When Norma Jeane Baker was 8 years old, she saw a picture of her father for the first time.
This photo became a totem for Norma Jeane — a symbol of the fatherly love she would spend her life desperately, but fruitlessly, seeking, even after she became the world’s most glamorous movie star, Marilyn Monroe.
“Norma Jeane was enthralled by the handsome man staring from the photo with piercing eyes and a thin mustache,” writes Charles Casillo, author of “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon” (St. Martin’s Press), out Tuesday.
Charles Stanley Gifford had a brief affair with Norma’s mother, Gladys, and when he found out she was pregnant, he rejected her. Later, he would do the same to Monroe.
“Norma Jeane would spend a lifetime looking for this man in others, wanting to know him, loving him, passionately wanting him to love her back.”
Less than a week after giving birth to Norma Jeane on June 1, 1926, Gladys Pearl Monroe, who long suffered from mental illness, tried to stab a good friend during a delusional episode. Norma Jeane spent her childhood shuttled from neighbor to family friend to foster home and back, never finding stability.
It was in a boardinghouse, around age 8, that she was sexually abused for the first time. She later told of an elderly Englishman named “Mr. Kimmel” — she used a fake name for him — who called her into his room one night, locked the door, then said, “Now you can’t get out.” Monroe never revealed exactly what happened.
Sadly, abuse became a common thread throughout her life, including at the hands of a cousin as well as a boyfriend of a close family friend during childhood. In 10th grade, Norma Jeane was living with a family friend who, tired of the responsibility, married her off to an eligible 20-year-old living right next door named Jim Dougherty. While her husband was oversees during World War II, she started a modeling career, was spotted by a Hollywood executive, divorced her husband and became Marilyn Monroe.
As she started ascending the heights, thoughts of her father were never far behind. But attempts to contact him left her cruelly dismissed.
While still an up-and-coming actress in 1952, she tracked him down and called, explaining that she was his daughter with Gladys. “Look, I’m married and I have a family,” he said. “I don’t have anything to say to you. Call my lawyer.” A close friend later said the incident crushed her emotionally.
It also led her to dark places, as she never stopped hoping for Gifford’s approval and affection in her own way.
“At a Manhattan party,” Casillo writes, “Marilyn confessed that she longed to ‘put on a black wig, pick up her father in a bar and make love to him.’ Afterward she would ask, ‘How do you feel now that you have a daughter that you’ve made love to?’ ”
Monroe’s “relationship” with her father was the catalyst for a string of problematic and even disturbing encounters with men.
The movie star often told of men holding her down to attack her at Hollywood parties, and Orson Welles recalled one soiree where “Marilyn was surrounded by men and one reached out and tore off her top, revealing her breasts. Marilyn, Welles said, laughed with the others at this indignity. Laughter hid her fury.”
As an aspiring actress, Monroe was at the mercy of sexual extortionists. According to one friend, she had an agreement with Joe Schenck, the 69-year-old chairman of 20th Century Fox, where she would “service” him whenever he phoned. As a result of this arrangement, Schenck called in a favor and landed Monroe her first Hollywood contract, a six-month deal with Columbia Pictures in 1948 that ignited her career.
But she was also exploited at Columbia, where founder and president Harry Cohn gave her an ultimatum, demanding she have sex with him right there in his office. She refused, and her contract was not renewed.
Still, she found her way, and a series of impressive turns in early films like 1952’s “Clash By Night” and 1953’s “Niagara,” along with a booming modeling career that found her on magazine covers worldwide, pushed her ever closer toward fame.
After Monroe became a superstar, she developed deeper relationships with men who supposedly cared for her but fell short.
Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, helped her in many ways, opening his door to her in times of need. But during their doomed nine-month marriage in 1954, Joltin’ Joe was jealous and possessive.
DiMaggio wanted a traditional, stay-at-home housewife, frustrating Monroe so deeply it drove her to heavy sedative use. But the final straw for the couple was the filming of the infamous subway-grate scene — where Monroe’s white dress flew up, exposing her famous legs and a glimpse of her underwear — for “The Seven Year Itch.”
Shot at 1 a.m. on Sept. 14, 1954, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, a special-effects man pointed a huge fan up Monroe’s underside as thousands looked on. Director Billy Wilder later recalled looking at the Yankee slugger and seeing that “DiMaggio’s face, rigid with tension, had gone white. ‘He had the look of death,’ Wilder observed. ‘What the hell is going on here?’ DiMaggio rasped.”
The couple’s ensuing argument at DiMaggio’s hotel was so loud it woke the neighbors, and Monroe returned to set the next day with “bruises on her arms that had to be covered with makeup.”
Monroe announced their divorce less than a month later.
Arthur Miller, her husband from June 1956 to January 1961, seemed a stranger match for Monroe, jealous as he was from the beginning over her sexual history.
“ ‘I can hate every man you were ever with but I can’t hate you,’ Miller wrote to her,” Casillo quotes in the book. Still, “her sexual history stained all the good Miller saw in her.”
During their marriage, he broke Monroe’s heart when he intentionally left his diary open for her to read, to pages that revealed how he considered her a disappointment and an embarrassment. The exact contents have never been shared, but it became “one of the most devastating, catastrophic moments in Marilyn’s life.”
But her most complex relationships came a few years later with John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert — at the time, the president and his attorney general.
Monroe was close friends with Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford and his wife, the president’s sister, Pat Kennedy Lawford. The couple’s 6,416-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion, built and originally owned by MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, was a renowned party house, often hosting “sex parties there [where] Jack would rendezvous with various actresses.”
She met both Kennedy brothers through the Lawfords, and the president arranged a weekend with her in Palm Springs in March 1962. Peter Lawford escorted Monroe — disguised in a black wig and “dowdy clothes” — to Bing Crosby’s guest home, where the president was staying.
Around the same time, Monroe also began a relationship with the president’s brother. While much has been made of Monroe’s dalliance with JFK, Casillo writes that her time with Robert Kennedy was more serious, at least to her.
To make matters worse, Monroe was experiencing a rapid decline in her mental health, and she found herself depending on two men who could show her no loyalty.
After her she gave her famously breathy, sensual rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, whispers of an affair between the two grew too loud — especially for first lady Jackie Kennedy, who demanded he break it off.
When Monroe got word that the president was done with her, she turned to Robert for comfort. But he, too, had a family and a career to think about. By July 1962, “President Kennedy told Bobby to end the relationship with Marilyn for the same reasons he had — there was too much talk going around; the risk was too great.”
This was one break too many for Monroe, and it drove her to despair. Often staying with the Lawfords, she would take pills, “wander into the couple’s bedroom in the middle of the night and stand at the foot of their bed, staring down at them. ‘Why can’t I be as happy as you two?’ she would ask.”
Monroe took a fatal overdose on Aug. 5, 1962, in her Brentwood home. She tried desperately to get Bobby to see her the week before she died. It’s not known if she succeeded.
But it is sadly ironic that Lawford took a call from Monroe that night and understood that something was clearly wrong. He was desperate to check on her, but several in his circle, including Monroe’s own lawyer, talked him out of it, largely out of concern over possible political ramifications.
In the end, the men surrounding Marilyn Monroe let her down in death just as they had throughout her life.
“She put all her hopes in the men she was with,” Casillo says. “It’s what she was always looking for — this is my father, this is my savior. She was a lady born into turmoil, and she spent the rest of her life looking to be saved.”