Berniece Baker Miracle, Marilyn’s half-sister, turns 100 years old today. (This photo, taken in 1994, showed Berniece aged 75.)
Berniece was born on July 30, 1919, to John ‘Jap’ Baker and his wife Gladys in Venice, California. She was their second child, Robert (or ‘Jackie’) having been born in 1917. Baker was sixteen years older than Gladys, who had married him aged just fifteen. The marriage was not a happy one, and in 1923, they separated. After the divorce, Baker abducted both children and returned to his hometown of Flat Lick, Kentucky. Gladys followed them there, but was unable to recover her children. She eventually returned to Los Angeles and after another failed marriage, became pregnant with Norma Jeane who was born in 1926.
In 1933, Berniece’s brother Robert tragically died aged sixteen. Two years later, Gladys suffered a nervous breakdown and would spend much of her later life under psychiatric care. Berniece, who believed her mother was dead, received a letter from Gladys in 1938 and also learned of her half-sister’s existence for the first time. The two ‘sisters’ began a warm correspondence. At nineteen, Berniece had just graduated from college and was about to marry her long-term boyfriend, Paris Miracle. Their daughter, Mona Rae Miracle, was born in 1939, and the family moved north to Detroit, Michigan.
In 1944, Norma Jeane travelled to Detroit where she finally met Berniece in person. Two years later, Berniece – now living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – visited her half-sister, now a successful model and aspiring actress under her new name of Marilyn Monroe, in Los Angeles.
In 1951, Berniece moved to Gainesville, Florida, and would later work as a bookkeeper at the University of Florida, while Mona Rae qualified as a schoolteacher in 1957 and was married a year later.
Although the sisters stayed in touch throughout Marilyn’s rise to fame, they would not meet again until 1961, when she asked Berniece to stay with her in New York as she recuperated from gallbladder surgery. Sadly this would be their last reunion, and in August 1962, Berniece was one of the first to hear of Marilyn’s death from her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio. She travelled to Los Angeles to help Joe and Inez Melson (Marilyn’s business manager, and legal guardian to Gladys) and attend her sister’s funeral. She and Mona Rae were among the beneficiaries of Marilyn’s will.
In 1967, Gladys left Rockhaven Sanitarium in California, and moved to Florida to live with her daughter. A few years later, she entered a nursing home. Gladys survived until 1984, and was joined in death by Paris Miracle six years later. My Sister Marilyn, co-written by Berniece and Mona Rae, was published in 1994. It is one of the most tender and intimate books ever written about Marilyn, and an essential read for anyone seeking a truthful account of her family background.
In an article for the New Yorker, no less, Robin Wright says, ‘I have something in common with Marilyn Monroe – and you might, too.’ That shared condition, she claims, is synaesthesia…
“Marilyn Monroe had a condition called synesthesia, a kind of sensory or cognitive fusion in which things seen, heard, smelled, felt, or tasted stimulate a totally unrelated sense—so that music can be heard or food tasted in colors, for instance. Monroe’s first husband, Jim Dougherty, told Norman Mailer about ‘evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds,’ Mailer recounted, in his 1973 biography of Monroe.”
While Marilyn was never diagnosed with synaesthesia, there’s a good reason for that – it wasn’t an established concept during her lifetime, although Wright believes it has been described in literature for centuries, noting that many artists, musicians and writers exhibit aspects of synaesthesia.
Maureen Seaberg first suggested that Marilyn might have been a synaesthete in a 2012 article for Psychology Today – a hypothesis supported by Mona Rae Miracle. (It would be interesting if a psychologist could examine other incidents from Marilyn’s life from this perspective.)
“It didn’t disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe’s displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia — no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn.
‘Synaesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as extraordinary sensitivity and/or extraordinary imagination … Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment … Marilyn’s awesome performance in Bus Stop (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out.'”
Marilyn graces the cover of US magazine Closer for the second time this year (the first came out back in June), with an article focusing on the mystery of her death. UK readers please note, the eponymous British magazine does not feature the same content. If you want to purchase this issue, try Ebay.
“Only in the new issue of Closer Weekly, Marilyn Monroe’s friends and family insist that Marilyn did not take her own life, while a new book, Marilyn Monroe: Day by Day, reveals new details from the star’s diary and the days leading up to her death.
Marilyn had made plans for ‘the day after she died…She was going to see the producers,’ Marilyn’s niece Mona Rae Miracle tells Closer. ‘It was very clear the studio was going to rehire her,’ notes Carl Rollyson, author of Marilyn Monroe: Day by Day, a new book that reveals the most comprehensive account of her last days through a paper trail of hidden diaries and appointment books. ‘She was making plans for the future.'”
Still, 50 years after her death, many believe it wasn’t suicide at all, but a tragic accident caused by the actress taking too many sleeping pills. ‘If Marilyn had a sleeping pill at her side, she would always take it,’ Jimmie Morrissey, Marilyn’s hairdresser, reveals to Closer. ‘She was always taking pills. And she was always drinking champagne.’
But the self-medicating couldn’t completely take away her pain. ‘She was in a bad place mentally for a while,’ Sherrill Snyder, the daughter of Marilyn’s longtime photographer and close friend Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, tells Closer. ‘People were giving her pills because they needed her to perform,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, Marilyn was surrounded by people who were less than vigilant’ about tracking her medication. ‘One thing led to another, but my father never believed it was suicide.'”
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. (Click on thumbnails below to enlarge)
“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.
Last weekend, I posted here about the unpublished photos by Sam Shaw and Richard Avedon, part of the Hollywood Auction 56 from Profiles in History (set for July 28th.)
Other items on offer include photos taken by Ben Ross in 1952, of Marilyn in her Niagara dress; and master prints by Zinn Arthur, taken while Monroe filmed her ‘That Old Black Magic’ number for Bus Stop, in 1956.
There are also a selection of personal notes from Marilyn to friends and family, including a Chanukah card for Bobby Miller; a calling card, inscribed ‘For my love / I love you with all of my heart Happy Christmas’ (probably for Arthur Miller); and a letter to her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, which reads like this:
“Dear Mona Rae, I hardly know what to write about — it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Your mother told me you are away at school and I’m very proud of you. Also she told me what a lovely girl you are. I would love to see you and know you again. Are you going to get married soon? Your mother said you might. If it’s really so, I wish you all the happiness there is. I’m sure he must be wonderful if you love him. And the whole world must be a beautiful place because he’s there — you see your old Auntie isn’t so old — I know how it is. But please don’t rush — but don’t hesitate either. You will know what you want and if you’r [sic] unsure life teaches us. Take care of yourself. I still see you as a little blonde headed brown eyed thin little girl as when I met you — very sweet and you wanted to be an actress. You have time — time for everything. Love, Marilyn your Auntie.”
Mona Rae Miracle, daughter of Bernice Miracle and niece of Marilyn Monroe, has spoken to The Mirrorabout her famous aunt.
“‘Norma Jean told me she was very pleased to meet me and I could tell she really was. She loved children. She would tumble about on the grass with us and the dogs and just loved it.’
It was the start of a warm bond between Mona and and her aunt, just 14 years her senior. ‘She was tons of fun,’ says Mona. ‘She could really appreciate a good joke – she was a prankster.’
‘She certainly wasn’t the dumb blonde she made out to be. She was intelligent and loved reading.’
As Marilyn’s success as an actress began to soar, Mona and her mum started to realise just how generous the star could be. ‘She’d send us parcels of clothes she didn’t want any more,’ Mona recalls. ‘What a thrill that was. We weren’t wealthy, but we had these terrific outfits.’
As Mona grew up, she turned to her aunt for advice about boys. ‘She would tell me: Just be yourself. Don’t pretend,’ she says.
And when she was found dead of an overdose of barbiturates at her home in August 1962, her niece was devastated. ‘I was 22 and in my first year of teaching. I went straight to the chapel and fell to my knees,’ recalls Mona.
Ironically, while rich and famous Marilyn’s life was cut short, hard-up housewife Berniece is still alive at 93. ‘Mother was just as beautiful as Marilyn really – and she is still very beautiful,’ says Mona Rae.
‘It is that facial structure. I am sure that Marilyn would have been just as beautiful if she had lived.'”
In ‘Tasting the Universe: Synaesthesia from the Inside Out’, a regular column for Psychology Today, Maureen Seaberg poses an intriguing question: Was Marilyn a synaesthete?
Synaesthesia, as defined by MedicineNet.com, is ‘a condition in which normally separate senses are not separate. Sight may mingle with sound, taste with touch, etc. The senses are cross-wired…People with synaesthesia often report that one or more of their family members also have synaesthesia, so it may in at least some cases be an inherited condition.’
Seaberg was approached by Dr John Michael Lennon, whose authorised biography of Norman Mailer will be published later this year. Dr Lennon brought to Seaberg’s attention this detail from Mailer’s 1973 book, Marilyn:
‘There, on p. 47, he found Mr. Mailer describing what can only be understood as Ms. Monroe’s synesthesia. In recounting her first husband, Jim Dougherty‘s recollections of her, he said:
“He recounted evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds…It also provides her natural wit…she did not have a skin like others.”
It didn’t disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe’s displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia — no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn.
“Synaesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as ‘extraordinary sensitivity’ and/or ‘extraordinary imagination’… Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment…Marilyn’s awesome performance in “Bus Stop” (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out.”
Ms. Miracle believed that not only was her aunt a synaesthete, but that she, too, is one. The trait is known to run in families.’