James Dougherty, 84; Was Married to Marilyn Monroe Before She Became a Star

Times Staff Writer

James Dougherty, a retired Los Angeles police detective who earned a niche in Hollywood history when he married a pretty teenager named Norma Jean Baker in the early 1940s, years before she became the iconic sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, has died. He was 84.

Dougherty, the first of Monroe’s three husbands, died Monday of complications of leukemia in San Rafael, Calif., his family said.

Over the decades, Dougherty was repeatedly asked -- by reporters, biographers and the curious -- about his four-year marriage to the legendary star.


“I never knew Marilyn Monroe, and I don’t claim to have any insights to her to this day,” he told United Press International in 1990. “I knew and loved Norma Jean.”

A former Van Nuys High School football captain and class president, Dougherty was 20 and working the night shift at Lockheed Aircraft when he began dating 15-year-old Norma Jean Baker in January 1942.

Dougherty’s family had lived next door to Grace Goddard, a friend of Norma Jean’s mother, Gladys, who was in and out of psychiatric facilities. Norma Jean, who had lived in a succession of foster homes, was then living with Goddard and her husband.

“They wanted to move back to [West] Virginia, and they couldn’t take Norma Jean,” Dougherty said in the 1990 interview. “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.”

On June 19, 1942 -- after dating only a few months and just 18 days after Norma Jean’s 16th birthday -- they were married.


A wedding photo of the beaming couple taken in front of a fireplace shows Dougherty in a white tuxedo and his fresh-faced, brunet bride in a white wedding gown and veil and holding a large bouquet of flowers.

“We decided to get married to prevent her from going back to a foster home,” Dougherty later said, “but we were in love.”

After a honeymoon to a lake in Ventura County, the newlyweds moved into a studio apartment with a pull-down Murphy bed in Sherman Oaks.

In 1944, Dougherty joined the merchant marine and was initially assigned to teach sea safety on Catalina Island, where the young couple moved into an apartment.

“She was just a housewife,” Dougherty told UPI. “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.”

In a 2004 Boston Globe story, in which he was characterized as a “feisty, blunt and sometimes bawdy raconteur,” Dougherty said his young bride was loving and funny and that she adored him, calling him “Jimmie.”


“We loved each other madly,” he said. “I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.”

After Dougherty received an overseas assignment, his wife moved back to Van Nuys. She landed a job at Radioplane Co., where she initially packed and inspected the parachutes that attached to miniature, remote-controlled target planes.

After a photographer assigned to take pictures of women working as part of the war effort used her as a subject, the young Mrs. Dougherty became a sought-after model in the Los Angeles area.

Hollywood soon beckoned. And, when her marriage to her absent husband crumbled as her career ambitions rose, she sought a quickie divorce in Las Vegas; the marriage was officially over in September 1946.

“I was on a ship in the Yangtze River getting ready to go into Shanghai when I was served with divorce papers,” Dougherty told Associated Press in 2002.

After returning home, he tried to persuade Norma Jean to forget about the divorce, but she refused.

“She wanted to sign a contract with [20th Century] Fox and it said she couldn’t be married -- they didn’t want a pregnant starlet,” Dougherty said in a 1984 interview with UPI. “When I went back to see her, I tried to talk her out of it. She wanted me to be there -- she just wanted us to keep on and not be married for the contract. I couldn’t do that.”


So he moved on with his life, marrying his second wife, Pat, not long after the divorce. The newly renamed Marilyn Monroe, meanwhile, began her rise to Hollywood superstardom.

Dougherty said he never saw any of Monroe’s movies in the theater because his second wife, whom he divorced in 1972, didn’t want Monroe’s name mentioned.

He said she felt “like she had to compete with Norma Jean, even though she was far ahead because she gave me three beautiful children.”

During his second marriage, he said, “I destroyed all my letters from Norma Jean -- hundreds of them. I don’t need them for a memory, but I probably could have built a house for what they are worth.”

In a 2001 interview with the Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine, Dougherty said he had to lie to his second wife in the 1950s to appear on the “To Tell the Truth” TV game show. He was one of three male contestants on the show in which the panelists asked each contestant questions to determine which one was Monroe’s real first husband.

To do the show, Dougherty recalled, he told his wife that he “went to recruit police officers, but she found out the truth, and she threw a pan at me.”


After her marriage to Dougherty, Monroe went on to marry -- and divorce -- baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. She died of acute barbiturate poisoning in 1962 at age 36.

Dougherty later recalled that a co-worker at the Los Angeles Police Department called him on the phone and said: “Your ex-wife is dead.”

“It was like someone had kicked me in the stomach,” Dougherty told Associated Press in 2002. He spent that day riding around Los Angeles in a squad car to avoid reporters.

“I had almost been expecting it,” he said of Monroe’s death. “Fame was injurious to her. She was too gentle to be an actress. She wasn’t tough enough for Hollywood. And once someone starts getting into pills -- uppers and downers, the way she was -- people can go downhill. They can’t sleep, so they take more and more pills.”

During his 25 years with the LAPD, Dougherty worked as a detective and trained the department’s first Special Weapons and Tactics group.

After retiring from the LAPD in 1974, he and his third wife, Rita, moved to Arizona and then to Maine.


During his many years in Maine, Dougherty worked with a sheriff’s department and taught a criminal science course.

He served on the Maine Boxing Commission and as an Androscoggin County commissioner.

In 1986, he lost a congressional bid to the incumbent Republican, Rep. Albert G. Stevens.

After marrying his third wife, Dougherty talked more openly about his first marriage. As Rita Dougherty told the Portland Press Herald in 2001: “I’ve never had a problem with it.”

Dougherty wrote two books about his relationship with Monroe, “The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe” (1976) and “To Norma Jeane with Love, Jimmie” (1997). (Although her given name has appeared in print for years as Norma Jean, she actually spelled it Norma Jeane.)

Dougherty also appeared in the 2004 feature documentary “Marilyn’s Man” and even had a website.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but that’s the thing everyone asked me about, Norma Jean,” Dougherty told the Portland Press Herald in 2001. “It’s all right with me. It was part of my life.”

Dougherty’s wife, Rita, died in 2003.

His family plans to fly his body back to Maine for burial.