When the decision came down, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera and Hugh Downs stood together on the set of ABC’s 20/20. Linking arms to symbolize their unanimity, the trio of TV news personalities vowed to protest the network’s last-minute decision to kill an investigative segment on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the 1962 death of Marilyn Monroe, complete with interviews about the movie queen’s alleged affairs with both John and Bobby Kennedy. If the three were disturbed by upper management’s move to yank the Monroe segment, they and those who worked on the report were outraged by ABC News chief Roone Arledge’s remark to columnist Liz Smith that the minidocumentary was “a piece of sleazy journalism.”
Arledge has since claimed that he was misquoted, but the damage was done. “That remark was off base,” says Downs. “I don’t associate myself with sleazy reporting.” “I’m appalled,” adds Rivera. “I think that story was a solid piece of TV reporting. They are not going to get away with this. It’s going to be a major controversy.”
It already is. The report was supposed to have aired September 26 (originally 26 minutes in length, the segment was cut to 17 and finally to 13 minutes), then was postponed to October 3, then killed. Arledge has been attempting ever since to both hold his ground and pacify the disrupted network. Normally a mild-mannered company man, Downs has said that he “will not be involved in a cover-up for the company.” Rivera has been even more outspoken. “The decision,” he says, “smacks of cronyism, though I can’t prove that.”
The suggestion is that the network’s many connections to the Kennedy family influenced the decision to snuff the controversial segment. Arledge, for instance, is a longtime friend of Ethel Kennedy, Bobby’s widow.
Jeff Ruhe, 33, an Arledge assistant, is married to Courtney Kennedy, 29, the fifth of Bobby’s 11 children. David Burke, vice-president of ABC News, is a former aide to Ted Kennedy. Arledge declines to comment on these charges. Queried on the matter, Maurie Perl, press representative for the program, says, “It is known that [Arledge] is friends with a number of people. But just last night he said, ‘I wouldn’t censor anything because it would offend a friend. I’ve already offended half the friends I have.’ ”
Case closed? Hardly. Network employees say that the Monroe portion was one of 20/20‘s most ambitious projects and that it had been thoroughly researched. Sylvia Chase, whom TV Guide has called “the most trusted woman on TV,” was the correspondent, and the report was co-produced by Stanhope Gould, who earned a 1972-73 news Emmy. ABC sources say that Arledge, who generally lets executive producer Av Westin call the shots on 20/20, approved the Monroe investigation, then had objections to the 26-minute segment. A shortened version was ready for broadcast, but just before airtime Arledge yanked it. In fact, says one staffer, “Sylvia Chase was in the studio getting her hair and makeup done when it was canceled.”
The stillborn segment was, according to Downs, “a deeper incursion into the Kennedy mystique than we’ve ever seen.” By most reports, however, the legwork for the 20/20 piece was largely, if indirectly, done by British author Anthony Summers, 42. A former BBC correspondent, co-author of The File on the Tsar and author of Conspiracy (about the assassination of JFK), Summers has just published Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Macmillan, $18.95). The 20/20 staff reportedly followed the book closely.
Summers’ book is both a biography and a detective tale that seeks to establish what really happened during Marilyn’s last days and hours—whether she was murdered (as the darkest legend has it), took her own life (the official version) or simply overestimated her capacity for the barbiturates that killed her. Summers ends up plumping for the last and least melodramatic of the three. But he also speculates intriguingly on long-standing rumors that Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa had Monroe’s home bugged, tape-recording Marilyn’s evenings of dalliance with Jack and Robert Kennedy. Hoffa supposedly planned to blackmail Bobby to get him to ease up on his war against the Teamsters and organized crime. According to staffers who have seen the canceled ABC report, the TV version went even further. The 20/20 segment is said to have included on-air interviews with men who say they did the bugging on Hoffa’s orders.
Interestingly, the BBC has completed a parallel documentary called The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, scheduled to air in Britain on October 25 (and in the U.S. on Selec TV on October 20), that covers much of the same ground. Like Summers, the BBC documentary reportedly contends that Bobby Kennedy, who wanted to break off their relationship, visited Monroe on the last day of her life. Summers’ book and the BBC also speculate strongly that Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford, who lived nearby and had been instrumental in introducing Marilyn to the Kennedy brothers, helped to “sanitize” her home after her death, removing notes, papers and diaries that might have linked her to the politicians. No records were found, though Marilyn was known to be an inveterate scribbler. The truth remains elusive. Sources for the stories—a maid, neighbors, friends—give often inconsistent accounts.
Last week Arledge told the New York Times that the 20/20 segment “set out to be a piece which would demonstrate that because of alleged relations between Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe the Presidency was compromised because organized crime was involved.” He said he axed the finished product because it did not “live up to its billing”—it was “gossip-column stuff.”
Summers, who was interviewed by 20/20, differs. “As a lone reporter,” he says, “I was both interested and apprehensive to see what 20/20 would do with its vast resources and dollars. I found they carried [the investigation] even further than I did.”
“It was a superb job of reporting,” insists Hugh Downs. “If we had zeroed in on the owner of an oil company, it would not have been called sleazy. I believe a dead President belongs to history, and history should be accurate.” Rivera likens ABC’s action to the cover-ups 20/20 is itself used to exposing. “If a politician did this,” he says, “we’d all do an exposé. But it happened within our own ranks.”