She was the most celebrated woman in the world, a platinum-blonde bombshell who fought her way up from a troubled childhood to conquer not only Hollywood but the likes of baseball great Joe DiMaggio (her second husband) and playwright Arthur Miller (her third) as well. When her body was found in the bedroom of her Brentwood, Calif., hacienda on Aug. 5, 1962, no one wanted to believe she had taken her own life. The coroner pronounced the death a “probable suicide,” but the rumors swirled: Had despair over her fading youth and the elusiveness of love really driven the 36-year-old star of The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot to end it all? An insomniac and habitual pill popper, had she ingested a deadly drug cocktail by accident? Or was it murder? “What happened to Marilyn Monroe,” says biographer James Spada, “is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.”
Fifty years later, due in part to bungled police and forensics investigations at the time, the questions linger. Most of the main players are dead, but the Monroe mystique has prompted a slew of biographies (and at least one fact-based thriller, this summer’s The Empty Glass-see box) that chip away at the unknowns. Here, drawn from fresh interviews with experts and biographers as well as friends and colleagues, are some answers.
WHAT WAS MONROE’S STATE OF MIND WHEN SHE DIED?
“Life had put her in a corner,” says photographer Lawrence Schiller, who shot her in 1962, “and she was trying to get out.” Approaching middle age, she wasn’t perceived as an actress who, like Elizabeth Taylor, could command serious roles. Her personal life was a shambles: Thrice divorced, she wasn’t a mother (her fondest wish), and many believe she had had, or was still having, affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy. It was reported that she had been threatening to hold a press conference divulging her relationships with them.
But all was not bleak. Monroe had bought and lovingly furnished her secluded home just months before her death. She was looking forward to resuming filming on Something’s Got to Give (after having been fired for chronic lateness and sickness). “It is my feeling,” her live-in housekeeper Eunice Murray said, “that Marilyn looked forward to her tomorrows.” Says photographer George Barris, a friend who shot her in the summer of ’62: “She told me, ‘These are my champagne days.'”
WHAT HAPPENED THE NIGHT SHE DIED?
Actor Peter Lawford, JFK’s brother-in-law, said he called his friend Monroe shortly after 7 p.m. on Aug. 4; she sounded depressed and was slurring her words. But according to housekeeper Murray, the actress received a call from her ex-husband’s son Joe DiMaggio Jr. at around the same time, and he told the L.A. Times she sounded normal, “like Marilyn.” After the call, Murray said, “she told me … that we were not going to the beach the next day. We had planned to … I don’t know what changed her mind. That’s when she closed the door.” It was the last time she saw Monroe alive.
WHEN AND HOW WAS HER BODY FOUND?
There are conflicting stories, but Murray first said that when she noticed light coming from beneath Monroe’s door at about midnight, she tried the door; it was locked and there was no response when she knocked. Alarmed, she called Monroe’s psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, who came over at around 12:30, looked through the actress’s bedroom window and saw her naked on the bed. Greenson broke the window and climbed inside to find her apparently lifeless, one hand clutching a phone. He summoned the doctor who had prescribed her sleeping pills, and she was pronounced dead. The police, strangely, weren’t called until 4:25 a.m.
WHY THE DELAY?
The doctors claimed they needed permission from the publicity department of 20th Century Fox, which was producing Monroe’s film, before involving the law. But many parts of Murray’s story don’t add up. The carpet pile in Monroe’s room, for instance, was so high that it wouldn’t have allowed any light to show through as she had claimed. And when police officer Jack Clemmons arrived on the scene, he found Murray inexplicably doing household chores.
WAS THERE AN INVESTIGATION INTO MONROE’S DEATH?
A so-called suicide squad was formed to investigate. But according to Donald Wolfe, author of The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, this squad never interviewed Murray, publicist Pat Newcomb, Lawford or any of the Kennedys. Says Anthony Summers, author of the Monroe biography Goddess: “Both the forensic work and the police investigations were hopelessly flawed.”
WHY WAS THE DEATH RULED PROBABLE SUICIDE?
An autopsy determined that Monroe died from “acute combined drug toxicity, chloral hydrate and Nembutal,” says Cyril Wecht, a prominent forensic pathologist familiar with the case. Pill bottles were found near her bed, and suicide made a certain sense since mental instability ran in her family. Her mother was schizophrenic, and Monroe had serious mood swings-reflected in the conflicting impressions of the people around her. “I never heard her say an unkind word,” says friend George Barris. But “she could be unfeeling and cruel,” counters Michael Selsman, who worked for Monroe’s publicist. “This was based on insecurity and fear. Marilyn was a creature of fear.”
COULD SHE HAVE OVERDOSED ACCIDENTALLY?
She had overdosed at least four times before, says author Wolfe, so it’s possible. But evidence exists of a more sinister scenario.
• No water glass was initially found in Monroe’s room, according to Officer Clemmons, and yet she supposedly swallowed at least 50 pills. “Clemmons told me that when he left the house that night, he suspected right away she had been murdered,” says Wolfe.
• More than five hours elapsed between the time Monroe’s housekeeper claimed to have found the body and the time it was turned over to the medical examiner, a clear violation of basic investigative procedure, says Wecht.
• There was no pill residue in her stomach. “With the number of capsules she would have to have ingested,” says Wecht, “there should have been some evidence of it.” What that means, he adds, is that “there’s a strong suspicion she might have been injected. How else do you account for the high levels of drugs found in her blood?”
• The coroner took samples from her stomach and small intestines and asked the toxicologist to perform tests on them that would have determined exactly how the drugs entered the star’s system. But the tests were never done. “I would have wanted to make sure we weren’t dealing with a homicide, and that statement is true today,” Wecht says. All the samples later mysteriously disappeared.
WHO MIGHT HAVE WANTED TO KILL HER?
Though neither Spada nor Summers believe there’s any proof that the Kennedys were responsible for the film star’s death, “it was pretty clear that Marilyn had had sexual relations with both Bobby and Jack,” says Spada. According to him, Lawford introduced Monroe to JFK in 1954. But when Kennedy tired of her, he passed her off to his brother. This happened, according to Spada, in the spring of 1962. And witnesses claim to have heard a disturbing tape, from the bugged Monroe home the night of her death, on which the voices of Peter Lawford, an angry Bobby Kennedy and a screaming Monroe are audible.
WAS BOBBY SEEN AT HER HOUSE THE DAY SHE DIED?
During a 1983 BBC interview biographer Summers conducted with Eunice Murray, he says there was a “moment where she put her head in her hands and said words to the effect of, ‘Oh, why do I have to keep covering this up?’ I said, ‘Covering what up, Mrs. Murray?’ She said, ‘Well of course Bobby Kennedy was there [on Aug. 4], and of course there was an affair with Bobby Kennedy.'”
WAS THERE A COVER-UP?
“There had to have been,” says Spada, though not necessarily of murder. “The Kennedys could not risk this coming out, because it could have brought down the President. But the cover-up that was designed to prevent anyone from finding out that Marilyn was involved intimately with the Kennedy family has been misinterpreted as a cover-up of their having murdered her.”
A couple of the people close to the investigation were later given high-profile new jobs. Publicist Pat Newcomb (who has never definitively spoken about Monroe’s death) “was spirited off to [the Kennedy compound in] Hyannis Port,” says Selsman. “Six months later she was awarded a job in the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C.”
WILL WE EVER KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
“One of the problems with this whole case is that there are so many conflicting stories,” says Spada. Selsman is more direct. “No one knows the truth,” he says. “No one will ever know the truth.”