How World War II Made a Model Girl of Marilyn

Writing for Den of Geek, David Crow looks at how World War II changed the life of young Norma Jeane Dougherty, ultimately setting her on a path to stardom as Marilyn Monroe. (David has also written about how the war impacted other stars’ careers, including Clark Gable, James Stewart, and Audrey Hepburn.)

“During the height of the American war effort in the 1940s, the woman who would become Marilyn Monroe spent her days at Radioplane, a munitions factory in Los Angeles’ Van Nuys neighbourhood. There she helped build what became the first mass-produced military drones the world would ever know. It was a different kind of life from Hollywood glamour, and yet an argument has been made that she wouldn’t have achieved one without the other. Perhaps Marilyn Monroe would never have existed if Norma Jeane didn’t get the opportunity to do her part in the war, and catch the eye of a military photographer working for Ronald Reagan…

As the U.S. entered the Second World War, Norma Jeane was also in a state of major transition: She was about to marry a neighborhood boy named Jim Dougherty. At the time of the wedding in 1942, Jim was 21 and Norma Jeane had just turned 16. At least initially, both were reluctant about the arrangement … The point was that after a childhood punctured by a series of broken homes, Norma Jeane was essentially passed off from being a child in one household to the child bride of another. But at least, according to Jim years later, the marriage was a happy one in the early months. Norma Jeane never knew her father, and eventually Dougherty took on the role of husband, protector, and father figure to her.

She was so dependent on Jim that she begged him not to join the military at the start of World War II. She feared the idea of losing him and becoming a widow. As a compromise, he convinced her to let him volunteer for the U.S. Merchant Marines. There was irony in this since merchant marines wound up being at arguably greater risk as they continually transported supplies, men, and weapons through enemy waters during the war. Many did not make it home. But for the first two years, that wasn’t a danger since Dougherty became an instructor on a nearby base where Norma Jeane was also allowed to live. Yet in early 1944, Jim was finally deployed into the South Pacific.

While Marilyn would later surmise her first marriage was one of convenience, during those tumultuous days as Norma Jeane, she was one of the only wives to see her husband’s vessel off—he’d be gone for over a year on that first tour. In his wake, Dougherty left behind a very devoted, very physical young wife to live in his parents’ house.

Norma Jeane with Jim Dougherty in 1943

Soon Norma Jeane grew restless. However, one benefit of living with her in-laws turned out to be that ‘Mama Dougherty’ had connections with the Radioplane Company, a war plant down the road that was always looking for more women to work on its assembly line.

Before the Second World War, Radioplane’s founder had his feet firmly planted in the first global conflict, as well as Hollywood. Reginald Denny, born at the tail end of the 19th century outside of London, made a name for himself as an RAF pilot in the Great War. Afterward, he took his aerial acumen to the U.S. and Hollywood, attempting to give acting a go. During the tail-end of the 1920s, Denny was one of the most daring stunt pilots on films like Howard Hughes’ WWI epic, Hell’s Angels (1927).

Around this time, Denny also discovered there was a rudimentary market for radio-controlled model airplanes. At first, building model planes was his hobby. Soon it turned into a business, initially as a hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard in 1934, and then as Radioplane after Denny began overseeing the construction of RP-3 radio planes for the Army in ‘39 …

Norma Jeane and her colleagues at Radioplane, 1944

When Norma Jeane first arrived at Radioplane, she was assigned with other women to the Chute Room, which is where a line of employees packed parachutes that would be attached to the miniature planes—this way after they were shot down, they could be saved and used again later. But according to biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, after a month of packing tiny parachutes, Norma Jeane asked to be moved to another department that would be less monotonous. So she was transferred to the ‘Dope Room’ where a liquid plastic was sprayed over the cloth that would become a target plane’s fuselage.

The Motion Picture Film Unit was the propagandistic marriage between the military and Hollywood during World War II, and in Burbank one of its higher ranking officers was Ronald Reagan, an enlisted man who was still making the occasional movie while also wearing his uniform. It was Reagan whom Denny encouraged to send over a photographer, and it was Reagan who tasked photographer David Conover with the job.

Conover later claimed he discovered Marilyn Monroe. When he arrived at the Radioplane plant in late 1944, he was immediately drawn to Norma Jeane and asked if she would become a model for the day. She enthusiastically said yes, and her foreman had the bright idea to move her away from the dope to the more photogenic floor where they built engines. There Conover took photos of Norma Jeane ‘installing’ a drone plane’s propeller. After lunch, he convinced her to pose outside the factory as well for some ‘sweater pictures.’

Norma Jeane did not initially quit Radioplane outright, but she called in sick after taking more photos with Conover and later joined the Blue Book Model Agency. In short order, she became one of Blue Book’s most requested models and left Radioplane for good. She was barely 19.

The woman we call Marilyn Monroe might have had a different life if the Second World War had never occurred. Like most women in her generation, Norma Jeane was conditioned to believe the pinnacle of her life was to be a wife and mother. In fact, she was married off before she was an adult.

Yet the war gave her opportunities and freedom. It was a chance to be her own woman. She never exactly spoke ill of her first marriage. Indeed, Jim and Norma Jeane were reportedly quite close during his first two weeks of leave from the merchant marines in 1945, spending the first weekend entirely inside a hotel room … but by the time his second leave came around, he wasn’t even able to see Norma Jeane. As her aunt (whom Norma Jeane moved in with as her modeling career took off) told Jim over the phone, ‘She isn’t home very much.’

In 1946, Norma Jeane would divorce Jim. It was the same year she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.”

David Conover visits Marilyn on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)