Forgotten History: The Norma behind Marilyn. A brief gallery

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Norma Jean always spoke of Marilyn in third person. She was known to flip an inner switch and turn Marilyn Monroe on and off. But Marilyn wasn't her, Marilyn was far away from Norma and Marilyn hurted.

When Norma was eight years old her mother, Gladys, who had long been affected by several mental illnesses, had a vehement psychotic breakdown and was committed to an asylum. The future Monroe was then sent to live with her mother’s best friend, Grace, who took care of her for about a year until she could no longer afford to do so.

  Norma and her mother 1928

Norma and her mother 1928

On September 13, 1935, Grace was forced to bring Norma Jean to the Los Angeles Hollygrove’s Orphanage. The rest of her childhood she spent between the orphanage and nine other different foster homes until, at the age of sixteen, she married in a desperate act of fear of being send to yet another foster home or orphanage.

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The rest of the story we know well. What we haven't learned to do though is separating Marilyn from Norma, Norma from Marilyn.

It took her hours of makeup and two chin surgeries to transmute her face into the character. Her hair was so thin due to the dyes that in her last years it began falling down and her stylist had to pour great amounts of spray to keep it in place. Norma knew Marilyn would destroy her.

The following photographs were taken after a session with photographer Richard Avedon, who captured her when the Marilyn Monroe switch went off.

For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. The white wine helped things along. Then there was the inevitable drop … she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”

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Ava L.