbling through her handbag in search of a dime. She entered a booth, dropping her five cents in the coin slot. A curtain rose. Through the window she saw three women, one clearly older than the other two, maybe even by a decade, dancing in the center of a stage. It was the woman from the advertisement, Norma Jean! Oh My! She was still gorgeous, though worn looking. She was much older in real life than in the photo. She had blond curls, and her only prop was a piece of tulle which she wrapped around her naked body, opening it flirtatiously every few seconds. She held her arms wide, as if to include the other girls, both of whom seemed oblivious to her.
Marilyn caught a glimpse of Norma Jean’s child-like gaze for one transcendent moment, and she felt understood, at home even. But as soon as the woman turned away, she felt abandoned. Marilyn smoothed the bangs of her wig over and over again as if to comfort herself. She turned to leave and walked back out into the relentless Hollywood sun. Putting on her sunglasses, she couldn’t help but think, “Her face looks so familiar.”