When she was 19, a young girl named Berniece Baker Miracle received a letter from a woman named Gladys Baker. That woman was actually her estranged birth mother – a woman she barely knew. In her letter, Gladys told her daughter that she had a sister. That sister was a 12-year-old girl named Norma Jeane.
But you probably know her better as Marilyn Monroe. As you can imagine, the letter changed Berniece’s life. In fact, the news of the relation changed both their lives. From that moment on, the two half-sisters began a relationship that continued until Marilyn’s early death in 1962.
Marilyn Monroe Told Everyone She Had No Living Family Members
For those who don’t know, Marilyn Monroe spent some of her childhood in an orphanage. She would tell the press that she had no living family. Everybody just figured she was an orphan.
It was only after Marilyn’s death that Berniece broke the silence and told the world about her half-sister – a sister she loved dearly. As it turns out, it was Berniece who picked out the fallen Hollywood star’s casket and burial dress.
This is the unknown story of a Golden Age actress and her hidden family member…
Back When Marilyn Was Still Norma Jeane
For the first 19 years of her life, Berniece was in the dark about her younger half-sister’s existence. This was back in the 1930s when Marilyn wasn’t Marilyn yet. She was born with the name Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926 in Los Angeles. Her mother, Gladys Baker, was 24.
Marilyn, like Berniece, was in the dark about her family. All she knew was that she had no one, other than her mother Gladys. She lived with her mother periodically until she was ten years old. Shortly after her birth, she was placed into a foster home.
All the Way Over in Kentucky
Her living situation was hardly ideal as she moved homes a lot. At times she lived with her mother, but Gladys was not mentally stable enough to care for her daughter. At one point, Marilyn was sent to live with a friend of her mother’s named Grace Goddard.
It was during this time that Marilyn learned of her long-lost sister. Berniece grew up in Kentucky, far away from the City of Angels, where Marilyn lived. Berniece was a bit of a wild child who loved to dance to the swing music of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Who’s the Woman in the Photo?
Berniece often found herself getting in trouble with her teachers for disrupting their lessons. Her early years were spent with her brother, Jackie, her father and his wife – her stepmother. But Berniece always wondered who her real mother was.
She had only ever seen a photo of Gladys on a dresser in her home. Berniece was born in 1919, seven years before her mother gave birth to Norma Jeane. During that time, Gladys cut off all contact with her ex-husband Jasper, leaving him with their two children, Jackie and Berniece.
More Than Just a Mom in Common
Gladys had written on Marilyn’s birth certificate that she was her only child, thus cutting her off from her extended family. Interestingly, both Berniece and Marilyn had a lot in common, beyond having the same mother.
Both girls grew up in homes that were fraught with turmoil. After Gladys left Marilyn so she could be taken care of in a state ward for her mental illness, Marilyn was sent to various orphanages.
An Unstable Household
Berniece knew what instability felt like. After Gladys left her father, he remarried a stern woman – who was much older than him. Her father’s affection went toward his new wife, leaving him none left over for his son and daughter.
Berniece’s brother, Jackie, sadly passed away at the age of 14. After years of not hearing from, or about, her birth mother, Berniece figured she must have passed away, too. But when she turned 19, and was about to get married, her mother suddenly appeared in her life in the form of a letter.
Dear Daughter, You Have a Sister
Berniece was 19 when she married Paris Miracle. Shortly after, her father came to her with a letter in hand. He said to his daughter, “I don’t know if I ought to give you this or not. At first, I thought I would never show it to you. Your stepmother and I talked about it. We decided it’s your letter.”
Curious and confused, Berniece accepted the letter, which was already opened. The letter was written by Gladys, confessing that she has a 12-year-old sister named Norma Jeane.
Six Years in a Hospital Will Make a Conscience Speak
Along with this shocking new information, Gladys also included an address Berniece could use to write letters to her sister. Gladys had written the letter when she was being hospitalized. In fact, she was in an institution for six years and thus wasn’t taking care of Marilyn at the time.
At the time, Marilyn was staying with Glady’s friend. For Berniece, the letter – and the news it carried with it – answered so many questions. She didn’t need to think it over – she immediately took out a pen and paper and wrote her newfound sister a letter.
Sincerely, Your Sister
In Berniece’s first letter to Marilyn, she included a photo of herself. And when Marilyn sent her reply, she did the same. When Marilyn, 12 at the time, wrote to Berniece, she was sweet and full of questions. She wanted to know everything about her older sister and what life in Kentucky was like.
Each letter was signed off with, “Your sister.” Once she learned about her sister, Berniece was determined to improve her life. She spent the next few years writing to different family members who might be able to help.
They Still Hadn’t Met in Person
She was hoping to have family help Gladys get out of the institution as well as find Marilyn a better living situation. Over the years, the sisters continued writing letters to each other. But they had yet to meet in person.
When Marilyn turned 16, Berniece got a letter in which she learned of her sister’s engagement to be married. In 1942, Marilyn married Jim Dougherty, who was 21 years old. The young couple moved to Santa Catalina Island, after which Dougherty joined the Merchant Navy.
Marilyn Was Settling Into a Housewife’s Life
Despite not yet having met in person, Berniece was happy to hear that Marilyn had found a man who made her happy. Now a wife with a daughter of her own, Berniece was excited to finally have the kind of extended family she always wanted to have.
Through her letters, Berniece learned that Marilyn was enjoying her new role as a housewife, having learned to cook and take care of a dog. But nothing lasts forever. Soon, the stress of war took over the household. The couple was worried that Dougherty would be drafted.
Keeping Each Other in the Loop During the War
The looming World War II put a dark cloud above everyone’s home, including Berniece’s. She and her family considered leaving Kentucky. In 1944, they relocated to Detroit, all the while keeping Marilyn in the loop as to her whereabouts.
Marilyn also kept her sister updated. With each photo Berniece sent Marilyn, Marilyn would keep them and show her visitors and neighbors.
Her First-Ever Photograph
Throughout their correspondence, they discussed their desire to meet. In one letter, Marilyn wrote, “I know that once you get here you wouldn’t want to leave, at least that’s what most people say. And I do want to see you all very much and I know Mother would too.”
During the war, Marilyn got a job working on an assembly line in a defense plant. She worked a glue sprayer and strived for perfection, earning herself a certificate for excellence. It was at this job that Marilyn was first photographed for a magazine.
A New, Promising Career
These on-the-job photos were sent to the owner of a modeling agency, who decided to sign Marilyn as a model. She accepted and was excited about her new career. The only problem was that it caused a rift in her marriage.
With a promising new career on the horizon, she quit her job at the factory. She started working as a model and hostess, which brought a new kind of instability into her life. The good news, though, was that she finally got to see Berniece in the flesh.
It Took Six Years to Finally Meet
The two finally met in 1944, when Marilyn was 18 and Berniece 25. After six years of being the best of pen pals, the sisters could hug it out. It was Marilyn who made the trip to Detroit to visit Berniece and her husband at their home.
To buy the train ticket, Marilyn used all her husband’s allotment money that was given to her because of his position in the Marines. Initially, Berniece and Paris were worried they wouldn’t recognize Marilyn in the crowded train station. All they had to go by were her photos.
And There She Was
Berniece looked back on the day she first met her sister. She wrote, “There was no chance of missing her! All the passengers stepping off [the train] looked so ordinary, and then, all of a sudden, there was this tall, gorgeous girl.”
Berniece explained how none of the other passengers “looked anything like that: tall, so pretty and fresh.” Marilyn was wearing “a cobalt blue wool suit and a hat with a heart shaped dip in the brim.” The sisters couldn’t stop looking at each other.
The Resemblance Was Uncanny
Berniece noted that it was like looking in the mirror. “We couldn’t stop staring at each other,” she recalled. “We had the same dark blonde hair with a widow’s peak, the same mouth, but our eyes were different.”
Whereas Berniece’s eyes were brown, Marilyn’s were blue, “like our mother’s.” The sisters went on to the city together, sharing stories of their childhood along the way. They told stories that neither of them had ever told anyone before. For one, Marilyn told her that Gladys had used a dresser drawer as a crib when she was a baby.
It Had Been Ten Years Since She Saw Their Mother
Berniece showed her sister the single photo that she had of their mother. The meeting proved to be bittersweet as it reminded Berniece that her younger sister hadn’t seen their mother in person for decades.
The women talked a lot about their mother during their first meeting. Marilyn revealed that she hadn’t seen Gladys in ten years. The last time she saw her was in the mental institution, when she visited her. She admitted to Berniece that she almost wished that she never visited her mother at all.
They Both Danced to the Same Song
Aside from Gladys, Marilyn and Berniece spoke of their shared passions. There was a piano that Marilyn adored, which her mother gave her when she was a child. She then showed Berniece a tap-dancing routine that she performed during a church talent show.
Berniece asked her what song she tap-danced to and when Marilyn told her that the song was College Rhythm, Berniece jumped up in her seat. She had also performed a dance routine to that same song when she was a little girl. It just proved how much the two had in common.
Like a Stranger
They couldn’t ignore the issue of their mother. Marilyn told Berniece that Gladys is “really a stranger to me. Almost as much a stranger as she is to you. Part of me wants to be with her… and part of me is a little afraid of her.”
Despite being abandoned by the same woman, both sisters still loved their ailing mother. Neither sister knew that Gladys would soon be in their lives again. But until she showed up, Berniece and Marilyn would visit each other.
With a Side of Peas and Carrots
When Marilyn stayed at Berniece’s house, she liked to cook meals for her small family, which typically included a side dish of peas and carrots. She like it because of the mix of bright colors.
The fact that Marilyn’s father died before she was born meant that she envied her sister’s situation, having grown up with a dad. Berniece, however, was quick to tell Marilyn that her family situation was far from ideal and that she wasn’t close with her father. There was more to learn about each other through their visits…
Modeling Took a Toll on Her Marriage
On their first visit, Berniece noticed her sister’s stutter. Marilyn often stammered through sentences and showed a lack of confidence when speaking. Yet when she spoke about subjects she knew well, her stutter disappeared.
This was a problem that would reappear when Marilyn started her acting career. It was during her first visit to Berniece that Marilyn realized her passion for modeling. Her husband didn’t approve, though, as it meant she was homeless and her expenses grew. It was putting on a strain on the marriage.
Goodbye Husband, Hello Hollywood
Eventually, Gladys was released from the hospital. Marilyn thought of her estranged mother but was more focused on her blossoming career. In fact, she was so enamored by her new life that it put an end to her marriage.
After four years together, Marilyn filed for divorce from Dougherty in 1946. Part of the reason was her agent who told her that movie studios were reluctant to hire married women as they tended to put their families ahead of their careers. (It was a different time…)
$75 Per Week for Seven Years
Once she was divorced, her agent gladly sent her to meet the big wigs at Twentieth Century Fox studios. It led to her first screen test for studio head Darryl Zanuck, who offered her a seven-year contract for $75 per week.
This was a significant jumpstart for her career. Her first six months at the studio were spent taking classes in acting, singing and dancing. She was only observing at first, watching how the movie making process worked. She was desperate to be a part of it.
Becoming Marilyn Monroe
It was during her first meeting with Zanuck and Ben Lyon at the studio that she took on the name Marilyn Monroe. Lyon suggested Marilyn as he thought she reminded him of the Broadway actress Marilyn Miller.
As for the last name Monroe, Marilyn chose it herself because it was her mother’s maiden name. Speaking of Gladys, Marilyn was caring for her mother as her career started to take off. But just as her now ex-husband was disapproving of her career, so was her mother.
Berniece Was on Her Way
Regardless of her mother’s disapproval and harsh words of criticism, Marilyn kept her eye on the prize. Her first role came in 1947’s Dangerous Years. She played a waitress alongside Billy Halop and Scotty Beckett.
As things were looking up, she noticed her agents were always asking her to take photos with other budding actors. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Berniece was preparing to meet her mother for the first time. She was heading to California to visit Marilyn and, on the trip, she would finally get the chance to reunite with her mother.
A Family Affair to Remember
During her time off from the studio, Marilyn took her sister, mother and niece for scenic drives around Los Angeles. The photos they took at the beach together were some of Berniece’s favorite memories with her sister.
From the beginning of Marilyn’s career, Berniece always noted how her sister stood out from her fellow actresses. She saw how her sister would arrive to the studio with her hair and makeup done, regardless of how busy she was. Marilyn loved to be done up.
Sneaking Berniece Into the Studio
She spent nearly all of her paychecks on clothes, which made an impression on the studio, especially the higher-ups. Since she was on good terms (there must have been a good deal of flirting going on) with most of the studio execs, she even tried to put a word in for her sister.
Marilyn tried getting Berniece a job to work alongside her as an employed actress at Fox. There were times when Marilyn would sneak her sister in the studio gates by pretending that Berniece was a secretary there.
What Goes Up Must Go Down
Playing the “secretary,” Berniece got to witness her one of her sister’s screen tests. She couldn’t help but be proud of her what her sister had become. She was in awe of her beauty. For both women, things were going swimmingly.
But, as always, what goes up must go down. All the joys in Marilyn’s life came to an end when the studio suddenly decided to drop her. It was a major blow to the promising young actress, but she took it in stride. She decided to spend her free time on other things.
She Knew Instability All Too Well
Marilyn started to hone her craft, taking up classes at the Actors’ Lab, an LA acting school. In 1948, she was signed to Columbia Pictures. Shortly after, she went back to Fox. It was yet another unstable part of her life – something she regretfully was accustomed to.
As her fame grew, Berniece felt the effects of her sister’s fame. There were times where complete strangers would show up to the apartment complex where she and her husband lived to ask questions about her famous and beautiful sister.
It All Makes Sense Now
Marilyn started to realize just how important it was to maintain a private life, and so she tried her best to stop this kind of intrusion from happening to her and her sister. This is why she would tell reporters that she was an orphan with no parents.
Berniece knew all about the stories her sister fabricated for the press. “She gave out fake stories about her background through her public relations people,” Berniece wrote. “She thought that she could preserve my normal life and my family’s and that she could protect our mother’s privacy by giving false leads to the press.”
She Kept Their Secret for the Rest of Marilyn’s Life
After Marilyn’s announcement and the rumors that spread, Berniece noticed that fewer and fewer fans would show up at her door. Her sister’s plan worked. Not only was she protecting Berniece, but her mother as well.
She wanted her fans to be focused on her work – not her private family life. Berniece never spoke publicly about her relationship with her sister until after Marilyn passed away in 1962. “At times I was tempted to correct some of the misperceptions about Marilyn and her background…” she wrote.
A Shoulder to Cry On
But Berniece didn’t want Marilyn to “lose trust in me. I wanted to be a source of love and support for her.” For Marilyn, anyone who shared details of her private life – whether flattering or not – was disloyal, and she would quickly break contact with them.
When times were tough, and she didn’t have anyone to turn to, she could always rely on Berniece for a shoulder to cry on. She knew that her sister would listen without judgment. When Marilyn had to undergo an operation in 1961, Berniece flew to New York to see her.
She’s Now 102
“Finally! We’re together again!” Marilyn shouted when seeing her sister at the time. On that trip, Berniece expressed concern about how many pills the movie star was taking. Marilyn dismissed her, though, saying simply, “I need my sleep.”
Later, when Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller fell apart, she called her sister to talk it through. She always knew she could depend on Berniece. Today, at the age of 102 (as of April 2022), Berniece is one of the last living people to have personally known Marilyn Monroe.
It Might Have Been an Accident
Her sister’s death (by suicide at the age of 36) was a devastating blow for Berniece. “I don’t think I have been quite the same since.” Berniece helped put her sister to rest. She helped her husband, Joe DiMaggio, arrange the funeral.
“I chose her casket and decided on the pale green dress she wore.” As for the suicide, Berniece doesn’t believe that Marilyn killed herself on purpose. “It could have been an accident, because I had just talked to her a short time before,” she said during an interview.
She Seemed So Happy
“I had just talked to her a short time before. She told me what she had planned to do.” Marilyn had told Berniece of her new house, “and she was working on the curtains of the windows. She had so many things to look forward to and she was so happy.”
Her death came out of nowhere for Berniece, making the grief so difficult to bear. “Many writers approached my mother,” her daughter, Mona Rae, said. But Berniece “didn’t trust their motives and couldn’t know whether the hours she devoted to the project would only bring more grief.”
My Sister Marilyn
Berniece wrote about the deep-rooted connection she had with Marilyn. “We grew up feeling abandoned and, though both of us were told we were pretty and talented, we still needed courage and strength. We got that from each other.”
Berniece went on to write a book entitled My Sister Marilyn, about her sister’s life. In it, she set some records straight. She and her daughter, an author, wrote the book together in the early 1990s to finally get the story out there. The book was published in 1994.
Setting the Record Straight
In the book, Mona wrote, “I had developed my [writing] career without reference to Marilyn; in fact, once I finished school, I never told anyone about my connection to our famous relative.” Mona explained that she wanted to be judged on her own merits.
“I wasn’t eager to link my career to Marilyn. But Mother wanted to set the record straight.” Part of the reason Berniece wanted to share her stories was because over the years, she “read too many accounts of her life and ours so filled with errors that they present a woman I hardly recognize.”
A Kind Woman Who Put Family First
The Marilyn Monroe that we, the world, knew wasn’t the Marilyn that Berniece and her family knew. We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly side of her, of course, with all the embarrassments, affairs, and drugs. But the Marilyn Berniece knew – and the one she wrote about – was kind and put family before all else.
Marilyn’s niece, Mona, learned a thing or two from her famous aunt. “Marilyn showed me how to put my best knee forward,” Mona wrote on her own website. “By the way, that’s a classic forties hairdo.”
Maybe Blondes Do Have More Fun
On Mona Miracle’s website, she posted a photo with the caption, “At age thirty, an experiment to see if blondes really do have more fun. Well! They get a head start because blonde hair lights up a room!”
As for the Miracle family, Paris, Mona’s father and Berniece’s husband, passed away in 1990, but the two have kept their spirits high. Today, Berniece lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her daughter. Their book continues to be praised. Entertainment Weekly wrote, “this portrait of Marilyn is irreplaceable.”