Marilyn Monroe's Unpublicized Happy Hawthorne Childhood
by Corey Levitan
Marilyn Monroe biographies like to paint her entire childhood in miserable gray tones. She was unloved. She was unpopular. She was poor. She was shuttled among a blur of orphanages and foster homes that were about turning a profit, not providing love. It's no wonder she overdosed on drugs in 1962, hopelessly depressed and suicidal at the age of 36.
What this sounds like is a good movie script, not reality.
From birth until nearly nine years old, Monroe lived in only one foster home, in the middle-class neighborhood of Hawthorne. She was doted on here by Wayne Bolender, a postman and devout Catholic, and his wife Ida. And she enjoyed a warm relationship with four foster siblings (Lester, Mumsey, Alvina, Noel and Nancy).
'People like to make things sensational,' says Nancy Jeffrey, 70, the youngest and only surviving sibling. 'Because she was moved around later, they want to make it sound like it was all awful, but it wasn't. She was happy in our home.'
In and around the house -- which still stands at 4201 W. 134th St. -- Monroe enjoyed normal schoolgirl pursuits. Jeffrey remembers her playing hopskotch, learning piano and listening to her favorite radio shows, 'The Green Hornet' and 'The Lone Ranger.' (Due to the Bolenders' strict religious beliefs, movies were off limits.) It was a loving family, just a happy home full of children,' says Jeffrey, a resident of Ontario since marrying in 1952.
The Bolenders moved to Hawthorne from Ohio in 1919, settling onto four acres on which they also grew vegetables and raised chickens and goats. They decided to start a foster home 'simply because they loved children,' according to Jeffrey. 'Around the time of the Depression, a lot of parents simply didn't have the resources to care for their own children,' says Jeffrey, 'so they would drop them off in foster homes until they were ready to take proper care of them. 'It was a common thing.'
Jeffrey says her foster siblings became so attached to the Bolenders and each other that, whenever natural parents would come to take their children back, 'we would all hide in the closet because it hurt to see one of them go.'
Jeffrey says she's upset that Monroe's Hawthorne years are not accurately represented. 'And when my mother was alive, she was very upset about it,' she says. 'We treated her like our own child because we loved her,' Ida Bolender told the Daily Breeze in 1966. Part of the problem was Monroe herself, who during her lifetime enjoyed perpetuating the myth of what a poor girl from a deprived background could attain.
'That's another thing,' says Jeffrey. 'We were never poor. Everybody always had clothes and there was always food on the table.' Jeffrey could never bring herself to redress the misconceptions until now. She remembers turning down numerous interview requests in the past. 'But I guess it's OK to talk now, since there's really nobody left,' she says.
Lester, the only child legally adopted by the Bolenders, died in 2000 at age 74. He was the closest sibling to Monroe. The two were commonly referred to as 'the twins,' since he was only two months younger. Jeffrey remembers watching them skip to the nearby Washington School in the early '30s, trailed by Monroe's dog, Tippy.
Of course, Jeffrey didn't know her sister as Marilyn Monroe. The future starlet was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital. (The name came from Gladys' two favorite movie stars, Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow. And, yes, the 'e' at the end is correct.)
Norma Jeane's mother was Gladys Mortenson, a film cutter at Consolidated Films in Hollywood. Married at the time to a baker named Edward Mortenson, she listed him as the father on the birth certificate. However, the couple had been separated when Gladys began an affair with a co-worker named Stanley Gifford, whom Monroe believed to be her real father. (The affair only lasted a few months.)
Gladys' mom, Della Granger, a resident of E. Rhode Island St., had asked the Bolenders to care for her pregnant and psychologically troubled daughter while Granger traveled to South America to reconcile with her husband. She knew the baby would end up in their good hands, and that a visit with her granddaughter would always be just a few doors away. 'The grandmother traveled a lot,' Jeffrey says. 'She was nutty, but she knew how well my mother took care of children.'
Gladys left the Bolenders alone with her baby when she was 12 days old. Norma Jeane referred to Wayne as 'daddy,' and his wife as 'Aunt Ida,' since Gladys visited every Saturday. (And Gladys always paid the Bolenders' $25-per-month boarding fee, contradictory to the common belief that she flat-out abandoned her daughter.)
When Edward Mortenson moved to San Francisco, Gladys switched both her last name and Norma Jeane's to Baker, after Gladys' first husband, Jack Baker. (The Bakers had two children: Jackie, who died in 1933 at the age of 14, and Berniece, whom Norma Jeane did not meet until she was 18. Gladys lost custody of them in her divorce; they were raised in Kentucky.)
Both at home and at school, Norma Jeane seemed entirely well-adjusted. 'She got along well with the other children,' said Evelyn Gawthrop, 94. The Torrance resident was Norma Jeane's third-grade music teacher at the 5th St. School (now the Ramona School), where Washington School students were relocated in 1933, following a 6.4-magnitude Long Beach earthquake. 'She was kind of a timid little thing,' Gawthrop says. 'But she just loved to sing and she had a beautiful voice.' Gawthrop adds that Norma Jeane and Lester had good grades, were always 'spotlessly' dressed, 'and their parents bought them each musical instruments to play.' Gawthrop says she can't remember what instrument Norma Jeane played. 'I'm only 94,' she says.
A third-grade classmate of Norma Jeane's, Barbara Evans, remembers her as one of the most popular kids. 'I have to admit, I thought Norma Jeane seemed like a snot,' says the 75-year-old retired homemaker, who's lived in Iowa since 1946. 'But I hate to say that, knowing all the things she went through later.' Marilyn Monroe's unhappiness didn't begin until after she left Hawthorne in 1934.
Gladys rented a bungalow near the Hollywood Bowl and thought she was finally ready to give motherhood a whirl. But she suffered a nervous breakdown only a few months later and was committed to the same hospital that Grandma Della ended up dying in, Norwalk State Asylum. (Granger was institutionalized following a physical assault on Norma Jeane. Gladys spent most of her remaining years in asylums before moving to a Florida retirement home in 1970, where she died of heart failure in 1984.)
Norma Jeane was sent to live with a friend of her mother's, Grace McKee, who became her legal guardian. But McKee had financial difficulties, so Norma Jeane was sent to the Los Angeles Orphans' Home (now Hollygrove) in Hollywood in 1935. Two years later, she moved back in with McKee, who had married a man named Ervin Goddard. But within a few months, she was sent to live with relatives of Grace's, after making accusations that Ervin tried to rape her. (Blame for that incident is commonly mislaid at the Bolenders' door.)
Jeffrey remembers taking Norma Jeane to visit Gladys in the sanitarium in the years before the first of her three marriages, at the age of 16 to a 21-year-old aircraft factory worker named James Dougherty. 'We would pick her up from different places where she stayed,' says Jeffrey. 'She was so happy because she would get to see Lester again. Every Sunday afternoon we went to visit one of the kids after they moved out.'
The Bolenders claimed they seriously considered adopting Norma Jeane. 'I wish now that we had,' Ida said in 1966.
In 1942, the Bolenders converted their main home into a boarding house for employees of the nearby factory where Dougherty worked. Two years later, it was sold to the grandmother of Ted Hatlestad, the current owner. The Bolenders finished out their lives in the house next door, now 4211 W. 134th St. (Ida died in 1972, two years before her husband.) The building had been a Chinese restaurant Wayne bought for $1000 and shipped down from the Sunset Strip. (Current owner Jose Ponce, 27, claims he had heard 'something about Marilyn,' but never believed it.) Norma Jeane never lost touch with the Bolenders. She called the new house frequently and visited occasionally.
Roger Hinzo, who lived across the street at what is now 4218 W. 134th St., remembers one encounter vividly. 'We were playing spin the bottle out by a tree that's gone now,' says the 70-year-old Lawndale resident. 'Norma Jeane came out and we said, 'Well, maybe she wants to play.'' Alas, she said no. 'But how many people can say they almost had the opportunity to kiss Marilyn Monroe?' Hinzo asks.
The Bolenders and their foster children all attended Monroe's 1942 wedding to Dougherty. 'I kissed the bride -- and she was such a pretty bride,' Ida Bolender remembered in 1966. Monroe called Wayne just a few weeks before she died. 'He said the last thing she asked was, 'Are you disappointed with the way my life turned out?'' Jeffrey remembers.
'And he said, 'You know what, Norma Jeane? I'll always love you.''
Leuzinger High School And Norma Jeane Baker
The story appeared in The Daily Breeze in 2003. Evelyn Gawthrop, who was Norma Jeane Baker's 3rd Grade Music Teacher, was 94 when she was interviewed for the article. Vickie Canulli Bianco '66 posted the following message on our website message board on 4-21-2007...
Dear Fellow Classmates:
Heather Barton-Converse sent me a message this morning. That Mrs. Evelyn Gawthrop, her aunt and one of our Leuzinger High School teachers who is 98, has breathing problems and had a pacemaker put in. She is in the Torrance, CA Memorial Hospital. Mrs. Gawthrop wants so much to celebrate her 99th Birthday June 28th. Please keep her in your daily prayers that she has a complete and speedy recovery.
Thanks, Fern Neuschafer-Wettstein
Photo: Evelyn Gawthrop at Memorabilia Day 2006...
And, Roger Hinzo '50 who lived right across the street from Marilyn was at Leuzinger's Homecoming Football Game on November 2nd and was seated one row behind Mary Beth Kahn Beck '81 and Colleen Fastow Johnson '82...
Photo: Roger Hinzo '50 and Me, Memorabilia Day 2005