IN THE strange, lost days before her death, Marilyn Monroe remained mostly indoors digesting good news, bad news and large quantities of chemicals. The good news was that her career appeared to be back on song, with a satisfying deal to make two new pictures for 20th Century Fox. The bad news was that she was struggling more than ever with the depression, bordering upon despair, that had brought her to a state of wretched dependency.
In the 50 years since that night, Monroe has ascended to a state beyond myth, beyond rhetoric, beyond celebrity itself.
Monroe found it easier to stay inside her modest, Spanish-style bungalow, conveniently sited for visits from her Los Angeles psychotherapist, Ralph Greenson, and her friend the raffish English actor Peter Lawford.
In the early hours of August 5, 1962, Greenson, whose other clients included Frank Sinatra and Vivien Leigh, arrived at the house, summoned by an anxious call from Monroe’s housekeeper. When no one answered the door, he peered through the French windows and saw the actress’s naked body on the bed. She was 36.
Already the most written about woman in history, she is the subject of several new books being rolled out for the 50th anniversary, and the Monroe industry grows with every year. Jamie Salter, head of Authentic Brands Group, which acquired the rights to Monroe’s image last year for an undisclosed sum, calls her “the most iconic personality on Earth”.
Yet for all the chronicling and investigation, no entirely convincing account of her death has been established. Admittedly, a life as chaotic as hers was unlikely to have a tidy conclusion, yet every credible theory put forward to explain it – including the favoured one of an accidental overdose – is riddled with questions, doubts and contradictions.
The countdown to her death began in late July, when Monroe set off for Nevada gambling resort Lake Tahoe with Lawford and his wife, Pat – the sophisticated, movie-struck younger sister of President John F. Kennedy – on Sinatra’s private jet.
Neither Monroe nor the Lawfords particularly wanted to go. Monroe was facing a career crisis having just been fired from the production of Fox’s Something’s Got to Give on the grounds of her chronic unreliability. Even a house-party invitation from US attorney-general Robert Kennedy, with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair, was rejected on June 13, with an enigmatic note reading: “Dear Attorney General, I would have been delighted to have accepted your invitation … unfortunately, I am involved in a freedom ride protesting the loss of the minority rights of the few remaining earthbound stars. After all, all we demanded was the right to twinkle.”
Lawford, though, was reluctant to turn down Sinatra. The Rat Packers, once close, had drifted, and Lawford saw the trip as a chance to mend fences. Sinatra was his hero and, to some extent, his meal ticket. “If Frank wants us there we have to go,” he told his wife. She reluctantly agreed – as long as their friend Monroe came too.
Sinatra was a lot keener to see Monroe than he was the Lawfords. The pair had had an affair the previous year and, although Sinatra had realised there was no future in it, he remained, like almost every other man who had been part of her private world, more than a little in love with her. The reports he had heard of her life disintegrating worried him. He wanted to know more. And, if possible, to help.
Instead of a mercy mission, this last weekend in the actress’s life would be the one that pushed her over the edge.
The plane touched down on Saturday, July 28, and that afternoon Monroe went to the Cal Neva Lodge, a ritzy gambling and entertainment joint, co-owned by Sinatra.
Accounts of her condition differ. Singer Buddy Greco remembered: “When she arrived you’d never believe that she had a care in the world. I was sitting with Frank and Peter Lawford outside Frank’s bungalow when a limousine pulls up and this gorgeous woman in dark glasses steps out. She’s all dressed in green. I thought: ‘My god, what a beautiful woman. No taste in clothes, but a beautiful woman.’ ”
Others recall it differently. “When Frank saw her he was pretty shocked,” says Joe Langford, Sinatra’s Tahoe security aide. “As soon as he had got her settled in he was on the phone with her psychiatrist and started in on the guy, ‘What the hell kind of treatment are you giving her? She’s a mess. What is she paying you for?’ ”
What no one disputes is that by showtime that evening, Monroe was in a state. Witnesses describe her as angry, confused and clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. As tended to happen, everybody wanted to meet her, to share her magic and, as also tended to happen, Monroe couldn’t cope with it.
By now Sinatra was alarmed. According to witnesses he feared she might die at Cal Neva. The embarrassment would be too much. “Get her out of here,” he ordered. So they did. On the Sunday night, Monroe returned alone to her bungalow in Brentwood. As far as is known, she did not leave it again.
Yet the next few days brought a stream of encouraging news. On August 1, Fox rescinded her sacking from Something’s Got to Give. To complete the studio’s capitulation, it agreed to replace the director, George Cukor, who had found Monroe impossible to work with – the last straw was her leaving the set to sing ”Happy birthday, Mr President” at John Kennedy’s 45th birthday – and offered her a contract for two further movies worth $US1 million.
Two days later, Life magazine published a long, sympathetic interview, pulsing with Monroe’s wit and core intelligence, and conveying the sense of a woman who had triumphed over a lifetime of bad breaks and a heartless Hollywood.
“I never quite understood it, this sex symbol,” she mused. “I always thought symbols were those things you clash together!
”That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of! These girls who try to be me, I guess the studios put them up to it, or they get the ideas themselves. But gee, they haven’t got it. You can make a lot of gags about it, like they haven’t got the foreground or else they haven’t the background. But I mean the middle, where you live.”
One of the very last people to see her alive was Lawford, a hard-drinking charmer who had turned his back on the English upper classes to become a Hollywood actor. The much talked about relationship between the pair was almost certainly platonic. At least, his wife seemed to have no worries about it, saying that Lawford saw Monroe as more of a helpless child than a temptress.
August 4, the last full day of Monroe’s life, is almost impossible to decipher. Dozens of people have either claimed or been alleged to have visited her bungalow. Among them are Bobby Kennedy, mob boss Sam Giancana and various FBI men who were investigating her relationships with politicians and organised crime.
One person who was definitely there was Eunice Murray, her housekeeper, but Murray’s accounts of what happened are so varied and contradictory as to be near-meaningless. Almost certainly there was a visit from psychotherapist Greenson.
About midnight, Murray, who had been installed by Greenson as Monroe’s helper and confidant on the, as it turned out, untrue basis that she had a degree in psychiatric nursing, saw a light under Monroe’s bedroom door. She says she knocked to check that all was well, and upon receiving no answer called Greenson. He arrived within half an hour and, after seeing the body on the bed, broke in through the French windows.
The conspiracy theories have been raging ever since, implicating the Kennedys, Lawford, the Mafia, the studio honchos, the Sinatra set and the FBI. All have been aided by the absence of medical proof of the cause of death.
The autopsy was, to put it mildly, cursory. Few proper tests were done, basic records were not kept and vital organs were destroyed. Such evidence as remains suggests that Monroe’s body contained large doses of barbiturates and sleeping tablets. If she was not murdered, the only credible alternatives are suicide or accident.
The case for the first is weakened because she was clearly looking forward to getting back to her movie, and the positive tone of her magazine interview suggested that whatever the ups and downs of her life, she had no intention of ending it. Tape recordings she made for Greenson – now lost but substantially transcribed by John Miner, a district attorney who investigated her death – are surprisingly upbeat and suggest she felt the therapy was working.
A further piece of evidence is a cheque she wrote the day before her death, for a chest of drawers. While people contemplating suicide will sometimes make extravagant, last-minute purchases, psychiatrists say this one, for a mundane piece of furniture costing $228, more likely suggests she saw life continuing in an everyday fashion.
Which leaves an accident as the most likely possibility. Yet even this explanation isn’t without its problems. Monroe, however prone to pill-popping, had a good idea of what was too much, and if in doubt had plenty of expert medical advice to draw on.
Half a century later, the fascination lives on. At Crypt 33 in the Westwood Memorial Park, the flowers are piling up, and visitors drawn from all over the world by the approaching anniversary leave notes and cards of fondness and regret.
Monroe was the child of a brief, unhappy relationship, shunted around foster homes, ignored, abused and seemingly destined for a life of ordinariness until, one day, while at work in a factory, she was spotted by a photographer who said: “You’re beautiful.”
It is doubtful that the myth would have endured had she lived on, found the right man, had children, landed those late-career character parts as someone’s grandmother and still been with us at the age of 86. Long gone, she may be, but she retains the “right to twinkle”.
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