Whatever Happened To Marilyn Monroe's First Husband, James Dougherty?

Even now, a full 60 years after her death in 1962, legendary actress, model, and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe continues to inspire discussion, debate, and interest. All the right ingredients are there: a young, attractive person drawn into a destructive world of glitz, glamour, and fame; an early, mysterious death (a drug overdose, no less); a cavalcade of rumors regarding personal relationships and affairs; a secretive, inner life completely at odds with an extremely pruned, idealized public image; and so on. Simply put, folks are curious to know more. Part and parcel of that curiosity is an ongoing interest in the men with whom Monroe was involved.

As Women's Health Magazine outlines, Monroe had three marriages and three divorces over the course of her short, 36-year life. It's more likely that people have heard about her second and third partners, individuals who were famous in their own rights. Monroe married famed Yankee's centerfielder Joe DiMaggio in 1954, after films like 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" skyrocketed her career and cemented her public persona. Monroe was 25, and DiMaggio 37. The marriage lasted a mere nine months. In 1956 Monroe married acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote 1949's "Death of a Salesman." They got divorced in 1961, the year before Monroe died.

But before DiMaggio and Miller, there was another, first husband — James Dougherty — who knew Monroe by her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson. They got married young, were extremely happy, and ended their relationship just as Monroe's career took off.

A young first marriage

It's fascinating, and more than a bit sad, to consider how James Dougherty felt when he heard of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood persona completely different from the person he knew and loved. After all, as "Marilyn's Man" producer Schani Krug said to NPR, Norma Jeane Mortenson was a "rough around the edges" tomboy when she and Dougherty met. Per the Los Angeles Times, Dougherty characterized Mortenson as "loving and funny." 

Dougherty and Mortenson got married in 1942 at ages 21 and 16, respectively. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times says, they got married only 18 days after Mortenson turned 16. Dougherty, a football captain and class president in high school, worked night shifts at Lockheed Aircraft. Dougherty's family and one of Mortenson's foster families, the Goddards, lived next to each other. Grace Goddard was a friend of Mortenson's mother, with whom the future actress shared an acrimonious, difficult relationship. At one point the Goddards wanted to leave California and head back to West Virginia, but Mortenson wanted to stay. And so, they suggested she marry Dougherty.

As Dougherty remembers, "We loved each other madly. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world." In 1944 Dougherty joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and was shipped to Catalina Island. He said of that time, "We would go down to the beach on weekends, and have luaus on Saturday night. She loved it over there. It was like being on a honeymoon for a year."

Happiness after divorce

James Dougherty received divorce papers from Mortenson while he was on a merchant marine ship on China's Yangtze River. As Stylecaster says, the decision boiled down to Mortenson's career. 20th Century Fox didn't want Mortenson — who received her stage name, Marilyn Monroe, by then — to get pregnant. To the studios, this apparently meant that Mortenson had to give up her marriage. Dougherty says that he visited Mortenson after he got back to the U.S., and she suggested that they just continue their relationship, but without the legal marital status. In a 1984 UPI interview (per the Los Angeles Times), Dougherty simply said, "I couldn't do that," no matter that Mortenson wanted him to stay. The two got divorced in 1946. Sixteen years later Monroe was dead.

We don't have a blow-by-blow of Dougherty's experiences after he and Monroe divorced, but we know that he went on to have a full, happy, impactful life. He got married two more times, first in 1947, the year after he and Monroe got divorced, to Patricia Dougherty (nee Scoman). The two got divorced in 1972. Two years later in 1974 Dougherty married Rita Dougherty (nee Lambert), who died in 2003 while they were still married. Dougherty had three children across these marriages. But no matter how happy he was, the specter of his first wife clung to Dougherty for the rest of his life. As the Los Angeles Times says, he kept household peace by never mentioning Monroe to his second wife Patricia and never seeing any of Monroe's movies.

Los Angeles' first SWAT unit

The Washington Post says that James Dougherty worked for the Los Angeles police department for 25 years before retiring in 1974. During that time, he implemented LA's first Special Weapons and Tactics — SWAT — team. The Los Angeles Times also says that he taught criminal science. Per NPR, Dougherty even uncovered a plot to kidnap actor James Garner. Dougherty retired to Maine, where he served on the Maine Boxing Commission and even ran against Rep. Albert G. Stevens for Congress.

Dougherty was at work when he received the call about Monroe's death. "I had almost been expecting it," he told Associated Press in 2002 (via Stylecaster). "Fame was injurious to her. She was too gentle to be an actress. She wasn't tough enough for Hollywood. And once someone starts getting into pills — uppers and downers, the way she was — people can go downhill. They can't sleep, so they take more and more pills." 

Dougherty went on to write two books about his time with his Monroe, 1976's "The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe" and 2001's "To Norma Jeane with Love, Jimmie." In 1997, per The Washington Post, he said, "I love her [Monroe], but I'm not in love with her." Speaking to the Portland Press Herald in 2001 (per the Los Angeles Times), Dougherty said, "I've done a lot of things in my life, but that's the thing everyone asked me about, Norma Jean. It's all right with me. It was part of my life." Dougherty died from leukemia in 2005.