How Norma Became Marilyn

Posted on October 1, 2020

by Charles Casillo

In this excerpt from his ground-breaking biography, Charles Casillo explores how the actions of one army photographer sparked the transition of Norma Jeane into Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe photographed arriving at Ciro’s nightclub for a soirée celebrating Louella Parsons (1954).
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

After a year of marriage, with the war in full swing, Jim enlisted in the merchant marines. He was sent to Catalina Island for training, and for a while Norma Jeane joined him there. He was shipped out to the Pacific in the spring of 1944 and would be gone for long periods of time. With her husband away, seventeen-year-old Norma Jeane went to live with Jim’s mother. Her mother-in-law was working at Radio Plane, an aircraft plant, and she was able to get Norma Jeane a job there folding and inspecting parachutes. 

One day that fall—and it was one of the most fateful days in the life of Marilyn Monroe—while she was working, an army photographer named David Conover came to take publicity pictures of attractive young women working in the American factories—to boost the soldiers’ morale. 

On an assembly line, Conover came across Norma Jeane. He asked her to pose and snapped. He was stunned. Something happened between Norma Jeane and the lens. Conover was the first person to discover what many, many others would soon learn: The camera loved Norma Jeane. 

Excited by her potential, Conover asked Norma Jeane to pose for him again. Norma Jeane wrote to her foster sister, Bebe Goddard, that Conover advised “I should buy all new clothes to go into the modeling profession . . . He said he had a lot of contacts that he wanted me to look into.” 

Conover continued photographing Norma Jeane, building up a professional portfolio for her. And he was true to his word. When he felt she was ready he introduced her to the modeling agent Emmeline Snively. 

At the Blue Book Modeling Agency, Emmeline Snively assessed the nineteen-year-old hopeful, but she didn’t get a sense of sexuality. Instead she found Norma Jeane to be “a clean, shining, pleasant, expressive-faced little girl. We said, ‘the girl-next-door type.’ She looked at the board of cover girls and said, ‘Oh, those girls are so pretty.’ But I thought what a wonderful little doll she would be on a cover someday.” 

Snively talked Norma Jeane into straightening and bleaching her hair, assuring her a blonde would get more jobs. “She started out with less than any girl I ever knew,” Snively said, “but she worked the hardest . . . she wanted to learn, wanted to be somebody, more than anybody I ever saw before in my life.” Some of the emptiness that her husband had sensed in her was being filled as professionals became interested in her beauty as a commodity. 

In her excitement Norma Jeane wrote to Dougherty to inquire how he felt about her modeling. “I told her if she was enjoying herself it didn’t bother me much.” But Dougherty was soon to find out “it cost more to be a model than she made. She took all the money we had in savings and bought clothes with it. It was alright. I didn’t mind. She enjoyed doing it and . . . it just grew after that.” Dougherty thought it was fine. It was just something for her to do until he got home.

One of the first people to whom Snively sent Norma Jeane was the photographer Laszlo Willinger. “I made some tests with her,” Willinger recalled. “From that time on I used her for years. . . . She was a very good model. I had her on, easily, a hundred magazine covers. Her face and figure were well known long before she became Marilyn Monroe.” 

Some seventy years later Willinger’s assistant during that time, Christian Larson, remembered: “I did her body makeup—that could be a legacy in itself. She did cheesecake and lots of semi nudes. She was very comfortable with her body, no hang-ups at all about displaying herself around the studio completely naked. One time when she was booked for a shoot she called and said she couldn’t make it because she discovered that she was allergic to penicillin and developed a rash. Laszlo didn’t believe her. So I went over and picked her up. She came out of the dressing room and did a charming little striptease for us. Sure enough she was covered with little red welts. She said, ‘See? I told you so!’ I’ll always remember the cute way she said it.” 

Norma Jeane was appearing on magazine covers both locally and internationally. Dougherty, still traveling in the merchant marines, recalled, “I was in Buenos Aires and here was a magazine with her picture on the cover. I told the guys ‘this is my wife.’ They said, ‘Sure. Sure it is.’” They didn’t believe young Dougherty was married to the incredible cover girl. 

Dougherty was beginning to get concerned. When they had an opportunity to talk he would tell her, “When I get out of the service and come home, this stops. We’re going to have a family.” 

Norma Jeane always replied, “Yes, that’s true. That’s true.” But she was starting to feel differently.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles Casillo

Credit: Mike Prestie

Charles Casillo is the author of The Marilyn DiariesThe Fame GameBoys, Lost & Found, and Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Los Angeles TimesNew York MagazineThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. His movies include “Let Me Die Quietly” and “Fetish.”

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