In the annals of Northrop Grumman history, the all-star list of employees consists of scientists, engineers and other innovators. Also on that list is a more unlikely name: Norma Jean Dougherty (born Norma Jeane Mortenson), better known as Marilyn Monroe.
Who Was Marilyn Monroe Before She Was “Marilyn”?
In 1944, at 18 years old, Norma Jean Dougherty was the wife of a merchant marine living in Burbank, California. While her husband was overseas fighting in World War II, her mother-in-law arranged a job for Dougherty at Radioplane, a target drone manufacturer. Founded by actor, aviator and UAV enthusiast Reginald Denny, Radioplane was acquired by Northrop, later part of Northrop Grumman, in 1952. Before his acting career, Denny served as a gunner during World War I in the Royal Flying Corps. His love of aviation led him to create the drone-making operation, according to HistoryNet.
Working 10-hour days for $20 a week, Dougherty’s main job was to inspect and spray parachutes with fire retardant, as reported by The New York Times. At the same time, she assembled some of the 15,000 OQ-2 Radioplanes that were built during WWII and used in training exercises for American soldiers to practice shooting at moving targets.
According to The New York Times, despite warnings from her family that the fumes from the fire retardant would ruin her health and damage her hair, Dougherty kept the job at Radioplane. The natural beauty and glamour that would one day make her famous benefited her during these early years: she won a $50 war bond at a picnic and was crowned the “queen” of the company, laying the groundwork for her career as Marilyn Monroe.
A Star Discovered in an Unlikely Place
Norma Jean’s transformation into Marilyn started with a series of photos by U.S. Army photographer David Conover. On assignment to take photos of women working on the war production assembly lines, Conover met Dougherty. While none of her photos were used for the effort, she quit her job in 1945 and began modeling for Conover, according to Illinois University. She quickly rose to stardom, going on to appear in classic hits like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like it Hot.”
Where the discovery of Norma Jean was the precursor to the one-and-only Marilyn Monroe, the OQ-2 radioplane was the predecessor to modern drone warfare. Reginald Denny’s company ceased operation after its acquisition by Northrop Aircraft, but the legacy of the OQ-2 lives on. Its inception led to drones that have been used for reconnaissance, search and rescue, and research.
So, next time you ask yourself, “who was Marilyn Monroe?”, remember Norma Jean Dougherty. The idea that a non-published photo of a fresh-faced brunette assembling one of the very first unmanned aerial vehicles would lead to the discovery of a future celebrity is almost unimaginable. Add on to the fact that her story is forever tied with that of the OQ-2 radioplane and Northrop Grumman history, and you’ve got yourself a quintessential Hollywood ending.