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The Notorious Death of Marilyn Monroe


Working on the set of Something’s Got To Give shortly before her death

August 5 is the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death. Or is it August 4?

As conspiracy theories go the mysteries surrounding Marilyn’s death deserve serious examination more than most.

I researched the facts and speculations in great detail while writing my mystery novel Watching Marilyn. Some sources were more credible than others. Some who claimed special knowledge were cranks and opportunists. Witnesses contradicted each other and sometimes themselves. The official record, as is often the case, was slapdash and muddled. Even so I formed definite opinions about what really went on that night.

Like many others I don’t believe the verdict of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office that her death was Probable Suicide.

There are facts and there are speculations. Start with the facts.

  • In the period before her death Marilyn had begun work on a new movie Something’s Got To Give. Due to persistent lateness and non-appearance on set she had been fired by the studio, then very quickly re-hired at a significantly higher salary.

  • She had started seeing her psychiatrist for extended periods on an almost daily basis. Contrary to orthodox psychoanalytic theory Dr Ralph Greenson had developed their professional relationship into a quasi-family one, inviting her to dinner at his home and encouraging socializing with his children.

  • At around 7pm on the evening of Saturday August 4 Marilyn spoke on the telephone to her former stepson Joe DiMaggio Jr, with whom she had remained friends since her second divorce. He claimed she sounded cheerful.
  • Sometime before 8pm she received a call from Peter Lawford inviting her to dinner. He reported she sounded distressed. He subsequently called her housekeeper, Mrs Eunice Murray, asking her to keep an eye on Marilyn.
  • Marilyn’s housekeeper first claimed to have become concerned at midnight, then later changed her story to 3am the next day. The housekeeper immediately telephoned Marilyn’s psychiatrist. Dr Greenson initially seems to have first told police it was the earlier time, then quickly changed to the later time of the early hours of Sunday.

  • The psychiatrist arrived very soon after he was alerted, whenever it was (he lived only a short distance away), broke through a window and found Marilyn face-down on her bed, naked, with the telephone in her hand. A number of empty pill bottles were on the bedside table.

  • The autopsy determined cause of death to be acute barbiturate poisoning, specifically a mixture of 8mg% chloral hydrate and 4.5mg% nembutal. An expert estimated this equates to around 50 capsules of chloral hydrate and 20 of nembutal. The drugs had been prescribed by her physicians Dr Greenson and Dr. Hyman Engelberg because of Marilyn’s chronic insomnia.

  • The barbiturate residues were detected in various internal organs but not in the stomach or upper intestine. A dose as strong as that analyzed would normally cause violent convulsive death before the stomach contents were fully passed to the intestine.

  • Sometime after the initially autopsy by Los Angeles coroner, Dr Thomas Noguchi, several organs removed for examination were found to have disappeared from hospital premises. They were never subsequently located preventing further testing.

The Theories

  • Official verdict: Suicide. Distressed at the age of 36 by her failing career in movies, by three divorces, tossed aside by both Kennedy brothers, a personal and family history of mental illness and previous suicide attempts, she decided to end it all.

  • Alternative explanation: a cry for help – as on previous occasions she was making a dramatic, hysterical gesture, but expected to be found before the drugs did their worst.

  • A tragic accident – habituated to barbiturates she became confused after taking her regular dose to help her sleep, took another dose, and then became so mentally fuddled she repeatedly kept on to a fatal overdose.

  • The sinister explanation: murder! – the culprits most often identified being either the Mafia or the CIA.

Likely? Let’s examine the options.

  • Suicide?

    Why? The ‘previous suicide attempts’ are as well-documented as her scores of love affairs, the abortions, and a couple of clandestine marriages – in other words there’s no credible evidence to support any of them, and in a lot of cases the rumors, scandals and gossip are demonstrably untrue.

    Yes, she did have three marriages behind her, but two divorces at least were at her own instigation when her husbands wouldn’t play second fiddle to the career that was Marilyn’s real passion.

    Had that career gone down the tube? True Arthur Miller had failed to write her a part in The Misfits that would once and for all establish her as a serious actress, but that movie did win her a Golden Globe Award. True, Fox Studios had fired her from Something’s Got To Give, but then Head Office rapidly reconsidered and fired George Cukor instead, the director she didn’t get on with, to replace him with Marilyn’s old favorite Jean Negulesco. They persuaded her to return to the project at more than twice her original salary, a half-million dollar contract.

    In publicity shots for the film, and in extended photo shoots for Life and Cosmopolitan magazines, she looked more glamorous than ever and showed every sign of being comfortable and confident with her role and sexuality. She had also for the first time taken control of her career and formed a new production company with plans to develop serious dramatic parts for herself, but for the time being she was throwing herself back into the profitable light comedy persona that had made her famous. Her star was on the ascendant again.

  • A Cry for Help?

    Not if you lock the door before taking an overdose way beyond what’s needed to attract attention. Besides, as one of the most famous women on the planet she already had all the attention she could want. The weekend before she died she had been at Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge Casino with Frank Sinatra (who owned the place, allegedly in partnership with Mafia godfather Sam Giancana), Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr. Juliet Prowse, Peter and Pat Lawford and ex-husband Joe DiMaggio Snr. She wasn’t short of friends.

    Or was it, as some insist, only Pat Lawford’s brother Robert Kennedy’s attention she wanted? She was certainly attracted to the Kennedy brothers though they’d started distancing themselves. But I believe Marilyn could ride that out as she’d done with all the other men in her past; everything about her life story suggests it was her career she really cared about, and that was still an open road.

    And one last interesting rumor – if she wanted romantic attention Joe DiMaggio was firmly back in her life, still besotted as he always would be, and according to some there were secret plans to re-marry. It’s one of the less-likely scenarios but not impossible.

  • Murder by the Mafia?

    Marilyn was close to Sinatra who was close to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago Mob, part inspiration for The Godfather, and agent for the CIA in some of it’s most nefarious activities in Cuba, including the Castro poison plot. For a capo of professional hit men Giancana was strangely unsuccessful in this latter enterprise but perhaps the CIA’s insistence on poison rather than a bullet to the head resulted in less than peak performance. He later became an FBI informant and was himself murdered in extremely controversial circumstances just before testifying at a Senate investigation of alleged CIA and Cosa Nostra collusion in a plot to assassinate President Kennedy. But his motive for killing Marilyn? Well the Chicago Mob, allegedly at Joseph Kennedy’s request, had used union influence to swing an extremely tight vote in John Kennedy’s favor and win him the Presidency. When JFK and his brother, the Attorney-General, cracked down on the Mafia the made-men felt betrayed. To send a strong message to the two politicians the mobsters it’s alleged decided to rub out the brother’s mutual mistress Marilyn Monroe. So if the conspiracy theorists are right on this we assume the Mafia had learned from their repeated failures to eliminate Castro and had at last pulled off a very subtle killing. But as far as sending that sort of message goes? No, subtlety really isn’t what’s needed. This idea is too weird even for a movie. Oh, wait, no it isn’t, they’ve filmed it, many times. It’s fiction.

  • Murder by the CIA?

    The secret is long out that the FBI suspected Marilyn, Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, Dr Ralph Greenson and Eunice Murray of communist sympathies. Possibly they suspected everyone except Joe McCarthy but let’s be fair, the FBI don’t murder their suspects. The CIA though? We can believe almost anything of an organization that plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro with a poisoned cigar. No barbiturates in Marilyn’s stomach? That’s because, say the conspiracy theorists, the CIA used a poisoned enema. Motive? This was the height of the Cold War, the US was testing ever bigger H bombs in the desert, the Cuban Missile crisis was closing in on 5 to midnight, Marilyn kept a red-bound diary in which she wrote down JFK’s pillow talk. Enraged when he dumped her she was threatening to reveal dark secrets – she had to be silenced and the diary must not fall into the wrong hands. Credible? Well it’s true no diary was ever found, and yes she was into radical political causes like equal rights for minorities, and she did talk to the Kennedys about the dangers of nuclear war. But it’s silly to suppose Marilyn was going to pass H-bomb secrets to the Kremlin. The only damage she could do was to personally embarrass the philandering Kennedy brothers and destroy their political careers – since America was more morally conservative then than it was in the Clinton era. Which makes a strong case against this wild theory, the President had let the CIA down badly over the Bay of Pigs. Would they assassinate anyone just to protect JFK’s personal reputation? For the answer see Sam Giancana and the Mafia above. I suspect there were many in the CIA hierarchy who’d prefer a publishing contract to a rub-out contract for Marilyn.

  • The Anomalies

    There are contested stories that Robert Kennedy visited Marilyn the evening she died.

    Long distance records show Marilyn repeatedly tried to call him at the White House during her final weeks. The calls may not have got past his secretary. Conspiracy theorists claim Marilyn had given up hope of JFK divorcing to make her First Lady and had transferred her hopes to the Attorney General, but – possibly after one brief fling – the staunchly Catholic father of seven (later to become eleven) was giving her the brush-off.

    In fact there’s no evidence of the subject or intent of these calls. On August 4 Robert Kennedy was in San Francisco. He may have flown down to Los Angeles to attend a party being thrown by Peter Lawford, neighbors at Lawford’s beach side house report a helicopter landing early that evening. Did RFK then drive to Brentwood to visit Marilyn? Does this explain the change in Marilyn’s mood between the 7pm phone call from DiMaggio and the 9pm call from Lawford? Lawford never admitted RFK was there that day but the evidence suggests he was. But why would Kennedy drive to see Marilyn in person if he was reluctant to talk on the phone? I suspect Lawford, in his role as fixer and facilitator to the famous and powerful, called Marilyn that night to arrange a meeting on the neutral territory of his beach house. Marilyn it seems had no intention of socializing with anyone that night. What was going on between her and Kennedy we’ll never know but I doubt there was any obsessive infatuation.

  • There are persistent indications that Marilyn died sometime earlier than was claimed. Her Brentwood neighbors are said to have heard a helicopter suspiciously hovering overhead on Saturday evening (if this was Robert Kennedy he’d have had to abseil down to the swimming pool – Marilyn’s garden was too small to land in). Also Saturday night neighbors supposedly heard raised voices and the sound of breaking glass. If this was Greenson entering the bedroom it confirms her housekeeper’s initial statement that Marilyn was dead before midnight. So why would the doctors lie and not call the cops until 4.35 on the morning of 5 August when Sergeant Jack Clemmons was the first police officer to arrive? Clemmons found three people waiting for him: Dr. Hyman Engelberg the physician, Dr Ralph Greenson the psych-analyst, and Eunice Murray the housekeeper. Engelberg told him Marilyn had committed suicide. The policeman formed a definite opinion the bedroom she died in had been cleared up, the body had been posed, the empty pill bottles were arranged too neatly, there was no drinking glass which usually accompanies the taking of 70 pills, and the housekeeper was oddly finding it an appropriate opportunity to do laundry, he was convinced this meant a murder scene.

    Many years later Murray made a second more major revision to her story. She stated that after Peter Lawford made his concerns know she went and found Marilyn unconscious. It was at that stage, in the early evening she called Greenson. According to this version Marilyn was taken away in an ambulance, destination unknown, but died wherever it was and brought back to the house. Monroe’s publicity agent at Fox was called in to decide how to manage the news. They decided everyone’s best interests would be served by an unambiguous suicide – no Kennedy involvement, no suggestion of medical malpractice in over-prescribing barbiturates to a vulnerable personality. Hence the clean-up that aroused the cop’s suspicions. Would members of the medical profession behave in such a deceitful and self-serving manner – well note the similarities to the Michael Jackson case.

    Sergeant Clemmons remained convinced his own police department were complicit in a cover-up. Given the powerful individuals involved, not to mention the Studio, this is entirely credible – but in politics and Hollywood other things beside murder need to hide from public scrutiny. Possibly the missing organs after the autopsy were part of this, but it was Marilyn Monroe after all, they could equally have been taken by a gruesome souvenir hunter. Likely? Well that’s what happened to Napoleon’s penis.

    Years later Dr Thomas Noguchi who conducted Marilyn’s autopsy would have the body of the assassinated Robert Kennedy on his table. A sad coincidence, unless of course you’re a conspiracy believer, Noguchi described a gunshot wound inconsistent with convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan being RFK’s killer.

  • The Verdict

    So what’s left? Simply the tragic accident. It was Hollywood, it was the early 60’s, addiction to prescription drugs wasn’t the publicly recognised problem it is now. And celebrity doctors were only too willing to keep high-profile patients happy with whatever juice or potion was fashionable. Both her doctors were prescribing for her and Dr. Engelberg reportedly often gave her “youth shots” which made her speech rapid and disjointed. Two weeks before her death she’d received treatment at Cedars of Lebanon for endometriosis – a painful and chronic condition that may have caused her to depend even more on barbiturates for relief. So, reliant on medication, doped too often and too much, that night she kept taking pills like a zombie until the overdose killed her.

    I think this is the most likely explanation of a tangled bizarre web. But I’d never be surprised if someday evidence surfaces to show something far more sinister.

    Marilyn had always wanted to be a serious actress. There was drama enough in her final performance.

Watching Marilyn is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook format.