Keith Badman is a British music journalist who has published books about The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Badman has spent the last five years researching and writing about Marilyn Monroe, and The Final Years is the result. In his introduction, Badman writes, ‘I forensically set about my task of separating the fact from the fiction…My intention was simple: to deliver, in book form, the most honest and accurate account of this period ever published.’
The death of Marilyn Monroe has already been covered in countless books, articles and documentaries. Unfortunately, many of them are hopelessly biased and sensationalised. The closest precedent to Badman’s work is Marilyn: The Last Take (1992), by Peter Brown and Patte Barham. But while The Last Take focussed on Marilyn’s final months, Badham covers the (almost) two-year period between Monroe’s separation from Arthur Miller in the fall of 1960, and her mysterious death in August 1962.
The first chapter summarises Marilyn’s life before 1960, but concentrates mainly on her troubled childhood while merely skimming her rise to fame. As the rest of the book will deal with her tragic demise, this gives the reader a heightened sense of foreboding. The period from June 1961-January 1962 is covered next. As this was a time when Marilyn was out of the spotlight, and has thus far been less documented, I found this chapter very interesting.
‘Marilyn loved being (in New York)’, Badman writes. ‘The city’s people, theatres, nightlife and genuine sense of optimism agreed with her immensely.’ However, due to financial worries and career pressures, Monroe reluctantly decided to return to Los Angeles, ‘back where she started, in a city she hated, filled with people she barely trusted and had little in common.’
While Marilyn is often described as depressed and reclusive at this time, this seems to have been less true when she was in New York. Badman provides details of her visits to concerts, plays and exhibitions in the city, and her regular attendance at the Actor’s Studio. Badman fills in some of the blanks surrounding Marilyn’s life at the time: Goodbye Charlie, the movie she rejected; Rain, the much-cherished TV project that never materialised; her on-off romance with Frank Sinatra, and the gallbladder surgery which left her frail and isolated.
Badman also writes of the voiceover Monroe recorded for a television special, USO – Wherever They Go, showing that she had not forgotten the troops who had made her their calendar girl. She once described her 1954 trip to Korea as the happiest time of my life’.
Perhaps unfairly, Badman dismisses the story told by Marilyn’s half-sister, Berniece Miracle, of visiting Arthur Miller’s farm in Connecticut to collect her belongings in the summer of 1961, pointing out that Monroe was still very weak after her operation in June. However, this story has been told both by Miracle in her deeply touching 1994 book, My Sister Marilyn, and by Miller himself in his 1987 memoir, Timebends.
Moving onto 1962, Badman offers an interesting analysis of columnist James Bacon’s anecdote about Marilyn making notes of her conversation with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy during a dinner party at actor Peter Lawford’s home in Santa Monica. ‘Even she was forced to remark how forgetful she often was,’ Badman comments. ‘However, I tend to believe the theory that the diary was symbolic of something more important to her. I am certain that her handwritten scrawls – research notes if you like – were intended to form the basis of her next memoir.’ Badman points out that Monroe had been dissatisfied with her 1954 book, My Story, co-written with Ben Hecht. And Bacon himself admitted that note-taking was an old habit of Marilyn’s, not confined to the Kennedy brothers.
In June of 1962, Marilyn worked with photographer George Barris on a magazine spread, and according to Barris, Marilyn asked him to collaborate on a book-length project. Their extensive interviews are collected in Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words (1995.) And Fragments, a newly-released compendium of Marilyn’s personal notes, letters and poems over the course of her life, indicates that she was a witty, self-aware writer and correspondent.
Badman debunks some of the more lurid accounts of Marilyn’s involvement with the Kennedys, including Jeanne Carmen, Robert Slatzer, and the forged Cusack Papers. Comparing her busy schedule with that of President John F. Kennedy, Badman concludes that their alleged ‘romance’ was probably no more than a one-night stand. However, he does not underestimate the Hollywood rumour mill, and the likelihood that any explicit association with America’s most famous sex symbol could damage the Kennedys’ reputation in Washington. He also states that Marilyn’s friendship with Bobby, while brief and most likely platonic, was a meaningful one, and that Monroe felt hurt and angry when he and Jack began to distance themselves from her.
Badman’s accounts of Marilyn’s trips to Florida and Mexico in early 1962 are quite detailed, suggesting that among trusted friends, she was relaxed and spontaneous. Her career was another matter, however, and the shooting of Something’s Got to Give seems to have been fraught from the start. This has already been well-documented, but Badman conveys adequately the ongoing power struggle between a failing studio and its increasingly fragile star.
In Anthony Summers’ 1986 biography, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Dr Timothy Leary, guru of the psychedelic era, spoke of having taken LSD with Monroe after they met at a Hollywood party in May 1962. After researching Leary’s life at this time, as well as Marilyn’s, Badman concludes that this probably never happened. ‘The tale about his encounter with screen legend actually grew out of one of his several, highly embellished LSD flashbacks,’ Badman counters, ‘which in turn passed on to his many disciples over the ensuing years.’ Badman then speculates that Leary had confused Marilyn with one of John F. Kennedy’s girlfriends, the artist Mary Meyer who reportedly introduced the president to marijuana.
After being fired by Twentieth Century Fox in June, Marilyn fell into a deep depression and her drug dependency worsened. However, within a week or two, her mood seemed to lift and she threw herself into negotiations, interviews and photo shoots. Far from being disinterested in her work, Marilyn seemed to put her heart and soul into it, to the point of making herself ill, and she had little time for leisure. Her life in Los Angeles seems to have been a lonely one, apart from occasional parties at the Lawford house and visits from her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio.
It is when covering the last months of Marilyn’s life that Badman’s book, which hitherto has largely avoided indulging in unproven gossip, becomes markedly more speculative. When describing Monroe’s risqué photo session with Bert Stern, Badman seems unconcerned by Stern’s rather predatory attitude towards his model.
Badman’s account of the Cal-Neva weekend is even more disturbing, and he suggests that Marilyn was drugged and sexually abused by mobsters for blackmail purposes. Badman states that Frank Sinatra and his Mafioso friend, Sam Giancana, were unaware of this, and as there are no footnotes, I can only assume that this story comes from Mr S: My Life With Frank Sinatra, the 2003 memoir by Sinatra’s valet George Jacobs, referred to a few pages earlier. If a sexual assault had occurred, it would surely have affected Marilyn deeply in what would be the last week of her life. But Badman makes no further reference to this alleged incident, and according to his sources, Marilyn was busy and in fairly good spirits over the next few days. After reading this chapter I wondered if it was meant to ‘spice up’ the story.
The major flaw in Badman’s narrative become clear as he recounts Marilyn’s activities on the day she died. Though based on good evidence and reasonable assumptions, Badman chooses to present his theories as fact. Of course, it can only be speculation, as when Badman describes a distressed Marilyn clambering out of bed at approximately 8.05pm to switch on a lamp. As Marilyn was, by Badman’s admission, alone at this time, it is impossible for him to know if this is what really occurred. By presenting hypothesis as documentary, Badman replicates the shortcomings of other biographies – he claims to have found the definitive truth about Marilyn’s life and death, when in fact, it is impossible to know for sure.
As I have illustrated above, The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe offers plenty of valuable new information on this murky period and is certainly worth reading. It is far from being the worst book on the subject, and is written fairly responsibly overall. Where it is less successful is in shedding new light on Marilyn herself. ‘As an act of kindness, I also hope, for Marilyn’s sake, it goes a long way towards setting her most cherished memory straight,’ Badman writes in his introduction. Clearly his intentions are honourable, but I felt at times that he lacked empathy. Overall, Marilyn comes across in this book not as a real person, but a mere link in the chain of events.
Ultimately, The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe brings more insight into the star’s life than her death, which is covered exhaustively but adds little to what has already been said. The reader is finally lost beneath the weight of its material, and the commentary could have been sharper. Finally, a complete bibliography, while perhaps not considered to be of sufficient general interest, would help more curious fans to assess his claims more wholly, and even raise his credibility further.