When superstar Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose in 1962, she left a $5,000-a-year trust to support her mother, Gladys Baker, who would outlive her youngest daughter by 22 years.

It’s likely that the financial bequest was the most security Gladys had ever known. “Marilyn was always afraid that she was going to genetically inherit her mother’s madness,” J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, tells Closer exclusively. “She and Gladys were both terribly complicated women.”

Biographers have been sorting through the wreckage of Marilyn’s meteoric rise and sudden fall for more than 60 years, but the role that her mother Gladys’ backstory played in her life is often overlooked. “To a degree, [mental illness] was inherited, but I also think it was triggered by her terrible upbringing,” says Taraborrelli. “I don’t think one is exclusive to the other.”

It’s difficult to blame Gladys for being a bad parent because she never had the example of a good one. Born in 1902 to a couple with an unstable relationship due to her father’s alcoholism and mental illness, Gladys didn’t stand a chance.

After her father’s death in 1909, her mother ping-ponged from one bad relationship to the next. Gladys married Jasper Baker, a man her mother worked for, at age 14. She bore two children before filing for divorce at age 21.

“It was a terrible marriage. He was horribly abusive,” says Taraborrelli. Although the court awarded Gladys custody of son Jackie and daughter Berniece, Baker abducted them and moved to his native Kentucky so his mother could raise the children.

“I’ve always thought the kidnapping of her children triggered Gladys’ bipolar and other psychological issues,” says Taraborrelli. “She had so many troubles in her life because her children were stolen from her.”

After the loss of Jackie and Berniece, Gladys became a heavy drinker given to severe mood swings and fits of paranoia.

A New Life

By the1920s, Gladys had found work in Hollywood as a film negative cutter. She wed Martin Edward Mortensen, a meter reader for a gas company, but it wouldn’t last.

When daughter Norma Jean was born in 1926, Mortensen’s name was on the birth certificate, but the child never had a relationship with him. In 2022, DNA testing proved that Norma Jean’s father was Charles Stanley Gifford, Gladys’ boss at RKO Pictures.

Gladys, meanwhile, was stricken with postpartum depression so severe she considered killing herself and her infant daughter.

“Norma Jean went from foster home to foster home,” says Taraborrelli. “The child kept being shifted around until she married at 16 to get out of the system.”

When Norma Jean became movie star Marilyn Monroe, the studio publicists tried to hide her messy family history by claiming she was an orphan, but Marilyn always maintained a relationship with her mother. “Gladys was in and out of Marilyn’s life for years,” says Taraborrelli, who notes that Marilyn paid for her mother’s hospital stays and gave her money to live on.

“After Gladys was released from an institution, she came to live with Marilyn — and this is when Marilyn was a major star. Gladys was always a fixture in her daughter’s life, for better, and often for worse.”

End

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