I never thought that a move to Maine from Boston would lead to me writing about Marilyn Monroe. But in 1990, not long before I left my second tour with UPI, I heard that Marilyn Monroe’s first husband was living in Sabattus, not far from Lewiston. I found him, got in touch, and he was very friendly and willing to talk. Here is the story that resulted.
By ARTHUR FREDERICK
SABATTUS, Maine (UPI) – Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller may remember Marilyn Monroe, but James Dougherty thinks back to a schoolgirl named Norma Jean, who ended their marriage to become an actress, sex symbol and national obsession.
In 1943, the woman who was to become the nation’s favorite blonde bombshell was still Norma Jean Mortensen. She married Dougherty – her first husband – in their home town of Van Nuys, Calif.
He was 21. She had just turned 16.
“I never knew Marilyn Monroe and I don’t claim to have any insights about her to this day,” Dougherty said. “I knew and loved Norma Jean.”
A former Los Angeles police officer, Dougherty, 68, retired to Maine 11 years ago. He is married to his third wife, Rita, a Maine native.
His relationship with Norma Jean began casually. She attended Van Nuys High School and he sometimes walked her home after class.
“I had graduated from high school and I was working at Lockheed,” he said. “The war hadn’t started yet. Norma Jean was going to high school and I was taking her home, but I was going with a girl up at Santa Barbara High School, going up there on weekends.”
Norma Jean was 15 at the time, living with a foster family in Van Nuys because her mother had been committed to a mental institution. Her foster mother was a good friend of Dougherty’s mother. The two mothers began talking about a marriage between Dougherty and Norma Jean when the foster family began thinking about moving to another state.
“They wanted to move back to Virginia, and they couldn’t take Norma Jean,” Dougherty said. “She would have gone back to an orphanage or another foster home, so her foster mother suggested I marry her.”
“I thought she was awful young, but I took her to a dance. She was a pretty mature girl, and physically she was mature, of course. We talked and we got on pretty good.”
Dougherty continued to see Norma Jean for the next year, giving up on the girl in Santa Barbara. A year later, the two were married.
The young couple lived in a Sherman Oaks apartment for a while and then moved back to Van Nuys, . I World War II, Dougherty joined the Merchant Marine and was assigned to teach sea safety on Catalina Island, off the California coast.
“She (Norma Jean) was just a housewife,” Dougherty said. “We would go down to the beach on weekends, and have luaus on Saturday night. She loved it over there. It was like being on a honeymoon for a year.”
Then Dougherty was sent overseas. Norma Jean got a job and moved in with Dougherty’s mother in Van Nuys.
“She worked at Radio Plane, where they made those little unmanned target airplanes. My mother worked there also. One day a photographer came by to take pictures of the planes, and he used her (Norma Jean) as a model.”
The chance modeling assignment led to others, and soon Norma Jean was getting regular calls for modeling work.
“Her clothes cost more than she was making modeling, at first,” Dougherty said.
The modeling finally led to a movie contract. A chance to become a Hollywood star came with a personal condition attached – Norma Jean had to be single.
“I was on the Yangtze River (in China) waiting to go ashore when I got a letter from (a lawyer in) Las Vegas,” Dougherty said. He granted the divorce.
Norma Jean told Dougherty after he returned home and their divorce was final that she wanted to keep living as man and wife. But Dougherty said he could see that things had changed.
“She said we could still live together, but I said no, I wanted to start a family,” he said.
Dougherty said he never saw Norma Jean after that. They spoke several times on the telephone, but eventually the calls stopped.
Later, Dougherty remarried and had three daughters, all of whom still live in California. His wife was jealous of Marilyn Monroe, and Dougherty said he destroyed all his old pictures and letters from Marilyn not long after his second marriage, which ended in divorce.
He married his present wife, Rita, in 1972. The moved to Maine After he retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I’m happy,” Dougherty said. “I have grandchildren. My wife is a doll. She is a terrific artist, she wins first prizes in the country fairs for her paintings. She’s a good cook.”
Dougherty, meantime, has been active in Androscoggin County politics, serving as a county commissioner, and is planning to run for county sheriff this fall.
“I’m very happy with this county and the people here, and I think I can do the job,” Dougherty said.
While Dougherty is content with his life, he still thinks often of Norma Jean and her tragic 1962 death from an overdose of barbiturates.
“It was a very sad thing, the way she died, and that sadness never leaves,’ Dougherty said. “This was a very beautiful young girl who was taken into the (entertainment) business and became Marilyn Monroe. People took advantage of her because she was kind and good to people. She was an easy mark, and I feel very sad that had to happen to her.”
People still write to him about Marilyn, and Dougherty said he appreciates the fact that they remember the woman he still calls Norma Jean.
“It is no problem at all,” he said. “I think it is very nice that people are still interested in her and still think about her.”