Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, and 6 Other Famous Orphans Who Changed the World

Updated on December 12, 2018
Timothy Anderson profile image

Tim Anderson is a freelance writer/researcher with articles published in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy magazine, TV Guide, and others.

Apple guru Steve Jobs and Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe were both famous orphans.
Apple guru Steve Jobs and Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe were both famous orphans.

1. Marilyn Monroe

Her real name was Norma Jean Mortenson and her mother, Gladys Mortenson had named her baby girl after one of her favorite female movie stars, Norma Talmadge. While Norma Jean's 1926 birth certificate listed Glady's first husband Edward Mortenson as the infant's father, in fact, it is now commonly believed it was her second husband, C. Stanley Gifford, who fathered the child.

However, neither man played a role in the upbringing of the young girl and mother Gladys began suffering from mental illness before being placed in a psychiatric institution. Norma Jean was shuttled around between foster homes and an orphanage, and to add to her biological confusion, she was sometimes known as Norma Jean Baker, the surname of her mother's first husband. Unfortunately, the lass was already strikingly beautiful and this brought her undue attention at an early age. She will later share stories of being sexually assaulted and raped when she was eleven.

One of the world's most recognizable and famous orphans, Marilyn Monroe.
One of the world's most recognizable and famous orphans, Marilyn Monroe.

Norma Jean's eventual escape from her horrible childhood was to get married at age 16 to a merchant marine named James Dougherty. While her hubby was in the South Pacific, Norma Jean had begun a successful career as a model and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. She divorced Dougherty in 1946, and in a few years, this orphan movie star would become the most successful and iconic sex symbol in Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe movies would be a big hit at the box office, and her nude photograph as Playboy magazine's first centerfold would launch the publishing career of Hugh Hefner.

"I am trying to find myself. Sometimes that's not easy."

— Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe's movies were mostly filmed in the 1950s and still enjoyed by millions of fans worldwide. However, at the time she was hiding a big secret from her fans: the fact that she suffered from severe depression which today would be called bipolar disorder.

The 1962 death of Marilyn Monroe is officially attributed to an accidental prescription drug overdose, but many theories still exist as to the actual reason and cause of her death.

While I read several biographies on the life and career of Marilyn Monroe, the one book I found hard to put down was Marilyn's own autobiography, My Story. Written by Monroe with the help of acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter and Oscar winner Ben Hecht, Marilyn shares her life story with intimate details that weren't known before. She writes about her stays in foster homes and the sexual assault that occurred when she was a preteen. She comes across as a highly intelligent woman, but isn't afraid to share some of her battles with her personal demons, her stage fright and need for medications, and her husbands including Joe DiMaggio. An amazing personal account of Tinseltown's most celebrated sex symbol that is a must for any Marilyn Monroe fan.

Marilyn On The Big Screen

Which of the following five Marilyn Monroe movies is your favorite?

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Celebrity orphan John Lennon and his best mate Paul McCartney.
Celebrity orphan John Lennon and his best mate Paul McCartney.

2. John Lennon

Considered one of the greatest songwriters ever, Beatle guitarist John Lennon was born in 1940, and raised in Liverpool, England by his aunt and uncle, Mimi and George Smith. His birth parents were Alfred and Julia Lennon, and their marriage was tumultuous and unhappy. When he was just five, his parents had separated and young John was forced to chose which parent he preferred to live with. Ultimately, he went to live with Auntie Mimi and he'd be 25 and world famous before seeing his father again.

Lennon attended public schools in Liverpool and the intellectual orphan trained himself on learning how to play a guitar. In 1956 when Lennon was just 15, he formed a band called The Quarrymen. His friend Paul McCartney was invited to join the group, and he in turn brought in a friend of his named George Harrison. After several band member changes, Ringo Starr finally completed the group.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney would soon become the most successful songwriters in world history, and The Beatles became the greatest band to ever perform. Beatles songs are still as popular today as they were 50 years ago.

John Lennon died at age 40 in New York City in 1980 when he was shot by a crazed fan, and his death made front page headlines around the world.

Early Recording of The Quarrymen

How Well Do You Know John Lennon?

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Steve Jobs -- Famous orphan and visionary.
Steve Jobs -- Famous orphan and visionary.

3. Steve Jobs

Steven Jobs was the illegitimate son of a Syrian Muslim Addulfattah Jandali and an American college student at the University of Wisconsin, Joanne Schieble.

He was born in 1955, but due to family in-fighting, his parents never married and Joanne left Wisconsin to deliver her son in San Francisco where she chose to place him in an adoption facility. He was soon adopted by Clara and Paul Jobs, a middle-class American couple after they promised his mother Joanne they would send him to college when he grew up.

"The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

— Steve Jobs

Young Steven grew up in Mountain View, California where he loved to hang around his foster dad's garage workshop. Sometimes described by fellow classmates as a "loner," Steve became interested in electronics, an interest shared with one of his few friends, Steve Wozniak.

How Well Do You Know Steve Jobs?

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By 1976, the two Steves had collaborated to create and market the Apple I computer, and a year later introduced the Apple II. Today the company is worth around $750 billion, which is more than the gross national product of Switzerland, and now worth more than Google and Microsoft combined.

He died in 2011 at age 56 from pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that Steve Jobs' net worth at the time of his death was approximately $10 billion, which has grown to to over $20 billion today.

When researching this article on famous orphans, the book I enjoyed reading most about Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. This highly acclaimed biography is a must-read for any fan of Jobs. Isaacson had over forty interviews with the visionary genius and pulls no punches describing the difficulties many had when working for or interacting with the Apple guru. Just like other visionaries like Amazon's Steve Bezos or Tesla's Elon Musk, Jobs' demand for perfection could annoy and offend people, but it made him a billionaire.

I loved this book, and if you're a Steve Jobs fan, you will too!

"Babe" Ruth is still considered by many fans to be the greatest baseball player ever.
"Babe" Ruth is still considered by many fans to be the greatest baseball player ever.

4. Babe Ruth: "The Great Bambino."

George Herman Ruth, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1895 and grew up in a tough neighborhood. The young lad seemingly could not stay out of trouble, and even at an early age was drinking, chewing tobacco, and throwing rotten tomatoes at police officers.

His poor and exasperated parents didn’t know how to handle the unruly child and young George was sent across town to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys when he was just seven. The school was part orphanage, part reform school and part trade school. The rules were strict and the facility was run by some non-nonsense religious lay men. None-the-less, the school taught the youngsters a vocation and encouraged participation in athletics.

During the eleven years George spent at St. Mary’s, he became a star pitcher on the school’s baseball team which participated in various city and area baseball tournaments. When he was 18 and still a legal minor, Ruth’s pitching ability caught the eye of Jack Dunn, the owner of the city’s minor league Baltimore Orioles.

Dunn signed George to play with the Orioles, but in order to do so, Dunn had to become Ruth’s legal guardian until he turned 21. So for the next three years, young awestruck George stuck pretty close to his guardian and some the Orioles players — referring to Ruth’s youth — began calling him “Jack’s babe.”

The nickname stuck. And soon the world would be introduced to the man considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time: “Babe” Ruth.

That's George "Babe" Ruth, Jr. in the center of the back row.  He became a star pitcher at St. Mary's and will one day earn the nickname, the "Sultan of Swat."
That's George "Babe" Ruth, Jr. in the center of the back row. He became a star pitcher at St. Mary's and will one day earn the nickname, the "Sultan of Swat."
South America's most famous orphan: Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator.
South America's most famous orphan: Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator.

5. Simon Bolivar

Often referred to as South America's "George Washington," Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1783, the youngest child of Juan Vicente de Bolivar, and Maria de la Concepcion Palacios y Blanco.

The Bolivar family was socially prominent in the region controlled by Spain, but as an infant he was entrusted to the care of a family slave. He lost his father before he turned three, and six years later his mother when he was only nine. After being shuttled back-and-forth between caregivers, young Simon eventually came under the care of another black slave woman named "Hipolita," and she saw to his daily needs while he attended local schools and developed into a young man. Bolivar will later describe her as the "only mother I have ever known."

When he was just fourteen, Bolivar had to flee Venezuela with his mentor Simon Rodriquez who had been accused of conspiring against the Spanish. He attended the military academy of the Milicias de Veraguas where he learned the military skills which he would one day employ when he led his South American armies against the colonial Spanish.

Bolivar, orphaned before his tenth birthday, would go one to become the "great liberator" and free millions of South Americans from colonial rule before passing away from tuberculosis in 1830 at the age of 47.

A Brief Two-Minute Simon Bolivar Biography

Eleanor Roosevelt -- First Lady and famous orphan.
Eleanor Roosevelt -- First Lady and famous orphan.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the distinction of being one of America's most beloved First Ladies.

Born in New York City in 1884, she was a shy and withdrawn child, losing her mother to diphtheria when she was eight, and then her father two years later who'd been confined to a sanitarium for alcoholism. After being cared for by her maternal grandmother, when she turned 15 she was sent to a private school in England.

While in England, Eleanor's uncle Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States and she returned in 1902 where she met her father's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and they would marry several years later.

Eleanor Roosevelt became America's First Lady in 1933 when her husband was elected the 32nd President of the United States and she would diligently work for various social causes and help calm jittery Americans during World War II. The donation of her time and efforts to help her fellow Americans through this trying time won this celebrity orphan international acclaim and admiration.

After leaving the White House following FDR's death in 1945, Eleanor spent the rest of her life promoting various charity, social and human rights issues. She passed away in 1962 at the age of 78 from heart failure.

Malcolm X grew up from an orphan to become a powerful African-American activist.
Malcolm X grew up from an orphan to become a powerful African-American activist.

7. Malcolm X

Any list of famous orphans has to include Malcolm X. This black orphan was born in Nebraska in 1925, the son of Earl and Louise Little, and given the name Malcolm. His father was a Baptist preacher who, after receiving threats from the local KKK, moved his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin while Malcolm was still a baby.

The little boy was just six when his father was killed in what was officially described as a streetcar accident, but his mother claimed it was a racial-motivated murder. Louise struggled to raise her children by herself, but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1938 and was sent to Michigan's Kalamazoo State Hospital where she would spend the next 24 years.

The young black orphan and his siblings were separated and sent to various foster homes and orphanages and Malcolm ended up living with a half-sister in Boston. However, in his early 20s he began a life of crime: robbing, pimping, gambling and drug dealing which eventually caught up with him. In 1946 he was sentenced to to the state prison for breaking and entering, and larceny.

It was in prison where Malcolm began studying Islam and signing his name as "Malcolm X," saying the "X" symbolized his African ancestry since the name "Little" had been given to his family by white slave masters.

Paroled in 1952, Malcolm X became a devotee of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's leader and soon became its most popular public figure after Muhammad. Unfortunately, this would eventually cause a serious rift between the two men. In 1964 Malcolm X resigned his membership in the Nation of Islam and the following year he was gunned down in Manhattan as he was preparing to give a speech.

Malcolm X Reveals the Mistakes White People Make With "Negroes."

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe

8. Edgar Allan Poe

The "Father of Detective Fiction," Edgar Allan Poe loved to write short stories and poems that dealt in the macabre. His poem, The Raven was an overnight success. Some of his other literary successes were The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Born Edgar Poe in 1809 in Boston to David and Elizabeth Poe, his actor-father left the family when Edgar was just four, and the following year he lost his mother to the ravages of tuberculosis.

A Scottish merchant by the name of John Allan who lived in Virginia took the lad into his home and provided food, shelter, and education. Allan's home was basically a one-man orphan charity center.

However, the relationship was somewhat tumultuous, even though the elder Allan gave the boy his middle name and assisted in his schooling. It was at this point in his life that the young writer would begin to call himself Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe began writing his creepy poems and short stories, and may well have been the first American to attempt to live on his writing income. But financial success eluded him and his life was largely unhappy and morose. A heavy drinker, in October 1849 he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore and taken to a local hospital where he died a few days later at the age of 40.

Marilyn the Intellectual

Marilyn Monroe was not as air-headed as some people think.  Below are some of her more famous quotes.
Marilyn Monroe was not as air-headed as some people think. Below are some of her more famous quotes.

Bonus Trivia For Marilyn Monroe!

Marilyn was smarter than many people realize. Which of the following Marilyn Monroe quotes is YOUR favorite?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Tim Anderson

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      • Timothy Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

        Tim Anderson 

        4 weeks ago from Utah

        Thank you Jeff Rider! I'm soooooooooo pleased you enjoyed it!

      • profile image

        jeff rider 

        4 weeks ago

        you did soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo well on this i love it

      • Timothy Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

        Tim Anderson 

        13 months ago from Utah

        Thank you Stella!

      • stelaligizaki profile image

        Stella Aligizaki 

        13 months ago from Greece

        Good job! I have enjoyed this article, especially the quizzes.

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