Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker-Mortensen in Los Angeles on 1 June 1926, died during the night of 4 August 1962 in Brentwood, California. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled that her death was due to “acute barbiturate poisoning due to ingestion of overdose ... a probable suicide.”
Despite official reassurances that Monroe had killed herself, her death sparked a host of conspiracy theories claiming that the Mafia, Communists, the CIA, John and Robert Kennedy, her doctor, or her housekeeper had murdered her.
First spotted in an airplane factory, Monroe quickly became a famous cover girl, displaying her sex appeal in dozens of magazines, including Playboy. Her career as an actress took off with The Asphalt Jungle (1950), followed by All about Eve (1950), We’re Not Married! (1952), Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven-Year Itch (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), River of No Return (1954), and The Misfits (1961), among others.
Despite her acting success, the official theory goes, Monroe was a troubled individual, with three failed marriages, the first to sailor James Dougherty, the second to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, and the third to playwright Arthur Miller, and with two miscarriages while married to Miller.
There were also rumors that she had an abortion shortly before killing herself, and that she suffered from schizophrenia. Her attempts to escape her “dumb blonde” image failed when she was fired for chronic lateness from her leading role in George Cukor’s Something’s Got to Give.
From 1955 on, Monroe started analytic sessions, first with Dr. Margaret Hohenberg, then with Dr. Marianne Kris, and finally with Dr. Ralph Greenson, all of whom pushed her into excessive introspection, then prescribed barbiturates to reduce her stress levels.
Desperately switching from one lover to the next, including actors Yves Montand, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra, and director Elia Kazan, and addicted to barbiturates that she took along with alcohol, she was still reeling from a difficult childhood spent in foster homes. On at least two previous occasions, she threatened to kill herself, first by throwing herself out of the window (1961), then by overdose (1962).
On 4 August 1962, an extremely irritable Monroe bitterly complained that her publicist, Pat Newcomb, had slept through the night while Monroe had not; Monroe then spent most of the day making frantic calls to acquaintances, then took (accidentally or, more likely, willingly) twenty-five pills of Nembutal that, combined with chloral hydrate, provoked a fatal overdose.
Odd events surrounding her death immediately sparked conspiracy theories. She was found lying naked on her bed, her hand clutched on the telephone, as if she had tried to call somebody as she lay dying (she usually put her phone back on the couch, under a pillow, when she went to sleep). A list of phone calls she placed that night was mysteriously clipped from her bill. Key samples from her autopsy disappeared.
The diary she kept, along with handwritten notes from Robert Kennedy, were never found, suggesting that she had been murdered because she “knew too much” and that her assassins had conscientiously removed all incriminating evidence. Monroe lay flat on her bed with her legs stretched, an odd position for someone dying from an overdose, which suggests that the death scene was staged.
Close friends who talked to or met Monroe in the days before she died described her as happy, not depressed, and for many the official suicide theory was therefore implausible. A winner of the female World Film Favorite award at the 1962 Golden Globes ceremony and a world-renowned actress with thirty films to her credit, Monroe had nothing to fear about her career—although she had been fired, Twentieth Century Fox was negotiating Monroe’s return to the set of Something’s Got to Give.
The image of a beautiful movie star, lying naked on silk sheets and struck dead in the prime of life immediately caught the public imagination and helped propagate conspiracy theories.
The exact chronology of her death remains in doubt. Officially, Monroe, who had been invited to actor Peter Lawford’s beach house that night, retired to her bedroom around 8 P .M. instead.
Eunice Murray, her housekeeper, woke up around 3:30 A.M. early on 5 August, noticed light in Monroe’s room, stepped in, found her in an odd position, and called her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who asked Dr. Hyman Engelberg to come. Engelberg pronounced Monroe dead and, at 4:25 A.M., he called West Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Jack Clemmons to notify the police of Monroe’s demise.
This chronology only appeared in later sworn testimonies by Greenson and Engelberg. According to Clemmons, when he arrived on the scene Murray, Greenson, and Engelberg told him that Murray had found Monroe’s body around midnight. Monroe intimates such as Lawford claim they were notified of her death before 3:30 A.M.
Ambulance drivers who took Monroe’s body away claim she was already in a stage of rigor mortis and must have died around midnight. Should this alternative chronology be true, conspiracy theorists say, several hours elapsed between Monroe’s death and the arrival of the police, leaving plenty of time for murderers to remove evidence and to leave the scene.
One theory, put forward by Donald H. Wolfe in his The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, argues that U.S. president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert both had affairs with Monroe. As a result, she knew intimate details about both brothers and about their family’s connections to the Mafia and, given Monroe’s history of mental illness, she might reveal embarrassing details to the media. Since Monroe was by then a world-famous actress, a tell-all interview would trigger a scandal able to shatter Kennedy’s presidency.
When Monroe sang a sensuous “Happy Birthday” to the president in May 1962, Wolfe argues that Kennedy feared she was on the verge of going public about their affair and so had her killed. Robert Slatzer, in his The Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe, specifically blamed Robert Kennedy, who allegedly used CIA operatives to carry out the murder.
Monroe’s romantic involvement with John F. Kennedy is well documented, and rumors that she started a relationship with Robert after John “dumped” her on his brother seem entirely plausible. Evidence directly implicating any of the Kennedys in Monroe’s alleged murder, however, is scarce.
One lone coincidence in favor of this theory is that actor Peter Lawford, who had married Kennedy’s sister Patricia Kennedy-Lawford, was the last person to talk to Marilyn before she died. However unsubstantiated, the Kennedy theory remains the most popular among conspiracy enthusiasts.
Another theory, put forward by Chuck Giancana in Double Cross: The Explosive, Inside Story of the Mobster Who Controlled America, suggests that Chuck’s older brother, mobster Sam Giancana, ordered Marilyn killed in order to punish Robert Kennedy for prosecuting Mafia leaders during his tenure as attorney general. Giancana hoped Marilyn’s murder would be attributed to Kennedy, but Kennedy managed to remove incriminating evidence before Los Angeles police officials reached the crime scene.
Less believable theories abound. Frank Capell, in The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe, blamed her death on a Communist conspiracy intent on sapping U.S. morale. Other theories involve Monroe’s psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, accused of giving her a lethal injection of barbiturates (either willingly, or by mistakenly pumping the drugs into her heart); her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, who might have killed Monroe on Greenson’s orders; and even her publicist, Pat Newcomb, who spent the night of the death in Monroe’s home.