In 1942, young Norma Jean Dougherty married Jim Dougherty, a Van Nuys, Calif. factory worker. The next year, her husband enlisted in the Merchant Marine and, by 1944, was sent to the Pacific Theater of World War II. Then just 18 years old, Norma Jean moved in with his parents in Van Nuys and began working at the Radioplane Munitions Factory.
That’s where an Army Air Forces photographer captured some photos of her at work, and her life changed forever.
Norma Jean had a rough life up until that point. Her mother was mentally unstable and she was placed in and out of foster homes and orphanages until she was 16. That’s when she married Jim Dougherty in an effort to avoid being sent back to another orphanage. She became a housewife for a brief time until the Second World War forced her husband to join the Merchant Marine and she was sent to work in a factory.
That factory was making an early flying drone used by the military as aerial targets, the Radioplane OQ-2. It was while working at the Van Nuys airport-based Radioplane plant that Norma Jean was photographed at work by a photographer from the Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, who capturing morale photos for Yank Magazine.
Norma Jean Dougherty working on a propeller unit at the Radioplane Factory in Van Nuys, Calif., 1944.
(U.S. Army Air Forces)
The photographer, Pvt. David Conover, was sent to the factory by his commander, Capt. Ronald Reagan, who wanted photos of pretty girls hard at work on the homefront for the boys fighting overseas.
“I moved down the assembly line, taking shots of the most attractive employees,” Conover later wrote. “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.“
One of Norma Jean Dougherty’s first modeling photos.
In the end, Conover didn’t use any of Dougherty’s photos for the work he was assigned to do for the Army that day. He would end up taking leave from the Army Air Corps to spend two weeks shooting Norma Jean and teaching her how to pose for the camera. Eventually, she signed on with the Blue Book Modeling Agency in 1945, sometimes using the name Jean Norman.
The photographer was soon sent off to the Philippines and lost contact with Norma Jean. It wasn’t until 1953, when her career was taking off, that he learned his discovery was the bombshell everyone knew as Marilyn Monroe. She credited this to Conover all her life, and the two were reunited briefly on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Marilyn Monroe and Emmeline Snively on the set of ‘No Business Like Show Business.’
Her first modeling gigs were mostly advertisements and men’s magazines, as she had more of a “pin-up” figure than one of a fashion model, according to her agency. It was the Blue Book Modeling Agency’s founder, Miss Emmeline Snively, who introduced Norma Jean to the movie industry.
The rest is history.