Written by Allison Relyea (Perfectly Marilyn Monroe)
Featured image of Marilyn in 1946, not on her wedding day.
Recently, a viral video went around on TikTok accusing Marilyn fans of being insensitive when visiting her at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park because her funeral service wasn’t of her religion; it lacked a proper Jewish ceremony. Naturally, I became very frustrated. Not only because a video insulted me and other Marilyn fans, but also known as Marilynettes, received over 1.1 million views, but even more so with the – as always – lack of correct information being spread.
Marilyn converted to Judaism when she married Arthur Miller, but had a long history of other religions up to that point. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson to Gladys Baker on June 1st, 1926. I often include “later baptized as Baker” when writing out her birth name because, in all of her school records and official forms, she went by Baker. For the purposes of this article, which I was so kindly asked to write, it’s an important first fact about the little girl’s future with religion, a topic that as she grew up was as tumultuous as her life was.
IDA AND ALBERT “WAYNE” BOLENDER & RELIGIOUS BEGINNINGS
During her seven years, little Norma Jeane lived under the devout religious Bolender family. She was brought to church twice a week by Ida and Wayne and attended Sunday school along with her foster brother and sisters.
When she was six months old, the little tot was baptized at the Four-Square Gospel Church in Hawthorn, Los Angeles, as Norma Jeane Baker. Gladys had two children prior to Norma Jeane with her ex-husband, Jasper “Jap” Baker, and since Norma Jeane’s father was absent she wanted all of her children to have the same last name.
The Bolender’s lived by their religion; punishments and daily activities were heavily influenced by that. But Norma Jeane had her mother’s spirit, feisty and rebellious.
After being told things like going to the movies, drinking, appreciation of the body were sins, she couldn’t help but wonder. She loved to play-act, and reenacted radio shows she’d heard on the Bolender’s radio.
During an interview with Time magazine in 1956, she famously said, “I dreamed that I was standing up in a church without any clothes on, and all of the people there were lying at my feet on the floor of the church, and I walked naked, with a sense of freedom, over their prostrate forms, being careful not to step on anyone.”
After her life with the Bolender’s, she returned to her mother’s home. Gladys, a Christian Science (no relation to Scientology) spent evenings teaching her about God. Marilyn later recalled trips to church their chicken for lunch afterwards. One of the few happy memories they had. As Gladys’ mental health deteriorated, she was eventually institutional and Norma Jeane was off to another family home and even an orphanage for a period of time. Each time little moved, her religious practices changed, as well.
In 1951, she told Louella Parsons:
“When I was little, you see, I went to the Sunday School and church that the family with whom I lived belonged. If they were Methodist, I was a Methodist, and if they were Baptists, I was a Baptist. I had no choice in the matter.”
ANA LOWER & CHRISTIAN SCIENCE
At twelve, Norma Jeane found a home with Ana E. Lower, the aunt of her mother’s best friend who not only took her in but loved her. “She was kind and gentle,” Marilyn later said. Ana told her things like, “Live each day and take things as they come. Face everything, worked hard at the things you want to accomplish, and you will have nothing to fear…”
Ana had worked as a Christian Science Practitioner at her church and encouraged her to look for answers and relief in religion. Marilyn struggled with her mental health since she was a child, and as the years followed (a teen marriage and divorce, modelling career, bit roles in film) Marilyn still suffered. Ana proposed she return to church and turn to God for comfort.
MARRIAGES & CONVERSION
When she married Joe DiMaggio in 1954, the two were wed in City Hall in San Francisco as opposed to a catholic church where Joe belonged. The church refused to acknowledge his divorce and second marriage, so a church wedding was out. But in 1956, when Marilyn met Arthur Miller, religion came into account in a much bigger way.
After she and Arthur were engaged, she began taking lessons in Judaism and working towards her conversion with Rabbi Robert Goldberg of New Haven, NY. “I want to be a Jew as soon as possible,” she told him. “I want it now before we go to England. I want to be married again, in the temple.”
Modern Screen magazine covered her entire conversion in their November issue. This excerpt helps give insight into her state of mind surrounding the subject:
Dinner over, they carried the dishes into the kitchen. “Let me help,” Marilyn begged, and Mrs. Miller handed her a towel. Drying the dishes, listening to the chatter, she was supremely content. The arm her hostess put around her when they went back into the living room, the smile Artie’s father turned in her direction when she wandered over to the bookcase to look at the titles, – they all seemed natural, homey, right. “You never wanted to move?” she asked.
“No, we thought of it once or twice. We could afford it now; Artie makes a good living, my husband is all right. But you know – you get close to your neighbors, you see the same people for twenty years, your children grow up in these rooms, you belong to the temple – why should you leave? For a fancier neighborhood with fancy strangers? You understand?”
“Oh, yes,” Marilyn said. She understood.
When they said goodnight finally and walked down the block to Arthur’s car, she held his arm, looking about her. Down the block, she could see the outline of a temple. Here and there a porch light gleamed faintly on a mezuzah nailed to the door jamb – a sign, put up by the residents, that they were Jews, obeying the commandment to keep the word of God nailed to the entrance of their homes that they might remember it always. Inside the mezuzah, Artie’s mother had said, was a tiny scroll beginning with, “Thou shalt love the Lord…”
“It all comes back,” she said slowly, “to being Jewish, doesn’t it?”
Arthur took his pipe out, “All what?”
“Knowing who you are. Being content. Everything.”
He grinned. “Well, a lot of people who aren’t Jewish know who they are and they seem pretty happy.”
“I suppose.” She was silent for a while. “But your family – they say they aren’t religious, really. But still – it’s always there, being Jewish – a sort of constant beauty in the background.”Modern Screen, November 1956
She and Arthur officially married in a courtroom as she and Joe did, in White Plains, NY, on the evening of June 29th, 1956. Up until then, she had been studying with Rabbi Goldberg during her journey to Judaism. Since she had an upcoming trip to London, England, where she was to film The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the process moved quicker than anticipated.
On the morning of their wedding day, July 1st, Arthur assured Marilyn she did not have to go through with the conversion if she didn’t want to. He reminded her they were legally married and anything more wasn’t necessary, but Marilyn insisted. Like she explained above, there was a desperate feeling of belonging, stability, and something to connect her, Arthur, and their future children – security and comfort.
Her mentor’s daughter, Susan Strasberg, recalled Marilyn saying:
I believe in everything a little, and if I have kids, I think they should be Jewish. I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.
The viral TikTok accuses thoughtlessness in regards to Marilyn’s conversion, yet Marilyn herself continued to practice her Christian religion not only after the Miller divorce but during the marriage as well. She continued celebrating Christmas and even, according to her sister’s book, My Sister Marilyn: A Memoir of Marilyn Monroe made pork!
In November 1962, Louella Parsons published the following:
Marilyn on taking the Jewish faith: “It is the faith of someone I love very much. If it has made such a fine person of him, it will make him happy if I believe as he does. But I’ll always love Christmas in my heart.”
As it may be evident, Marilyn’s association with religion often came from others and, if it isn’t already evident, she struggled with that. For someone who rarely felt she belonged anywhere, or had the care or guidance of a parental figure, or a higher power, religion was almost absent from her life when not under the influence or suggestion of another. Of course, this isn’t a criticism of how Marilyn chose to practice her religion; after all, that’s what it was. Her choice. However, the burden certainly isn’t on her fans. Or Joe DiMaggio, another named accuser in the TikTok video.
MARILYN’S BURIAL & LEGACY
Marilyn’s funeral was non-denominational, which means it was non-religious. The funeral was planned and headed by Joe DiMaggio; the two had reconnected not long after her divorce to Arthur Miller and they remained the very best of friends. The two celebrated Christmas together just eight months before her death, so any accusation that Joe was “insensitive” or “abusive” for not having the funeral to be of a Jewish tradition is unfair. Did Joe know? Did Marilyn care?
Marilyn’s sister Berniece and business manager Inez Melson were very close to Joe during the process following Marilyn’s death. Inez said ”I knew Marilyn didn’t want a memorial service.” Inez selected the guest list, saying she wanted no one from the film industry.
Berniece knew Marilyn’s religious background – from childhood into adulthood – she was still in contact with her mother and those from their past, is Berniece going to be unfairly mislabeled as well? Joe and Inez’s actions were in no way decided by him without any thought or consideration from others.
With Marilyn’s own lack of request, a non-denominational actually seems quite fitting and, in my opinion, respectful. Now, the private service was located inside of a church, but how different is that from Marilyn celebrating Christmas in ’61? Or even during her marriage when she supposedly was following the Jewish faith. After her divorce from Arthur, there is little evidence to suggest she continued to do so. Some have claimed she tried to convert back to Christian Science but was denied. I haven’t found definitive evidence of that.
These unanswerable questions should give no merit to anyone sixty years later to call us fans enablers to that kind of “abusive” and “insensitive” behaviour. After all, isn’t it just as harmful to make unfounded claims with a lack of research?
It seems that viral content – whether it be a TikTok video, a post on Instagram, even a new article or segment on television – always stems from some sort of inaccuracy. In my (very happily) decade long experience in the Marilyn community, I’ve come across this far too many times. This is what I’ve concluded: it is much easier to spin a web of lies and conspiracies than it is to write about and advocate for the truth. Why? Because Marilyn lived a hundred years in her thirty-six here with us. The woman who died young lived a long, long, beautiful life filled with so much and the research of that is tedious, it’s not easy. Ten years in the making and I’m still learning and discovering new pieces of her life, and I love every minute of it. So, to sit and watch Marilyn constantly be the basis of a conspiracy punching bag to meet the criteria for some kind of agenda is exhaustive, and quite frankly, at this point, boring. Her life was anything but, so let’s not diminish what was by creating what wasn’t.
Marilyn requested Somewhere Over the Rainbow to be performed at her funeral, a place I think she knew she would be. If someone were to tell her in 1962 that if she suddenly passed away, millions of people would still miss her sixty years later, I imagine she would not believe it. So, in whatever way we would like, I think if we said a small prayer for her, and she knew how many of us visited her with love, bringing gifts, and our hearts, tears would softly fall from her baby blue eyes.
And with that, here’s a quote from Gladys Baker, who wrote to a mutual friend, Inez Melson, not long after Marilyn’s death:
“My Dear Friend Mrs. Melson; I am very grateful for your kind and gracious help toward Berniece and myself and to dear Norma Jeane. She is at peace and at rest now and may our God bless her and help her always. I wish you to know that I gave her (Norma) Christian Science treatments for approximately a year; wanted her to be happy and joyous.”