Marilyn’s Lost Father – and the Niece She Never Knew

In an article for the National Catholic Register, K.V. Turley writes about Marilyn’s ‘longing for a father’s gaze.’

“She was the daughter of a father who had abandoned both her and her mother … Her grandfather had died in a state asylum. His wife, given to insane rages, had also ended her days in such a place. Norma Jean’s mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, was to spend much of her daughter’s life incarcerated in mental institutions … It was as if, no matter how dazzling the movie star’s attempted escape into the silver screen, inevitably the dread shadow of madness and self-destruction inched ever closer to Norma Jeane.

If, increasingly, her life was unreliable offscreen, the girl who had become Marilyn Monroe was on that screen a stunning presence. Even when she had played bit parts, more established actors would complain of her ‘stealing scenes’ — she couldn’t help it. She had been gifted a singular screen quality that appears only rarely. Even that proved not enough for her … While Lee Strasberg and Arthur Miller sought to ‘authenticate’ her gift, they both missed the point. Her time with them was not about exploring acting technique. It was the ongoing search of a troubled infant for her father.

Monroe never knew her father. At the height of her fame, when all the world lay at her feet, she would attempt to contact the man her mother had identified to the young Norma Jeane as her biological father. By then, married and respectable, the man refused to take the movie star’s call.

Many years previously, in the orphanage, she had ripped from a movie magazine a picture of Clark Gable and stuck it to her wall. She then proceeded to tell the other children that Gable was her father. Many years later, it just so happened that her last completed film, The Misfits (1961), was to have Mr. Gable as one of her co-stars. Yet, this, too, proved an ending of sorts, as, days after filming concluded, Gable was dead of a heart attack. Now even her imagined father was gone.

By then, alone and drifting on an ocean of sadness, there seemed little to hold her.”

Earlier this year, the identity of Marilyn’s father was confirmed as C. Stanley Gifford in the documentary, Marilyn: Her Final Secret. Francine Gifford Deir, one of Marilyn’s two surviving nieces from the Gifford family, was interviewed in UK newspaper The Mirror on the 60th anniversary of Marilyn’s death.

“One year before she died, Marilyn Monroe made two last-ditch attempts to contact the one man she always wanted but had never managed to charm – her own father. First accompanied by a masseuse [Ralph Roberts], the second time by her publicist [Pat Newcomb], she made the same forlorn journey to the dairy farm owned by former Hollywood boss Charles Stanley Gifford. On both occasions, she was rejected.

Now the actress’ paternal niece believes her aunt could have been saved if only she had been accepted by her dad during those numerous – and increasingly desperate – trips to Hemet, California. Sadly, however, the family failed Marilyn.

Insurance agency owner Francine, 76, says: ‘Reflecting on it, I think her life would have been better if my grandfather had done the right thing. She could have had a normal, happy family – and a good support system. I know she had problems, but she was caring and loving and always longed for her father. She wanted to belong. She wasn’t an airhead, ditsy blonde. She had smarts about her as her father – my grandad – was very intelligent. Her life might have turned out very differently if he had welcomed her in. And who knows, she might still be with us today.’

Her mother Gladys Monroe came from a poor family and married her first husband, John Baker – nine years her senior – when she was just 15. She later married Martin Mortensen in 1924, who was listed on Marilyn’s birth certificate, but she had numerous affairs including one with her married boss at Consolidated Film Industries in LA, Stan Gifford.

Marilyn first found out the identity of her real dad when her mother, who had a breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1934, handed her a gold-framed photo of the supervisor. She said simply: ‘This is your father.’

Gifford, who had a startling resemblance to the movie star Clark Gable with piercing eyes, a thin moustache and a rakish fedora, tried to hide the affair from his only son Charles Gifford Jr – Francine’s father and Marilyn’s half brother. But his first wife Lillian cited cheating during their divorce. And according to Francine, who lives in Virginia, it wasn’t just a fling.

Francine said: ‘One of my relatives said that grandad would go off with Gladys all the time, on weekends. There was this cabin in California, which was not his, but we all had access to it, and he would take her there. When my father found out about this – after my grandfather’s death – he was stunned. Daddy had always been under the impression that his father didn’t have too much to do with Gladys. He certainly didn’t think he was dating her, much less going off on weekends. But she was obviously a very beautiful lady and there was a physical attraction there. My grandfather was a fun-loving person and they were both separated at that point, although he was not officially divorced.’

Francine and her father, Charles Gifford Jr (Marilyn’s half-brother)

She said: ‘We’ve resolved the mystery of how [Marilyn] came into the world, and who was her dad, but why she left the world is still not known. I feel like it was an accidental overdose.’ Her grandfather died of a heart attack aged 66 in 1965, just three years after his daughter Marilyn. Franicine’s father, who served in the US Navy, passed away aged 92 in 2015.

Mother-of-four Francine first learned the truth from a relative when she was 14, just before Marilyn’s death. At first her dad wouldn’t speak about his half-sister, but he mellowed as he aged. ‘When I was little, he didn’t find anything amusing about the subject, but he became more good natured about it,’ says Francine. ‘We always gave him Marilyn Monroe books in a tongue-in-cheek way. He would roll his eyes and smile. My mother Joan thought he really resembled Marilyn and their faces looked very similar, especially the eyes. I don’t have delusions that Marilyn and I look similar, but we both have big feet!’

After her father died, she found a letter to him from her grandfather, saying he had confessed everything to his church minister. Francince believes Gifford would have been fearful of a scandal if he had recognised Marilyn as his own – and was worried about losing his son. He had already lost a daughter to illness when she was an infant.

‘My belief is that Marilyn’s birth was a threat to my grandfather,’ says Francine, who regrets she wasn’t allowed to meet the icon. ‘My grandmother could have prevented him from seeing my father. He loved my father. He didn’t want anything to harm that relationship. Also, I think he was ashamed. It was a small town – Hemet. He had started with a lie and he was ashamed of keeping it going so long. But I feel it was a painful blow to lose this second daughter, especially as no reconciliation occurred. And I am sure he would always have been proud of Marilyn, no matter what.'”

The grave of Marilyn’s father, C. Stanley Gifford, in Hemet, California (photo by Lorraine at Marilyn Remembered)

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn