This article marks the 49th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, and is also published at Immortal Marilyn
‘Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.’ Marilyn Monroe, My Story, 1954
When Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962, the world’s press pointed the finger at Hollywood. ‘Marilyn was the victim of the glaring lights, the severe demands, the cracking whips, the cheers and jeers and juggling in the big circus tent of the movies,’ declared Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter. ‘Hollywood gave birth to her and killed her,’ judged Moscow’s Isvestia.
However, Rome’s Il Tempo took a different view. ‘Who killed her?’ it asked. ‘If we look ourselves in the face, we are forced to answer, “We did!” ‘
The question, ‘Did Hollywood kill Marilyn Monroe?’ is a valid one. In this article I will address ‘Hollywood’ as not only the place where Marilyn lived, loved, and worked; but also in the broader sense of her fame, including both the media and the public.
The Invention of Marilyn Monroe
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles; her mother, Gladys Baker, worked as a cutter in a Hollywood studio. A lonely child, Norma Jeane liked to pretend that Clark Gable was her father. ‘Looking back, I guess I used to play-act all the time,’ she admitted. ‘For one thing, it meant I could live in a more interesting world than the one around me.’
During her early years as an actress, Marilyn forged useful alliances with Hollywood power players, like Joe Schenck and Spyros Skouras at Twentieth Century-Fox. Some have assumed that the ambitious starlet may have traded sexual favours for career advancement, but in fact, the evidence is inconclusive.
However, the studio’s president, Darryl F. Zanuck, was slow to recognise her potential. ‘Nobody discovered her,’ he conceded later. ‘She earned her own way to stardom.’
Having made her start as a pin-up model, Marilyn was insecure in her own talents. But by 1954, she was ready to try more challenging roles. She left Hollywood to study acting in New York. Though industry insiders predicted the end of her career, Marilyn was able to renegotiate her contract and went on to play some of her finest roles.
Nonetheless, Monroe’s battles with Fox were not forgotten. ‘Nobody ever felt the same about her; she was a traitor,’ said Lee Hanna, a secretary to Zanuck. ‘She deserted us.’
In a conservative era, Marilyn survived scandal: her nude calendar, her mother’s mental illness, her marriage to Arthur Miller. But by 1960, her luck was running out. An adulterous affair with Yves Montand was soon followed by the death of Clark Gable, her co-star in The Misfits. Throughout 1961, speculation about Monroe’s health was rife.
Something’s Got to Give
With some misgivings, Marilyn returned to Hollywood to prepare for a new comedy, Something’s Got to Give, in late 1961. It would be her last commitment to Twentieth Century-Fox, and she took the role on the advice of her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson, ‘for the sake of her emotional health.’
Monroe had not worked for more than a year, and as Greenson’s daughter, Joan, has observed, ‘this thing was hanging over her head.’ The once-booming studio was in dire straits due to the massive costs incurred by the ongoing Cleopatra shoot in Rome, and the turbulent liaison between its married stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, had caused shares in Fox to plummet.
When pre-production began in April 1962, Something’s Got to Give was the only current project on the entire lot. Marilyn was alarmed when her director, George Cukor, failed to show up for her hair and make-up tests. They had worked together two years before on Let’s Make Love, a low point in their careers, and he resented Monroe as ‘a spoiled, pampered superstar.’
Monroe grew still more concerned when Cukor scrapped the original screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, and as shooting began, she was sent new pages of dialogue daily – and sometimes, according to her housekeeper, there would be several deliveries overnight.
Having found Marilyn semi-comatose at home with what biographer Donald Spoto termed a ‘Nembutal hangover’, producer Henry Weinstein became seriously worried about her health. But the new management team at Fox refused to consider postponing the project. ‘Despite this or any other overdose,’ he was told, ‘she’s perfectly fit medically.’ Fox were counting on Monroe to recreate her magic at the box office, but on a tight budget and with still no final script.
A jittery Marilyn flew to Manhattan for talks with her drama coach, Lee Strasberg, and returned with a bad cold which the studio doctor, Lee Siegel, diagnosed as sinusitis. But the studio insisted she continue to perform, and pressed him to give her ‘hot shots’ to mask her true condition. ‘They were only interested in finishing that film, and in finishing it quickly,’ Siegel recalled. ‘Their attitude seemed to be: “Let Marilyn collapse after we finish.”’
After collapsing in her dressing room, Marilyn was ordered to rest. But on May 17, two days after returning to work, she defied studio warnings by flying to New York to sing for President John F. Kennedy at his birthday gala the following day. (Actually, Marilyn should have been given time off because it coincided with the start of her menstrual cycle. She suffered from severe period pain as a result of her chronic endometriosis, and her contract stipulated that she should not be required to work at this time.)
‘I had already decided to fire her if she left Hollywood and appeared at that event,’ admitted lawyer Milton Gould. On her return, Marilyn refused to film scenes with co-star Dean Martin, who had caught a cold. Her last day of filming – on June 1, her 36th birthday – was a muted affair, with a small party being allowed only after a full day’s work had ended. The champagne and cake would later be charged to her estate. ‘Even on her birthday,’ Joan Greenson reflected, ‘they treated her like a bad child.’
Nonetheless, Marilyn remained popular among the workers on set. ‘There was tremendous support for her from the entire crew – indeed, from all the craftsmen on the lot,’ said special effects expert Paul Worzl. ‘We all knew the score.’
By June 4, Marilyn’s sinusitis had worsened. But though her absence was authorised by the studio, plans were already underway to have her fired as the Board of Directors met in New York. Days later, a lawsuit was filed against Monroe, who had made millions for Fox over the previous decade.
‘You know, don’t you, that they fired me because of Elizabeth Taylor?’ Marilyn asked her masseur, Ralph Roberts, on June 9. ‘It’s not her fault; it’s the company’s fault. But they fired me because of Elizabeth Taylor.’ Taylor, unlike Marilyn, was an investor in her movie and could not be replaced.
In the days following her dismissal, a team of Fox publicists launched a campaign against Marilyn. One of the culprits was Harry Brand, who had vigorously promoted Monroe at the start of her career. But all that changed in 1954, when she refused a mediocre script and was suspended.
‘They set out to destroy her,’ reflected her own former press agent, Rupert Allan, on the events of 1962. ‘The ruthlessness started with Harry Brand. For some forgotten slight, he hated Marilyn. Despised her. He always said ugly, dirty things about Marilyn to me…’
Another publicist, Perry Lieber, told Louella Parsons that, while filming, ‘Monroe was high and didn’t even know where she was.’ During her absences, Lieber claimed that Marilyn was ‘sleeping all day and partying all night.’ In fact, Marilyn rarely socialised while at work. Lieber also described her illness as ‘unspecified’, despite Dr Siegel’s diagnosis of sinusitis.
Director George Cukor was one of the first to speak out against Marilyn. ‘The poor dear has finally gone around the bend,’ he told Hedda Hopper. ‘This is the end of her career.’
Many of the negative comments supposedly made by Marilyn’s co-workers are now thought to have been ‘planted’ by the publicity department. Peter Levathes, then Fox’s head of production, was quoted as saying, ‘Miss Monroe is not just being temperamental; she is mentally ill, perhaps seriously.’ But he later insisted, ‘I never said that, nor did I feel that way.’
However, the studio had already decided to replace Marilyn with actress Lee Remick, also on contract at the time. Remick was photographed with George Cukor in a press release, and was said to have called Marilyn ‘unprofessional.’ ‘I never said any of those things,’ Remick recalled years later. ‘I certainly wasn’t interested in (the role)…Marilyn and I were as different as two actresses can be.’
It would appear that Dean Martin agreed. ‘I have the greatest respect for Miss Remick,’ he told reporters, ‘but I signed to do this film with Marilyn Monroe.’ Martin’s subsequent walkout was a major blow to Fox, as his production company had a stake in the film.
Nonetheless, the onslaught continued. On June 11, a telegram signed by the cast and crew of Something’s Got to Give was posted in Variety, sarcastically ‘thanking’ Marilyn ‘for the loss of our livelihoods.’ Monroe, who had always been well-liked by her crew, pleaded, ‘This was none of my doing.’
Once again, this may have been a publicity stunt. ‘We placed no ad,’ recalled assistant director Buck Hall. ‘It came from somewhere else. Believe me, I would have known if the crew placed that ad.’
The Enemy Within
‘I had no idea whether it was a good picture or not,’ Milton Gould has admitted. ‘I was not a moviemaker. My job was to solve money problems.’ George Cukor later described the completed scenes as ‘unusable. Marilyn was acting as if she were underwater.’
About nine hours of footage are believed to exist. A partial reconstruction of the movie was made for a 2001 documentary, Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days. David Bretherton, who processed the daily rushes, has commented, ‘She had never been better, or displayed more perfect timing.’
Back in 1962, Darryl F. Zanuck also liked what he saw. ‘I’ve got a hell of a high regard for her box-office value,’ he told Nunnally Johnson. ‘The treatment of her on this film makes me terribly frightened for the future at Fox.’ Zanuck had been producing films in Europe since 1956, and his own position at the studio was uncertain.
Unsurprisingly, Marilyn was in turmoil. ‘She had never been fired before, so she was devastated,’ recalled Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, her make-up artist since her earliest days at Fox. ‘She couldn’t understand it.’
Given her fragile state, it is all the more remarkable that Marilyn fought back with such verve. In an interview with Richard Meryman, published in Life magazine that summer, she said of her sacking: ‘Executives can get colds and stay at home and phone in – but the actor? How dare you get a cold or virus! I wish they had to act a comedy with a temperature and a virus infection!’
On her supposed lack of discipline, she stated, ‘Often, I’m late because I’m preparing a scene, maybe preparing too much sometimes. But I’ve always felt that even in the slightest scene the people ought to get their money’s worth. And this is an obligation of mine, to give them the best.’
It seemed that Marilyn’s wish to give her best was at odds with the studio system itself. ‘I’m trying to work at an art form, not a manufacturing establishment,’ she explained. ‘I don’t look on myself as a commodity, but I’m sure a lot of people have…If I’m sounding ‘picked on’, I think I have been.’
Monroe also addressed the pernicious rumours about her mental health. ‘I really resent the way the press has been saying I’m depressed and in a slump, as if I’m finished,’ she told Meryman, adding defiantly, ‘Nothing’s going to sink me.’
Marilyn’s own ‘inner circle’ was divided. Her on-set coach, Paula Strasberg, and Dr Greenson were struggling for first place in Monroe’s sphere of influence. In the days following her dismissal, Greenson spent hours alone with his patient, refusing calls from Zanuck and other powerful allies.
In late June, studio head Peter Levathes visited Marilyn at home for talks, while her publicist, Pat Newcomb, secretly took notes from behind the door. ‘I found, surprisingly, that (MM) was an astute businesswoman in many ways,’ Levathes remembered. ‘She had a kind of renewed interest in the project that was infectious.’
Plans were made for filming to resume in late July, but Monroe’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin – Dr Greenson’s brother-in-law – was uncertain. Rudin is said to have told columnist Earl Wilson that he believed Marilyn ‘is obviously deeply ill, mentally ill. She probably should have been in an institution.’
Levathes disagreed. ‘The woman I negotiated with wasn’t insane,’ he said. ‘Of course there were major problems, the insomnia and the drugs. What impressed me was her genuine enthusiasm for going back to work.’
However, Levathes was to lose his own job days later when, after a board meeting in New York, Zanuck regained control of Twentieth Century-Fox.
Death of a Goddess
The negotiations for Marilyn’s reinstatement continued. She agreed to keep both Strasberg and Greenson off the set, and to make a second film for Fox. Zanuck replaced Cukor with director Jean Negulesco, and promised to restore Nunnally Johnson’s original script. (And so Marilyn would be reunited with the team behind one of her biggest hits, How to Marry a Millionaire.)
On Thursday, August 2, Marilyn invited ‘Whitey’ Snyder and her wardrobe assistant, Marjorie Plecher, to her home for drinks. ‘She was happy and excited that night, which was the last time I ever saw her,’ Plecher remembered. ‘We were going to begin shooting in a matter of weeks.’
Nonetheless, Marilyn’s health was delicate. She was barely eating, and sleep eluded her. Though she had emerged victorious, the long battle had taken its toll. And there were other worries, too: her dependency on Greenson, whom she saw daily; her tentative reconciliation with ex-husband Joe DiMaggio; and the growing rumours about her friendship with the Kennedy brothers.
On Saturday, August 4, at 10.30 pm, Arthur Jacobs – head of a PR agency which served both Marilyn and her studio – was attending a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, when he was asked to take a call backstage. It was then that he heard Marilyn was dead.
Frank Neill, another Fox publicist, drove to Monroe’s home. He then called Peter Levathes, asking for security guards to be sent there. Over the next five hours, all documents pertaining to the studio were removed.
Sergeant Jack Clemmons was called to the house at 4.30 am, Sunday, August 5. When he asked why there had been such a long delay in alerting the police, Dr Greenson told him, ‘We had to get permission from the studio publicity department before we could call anyone.’
Clemmons replied, ‘That’s not an answer.’
The first reporter to arrive on the scene was James Bacon. Claiming to be from the coroner’s office, he entered her bedroom and saw her body. Before long, more journalists had gathered. A grief-stricken Pat Newcomb called them ‘vultures’.
Marilyn’s funeral was arranged by Joe DiMaggio, and he barred most of her Hollywood friends, including Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford. ‘If it hadn’t been for some of her friends,’ he told Mickey Rudin, ‘she wouldn’t be where she is.’ Publicist John Springer noted, ‘There were a lot of hurt feelings.’
‘It was a lesson in dignity Hollywood had needed for many years,’ author George Miller said of Monroe’s funeral. After the ceremony, however, a crowd of onlookers fought over wreaths left at her crypt.
‘Not a soul in Hollywood has come forward since it was disclosed that there may not be enough money in Miss Monroe’s estate to pay for the care of her mother,’ revealed Inez Melson, Marilyn’s executor. Her estate would not be settled for another eight years.
Monroe’s main beneficiary was Lee Strasberg, according to a will made in 1960, though the actress had spoken to Mickey Rudin of changing her will just months before her death. After Strasberg died in 1982, his second wife launched a multi-million dollar business licensing Marilyn’s image.
While the press blamed Hollywood for Marilyn’s demise, the movie establishment denied responsibility. ‘It is an awful lot of nonsense, the charge that Hollywood claimed her life,’ said George Cukor. ‘Hollywood, in a sense, created her.’ But Frankie Vaughan, Marilyn’s co-star in Let’s Make Love, felt differently. ‘Hollywood has got to carry the can for this,’ he said frankly.
Amy Greene Andrews, widow of photographer Milton Greene, believes that Marilyn ‘loved her life.’ But what Monroe had not bargained for was the gulf between her image, and her real self.
‘A sex symbol becomes a thing, she told Richard Meryman in 1962, ‘and I hate to be a thing. You’re always running into people’s unconscious. It’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies, but you also like to be accepted for your own sake.’
On her fame, Marilyn commented, ‘When you’re famous, every weakness is exaggerated. Fame will go by and – so long, fame, I’ve had you! I’ve always known it was fickle.’
Though Elizabeth Taylor would carry the flame for years to come, Monroe was really the last star to embody the glamour of Hollywood in its prime. In some ways, she did become a victim of the studio system in its decline. But Marilyn was also a harbinger of change, in seeking an identity beyond the gilded crown Hollywood gave her.
Another iconic rebel, Marlon Brando, mused: ‘Do you remember when Marilyn Monroe died? Everybody stopped work, and you could see all that day the same expressions on their faces, the same thought: ‘How can a girl with success, fame, youth, money, beauty … how could she kill herself?’ Nobody could understand it because those are the things that everybody wants, and they can’t believe that life wasn’t important to Marilyn Monroe, or that her life was elsewhere.’