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Wednesday, June 29, 116

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Hello, Norma Jean

Would you believe Marilyn Monroe was named after a Louisvillian?

by Ward Harrison

As the saying goes, timing is everything.

A spur of the moment decision, for example, led me to the Louisville woman who was the inspiration for Marilyn Monroe’s birth name, Norma Jeane Baker. The fact that the movie icon had not been named after earlier stars Jean Harlow or Jean Shearer, as many had speculated, was substantiated years ago. But little attention was paid to the assertion, made by Monroe’s half-sister, and tracking down the person who she identified as inspiring the name had proven fruitless.

That is, until September, when I impulsively decided to reserve a space at the Locust Grove Antiques Show to display sundry antiques and, hopefully, make a few sales. I had never been a vendor at the event, which is held on the grounds of the George Rogers Clark homestead.

And as I set up for the show, again acting on impulse, I sat out three copies of “I Didn’t Know That (Kentucky’s Ties to the Stage and Screen),” a book I had written in 1994 that consists of stories about entertainers past and present who have connections to Kentucky. The books were barely noticeable on the table amid the assortment of small antiques and collectibles, so I was flattered when an older gentleman, Alvin Younger, purchased a copy.

We talked briefly and he left, only to return shortly waving the book and declaring: “I KNOW NORMA JEAN.” Eight years had passed since the book was published, so my memory bank was somewhat depleted.

“Who in the hell,” I thought, “is Norma Jean?”

Nonetheless, I smiled, and he immediately brought Norma Jean into focus. “Norma Jean Cohen. Marilyn? Marilyn Monroe’s namesake. I know her,” he said.

“Are you serious?” I replied. “She’s still alive?”

“Very much so.”

Of course, Younger questioned the validity of the claim in my book that Marilyn Monroe — born Norma Jeane Baker — had been named after Norma Jean Cohen Seidman of Louisville. (No one seems to know why Gladys Baker added an “e” to her daughter’s name.)

That little-known assertion can be found in “My Sister Marilyn,” a 1994 memoir published by a half-sister to Monroe — Berniece Baker Miracle — and Miracle’s daughter, Mona Rae. On page 236, Miracle writes that their mother, Gladys Baker, a native of Paint Lick, Ky., told her that Norma Jean Cohen of Louisville was the person who inspired her younger sister’s name.

Younger was excited to learn of the connection between Monroe and his friend.

And me? Well, I was beside myself.

He agreed to act as a go-between, and as I waited to find out if Seidman, now 81, would talk with me, I did more research at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Main Branch.

Searching Kentucky’s vital statistics of births, I could find only one Norma Jean Cohen born in the entire state from 1911 through 1997. She was born Aug. 3, 1921, in Louisville to Harry and Lena Ramm Cohen.

Now the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place.

Norma Jean Cohen wasn’t just a name Gladys Baker pulled out of the air. Such a person actually existed and she lived in Louisville, just as Gladys told her daughter, Berniece. And the dates of their births further filled in the missing pieces. Marilyn Monroe was born June 1, 1926, which would have made Norma Jean Cohen 5 years old when Marilyn was christened Norma Jeane.

Bingo! Norma Jean Cohen Seidman has to be the same Norma Jean Cohen mentioned in Miracle’s book.

Norma Jean Cohen Seidman declined to be photographed for this story, but she did agree to speak to me. She said no one was more surprised than she to learn that she very likely was the inspiration for Marilyn Monroe’s birth name. After all, she was no more than 3 when Monroe’s mother probably worked for her family, and no one had made the connection until this fall — eight years after the release of Miracle’s book.

Seidman said she had never even heard of the books written by Miracle and me until she was contacted by her friend Younger.

“It’s so strange,” she said. “It is so far-fetched. It was so difficult to believe, until I read the statistics.”

Monroe’s ties to Kentucky, however tenuous, had intrigued me no end. I had spent at least a dozen years before Miracle’s book was published, tracing Monroe’s maternal lineage in a blind hope of discovering if Marilyn had Kentucky ancestors. I thought her name being attached to my book would be a magnet to lure publishers and buyers alike, and I was pleased to learn there was a connection between Kentucky and the famous movie star.

By looking through U.S. Census records, courthouse documents, birth and death records and county histories, and through corresponding with female relatives of Gladys Baker’s former husband, Jasper Baker, I gathered binders of tantalizing tidbits that had never surfaced during Monroe’s lifetime.

Once I had established who some of her Kentucky ancestors were, I eventually uncovered published reports that one, William Hogan, along with his sons, James and John, came into the Kentucky wilderness with Daniel Boone. In 1785 John and James established the first ferry services across the Kentucky River from the mouth of Hickman’s Creek in Jessamine County.

Monroe’s background is peppered with maternal ancestors from all walks of life who lived, loved and died in Kentucky. Learning from Miracle’s book that Gladys Baker said she had named her Norma Jeane after another Kentuckian seemed like the ultimate bonding of Marilyn Monroe to the state.

Naturally, I wanted to know what inspired Gladys Baker. That question would cross my mind many times. Now I was on the threshold of finding out.

It seemed obvious that Norma Jean Cohen was a little girl that Gladys Monroe Baker had known only briefly while staying in Louisville during the 1920s. Miracle’s book doesn’t include the exact year or years that Gladys lived in Louisville, but “Caron’s 1923 Louisville City Directory” lists her as living at 224 W. Broadway. Checking five years prior and five years after 1923, I found no other Gladys Baker in a city directory.

At that time, a rooming house converted from a private Victorian residence stood at 224 W. Broadway (where Broadway Florist is now located). Curiously enough, even though Gladys Baker’s name appears in the main index of that 1923 city directory, she was not included in the cross-section index with other tenants who resided there, including owner Ninnie R. Dinwiddie and two nurses, Elizabeth Elverd and Mary Wolcott.

According to Miracle, her mother came to Louisville from Los Angeles to be near her 5-year old son, Robert Baker (the family called him Jackie), who had a lengthy stay in a hospital here.

Gladys and Jasper Baker were Kentucky natives who moved to California, where he was stationed in the Army, after their marriage as World War I was winding down. They divorced in 1922, with Gladys retaining custody of their two young children. During a weekend visit with their father, Miracle wrote, he in effect kidnapped her and her brother and moved back to Eastern Kentucky. Gladys Baker was almost destitute and had no way to force the children’s return.

Miracle was little more than a baby when her father returned to Kentucky, and she said she had only a vague memory of her mother, whom she didn’t meet again until she was an adult herself. Seven years separated Monroe and Miracle, who didn’t know of each other’s existence until they were 12 and 19, respectively. They exchanged letters and finally met in 1944, when the young Norma Jeane was 18 years old, and remained close until Monroe’s death in 1962. The sisters seldom saw each other but maintained contact through correspondence.

Jackie Baker never met his half-sister; he had been beset by accidents and illness as a child and died at the age of 14.

As a toddler, Jackie’s hip was injured when he fell out of the rumble-seat of his father’s automobile on a road near their home in Flat Lick. The injury left Jackie with a bad limp, so his father brought him to Louisville, where he was admitted to the Children’s Free Hospital, which pioneered orthopedic surgery and eventually became Kosair’s Crippled Children’s Hospital.

Gladys Baker learned about her son’s hospitalization and traveled to Louisville, but little is known about her stay here. I surmise that she most likely met nurses Elverd or Wolcott at the Children’s Free Hospital. She didn’t have a job, much less a decent place to live, so it’s plausible that she was befriended by one of the nurses, who offered to share a room with her at the boarding house. That would explain why her name was not in the cross index of the city directory — because she wasn’t a registered paying tenant.

Realizing she would need an income while staying in Louisville, it also stands to reason that Baker could have answered a “Help Wanted” ad for a housekeeper. (Miracle notes in her book, on page 14, that Gladys worked as a housekeeper while living in Louisville.)

On Alta Avenue in the Highlands lived the family of Alexander Ramm. His daughter, Lena, lived with her husband, Harry Cohen, in another house on the same street. Both houses still stand and are within walking distance of Bardstown Road; that would have made it quite convenient for Gladys to board a trolley on Broadway, which would have delivered her to the Highlands.

The Cohens had two daughters, 6-year-old Dorothy and 2-year-old Norma Jean. I believe Gladys went to work for the Cohens and became quite fond of little Norma Jean.

That may be true, but Seidman has no memory of Gladys, nor does she recall her mother or other relatives mentioning that they once employed a woman by that name.

When I met Seidman and her daughter, Nancy Rappaport of Chicago, in October, my first thought was that Marilyn Monroe would have been proud to know she had been named for this elegant woman.

After introductions, she and her daughter seated themselves, facing me, before a roaring fireplace. There sat the three of us, total strangers, brought together by — could it possibly be — the ghost of Marilyn Monroe? Totally amazed at the reason for our meeting, we knew not where to begin. Rappaport, full of enthusiasm over the prospects of Marilyn Monroe being named after her mother, opened the conversation.

We talked about mutual acquaintances, and then Rappaport told of her brief fling with Frank Sinatra while he visited Chicago. (Author Kitty Kelly mentioned that friendship in her Sinatra biography.) I replied that my nephew, Chance Harrison, had been hired by Sinatra to pilot his private plane on several occasions in California. Revelations such as these prove again how small this world truly is.

Then Norma Jean Seidman joined the conversation. Frankly, she said, she hadn’t the slightest notion why anyone would be overly enthusiastic about knowing Marilyn Monroe was named after her.

Her daughter and I took turns explaining that any new trivia would be of interest to the millions of people who are still fascinated by Monroe, even 40 years after her death. To illustrate our claim about the public’s love affair with Monroe, I mentioned an ad in the 2002 “History For Sale” magazine, which claimed that three authenticated strands of hair taken from Monroe’s head after her death were being auctioned, with an estimated beginning bid of $4,000 to $8,000.

“But why?” she asked.

“Let’s put it this way,” I began. “Monroe will be remembered for eternity because she is on par with other famous women down through the ages — Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Salome, Catherine the Great — women whose names have been engraved on the stones of time. Monroe was not merely a very popular actress, she also became an icon of American history.”

Over the years, Seidman did allow, some people have mentioned the coincidence of her sharing a name with Marilyn Monroe, but she’d always shrugged it off. As for Monroe, she said: “I always thought she was very beautiful. She lived a very sad, weird life. Outside that, I didn’t think a lot about her.”

Seidman said she would like to speak with Miracle, who moved to Florida before her book was published, but efforts to locate her have been unsuccessful.

Coincidentally, Norma Jean Seidman and her namesake both spent time as fashion models. At the age of 19, Norma Jeane Baker (who had married Jim Dougherty in 1942) signed her first modeling contract with the Blue Book Modeling Agency. Meanwhile, Norma Jean Cohen, who married Leon Seidman in Louisville in 1940, modeled for the Counsel of Jewish Women programs.

And for a time, they shared the same religion; Monroe converted to Judaism after her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller in 1956. Their beauty, religion and name — unfortunately for Monroe — apparently were the only similarities between the women.

While a young Norma Jeane Baker was being shuffled from one foster home to another as her mother coped with poverty and mental illness, Louisville’s Norma Jean was being shuttled each morning — by a chauffeur — to the fashionable Atherton High School, which was then an all-girls’ school.

Yes, Norma Jean Cohen was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe’s true birth name) was born not knowing where her next meal would be served.

She was 10 years old during the summer 1936 when the teen-aged Norma Jean Cohen, accompanied by her parents and siblings, visited the Los Angeles area, where they stayed in the posh Garden Court, a half-block away from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. There in the courtyard were scores of hand and foot imprints, embedded in cement, of movie stars. Norma Jean Cohen giggled while trying to fit her hands and feet into the impressions, just as the Californian Norma Jeane did during her many visits there. Perhaps they were even there on the same day; stranger things have happened.

By 1953 Monroe was a star, and she and Jane Russell had their handprints and footprints embedded in this same courtyard to coincide with the opening of their film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Much has been written about Norma Jeane’s name change to Marilyn Monroe. Casting director Ben Lyon met her in 1946, when she was known as Norma Jeane Dougherty, for her first motion picture screen test, which ultimately resulted in a contract with 20th Century Fox. At the same time he suggested a new name. Many names were tossed about, but they eventually settled on a variation based on her uncle’s name, Marion Monroe.

Curiously, in the dozen or more biographies written about Monroe, no one even delved into how she happened to be named Norma Jeane — until Miracle wrote “My Sister Marilyn.”

The original Norma Jean has said little to friends about the link to Marilyn Monroe. After all, as she asked again, “Who cares who Marilyn Monroe was named after?”

On the other hand, her daughters, Rappaport and Bonnie Roth of Louisville, along with three grandsons, “have gotten a very big kick out of this,” she said. The grandsons “call me Marilyn when they kid me,” she said.

She shrugs off any possible significance she may have carried in Marilyn Monroe’s life, but after learning what she now knows about the connection, Seidman admitted: “I would have loved to have met her now. I think we both would have gotten a kick out of it.”

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com

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