Desperate to avoid being shunted to yet another foster home, 16-year-old Norma Jeane Baker in 1942 married 21-year-old James Dougherty, a neighbor’s son whom she had been dating for several months.
Dougherty joined the merchant marine in 1943 and was assigned to teach ocean safety on Catalina Island, where the young couple moved into an apartment overlooking Avalon harbor. Norma Jeane tried hard to make a go of it as a young housewife on the island 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, which had been taken over by the military during World War II.
But their marriage was unhappy and short-lived. In 1944, months after leaving Catalina, she was discovered by a photographer whose images helped launch the career of Hollywood’s most famous blond. She divorced Dougherty in 1946 and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Curators attempting to reconstruct her experiences for an upcoming exhibit, “Before She was Marilyn,” have assembled a trove of letters and photographs that reveal the “blond bombshell” as a young woman, at once vulnerable and girlish, yet liberated from her dreary childhood.
With the Monroe exhibit, which is scheduled to open in August, and another, “Yesterday and Today: The Beatles and Eric Clapton as Photographed by Pattie Boyd,” which opens May 7, the 58-year-old Catalina Island Museum is shifting direction to broaden its appeal.
“We used to specialize in presentations about the island’s heritage,” said Michael De Marsche, executive director of the museum, which recently reopened on the ground floor of Avalon’s Casino with new galleries and an expanded gift shop. “Our idea with Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles is to break out of that niche and create a new public showcase for Southern California.”
A dozen of the photographs had never been linked to Monroe’s life here until museum curator Jeannine Pedersen identified telltale landforms, landmarks and street signs that pinpointed the spots where she posed.
Against backdrops of scalloped beaches, the distinctive Casino and piers with military boats dipping and tugging at their moorings, the young Norma Jeane can be seen with a radiant smile showing off skirt ensembles and two-piece sun suits that caught the attention of men on the island, making her husband resentful and jealous.
De Marsche said she also enjoyed playing with neighborhood children until called home late in the evening by her husband.
“It was a fascinating year of transition for youthful Marilyn,” De Marsche said. “These photographs and letters allow a fresh chance to explore her psychology as she was trying to come to grips with the seriousness of marriage, her femininity and her future.”
Every letter has a story to tell, and De Marsche has his favorites. One missive was written by Marilyn to her half sister, Bernice, in 1943. He read it aloud: “My mother brought me here for the summer when I was about seven years old. I remember going to the Casino to dance with her, of course. I didn’t dance, but she let me sit on the side and watch her, and I remember it was way after my bedtime too. But anyway, what I’m getting at is that at Christmas time, the Maritime Service held a big dance at the same Casino and Jimmie and I went. It was the funniest feeling to be dancing on that same floor ten years later, I mean being old enough and everything. Oh it’s hard to explain the feeling I had.”
Some details of her life in Avalon, such as exactly where she lived, remain elusive. But after an intense search for clues, Pedersen believes she resided in a third-floor apartment of a wood-framed building that still dominates the corner of Metropole Avenue and Beacon Street.
Remarkable transformations such as that of Monroe go with the territory on islands, according to Pattie Boyd, the former wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton — and the inspiration for Harrison’s song “Something” and Clapton’s anthem “Layla.”
Take Harrison, who in the summer of 1971 chartered a boat and went deep-sea fishing off the coast of Catalina. A few weeks later, he led the Concert for Bangladesh in New York’s Madison Square Garden, a two-night event that became a highlight of his post-Beatles career and the template for all-star pop concerts for charity.
“I recently stumbled across two snapshots I took of George on that charter boat,” Boyd said. “They reminded me of how there is something amazing about islands. People are drawn to them, and what often follows is luck, love or a dramatic new turn in your life.”
On the other hand, there are the Chicago Cubs, the subjects of a current exhibit at the Catalina Museum called “The Boys in Blue.” The team, which trained on the island from 1921 to 1951, hasn’t won a World Series since 1908.