Before she was Marilyn Monroe, a platinum blonde with her dress billowing over a subway grate, Norma Jean Mortenson worked as a “riveter” or a female war worker. When she was sixteen-years-old, Norma Jean married James Dougherty, who joined the Merchant Marines during the Second World War. Traveling to California, Norma Jean got a job as a munitions factory worker at Radioplane Corp. in Van Nuys, California, a company that built small remote-controlled aircraft used in military practice.
On June 26, 1945, Capt. Ronald Reagan of the U.S. Army’s 1st Motion Picture Unit (yes, Reagan – as in the future President Reagan) ordered army photographer David Conover to photograph women war workers. Conover later wrote about his experience meeting Norma Jean.
I moved down the assembly line, taking shots of the most attractive employees. None was especially out of the ordinary. I came to a pretty girl putting on propellers and raised the camera to my eye. She had curly ash blond hair and her face was smudged with dirt. I snapped her picture and walked on. Then I stopped, stunned. She was beautiful. Half child, half woman, her eyes held something that touched and intrigued me.
Monroe with Conover on the set of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1952. Photo Credit: Immortal Marilyn
Yank, a weekly magazine published by the military during the war years, published Conover’s photographs, thus starting Norma Jean’s modeling career.
After the photos were published, Emmeline Snively represented the young worker and encouraged her to dye her hair platinum blonde. In 1946, Norma Jean divorced her husband, stating that he opposed her artistic career. As her modeling career flourished, she soon turned to film and became the iconic Marilyn Monroe.
One could say that President Ronald Reagan indirectly discovered Marilyn Monroe…
While working at Radioplane Corp., she wrote the following letter:
California, June 15, 1944
I was so happy to hear from you. I was so thrilled to read your letter and learn of all that you have been doing lately.
I will send you your picture very shortly now, I’m going down Saturday to find out more about it. Also will send you lots of snap shots at the same time I send you the picture. I found out that a 10″ x 12″ (that was the size you wanted, wasn’t it ?) costs exactly $ 5.00.
I am working 10 hrs. a day at Radioplane Co., at Metropolitain airport. I am saving almost everything I earn (to help pay for our future home after the war). The work isn’t easy at all for I am on my feet all day and walking quite a bit. I was all set to get a Civil Service Job with the army, all my papers filled out and everything set to go, and then I found out I would be working with all army fellows.
I was over there one day, there are just too many wolves to be working with, there are enough of those at Radioplane Co. without a whole army full of them. The Personal Officer said that he would hire me but that he wouldn’t advice it for my own sake, so I am back at Radioplane Co. partly contented.
Well I guess that is about all for now.
With much love,
Hargrave: Aviation & Aeromodelling