Born in 1926, Lester Carl Bolender was placed in foster care at an early age. Albert Wayne and Ida Bolender, who later adopted Lester, also cared for a little girl also born that year.
Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Baker, was the grand-daughter of Della Monroe Grainger, a neighbour of the Bolenders in the quiet suburb of Hawthorne, just outside Los Angeles.
Norma Jeane stayed with the Bolenders until 1933, when she moved in with her mother, Gladys. Her first seven years were probably the most stable of her childhood, and she and Lester were very close. The Bolenders had wanted to adopt Norma Jeane as well, but Gladys wouldn’t allow this.
They were nicknamed ‘the twins’: and after seeing this photo of Lester as a young man at FindaGrave.com, it’s clear he was strikingly handsome in later life. And like Marilyn, he would also experience rejection when he finally discovered his true origins.
“Born on August 23, 1926 whilst his parents, Pearl and Carl Flugel, were living in a tent, Lester had come to the Bolender home after the Flugels decided they were too young to take care of him. Married for just over a week before the birth of their son, the couple handed the baby to Ida Bolender and returned to their home state of Washington, where they later had four more children…The couple kept their first son a secret from their family…the elderly Lester travelled to meet his long-lost family but unfortunately, even at this late stage, one of the brothers refused to believe they were related and apparently never accepted Lester as his brother.
But back in 1926, when both Lester and Norma Jeane were just babies, they were nicknamed ‘the twins’ and raised as brother and sister. ‘They have great times together,’ wrote Mrs Bolender’ [in a 1927 letter to the Flugels]. ‘Lots of people think them twins. I dress them alike at times and they do look cunning…’
…For Norma Jeane, there were many happy times with the Bolender family, and she would often find herself at nearby Redondo Beach, or climbing the apple tree outside her bedroom window, with Lester in tow. The two would drag blankets up to the branches in order to make a fort, while in the yard, the chickens, rabbits and goats would go about their business, oblivious to the antics above.”
Interestingly, Lester’s wife was called Jean Adair – a name once favoured by the aspiring actress, Norma Jeane, before she became Marilyn Monroe instead, according to My Sister Marilyn, the 1996 memoir of her half-sister, Bernice Baker Miracle, and her niece, Mona Rae Miracle. In one chapter, Bernice describes attending a meeting with Ben Lyon, who helped Norma Jeane win a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946:
“Actually Mr Lyon had not yet decided on a last name for her, but Marilyn was definitely to be her first name. Mr Lyon said, ‘Marilyn likes the sound of Adair. She wanted to be Jean Adair. But perhaps we’ll use Monroe. That’s a family name and the two M’s would be nice.'”
Is it just an uncanny coincidence, or did Norma Jeane want to be named after Lester’s wife? We don’t know whether Lester stayed in touch with Norma Jeane, or when he married – although there may have been some contact, as Ida Bolender had attended Norma Jeane’s wedding to Jim Dougherty in 1942.
Lester Bolender died on Christmas Day, 1999 (followed by Jean in 2008.) They are buried together at Forest Lawn Memorial Park – also known as Cypress Memorial Cemetery – in Orange County, California.
Immortal Marilyn staffer Jackie Craig visited Lester’s grave last weekend to pay her respects, and shared this photo. You can view the whole set here.
I’ve just finished reading America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, a fascinating new biography byJohn L. Williams. In the blurb, MM is mentioned as a friend of Eartha’s. But other than a charming photo of Eartha talking with Marilyn and Arthur Miller at a Milk Fund dinner in 1957, there is no real proof in the book that they were ever close. (Certainly they had a lot in common – both came from troubled backgrounds, and were determined to make up for their lack of education. Eartha even met Marilyn’s hero, Albert Einstein.)
However, Williams does add some new detail to the fabled story of Marilyn securing a residency for Ella Fitzgerald at the Mocambo Club in 1954.
“[Eartha] showed up at the Mocambo one night to support…Ella Fitzgerald, who was making her debut at the club. This was quite a big deal as Ella was emphatically a jazz singer, rather than a cabaret star, and the Mocambo didn’t generally do jazz. Marilyn Monroe had lobbied hard to persuade [owner] Charlie Morrison to make the booking. At the end of the show, however, it was not Marilyn herself but Eartha who came out on stage and handed Ella a dozen red roses.”
I can imagine that the self-effacing Marilyn would have been reluctant to take credit for Ella’s success. It has been often assumed that Ella wasn’t booked initially because of a colour bar. In a footnote, Williams is sceptical:
“Some readers may be aware of…the notion that the Mocambo was a segregated club until…MM persuaded the Mocambo to book Ella Fitzgerald. This is clearly nonsense. Charlie Morrison, the owner, had long been booking black entertainers. He may well have been wary, however, of booking an out-and-out jazz singer like Ella.”
“A variety of black entertainers had been booked there long before Ella, including Dorothy Dandridge in 1951 and Eartha Kitt in 1953. The truth is that while Charlie Morrison encouraged and applauded performers of all races in his club, he didn’t see Ella Fitzgerald as being glamorous enough to bring in the crowds. It would take Marilyn to change his mind, and once Ella had her foot in the door she successfully played at the Mocambo on a variety of occasions.”
Whether or not race was a factor, the incident is a wonderful example of Marilyn’s generous nature. Her warm friendships with Dandridge, Phil Moore and Sammy Davis Jr also show that Marilyn was well ahead of the times in her attitudes towards race.
Perhaps the last word should go to Ella herself, quoted by feminist writer Gloria Steinem for a profile of Marilyn in Ms magazine in 1972:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…it was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Lyles also befriended a young Marilyn Monroe. In 2001 he shared his memories with members of Marilyn Remembered:
“A. C. spoke of Marilyn in the most delightful of ways, remembering her as a young sweet girl who had a ‘Gracie Allen‘ quality to her. He said she was always interested in the goings on in the studio, but never in a gossipy way. A.C. shared with us that when he first met Marilyn he wanted her to be his little sister, someone to hug and protect. He said that she would immediately evoke from you a feeling of protectiveness over her, like she was vulnerable and needed looking after.
Story #1: A.C. used to accompany Marilyn to the studio commissary where she would confide in him her dreams to become a big star. He said she would look around the studio commissary all wide eyed and said, ‘One day people will turn their heads to look at me.’ Later on in Marilyn’s career A.C. would accompany her to the studio commissary where she was now a big star, and indeed peoples heads would turn to stare. Always conscious of her appearance, A.C. said Marilyn only ordered soup when she went out to lunch with him because as she put it, ‘If someone comes up to me I don’t want to be caught with a big mouth full of food!’
Story #2: He said that Marilyn would often want to know details about stars that A.C. knew. But they were usually obscure stars like Lili St. Cyr or Mae West. She was even interested in the intimate life of Christine Jorgesen, famous for being the first person to have a man to woman sex operation!
Story #3: Mr. Lyles was a good friend to agent Johnny Hyde who was instrumental in Marilyn’s career. A.C. said he often would get calls from Johnny asking for him to look after ‘Baby,’ (Johnny’s nickname for Marilyn) because he had to work late. A.C. said he would often take Marilyn out to nightclubs for the evening at the request of Johnny Hyde and would have many conversations with her about her career. One such conversation he remembered was her concern about becoming a star. She thought she had the talent for it but that her butt was too big and therefore she might not make it! Of course as history would later prove it was one of her most important assets!
Story #4: A.C. Lyles also shared another delightful story about Marilyn and journalist Sidney Skolsky. Sidney was a close friend to Marilyn Monroe, as well as to other young starlets. He often would rely on them for transportation from one studio to the next as he did not drive. In exchange for these actresses help, Sidney often would write favorable items for them in his column. It was said that Sidney was never at a loss for a ride in Hollywood! Well, one Saturday morning Marilyn was having lunch with A.C. and she turned flush. In a panic she asked A.C. what time it was, to which he replied 12:15. She utter ‘Oh No! I was supposed to pick up Sidney at 11:30!’ A.C. said, ‘Well Marilyn you are only 45 minutes late.’ To which she replied, ‘You don’t understand. I was supposed to pick him up on Monday!’
Story #5:Interesting to note, A.C. Lyles was asked about Robert Slatzer. (For those who are unfamiliar who Robert Slatzer is, he is the gentlemen who claims among many other things to have once been married to Marilyn Monroe.) A.C. actually had some rather nice things to say about Mr. Slatzer. He said that although he won’t comment on the ‘supposed marriage to Marilyn,’ he can say he remembers attending many parties where BOTH Marilyn and Bob were seen together. He said Mr. Slatzer used to work at the Paramount Studio and that he is really a delightful man whom he has the highest regard for. Coming from Mr. Lyles this was quite something and makes one stop to think.
A.C.’s insight to Marilyn gave us all such a fresh perspective of this sensitive and talented star. He didn’t recall a woman who was all breathy and put on, but instead a sweet, insecure, young woman who was tremendously sensitive. A girl who broke out in tears when told of a story about Clark Gable having to pass by a studio stage showing a plane crash shortly after his wife Carole Lombard had died in a similar way.”