Exhibitions > Before She Was Marilyn: Marilyn Monroe on Catalina Island

August 6, 2011 - October 31, 2011

"I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else."

Before She Was Marilyn: Marilyn Monroe on Catalina Island
is the first major exhibition documenting the year Marilyn Monroe lived on Catalina Island. Although a brief period that is often ignored by historians, this candid and often disturbing exhibition brings to light documentary evidence and photographs that reveal the pivotal importance of this period in understanding the troubled psychology of a woman who would become an icon of popular culture. Born to an emotionally unstable mother who was often institutionalized, uncertain of her father`s identity, shuffled off to live with relatives and in a succession of foster homes, the early life of Norma Jeane Baker was tragic. To escape the miseries of yet another foster home, she - along with the boy`s own sympathetic mother - convinced a reluctant neighbor boy, James Dougherty, to marry her. She was only sixteen. The danger was real, and biographers speculate that the young Norma Jeane had been sexually abused, possibly as early as 12 years of age. After graduating from high school, Jim Dougherty entered the Merchant Marine at the height of World War II, and took his young wife with him when stationed on Catalina Island during 1943. Through diary entries, letters and photographs that have never before been assigned to Marilyn Monroe`s life on the island, the exhibition reveals a playful, even girlish Norma Jeane Dougherty. Indeed, the young girl is, as she would suggest in letters, liberated from the anguish of a tormented childhood. Far from the sophisticated "blonde bombshell" who later entered into a secret liaison with a U.S. President, the exhibition probes deeply into a woman who, by her own admission, did not feel married and enjoyed playing with neighborhood children until called home late in the evening by her husband. Possessing a radiant smile that would serve her well in the future, she can be seen on the island`s beaches, rowing with girlfriends and posing before the island`s most famous landmark, the Avalon Casino. But she remained "a lonely girl with a dream," and only months after leaving Catalina Island, she was discovered by a photographer whose remarkable photographs launched a film career that continues to be one of the most compelling in American history. 

Photographs courtesy of Getty Images


Exhibition Sponsors
Grindstone Foundation
Steve and Ronna Schreiner Family
Nathan and Christy Lins
Catalina Island Museum Patrons Society
Michael and Cari Fields
Catalina Island Vacation Rentals (CIVR) and Catalina Island Real Estate (CIRE)