It’s almost 50 years since Marilyn Monroe died, aged just 36. But why does the iconic actress – and the strange circumstances surrounding her death – continue to fascinate us? Three Stylist writers explore the fateful events of 5 August 1962.
The Saturday night before Marilyn Monroe’s dead body was discovered by her housekeeper on 5 August 1962 has become the most analysed period in Hollywood history. Like the assassination of President Kennedy 15 months later, the shock loss of history’s most iconic blonde continues to reverberate – partly due to the sudden nature of her death and the strange circumstances that surround it. In the last year alone, there have been 14 new books released about the actress – with each author positing their own theories on how and why she died.
But why is the myth of Marilyn so enduring? Plenty of talented stars have met untimely ends, yet somehow Marilyn’s image still captivates women (even those born decades after she died). The white dress blowing above the subway grate, the grainy photo of her dabbing on Chanel Nº5, the breathy rendition of Happy Birthday and her blonde hair – all are instantly recognisable. But unlike contemporaries such as Betty Grable and Doris Day, Marilyn still evokes a real affection that is unique.
Whether it’s the sadness of her childhood, shunted between foster homes, her shining performance in 1959’s Some Like It Hot or just the simple fact that her life was cut short in its prime, Marilyn makes us want to protect her. We want to give her a happy ending. And this is why her death continues to fascinate us – whether it was a suicide, a terrible accident or a hushed-up murder – we want to find out the truth about what happened for her sake as much as our own. As the anniversary approaches, three Stylist writers and Marilyn fans argue what they think really happened in the final hours of the world’s most enduring icon.
Rose Hoare, 33, a journalist from London, believes that Marilyn took her own life. As a former counsellor, she can see too many psychological risk factors to ignore in Marilyn's life in general and her final days in particular
In 1955, 29-year-old Marilyn began psychotherapy at the suggestion of her acting coach Lee Strasberg. Celebrated for her ditzy portrayal of dumb blondes, Marilyn now hoped to land more diverse roles. Although the actress had reservations about Strasberg’s method of mining the past for emotions that can be used in a scene, she certainly had plenty of material to draw from.
Marilyn was born out of wedlock to an unknown father and a mother who was confined to mental hospitals throughout her life and who was herself the child of mentally ill parents. Marilyn tried repeatedly to contact the man who was most likely her father, C Stanley Gifford, but he never responded. At eight years old, her mother was declared incompetent, and at nine Marilyn entered an orphanage. Two years later, when she was sent to a foster family, she lived next door to a man who, according to the diary she kept as an adult, molested her. Her adult life wasn’t much happier – all of Marilyn’s three marriages ended in divorce or separation. During her last marriage to Arthur Miller, who described her as “the saddest girl I've ever met”, she miscarried twice. By 1962, the year she died, she had been briefly admitted to a psychiatric clinic and was undergoing five therapy sessions a week.
Marilyn passed away with massive amounts of sedatives in her system. Her housekeeper initially said she knocked on Marilyn’s door at midnight, at which point she called Marilyn’s doctors, who said they found her dead. But she later revised the times she asserted in her statement, as did both doctors, although none gave reasons for this.
The coroner’s shrugging verdict of “probable suicide” has never really satisfied anyone. That both Marilyn’s housekeeper and doctors revised their testimony naturally fuels suspicion of a cover-up. They may have just been trying to protect Marilyn’s reputation, so that the world would never know she took her own life – suicide was simply unacceptable in Hollywood, especially in the early Sixties.
“Marilyn had attempted suicide three or four times previously, a fact well known in Hollywood”
The truth is, though, that by the time she died, Marilyn embodied many factors now associated with an increased risk of suicide. She had low self-esteem. She had just been fired. She had recently moved house. She was recently separated. She had a family history of mental illness. She had experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence and parental loss. She had no children and no family to support. She had health problems, including insomnia. She may have been beloved by the world, but she carried a deep and profound sadness.
Marilyn had attempted suicide three or four times previously, a fact well-known in Hollywood circles. Many claimed these were sympathyseeking efforts – they often came after a romantic disappointment which may have triggered the same feelings of abandonment from her childhood. Her first two suicide attempts happened when she was 17 and 18, early on in her first marriage. In 1950, after the death of an older lover and father figure, agent Johnny Hyde, she attempted suicide again, and once again during her marriage to Miller. Some have conjectured that Marilyn was particularly upset the night she died, because she felt jilted by the man many claim was her latest beau, Robert Kennedy.
Marilyn had a chronic reliance on painkillers and sleeping pills, and once wrote to her psychiatrist, recalling how she had tried to “do away with” herself: “I did it very carefully with 10 Seconal and 10 Tuinal [barbiturates] and swallowed them with relief (that’s how I felt at the time).” The day before she died, several people noticed that Marilyn seemed drugged. That night, she twice phoned a friend to beg for sleeping pills, although she had been prescribed 25 Nembutal pills just the day before, and 50 caps of chloral hydrate the week before. Empty pill bottles were later found in her room.
People always found something deeply sexy about Marilyn’s vulnerability – the trembling mouth and limpid eyes signalled a desperate need for love, to which men responded. But Marilyn’s genuine helplessness wasn’t so well-known until two years ago, when her journals were published for the first time. "Help, help, help,” she once wrote. “I feel life coming closer when all I want is to die.” So, on 5 August, 1962, by taking her own life, she got her own tragic wish.
New York-based, writer Ruby Warrington, 36, argues that all the evidence supports the coroner’s verdict of accidental overdose as the most likely explanation for the star’s death
All Marilyn wanted was to feel loved, and the real tragedy of her life was that the more famous she became, the more she was adored, the emptier and more alone she seemed to feel. Ultimately, I believe this is what led to the dependency on dangerous prescription drugs and to her untimely, and accidental, death.
Linked to countless men, her love affairs were a shaky bridge across the chasm of loneliness that always threatened to engulf her. But it was in the late Fifties, at the height of her fame and acutely aware of the fickle nature of Hollywood’s affections, that she began self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs.
They say sleep is the closest we come to experiencing the unconditional love of the mother’s womb – and perhaps this is what Marilyn craved, increasingly relying on pills to combat her insomnia, and drinking heavily in pursuit of oblivion. She also began consulting psychiatrists to work through the issues of her unstable upbringing. It was during the Fifties that the drugs commonly prescribed in modern psychiatry were introduced, although little was known then about the addictive nature of substances like Nembutal – one of the barbiturates found in her blood when she died.
These days, due to the high risks of addiction and the dangers of overdose, Nembutal is rarely prescribed for insomnia – patients like Marilyn were guinea pigs. It’s no wonder that soon she couldn’t get through the day without her pills, and the cracks were beginning to show. She got a reputation for showing up late on set and forgetting her lines – if she showed up at all.
“Marilyn had a childlike hope that things would work out. to imagine she lost sight of that would be the real tragedy”
In the months leading up to her death, Marilyn’s life had begun to veer wildly out of control. Divorced from her third husband Arthur Miller, in 1961, it is believed she embarked on an affair with President John F Kennedy before becoming involved with his brother, Robert, when JFK ended it. She had also been publicly humiliated when 20th Century Fox fired her for her chronic absenteeism from the set of 1962’s Something’s Got To Give. Rejection after rejection left Marilyn at her most vulnerable, with only her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson, to turn to.
It was Greenson who reported her death to the police. An estimated 15 medicine bottles, some with prescription labels, were found on the nightstand near Marilyn’s bed, including an empty bottle which had contained Nembutal. The prescription for 50 capsules had a suggested dosage of one capsule per night – but in her fragile state, drinking and already heavily reliant on the drug, isn’t it possible Marilyn just stopped counting? Or that, having allegedly attempted suicide previously, she simply didn’t believe it would lead to death?
ABOVE: Marilyn's Funeral at Westwood Village Memorial Park, Los Angeles
The official verdict on Marilyn’s death was “probable suicide,” but I’ve never believed that. In Arthur Miller’s words, Marilyn “was all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence.” And what we all saw and loved in her was that childlike hope that things would work out, somehow. To imagine that she finally lost sight of that and took her own life would be the real tragedy. John Miner, who worked for the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and transcribed now-lost tapes of apparent conversations between the actress and her psychiatrist, said that there was “no possible way” the actress could have killed herself, adding she had “very specific plans for her future”. That she never got to live them out is, I believe, a very sad accident.
Stylist’s Production Editor, Francesca Brown, 36, finds so many discrepancies in the stories of Marilyn’s death that she concludes the star was murdered in her prime
When Marilyn’s body was found on 5 August 1962, according to the coroner, she had enough Nembutal and chloral hydrate in her system “to kill three persons” – the equivalent of 60 sleeping tablets. But, peculiarly, there was no glass of water by her bedside. Nor was there any evidence of pills found in her stomach during her post mortem. Therefore the drugs must have got into her system via an injection (although there were no needle marks on her body) or via an enema – which means someone else may have administered them.
Then there are the conflicting times surrounding her death. When her body was picked up on Sunday morning, the undertaker noted her advanced rigor mortis and estimated time of death at 10.30pm. Her body was officially discovered by her housekeeper at 3am. However, according to biographer Donald Spoto, Marilyn’s publicist Arthur Jacobs was told of her death at around 10pm and left a concert to deal with the expected press frenzy. Look further and the evening is surrounded by contradicting testimonies from the people closest to her – testimonies that kept changing.
Five days later, when deputy coroner Thomas Noguchi requested further tests take place, he found that all of her post mortem samples had been destroyed. On Sunday 10 August, the San Francisco Chronicle reported there were “strange pressures on the case from people who had been closely in touch with Marilyn in the last few weeks of her life” while a General Telephone employee claimed Marilyn’s phone records had been confiscated by “men in dark suits”. These are events that would all seem bizarre in the case of a suicide – accidental or otherwise.
“Her Post Mortem samples were destroyed and her phone records were confiscated by ‘Men in dark suits’”
But who would want the actress dead? The most likely culprits are JFK and his brother, Robert, the attorney general of the USA. They had both the means and the motive. It’s believed that she embarked on affairs with both brothers after being introduced to John in February 1962 and that Marilyn was furious when the pair callously dropped her. According to her friend, author Robert Slatzer, in July 1962 Marilyn was threatening to hold a press conference that would “blow the lid off the whole damn thing.”
Many people question the truth of Saltzer’s claims, but it’s entirely possible that at the age of 36, having survived a childhood of foster homes, endured the casting couch as a starlet and wrestled with three divorces, Marilyn had simply had enough. She was no longer willing to put up and shut up. Possibly panicked by her threats, Robert may have visited the actress unannounced at her home on the last day of her life. In a 1985 interview, Marilyn’s housekeeper Eunice Murray said, “Marilyn and Robert were arguing in the rear of the garden.” The following day, the actress was dead.
Her friend Dean Martin described Marilyn as happy in the days leading up to her death – not a woman who was contemplating suicide. Marilyn was collaborating on a book about her life with photographer George Barris a month before she died, and the resulting photos taken on Santa Monica beach show a playful, radiant woman. When the photographer asked the actress what she was looking forward to, Marilyn is said to have replied, “The happiest time of my life is now. There’s a future and I can’t wait to get in it. It should be interesting.” Sadly, she never got to live out that future.
Picture credits: Rex Features