Revisiting Norma Jeane’s Catalina Days

In September 1943, 22-year-old Jim Dougherty and his 17-year-old wife Norma Jeane moved to Catalina Island (27 miles outside Los Angeles, in the San Pedro Bay.) Jim had just enrolled in the Merchant Marine, and for the duration of World War II, the island had been repurposed as a naval base. In an article for Catalina Islander, David N. Young retells this intriguing chapter in the life of a future screen goddess.

“While it is sometimes hard to determine the truth, reading Jimmie Dougherty’s memoir of his life with Norma Jeane on Catalina reveals certain events and potential insights regarding the later transformation of his teenage bride into Marilyn Monroe.

According to the book, Dougherty joined the merchant marines during World War II without telling his teenaged bride. ‘Please Jimmy, don’t do this,’ she wept, after Dougherty eventually told her what he’d done. But then, when Dougherty found out his first ‘permanent assignment’ would be Catalina Island, they both were ecstatic. ‘I found an apartment for us,’ Dougherty claims in the book. He said ‘our little apartment looked straight across at the mansion [on Mt. Ada] built by one of the Wrigley heirs.’

‘Sometimes, Norma Jeane and I would sit on the terrace of our apartment and gaze at the huge home. We’d hold hands and dream and talk about owning a home like that one day, and we’d fill that home with kids and spend the rest of our lives there in happiness.’

While there is no definitive proof, the home at 310 Metropole is visited annually by hordes of tourists who think that is where the Doughertys’ made their residence. According to Catalina Island Museum spokesperson Gail Fornasiere, an exhaustive search was performed in an attempt to locate the actual residence, but historians could only find a post office box where the couple received their mail.

The Catalina Island Museum has nevertheless accumulated a tremendous amount of information about Norma Jeane’s life on Catalina, and even gained national attention for an exhibit entitled Before She Was Marilyn, held during the summer of 2011. There is still an exhibit on display.

‘I have sweet memories of our time in Catalina,’ says Dougherty. ‘The homes dotted about were soft pastels. Everywhere we looked we saw softly colored beauty. The flowers and water, the homes, the way people dressed, Catalina for us was a paradise.’

‘Norma Jean didn’t have an awful lot to do while I was away at work. She was always a perfect housekeeper and I was never ashamed to bring anyone home. The place shown. She loved doing that, Norma Jeane took great pride in keeping a shining clean home,’ claims Dougherty.”

“In 1943, when Dougherty and Norma Jeane lived on the island, he remembers the Tuna Club and the Bird Park when it was still filled with birds. ‘It was filled with every sort of exotic bird; I remember a crazy Myna bird in that park that would give out a piercing whistle every time a girl walked by. We laughed so hard at that nasty old bird.’

‘It was a paradise back then for my beloved bride and me. We explored the entire Catalina Island whenever we could. We knew our days together were numbered, that in time I’d be leaving, but we didn’t speak of that we ate, when we thought about being separated in each other, and so stayed close and lived in love for the minutes that we had left,’ he said.

Dougherty and Norma Jeane lived on Catalina during World War II, and even though the island was off limits to most civilian life, the increasing military presence populated the island with recruits and soldiers from a variety of units. Dougherty would train the recruits during the day.

Soon, however, Norma Jeane’s natural beauty soon began to attract the attention of the many recruits and soldiers on the island.”

“‘Norma Jeane loved to wear white. She would wear pure white dresses, or white slacks or shorts with a white blouse. She kept these clothes in immaculate condition. It’s hard to explain, so hard to explain, but the sex appeal people speak about when they try to describe Marilyn Monroe, it really existed,’ said Dougherty, even then.

Later, during one particular dance inside the Casino, Dougherty does remember a touch of envy as during one particular dance, he said a sailor cut in on him and Norma Jeane, then another, and eventually he left as it seemed every soldier there wanted to dance with his wife.

There are many examples during Dougherty’s memoir that provide historians a glimpse of the life to come, and it is perhaps no secret reading his book why Marilyn loved entertaining the troops during her later career. As evidence during her days on Catalina, they loved her and she never forgot her love for them.

There are other interesting hints of things that happened on Catalina that could have played a later role. One of the longtime projectionists inside the Casino Theatre has said Norma Jeane would curl up in the projection room and endlessly watch the latest movies.

Eventually, as they expected, Dougherty was shipped out to sea for the remainder the war. Norma Jeane and her collie Muggsie left the island less than a year after moving there, but the memories, speculation and innuendo persist.”