Marilyn, Ben Lyon and the Story of a New Name

Ahead of the Essentially Marilyn exhibition’s grand opening at the Paley Centre in Los Angeles tomorrow, Olivia B. Waxman uncovers the story behind this signed photo – taken during filming of The Seven Year Itch – showing Marilyn with Fox talent scout Ben Lyon, in an article for Time. The photo – to be sold at auction by Profiles in History in October – refutes some of the more outlandish rumours about how Marilyn got her name (I’m looking at you, Mickey Rooney.) It won’t be news to longstanding fans, however, as biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles first quoted Marilyn’s words to Lyon back in 1969.

“The above photograph — inscribed by Marilyn Monroe to Lyon: “Dear Ben, You found me, named me and believed in me when no one else did. My thanks and love forever. Marilyn’ … [is] Considered to be one of the most important photographs in Hollywood history because it debunks myths about how she got her iconic stage name, it could fetch more than $100,000, according to Profiles in History CEO Joseph Maddalena, who runs the auction house that specializes in Hollywood memorabilia. He said photos autographed by Monroe usually fetch between $20,000 and $30,000.

So how was the name Marilyn Monroe chosen?

It was a team effort, according to one account of how it happened by Monroe biographer Donald Spoto. At the time, Lyon thought there were too many possible pronunciations of “Dougherty,” the surname of her soon-to-be ex-husband. The 20-year-old model — who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and later baptized Norma Jeane Baker — suggested Monroe, another surname on the mother’s side of the family, while Lyon came up with Marilyn because she reminded him of Marilyn Miller, the Ziegfeld Follies Broadway musical star who starred with him and W.C. Fields in Her Majesty, Love. (Miller and Lyon were also thought to have been romantically involved at one point ) It would be apt that the two performers would share the same name, in more ways than one. Spoto points out that not only were they similar on the surface — both blonde in appearance — but also because they both had complicated personal lives, including failed marriages.”

‘Essentially Marilyn’ at the Paley Center

Essentially Marilyn, a free exhibition at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles, will be on display from August 18-September 30, ahead of a major auction at Profiles in History this October.

“A major Marilyn Monroe mystery has been solved! For years it had been debated, how did she get her name? A never before seen oversize presentation photograph inscribed by Marilyn Monroe to 20th Century Fox studio executive, Ben Lyon, answers that question.

Marilyn inscribes, ‘Dear Ben, You found me, named me and believed in me when no one else did. My thanks and love forever. Marilyn’. The photo was taken during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. This is the most important signed photograph in Hollywood history.

Fifteen costumes worn by Marilyn Monroe will be on exhibit, including her yellow and black sequined showgirl costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her signature white chiffon over white satin ball gown from The Prince and the Showgirl, her patterned sequined dress from How to Marry a Millionaire and the ‘Subway Dress’ from The Seven Year Itch that was created by Bill Travilla, who made most of Marilyn’s costumes, for touring and exhibition purposes. It’s made to the exact specifications of his original 1955 design for the film.

Marilyn’s heavily hand-annotated script from 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, which gives unique insight into her artistic process.

Marilyn’s personal childhood photographs with handwritten notes, including her baby photo with the note, ‘Me when I was very small,’ another photograph with the note, ‘First boyfriend. Lester Bolender and Norma Jeane, both age 5’.

The exhibit will be framed by elegant and stunningly beautiful large format photographs of Monroe captured by her friend, famed fashion and celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene.”

Marilyn Miller: The Sunshine Girl

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Over at Classic Movie Hub, Sara and Cynthia Brideson – authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies, a new biography of the great Broadway producer – profile Marilyn Miller, one of his most popular stars. Miller would posthumously inspire Marilyn Monroe’s stage name, as the young Norma Jeane reminded talent scout Ben Lyon of her. Some years later, during her marriage to Arthur Miller, Monroe’s legal name was Marilyn Miller.

“In the 1920s there were two types of girls in the movies. First, there were the angelic waifs. Second, there were the flapper girls brimming with ‘It.’ One diminutive, blonde actress embodied both types. She was at once traditional and defiant of old conventions. She bobbed her hair and was never dependant on a man for money, but she enjoyed receiving the conspicuous gifts Stage Door Johnnies lavished upon her. She gave up dozens of marriage offers from wealthy middle aged men, favoring the old adage that marriage must be based on love.  Who was this girl?

Her name was Marilyn Miller. At the peak of her success between 1918 and 1928, she personified the youth of the Jazz Age. She began as a sprite-like ballerina in the Ziegfeld Follies and came within a hair’s breadth of being cinema’s new ‘It’ girl before her tragic, premature death. Marilyn Miller, though almost forgotten today, is as much the tragic heroine of the Jazz Age as Jean Harlow was of the 1930s and Marilyn Monroe was of the 1950s.

Following her passing, Hollywood made two attempts at preserving the memory of Ziegfeld’s greatest star; first in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), a film celebrating the music of Jerome Kern in which Judy Garland admirably portrays Marilyn in three musical numbers, and second in a highly fictitious biopic entitled Look for the Silver Lining starring June Haver. Neither come close to conveying the real Marilyn—an actress ‘intended only to smile’ but was, in reality, a complicated, willful woman. In the words of a friend, she always ‘…seemed so happy…that no one suspected the depth of her feelings and her capacity…for pain.’ On stage, and indeed, in the precious few films that document both her flaming youth and elfin charm, Marilyn epitomes a pretty girl who, like a melody, haunts you night and day.”

Marilyn’s ‘Twin’: Lester Bolender

lester carl bolender 26-99

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.

Michelle Morgan wrote about their early years together in MM: Private and Undisclosed.

“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.

Photo by Jackie Craig
Photo by Jackie Craig

Marilyn Miller’s Hollywood Star

Marilyn Miller, who first found fame in Ziegfeld’s Follies on Broadway, and starred in three movies before her death in 1936, was honoured with her own star on Hollywood’s ‘Walk of Fame’. However, Miller’s star was stolen during the 1970s and has just reappeared.

Ben Lyon, the talent scout who signed 20 year-old Norma Jeane Dougherty to Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946, suggested the name ‘Marilyn’ to her because she reminded him of Miller. ‘Monroe’ was her mother’s maiden name.

After Marilyn married Arthur Miller in 1956, her name would match the woman who inspired it.

“Ana Martinez of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce told City News Service she received a call yesterday from a nervous man who said he had a Walk of Fame star, which he claimed someone had given to him.

It turns out it was Miller’s, which was one of several that were removed from the area of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in the 1970s to make way for special honors on the famed walk for NASA astronauts, Martinez said.

‘The stars were removed because they were going to be moved up in the same area of original placement,’ Martinez said.

She said the original stars were supposed to be destroyed because they were being replaced with new ones.

‘Obviously a few of them weren’t,’ she said.

Miller’s star was apparently pilfered from a construction site — the same one from which the original stars of James Stewart and Kirk Douglas disappeared, she said. Those stars were later recovered, but nobody realized that Miller’s had not been destroyed as planned, so the theft apparently went undetected.

‘I guess everyone assumed it was destroyed,’ Martinez said.

Until yesterday.

Martinez said the caller, whom she identified only as Bill, asked if it would be a crime to keep the star.

‘I said it’s a registered historic landmark,’ she said.

So the man hastily returned the 300-pound piece of concrete, even though his wife apparently had plans to turn it into a patio table, Martinez said.

Martinez said the star would be kept in the chamber’s archives, which will someday be used to create a ‘mini-museum.’

‘I’m just glad she’s back,’ Martinez said.”

Beverly Hills Courier

Remembering Marilyn’s Namesake

A profile of the Broadway star whose name inspired Marilyn Monroe’s, at NPR

“Reading about Marilyn Miller, I found several surprising items. The name Marilyn, for example — Miller made it up from her own given name, Mary, and her mother’s name, Lynn — had apparently been quite rare until Miller’s stardom made it one of this country’s most popular girl’s names.

Decades later, Ben Lyon — a Twentieth Century Fox executive and former leading man who had co-starred with Miller and W.C. Fields in Miller’s last and best movie, Her Majesty, Love — signed up another pretty blond actress, Norma Jean Baker. She reminded him of Miller, and he urged her to change her name to Marilyn.

Both Marilyns had problems with their marriages and with substance abuse, and both died very young — Monroe at 36, Miller at 37, from complications of a chronic sinus infection.

Marilyn Monroe’s films will always keep her memory alive. Marilyn Miller didn’t live far enough into the movie era to appear in films that would do the same for her.”