Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortensen on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was frequently confined to an asylum and it is not clear who her father was, so she had a difficult childhood, spending time in the Los Angeles orphanage and a long succession of foster homes. At the age of 16, she married a fellow worker in an aircraft factory, only to become divorced a few years later. She became a model in 1944 and in 1946 signed a short-term contract with 20th Century Fox, taking Marilyn Monroe as her screen name. Her acting career took off in the early 1950s and she soon became one of the world’s biggest and most enduring screen stars, winning international fame for her roles in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
Marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller attracted plenty of publicity. Both ended in divorce. By 1961, Monroe was being treated for depression and was living as a virtual recluse in her home in Los Angeles. Her life had become erratic. Personal problems led to her having a reputation for being unreliable and difficult to work with. She was rumoured to be having affairs with high-profile public figures including most of the Kennedy brothers.
On August 5, 1962, at 4:25 a.m., LAPD Sergeant Jack Clemmons received a call from Monroe’s personal physician, saying that she had committed suicide. She was 36 years old. The circumstances of her death are shrouded in mystery to this day.
Monroe had spent the previous day quietly at her home in Brentwood. She had made and received a number of phone calls during the evening. One of them was from Joe DiMaggio Jr., who called around 7.15 p.m. to discuss his decision to end his engagement. According to DiMaggio Jr., Monroe appeared to be very clear minded. Just half an hour later, she received a call from her friend, Peter Lawford, a fellow actor who was married to Pat Kennedy, sister of Jack and Robert Kennedy. At this point, apparently, her words were slurry and she sounded extremely disturbed.
Eunice Murray, Monroe’s housekeeper, became a focal point for a raft of conspiracy theories. She reported that she and Monroe, the only people in the house, retired to their separate rooms late on Saturday evening. At 3 a.m., she said she became alarmed at seeing Monroe’s bedroom light shining under the doors. She got up, knocked on Monroe’s door and, when she received no answer, decided to telephone Dr. Ralph Greenson, Monroe’s psychiatrist. Greenson broke a window to gain access to the room and found Marilyn dead. She was lying naked face-down on her bed with a telephone in one hand. Empty bottles of prescription pills were in evidence. After a brief investigation, Los Angeles police concluded that her death was “caused by a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs and that the mode of death is probable suicide.”
In later years, Murray made major changes to her story by claiming that Robert Kennedy had been in the house at some point on Saturday and had quarreled with Monroe. She also claimed that “the doctor” had arrived to attend to Monroe while she was unconscious but still alive.
Monroe’s autopsy report revealed that lethal doses of Nembutal and chloral hydrate had been found in her system. What is not clear is how they got there. According to Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Chief Medical Examiner/Coroner of the county of Los Angeles, she would have had to swallow between 60 and 85 tablets to produce the high level of barbiturates found in her blood stream. Yet when he examined her digestive track, there was no evidence of barbiturates whatsoever! This indicated that the drugs that killed her had not been swallowed. She could have been given an injection of the drugs, but Noguchi could find no sign of needle marks on her body. One theory is that the actress took or was given chloral hydrate to render her unconscious and someone then dissolved Nembutal in water by breaking open the capsules and administered the lethal solution by enema.
Unfortunately, once the Nembutal had been found in her blood, the toxicologist destroyed many of the organs before they could be properly examined. Medical photographs, slides of the few organs that had been examined and an examination form showing bruises on the body also mysteriously disappeared, making it impossible to further investigate the cause of death.
Jack Clemmons, the police officer who had been the first to arrive at the death scene, was convinced that Monroe had been murdered. When he arrived at Monroe’s home, there were three people there – Eunice Murray, Dr. Ralph Greenson and the personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg. He claimed that when he entered the house, Murray was washing the laundry and Monroe’s room looked as though it had been cleaned prior to his arrival: “Marilyn was lying face down in what I call the soldier’s position. Her hands were by her side and her legs were stretched out perfectly straight. It was the most obviously staged death scene I have ever seen. The pill bottles on her bedside table had been arranged in neat order and the body deliberately positioned. It all looked too tidy.” As far as Clemmons was concerned, this was not suicide. He was suspicious about the statements taken from Murray, Greenson and Engelberg. They claimed that the body had been discovered some four hours earlier, but that they had not been able to contact the police until 20th Century Fox’s publicity department had given them permission.
There is speculation that Monroe had become too much of a potential embarrassment to the Kennedys. It is believed that Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana was linked to JFK and had helped him secure the state of Illinois to win the presidency. Some believe Giancana had also been recruited by the CIA during the Kennedy administration to help assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Could he have been recruited to help assassinate Monroe too?
Five decades after her death, Marilyn Monroe’s “probable” suicide remains the source of great debate.