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Marilyn Monroe to the world, but 'The girl I knew was Norma Jean'

By
ED LION

SABATTUS, Maine -- She was a '16-year-old naive, sweet kid,' liked to cook and was very loving when James Dougherty married her. Today, nearly 40 years after their divorce, he still calls her Norma Jean -- 'a completely different person' than Marilyn Monroe, the world's most famous sex symbol.

'I was married to Norma Jean, not Marilyn Monroe,' said Dougherty, a retired Los Angeles police officer. He makes his home in Sabattus, population about 2,000, with his third wife. He is running for a seat on the local county commission.

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'She was like two completely different people. I knew Norma Jean, not Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jean was reserved, devout. The vulnerable part carried over to Marilyn and that's what hurt her.

'I look at Marilyn just like everybody else does,' he says. 'The girl I knew was Norma Jean.'

Dougherty, 63, met her through his family in Van Nuys, Calif., and married teenage Norma Jean Mortenson when he was 20.

She divorced him after four years for a Hollywood contract, while he was a World War II Merchant Marine, because the 'studios wanted clauses for no marriage -- a pregnant starlet would do them no good,' he said.

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She changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, went on to become Hollywood's most famous and enduring sex symbol and had two other marriages -- to baseball legend Joe Dimaggio and playwright Arthur Miller - before she died of a sleeping pill overdose in 1963. She was 36 years old.

'It was a long time ago,' Dougherty said of the marriage. 'I don't think we ever stop loving a person completely once a relationship has ended. But I was writing her out of my life within a couple months of the separation -- you have to bounce back.'

Dougherty, who moved to the small south-central Maine town in 1978 to be close to his third wife's parents, works for the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department. He is in charge of court security and training.

The father of three grown children by his second marriage and two grown stepchildren by his third, he plans to retire from the department in the fall when he joins the three-member county commission. A Democrat, he is running unopposed.

Dougherty does not keep his first marriage a secret but says it is rarely mentioned by those who know him.

On occasions when news about Marilyn Monroe is resurrected -- such as new speculation about her death -- he gets letters and phone calls sometimes from as far away as South America.

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'Something will happen and it will blossom and I'll get calls,' he said. 'It doesn't bother me to talk about it -- it's a part of my life. If people mention it, I don't mind.'

Dougherty said his second wife, whom he divorced in 1972, felt 'like she had to compete with Norma Jean, even though she was far ahead because she gave me three beautiful children.' So he never saw Monroe movies in the theaters when they came out.

'I destroyed all my letters from Norma Jean -- hundreds of them. I don't need them for a memory but I probably could have built a house for what they are worth.

'I've seen some of her films on television -- I think she was a good actress, that's what she wanted to be thought of,' he said. 'I really liked the one with Jane Russell ('Gentlemen Prefer Blondes').'

He said his third wife, Rita, a Maine native who he married in California in 1973, isn't bothered by his first marriage and encouraged him to write a book about it to correct 'inaccuracies by other authors.

'She knows it was part of my past life,' he said. 'It was so long ago.'

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'I'm very happy now -- my life is fantastic and getting better.'

Dougherty met young Norma Jean Mortenson in 1941 when he gave her rides home from school because his mother knew the foster family she was living with in Van Nuys. She never knew her father and her mother was in and out of mental institutions.

'She was just a little kid as far as I was concerned,' Dougherty said. 'I didn't pay much attention to her. But she always managed to sit in the middle between me and her foster sister.'

Dougherty was working a night shift at an aircraft plant when the two began dating.

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