Thanks for tuning in! This is a continuation of my series of blog posts titled “Breaking Down ‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’ the movie.” If you have not, please check out part 1 of this review.
This particular post would not have been possible without my go-to gal April VeVea, a Marilyn Monroe scholar who worked with me to create a comprehensive timeline of Marilyn’s childhood and who answered many of my questions late into the night.
Episode 1 continued: Gladys Baker + a look into Marilyn’s childhood
In the last breakdown, we left off with a brief discussion of Marilyn’s history with psychotherapy. At this point in the movie, Marilyn (played by Kelli Garner) begins opening up to the the fictional Dr. DeShields about her childhood. She starts with her mother Gladys’s meltdown, which began the course of her mother’s institutionalization for the rest of her life.
The first scene we see from her childhood is “the duffel bag story.” Gladys races up to the Bolenders’ home attempting to take Norma Jeane with her. The Bolenders were the first family that she lived with, they took Norma into their care when she was just 2 weeks old. Gladys paid them each month to take care of her. She stayed there until she was 7 years old. A screaming Gladys, played by Eva Amurri Martino, Susan Sarandon’s daughter in real life, rushes up to the house demanding Norma Jeane to come to her. The result is Gladys eventually making it into the house, then attempting an escape with a duffel bag over her shoulder. Ida Bolender and Gladys fight over the bag, which drops, and out crawls little Norma and into Ida’s arms.
About this duffel bag story: it didn’t happen. There’s just no evidence to even suggest something like this. In fact, I don’t recall hearing it before I read Secret Life the book, so I’m not sure where it originated, therefore I am not sure where Taraborrelli came up with it. There are no personal accounts by either the Bolenders or Gladys herself that she ever came by to kidnap her daughter. The sad but true part is though, at the end of this scene, Norma Jeane yells for “momma” directed at Ida Bolender. Ida then tells her that she’s not her mother, and to call her aunt instead. Here is what Marilyn had to say about this later in a recorded interview:
“The people I was staying with, I was about 3. And one morning I was having a bath and I referred to the woman as ‘momma.’ And she said ‘I’m not your mother. The one who comes here with the red hair, she’s your mother. Don’t call me mother anymore, call me aunt.’ But the one I was concerned was her husband I said ‘but he’s my daddy.’ And she said ‘No. You call him uncle.’ Although they weren’t my aunt and uncle.”
|From "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe"|
|Gladys Baker, 1924|
Later on, the movie presents a scene where a young Gladys is screaming and crying at the foot of a set of stairs in a small house. Seconds prior to this, we see Grace McKee (Gladys’s co-worker) and Norma Jeane at the table flipping through a magazine article which focuses on Jean Harlow, one of Marilyn’s real life movie idols. Startled by the sudden outburst, Grace races over to her friend while Norma Jeane tries to get a better view of what is happening to her mother.
|Gladys with baby Marilyn|
Get ready because a lot of dates are coming up! Let’s start with this house. The house shown in the movie represents the 3 bedroom home Gladys purchased in 1933 in Hollywood, California. After Gladys left her job as a film splicer at Consolidated Studios, she needed a source of income to pay the bills. Gladys rented out part of the house to an English couple called the Atkinsons. George and Maude Atkinson were both bit part actors, stand-ins trying to build a career in Los Angeles. They had a teenage daughter named Nell. Beginning in January of 1934, the Atkinson family moved into the house on Arbol Drive and paid rent to Gladys. They also helped take care of 8 year old Norma Jeane. It was during that month and in this house that Gladys had a psychotic meltdown. Gladys had been going through a lot of hardships in her life, she didn’t have a job and couldn’t afford to care for her child, her father had died in a mental hospital, in 1927 Gladys’s mother Della died of heart failure during a panic attack, and in 1933 Gladys learned that her grandfather, Tilfred Hogan, had committed suicide. These traumatizing events ultimately led to depression and realizing one of her worst fears that eventually became one of Marilyn’s own: that her family’s mental illnesses were hereditary and that she would inherit them. It was at that house on Arbol drive that Gladys broke into a mental panic. She was then admitted to a rest home in Santa Monica in January of 1934 and stayed there until an unknown date before being transferred to Los Angeles General Hospital in that same year. The following year, in January of 1935, Gladys was declared legally insane and transferred to Norwalk State hospital. Norma Jeane continued to live with the Atkinsons during this time and until May of 1935 while Grace McKee attempted to obtain legal guardianship and permission to be in charge of Gladys’s financial affairs.
At some point that May, Grace had Norma removed from the Atkinsons’ care apparently after discovering that they had been neglectful. Later in life, Marilyn recalled them as being very busy with work and understandably not wanting to be “bothered with a child.” From then, she was placed in the care of the Giffen family, who didn’t live far from the Bakers. She stayed with them for only 2 months, leaving in July of 1935. Harvey Giffen worked as a sound engineer in Hollywood. Norma Jeane lived there with him, his wife Elsie, and their 3 young children. However, Harvey had plans on leaving his job and moving all the way to New Orleans, so he became interested in adopting Norma Jeane. He contacted Gladys regarding this, but Gladys refused, and Norma Jeane was sent to live with Grace.
At this point, Grace was still in the midst of working on receiving guardianship of Norma Jeane, but the courts allowed her to live with Grace temporarily. This began at some point in July of 1935. Grace would marry Doc Goddard that August. Doc had 3 children from a previous marriage: Eleanor (nicknamed Bebe, she was also born in 1926), John, and Nona. Norma Jeane was allowed to live with them until September of 1935, when she was required by law to board at an orphanage for at least one year before legally being allowed to live with Grace. From September 1935 to September 1936, Norma Jeane lived at Hollygrove Orphanage in Los Angeles, California before finally being able to move in with Grace.
|Marilyn in 1933|
So, that’s a ton of information and dates. If all of this is too confusing and you feel a little scrambled, I don’t blame you, it’s a lot of information! Here is the basic timeline:
· January 1934: The Atkinsons move in with Marilyn and Gladys at Arbol Drive
· January 1934: Gladys has a mental breakdown and is admitted to a rest home in Santa Monica where she is then transferred to Los Angeles General Hospital at an unknown date
· January 1935: Gladys is transferred to Norwalk State Hospital
· May 1935: Marilyn is removed from the Atkinsons’ care
· May 1935: Marilyn moves in with the Giffen family
· July 1935: Marilyn is removed from the care of the Giffens
· July 1935: Marilyn is allowed to temporarily live with Grace and Doc
· September 1935: Marilyn is moved to Hollygrove orphanage
· September 1936: Marilyn leaves Hollygrove to live with Grace full time
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and I hope you learned more about Marilyn’s difficult childhood. Bouncing around to different homes is definitely not ideal, and led to Marilyn’s fear of abandonment and feeling of being unwanted and forgettable. Especially being that she was not in the foster care system, there was no social worker on her case inspecting the homes she lived in. The main focus of the next post will be her marriage to Jim Dougherty. Thank you for reading!
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