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Monroe's birth certificate names the father as Edward Mortensen, with his residence stated as "unknown",  Gladys Monroe had married a Martin E. Mortensen in 1924, but they had separated before Gladys' pregnancy. Several of Monroe's biographers suggest that Gladys Monroe used his name to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. Mortenson filed for divorce from Gladys on March 5, 1927 and the case was finalized on October 15, 1928. When Mortensen died, at the age of 85, Monroe's birth certificate together with her parents' marriage and divorce documents were discovered that proved that she was born legitimate. 
Throughout her life, Marilyn Monroe denied that Mortensen was her father. She said that when she was a child, she had been shown a photograph of a man that Gladys Monroe identified as her father. She remembered that he had a thin moustache and somewhat resembled Clark Gable, and that she had amused herself by pretending that Gable was her father, but never determined her father's true identity.
Mentally unstable and financially unable to care for Norma Jeane, Gladys placed her with foster parents Albert and Ida Bolender of Hawthorne, California, where she lived until she was seven. In her autobiography My Story (co-authored with screenwriter and novelist Ben Hecht,) Monroe stated she believed that the Bolenders were her parents until Ida corrected her. After that Norma Jeane referred to them as Aunt & Uncle.
During one of her weekly visits, Gladys told Norma Jeane that she had bought a house for them, and Norma Jeane was allowed to move in with her mother. A few months after moving in, Gladys suffered a breakdown. In My Story, Monroe recalls her mother "screaming and laughing", as she was forcibly removed to the State Hospital in Norwalk. Monroe was declared a ward of the state, and Gladys's best friend, Grace McKee, became her guardian. It was Grace that had told Monroe that someday she would become "...an important woman... a movie star". Grace was captivated by Jean Harlow, and would let Norma Jeane wear makeup and take her out to get her hair curled. They would go to the movies together, forming the basis for Norma Jeane's fascination with the cinema and the stars on screen.
After Grace McKee married Ervin Silliman Goddard in 1935, the 9 year-old Monroe was sent to the Los Angeles Orphans Home, (later renamed Hollygrove), and then to a succession of foster homes. Two years later Grace took Norma Jeane back to live with herself, Goddard and one of Goddard's daughters from a previous marriage. When Goddard tried to molest Norma Jeane, Grace sent her to live with her great aunt, Olive Brunings. Norma Jeane was assaulted by one of Olive's sons at the age of 12 and then went on to live with Grace's aunt, Ana Lower. When Ana developed health problems, Norma Jeane went back to live with Grace & Ervin Goddard, where she met a neighbor's son, Jim Dougherty, and soon began a relationship with him.
Grace and her husband were about to move East and could not take Norma Jeane. Another family wanted to adopt Norma Jeane, but Gladys would not allow it. Grace then approached a neighbor suggesting that her son, James Dougherty, could marry Norma Jeane so that she would not have to return to an orphanage or foster care, and in June 1942, they were married. Monroe would state in her autobiography that she did not feel like a wife; she enjoyed playing with the neighborhood children until her husband would call her home. The marriage lasted until 1946 when Monroe decided to pursue her career.
While Dougherty was in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Monroe moved in with her mother-in-law, and found employment in the Radioplane Munitions Factory. She sprayed airplane parts with fire retardant and inspected parachutes. During this time, Army photographer David Conover snapped a photograph of her for a Yank magazine article. He encouraged her to apply to The Blue Book modeling agency. She signed with the agency and began researching the work of Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. She enrolled in drama and singing classes and had her hair cut, straightened and lightened to golden blonde.
Norma Jeane Dougherty became one of Blue Book's most successful models, appearing on dozens of magazine covers. In 1946, she came to the attention of Ben Lyon, a 20th Century Fox executive, who arranged a screen test for her. Lyon was impressed and commented, "It's Jean Harlow all over again".  She was offered a standard six-month contract with a starting salary of $125 per week.
It was agreed that she would change her name. Lyon told her that she reminded him of the actress Marilyn Miller and she took her grandmother's name of Monroe as her surname. She appeared in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! and Dangerous Years (both 1947), but when her contract was not renewed, she returned to modeling. She attempted to find opportunities for film work, and while unemployed she posed for nude photographs.
In 1948 Monroe signed a six-month contract with Columbia Pictures, and was introduced to the studio's head drama coach, Natasha Lytess, who became her acting coach for several years. She starred in the low-budget musical, Ladies of the Chorus, but the film was not a success, and her contract was not renewed. She appeared in a small role in the Marx Brothers film Love Happy (1949) and impressed the producers, who sent her to New York to feature in the film's promotional campaign.
Love Happy brought Monroe to the attention of the agent, Johnny Hyde, who agreed to represent her. He arranged for her to audition for John Huston, who cast her in the drama The Asphalt Jungle, as the young mistress of an aging criminal. Her performance brought strong reviews, and was seen by the writer and director, Herman Mankiewicz. He accepted Hyde's suggestion of Monroe for a small comedic role in All About Eve, as Miss Caswell, an aspiring actress, described by another character as a student of "The Copacabana School of Dramatic Art". Mankiewicz later commented that he had seen an innocence in her that he found appealing, and that this had confirmed his belief in her suitability for the role. Following Monroe's success in these roles, Hyde negotiated a seven-year contract for her with 20th Century Fox, shortly before his death in December 1950.
Monroe enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles studying literature and art appreciation,  and appeared in several minor films playing opposite such long-established performers as Mickey Rooney, Constance Bennett, June Allyson, Dick Powell and Claudette Colbert. In March 1951 she appeared as a presenter at the 23rd Academy Awards ceremony.
In March 1952, Monroe faced a possible scandal when one of her nude photographs from 1949 was featured in a calendar. The press speculated about the identity of the anonymous model and commented that she closely resembled Monroe. As the studio discussed how to deal with the problem, Monroe suggested that she should simply admit that she had posed for the photograph but that she should emphasize that she had done so only because she had no money to pay her rent. She gave an interview in which she discussed the circumstances that led to her posing for the photographs, and the resulting publicity elicited a degree of sympathy for her plight as a struggling actress.
She made her first appearance on the cover of Life in April 1952, where she was described as "The Talk of Hollywood".  Stories of her childhood and upbringing portrayed her in a sympathetic light; a cover story for the May 1952 edition of True Experiences magazine showed a smiling and wholesome Monroe beside a caption that read, "Do I look happy? I should — for I was a child nobody wanted. A lonely girl with a dream — who awakened to find that dream come true. I am Marilyn Monroe. Read my Cinderella story."  It was also during this time that she began dating the baseball player, Joe DiMaggio. A photograph of DiMaggio visiting Monroe at the 20th Century Fox studio, was printed in newspapers throughout the United States, and reports of a developing romance between them generated further interest in Monroe.
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