Monday, August 5, 2019
August 5, 2019: Remembering Marilyn Monroe: Her Death
[On the early morning of August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her LA home, in a moment that quickly became as mythic as everything else about young Norma Jean Mortenson. So this week I’ll remember the iconic and singular Marilyn through posts on her life, career, and legacy as well as her tragic death.]
On why Monroe’s death became so unnecessarily complicated, and what we might learn from that.
Full disclosure: when I first began drafting this series, in place of “tragic death” at the end of the bracketed intro I wrote “mysterious death.” But then I did some further research into Monroe’s passing and realized that it was apparently not very mysterious at all: according to her doctors she had been dealing with “severe fears and frequent depressions” for some time and was on a number of prescribed medications; she had overdosed several times over the prior months (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not); and when her live-in housekeeper Eunice Murray and psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson discovered her body on that early August morning, she was surrounded by empty medicine bottles and had stunningly high levels of both chloral hydrate and pentobarbital in her blood and liver. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Team, working in conjunction with that psychiatrist as well as Monroe’s personal physician, quickly and logically enough classified Monroe’s death as a probable suicide.
Case closed, right? For a time it seems to have been, although even in the early years certain segments of Monroe’s fans (or at least of celebrity-obsessed society) seem to have advanced alternative conspiracy theories, usually suggesting that Monroe was murdered (such as by Dr. Greenson; NB: both of those hyperlinks are to a pretty extreme such conspiracy theory website). But it was really with the release of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography (1973) that the theories became truly widespread and even to some degree mainstream. In the book’s final chapter, the ever-controversial (and often unhinged) Mailer alleges that FBI and CIA agents conspired to murder Marilyn to cover up her supposed affair with Robert Kennedy. While that particular conspiracy theory remained beyond the pale for even most suspicious minds, Mailer’s book helped propagate overall questions about Monroe’s death, to the point that in 1982 the LA District Attorney John Van de Kamp opened a “threshold investigation” to determine whether a full criminal investigation was warranted (spoiler alert, it wasn’t).
There are various lessons we might take away from that unfolding story, among them that Norman Mailer had far too much cultural power for a couple decades there (I like Armies of the Night, but c’mon now). But to my mind, the most significant lessons are ones closely linked to these quotes from the immediate aftermath of Monroe’s death: Jean Cocteau arguing that it “should serve as a terrible lesson to all those whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars”; and Laurence Olivier calling Monroe “the complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation.” While it’s possible to overstate our celebrity-obsessed current moment and the paparazzi culture it has spawned, I think those are very real and very destructive phenomena, and ones toward which Monroe represented an early and influential example. And more precisely, it seems to me that the untimely death of a celebrity is one of the juiciest topics for such feeding frenzies—but only, of course, if that death can be seen as controversial or mysterious. That’s why I changed that latter word in my series intro, and why we should continue to push back on all those conspiracy theories, past and present.
Next Marilyn memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?