How Did Marilyn Monroe Make It to Hollywood? On the Wings of Drones

America’s most beloved – and notorious – sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, didn’t get her start, professionally, in Hollywood.  Her first full-time job was at a military production plant at the height of World War II.  At the tender age of 18, she was hired to spray fire retardant on the parachutes used to drop explosives on enemy installations. And how were those parachutes deployed?  Aboard remotely piloted unmanned aircraft.

That’s right:  Monroe got her professional start in drones.

In fact, it was a photograph of Monroe – then known as Norma Jean Mortenson – holding a propeller from one of those drones that caught the attention of a Hollywood agent who decided that the young teenager – then a curly-haired brunette – might have just the right look for postwar Hollywood.

The company Monroe worked for was known as Radioplane.  Founded by the British character actor Reginald Denny – a former WWI aviator and early UAV enthusiast – Radioplane made small remote-controlled pilotless aircraft.  The drones – some of the first ever deployed in warfare – were intended to help United States Army and Navy anti-aircraft gunners refine their targeting skills.

Monroe worked at Radioplane’s factory in Burbank, CA 1o hours a day for $20 a week, despite warnings from her mother-in-law – a Radioplane nurse – that the fumes from the plant would ruin her health – and her hair.  (Even then, Monroe was considered a stand-out. She won a $50 war bond after she was elected “Queen” of the company’s annual picnic).

It turned out to be a temporary job.  Monroe left the drone industry after a year convinced that she had a future in modeling – and film acting.  She dyed her hair blonde and changed her name, and began modeling and performing in a few small films.  By the end of the war, Radioplane had manufactured 15,000 OQ-2 drones which were used to help suppress enemy anti-aircraft batteries.

Monroe’s career and the fledgling drone industry soon took off.   In 1952 Grumman Corporation acquired Radioplane and used the company’s know-how to launch its own autonomous aircraft division.  Three years later, Beechcraft introduced its next-generation Cardinal M-161 drone, modeled on the Radioplane’s OQ-2 but geared to direct air-to-air combat with conventional aircraft.  It was a crucible period:  Over the next decade, the two companies laid the foundation for the modern American drone industry.

The same three year stretch saw Monroe’s rise to superstar status.  In 1955,  she starred in her biggest commercial success – the Seven-Year Itch – and a string of romantic comedies soon followed.

The story of Monroe’s early involvement with the drone industry surfaced a decade ago when the New York Times and other newspapers began researching the actress’ career trajectory from a shy, small-town girl to world renowned bombshell and sex symbol.

The media were surprised to learn that Monroe had first been discovered while working as a wartime “Rosie-the-Riveter” – filling in as a factory laborer while America’s men were deployed overseas as soldiers.

The investigation revealed another interesting fact:  The photographer who shot that first picture of Monroe was John Donleavy, who worked for the U.S. Army’s wartime Motion Picture Division.  It was Donleavy who had first suggested to Monroe that she begin modeling.  He was also the one that sent stills of Monroe to motion picture studios that secured her first screen test.

Who was Donleavy’s supervisor, who first assigned him the task of shooting photos of the women at the Radioplane factory?  A U.S. Army captain named Ronald Reagan, who would soon become a film star himself in the 1950s alongside Monroe, and later, of course, America’s 38th president.

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