On June 13, 1926, 26-year-old Gladys Baker brought her 2-week-old daughter, Norma Jeane Mortenson, to the foster home of Ida and Wayne Bolender in Hawthorne, California.
There was no sign of any father—officially unknown, though Baker would insist for years that it was a Consolidated Studios co-worker named Charles Stanley Gifford—nor of the baby girl’s grandmother, Della Monroe, though she had at least arranged things with the Bolenders before running off to India.
The sad dropoff and departure marked the first fracture in the troubled relationship between the girl who would become world-famous as Marilyn Monroe and her mother, one that rarely found solid ground in the 36-plus years they knew one another.
Monroe’s mother frequently visited her daughter in the foster home
Despite the inauspicious beginnings, Monroe’s early years were the most stable of her life. The devoutly religious Ida ran the household with a firm but compassionate grasp, and the girl grew close to her foster brothers and sisters.
Furthermore, this was the period when Baker was most devoted to her well-being. Having already had two children, Jackie and Berniece, taken from her by an ex-husband, Baker was determined to keep this one in her life. She dropped by frequently to spend time with Monroe and, when the girl was old enough, would occasionally take her for sleepovers to her apartment in Hollywood.
However, Baker was also showing signs of the mental instability that was plaguing her own mother and making both women dangerous to be around. As detailed in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, by J. Randy Taraborrelli, an agitated Baker showed up at the Bolenders’ one day and demanded to take her 3-year-old daughter home. She locked Ida out the back door and attempted to run off with Monroe stuffed in a duffel bag, before the foster mom succeeded in thwarting the attempt.
Their shared living time ended when Monroe’s mom was institutionalized
Even though Baker’s requests to adopt Monroe were rejected, when Monroe was seven years old, Ida decided it was time for mother and daughter to reunite for good.
For a while, Baker rose to the occasion: She procured a loan for a new home near the Hollywood Bowl and took in actors George and Maud Atkinson as boarders to provide financial support and companionship.
However, a series of unfortunate events prompted things to take a turn for the worse in the fall of 1933. First, Baker learned that her 13-year-old son Jackie, taken from her as an infant, had died of kidney disease, resulting in mom lashing out at Monroe for being the one to live. Within weeks, Baker also discovered that her grandfather had hanged himself and that her studio was going on strike.
Baker finally caved to the pressure in mid-1934, with Monroe witnessing her mother kicking and screaming wildly before the police were called. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, she was institutionalized for the first time, at the state hospital in Norwalk.
For the next few years, Monroe saw her mother on an intermittent basis as she shuttled between the residences of her new legal guardian, Baker’s close friend Grace Goddard, her mom’s sister-in-law, and the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home. Things stabilized again for the teenager when she landed in the home of “Aunt Ana”—Goddard’s family friend Edith Ana Lower—an older divorcee who managed to impress on both Monroe and Baker the teachings of her Christian Science faith.
Around this time, Baker made Monroe aware she had an older half-sister, Berniece. Thrilled to know she wasn’t so alone, Monroe began corresponding with Berniece in Kentucky, sparking an important relationship that would carry through Monroe’s final days.
Monroe’s mom did not approve of her Hollywood life
In 1946, after earning her release from San Jose’s Agnews State Hospital, Baker resumed living with her daughter at the home of Aunt Ana. It was a period of transition in Monroe’s life, as her modeling career had taken off, her marriage to Merchant Marine Jim Dougherty was on the rocks, and she was on the verge of signing with 20th Century Fox under her stage name, Marilyn Monroe.
When Berniece came for an extended stay that summer, it again brought a period of relative familial happiness for Monroe. Still, Baker was obviously not well—she had taken to dressing like a nurse and was emotionally distant. When she did engage her daughter, it was often to express displeasure at her career choice of becoming an actor.
In September, shortly after her daughter’s divorce was finalized, Baker abruptly announced that she wanted to live with her Aunt Dora in Oregon. Monroe soon learned that her mother never made it Oregon, and later discovered that she had instead gotten hitched to a man named John Stewart Eley, who already had another wife and family in Idaho.
Monroe was caught in the lie that her mother was dead
Despite her initial alarm, the disappearance of Baker proved a convenient happenstance in the nascent career of Monroe. The actress agreed to go along with the studio PR that both of her parents were dead, fitting in nicely with the story of a sad childhood spent bouncing between relatives and foster homes.
However, the truth came back to bite Monroe in May 1952, when Baker was reported to be alive and working at the Homestead Lodge nursing home in Eagle Rock, outside Los Angeles. Coming off a flap over the surfacing of old nude photos, Monroe was again forced to publicly account for her behavior to the press.
That fall, with her husband recently deceased, Baker spent a few tumultuous months with Berniece’s family in Florida. Although she rejected Monroe’s request to return to California, she nevertheless accepted a train ticket and arrived at Goddard’s home in a full-blown manic state. Securing help from the police, Monroe watched from the back seat of a squad car as her mother was strapped to a gurney and sent off to a hospital once again.
They met one final time before Monroe’s death, with the actress slipping her mother alcohol
As Monroe completed her transformation into Hollywood icon, star of such features as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven-Year Itch (1955), her mother continued to send her mail on a regular basis from Rock Haven Sanitarium in La Crescenta, usually with the request to get her out.
Of course, Monroe’s screen success was only masking her own troubles, from her crumbling marriages to Joe DiMaggio and then Arthur Miller, to her increasing dependence on doctors and barbiturates.
In February 1961, after confessing to a doctor that she had considered suicide, Monroe found herself following her mother’s path when she was committed to the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York. Her stay there was brief but long enough for word to leak to the press. Shortly after watching a news report on the subject from Rock Haven, Baker was found unconscious in her room, her left wrist slit.
According to The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, the movie star last saw her mother in the summer of 1962. Attempting to get a new doctor to prescribe her Thorazine, Monroe took the doctor to Rock Haven, only to learn that Baker was refusing to take her own Thorazine.
Mother and daughter then had one more face-off in the yard, with Monroe pleading for her to take her medication and Baker insisting that prayers, not medicine, was all she needed. When Baker stood up to depart, Monroe stopped her and slipped a flask into her purse, drawing a smile from the older woman. “You’re such a good girl, Norma Jeane,” she said, before leaving without a goodbye.
On August 5, Monroe’s body finally caved to years of drug abuse. Reportedly showing few outward signs that the death impacted her, Baker managed to outlive her daughter by another 22 years, even spending her final days free from the psychiatric homes that had kept her confined for so long.