This Day in Jewish History

1962: Goodbye, Norma Jeane

While Marilyn Monroe’s life ended tragically, its happier moments included marriage to playwright Arthur Miller and a 'sincere' conversion to Judaism.

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On August 5, 1962, actress Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, California. She was 36 years old, and the cause of death was, according to the autopsy later done, “acute barbiturate poisoning.” Few knew at the time she had undergone a Reform Jewish conversion prior to marrying playwright Arthur Miller under the chuppah.

Monroe was born in Los Angeles as Norma Jeane Mortenson, on June 1, 1926. It has never been established conclusively who her father was, but her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, quickly changed her newborn daughter’s family name to “Baker,” since she had only been married briefly to Martin E. Mortenson, and they had separated before she became pregnant with Norma Jeane.

The uncertainty about Norma Jeane’s paternity largely characterizes her childhood as a whole. Gladys Baker was mentally unstable, and often unable to care for her daughter, who lived, successively, with a foster family, a friend of her mother’s, an aunt and then another aunt. There is evidence that she was sexually abused in some of these homes.

When she was 16, and the family friends who were caring for her decided to relocate to the East Coast – without Norma Jeane – it was arranged for her to marry James Dougherty, a high school classmate and neighbor. That marriage ended four years later, after Dougherty returned from World War II, during which he had served in the Merchant Marine in the Pacific.

While Dougherty was overseas, his wife had worked in a California airplane-parts plant. One day an army photographer visited the plant to shoot images for a story about the role of women in the war effort. Although none of his photos of Norma Jeane Baker ended up in the story that was published in Yank magazine, the photographer, David Conover, did encourage her to audition for a modeling agency.

It was her work for Blue Book modeling that led to a movie contract from 20th Century Fox, during which time she changed her name to “Marilyn Monroe.” But stardom did not come immediately to Monroe. She appeared in several tiny parts for Fox, but was released from her contract by 1947. She also continued to do modeling work.

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A nude session she did in 1949 with photographer Tom Kelley, who posed her against a strip of red silk, resulted in Monroe appearing on pin-up calendars in 1952 and 1953, as well as having the distinction of being Playboy Magazine’s first Playmate of the Month, in December 1953. Although her studio at the time of publication – she was back at 20th Century Fox – feared negative publicity from the photos, Monroe gave an interview in which admitted to freely posing for the photographs, and to having done so because she had needed to make a living. The public seemed to respond sympathetically.

Monroe was married briefly (nine months) to retired baseball great Joe DiMaggio, in 1954. The following year, she was reintroduced to Arthur Miller, the playwright, whom she had first met in 1951 when he visited the Fox studios lot where she was shooting “As Young as You Feel.” She was invited to a party thrown for Miller a few days later, and the two ended up talking through much of the night. The playwright encouraged Monroe to work on the stage, and to come to New York to study acting.

It was only in 1954 that Monroe did move to New York, where she began studying at the Actors’ Studio with Lee and Paula Strasberg. But she had kept in touch with Arthur Miller, who had recommended books to her while she was taking college extension courses, and who generally seemed to take her seriously, an experience that was rare for Monroe. She and Miller began seeing each other, often bicycling around his neighborhood in Brooklyn. Miller was married at the time, and it was only days before he married Marilyn Monroe that he left his first wife, the former Mary Slattery.

Very shortly before Miller and Monroe married, the playwright was in touch with an old friend, Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg, the rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Israel, then in New Haven, Connecticut. Miller told Goldburg that he and the actress were planning to marry, and that Monroe wanted to convert to Judaism.

In letters written by Goldburg over the years – but only published in 2010 – to Jacob Rader Marcus, the head of the American Jewish Archives, the rabbi described the process of Monroe’s conversion and her marriage to the Jewish playwright.

In a 1962 letter, Goldburg explained that it was Marilyn Monroe’s idea to become Jewish, and that to that end he first met her at her Sutton Place apartment in New York.

“I was struck by her personal sweetness and charm…. [She] said that she had no religious training other than some memories of a Fundamentalist Protestantism which she had long rejected. She indicated that she was attracted to Judaism by being impressed with Jewish people that she knew, especially Mr. Miller. She said that she was aware of the great characters that the Jewish people had produced and that she had read selections from Albert Einstein’s ‘Out of My Later Years’…. She indicated that she was impressed by the rationalism of Judaism – its ethical and prophetic ideals and its concept of close family life.”

Goldburg met “a number of times” with Monroe, and she read and discussed with him several books that he gave her about Judaism, including “What Is A Jew?” by Morris Kurtzer, “A History of the Jews,” by Abram Leon Sachar, and “A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem,” by Milton Steinberg. According to Goldburg, “Marilyn was not an intellectual person but she was sincere in her desire to learn. It was also clear that her ability to concentrate over a long period of time was limited. However, I did feel that she understood and accepted the basic principles of Judaism.”

On June 29, 1956, Miller, at the time 40, and Monroe, 30, were married by a justice of the peace in White Plains, New York. Two days later, on July 1, a Sunday, the couple had a religious ceremony at the Katonah, New York, home of Kay Brown, Miller’s agent. The chuppah was preceded by a conversion ceremony for Monroe, during which she signed a certificate stating that she, “having sought to join the household of Israel by accepting the religion of Israel and promising to live by its principles and practices, was received into the Jewish Faith….” Miller’s cousin, Morton Miller, later characterized the ceremony as “perfunctory.”

Monroe accompanied Miller to his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1956, for which he was found in contempt for refusing to “name names” of colleagues who had been involved with the Communist party. Rabbi Goldburg later wrote how Monroe had agreed, at his urging, to speak at a United Jewish Appeal fundraising dinner in Miami a short time later. She was going to talk about her involvement with Judaism and about the need to support Israel. When Miller was found in contempt, the UJA withdrew his invitation to the dinner. Monroe decided not to attend.

A short time later, Miller and Monroe did appear at a fundraising dinner for the American Friends of Hebrew University, in Philadelphia. That had also been arranged by Goldburg, who testified that he also conducted a Passover seder with the couple several times. If they didn’t attend synagogue, he wrote, it was “because they believed that such attendance would turn into a public spectacle.”

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller remained married until early 1961, but it was a tumultuous relationship that caused both of them a great deal of anguish. Miller wrote the screenplay for “The Misfits,” the last film that Monroe completed, in which she starred with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. According to the director, John Huston, Monroe wasn’t actually acting in the movie: “It was all the truth. It was only Marilyn.”

The film was not a commercial success, but its critical acclaim has only grown with time. But the making of it, in the northern Nevada desert in July 1960, took a toll on everyone involved, and she and Miller had returned to New York after the filming on separate flights.

During the making of “The Misfits,” Miller met Inge Morath, who was working on the set as a photographer, and who became his next wife, in February 1962.

Monroe’s last two years were characterized by severe psychological problems, and film projects that never reached completion. She is alleged to have had a relationship with President John Kennedy during this time. Early in the morning of August 5, 1962, police in Los Angeles received a call from her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, that she had been found dead in her home.

Because of the high dosage of two different drugs found in her bloodstream, Monroe’s death was ruled a “probable suicide.” There have also been a variety of darker theories about her death over the years, including murder. But it may well have been that she died of an accidental overdose.

At her funeral, her former acting teacher Lee Strasberg delivered the eulogy, in which he said, in part: “In her eyes, and in mine, her career was just beginning.... She had a luminous quality. A combination of wistfulness, radiance and yearning that set her apart and made everyone wish to be part of it – to share in the childish naivete which was at once so shy and yet so vibrant.”