Al Rosen, Angie Novello, Anthony Summers, Arthur James, Arthur Miller, Billy Wilder, Billy Woodfield, Bobby Kennedy, Conspiracy Theories, Danny Greenson, Documentaries, Documentary, Dr Ralph Greenson, Emma Cooper, Eunice Murray, Fred Otash, George Cukor, Gladys Whitten, Gloria Romanoff, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Harry Hall, Henry Rosenfeld, Hildi Greenson, Jane Russell, Jeanne Martin, Jim Doyle, Joan Greenson, Joe DiMaggio, John Danoff, John F. Kennedy, John Huston, John Sherlock, Johnny Hyde, Juliet Roswell, Ken Hunter, Marilyn Monroe, Milton Greene, Natalie Trundy, Netflix, Peggy Feury, Reed Wilson, Robert F. Kennedy, Robin Thorne, Say Goodbye to the President, Sydney Guilaroff, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, Walter Schaefer
“Oh, I’d like to ask you – how do you go about writing a life story? Because the true things rarely get into circulation. It’s usually the false things. If you ever get any of those things you want to ask, I’ll tell you. All those things come from the truth, you know? Because otherwise, it’s hard to know where to start if you don’t start with the truth.” – Marilyn Monroe
An instant bestseller upon publication in 1985, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe is not a typical Hollywood biography. Its author, Anthony Summers, cut his teeth as a BBC producer and investigative journalist before establishing himself in the literary sphere with Conspiracy (1980), focusing on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
His third book, Goddess embodied the hard-hitting, tabloid mode of celebrity biographies developed during the 1980s, comparable to Albert Goldman’s tomes on Elvis Presley and John Lennon, and Kitty Kelley’s exposés of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Frank Sinatra. Goddess is one of the few books on Monroe to have remained continuously in print, with Summers releasing several revised editions.
A BBC documentary, Say Goodbye to the President: Marilyn and the Kennedys, shared many of his findings, and thrust his interview subjects into the spotlight. While the rumours about Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers pre-dated Goddess, its success spawned a slew of copycat books and documentaries which propagate conspiracy theories about Monroe’s untimely demise.
Sixty years after Marilyn died — and forty years after Goddess first appeared — Summers has ventured into broadcast journalism once more with a feature-length documentary, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, released by streaming giant Netflix on April 27, 2022. “I don’t wish to sound arrogant,” he told the Sunday Times, “but I’m rather confident that I’ve got as near to what happened as anyone ever will.” The film is based on his own copious research, encompassing 650 interviewees and hundreds of hours of tapes, now archived at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.
Summers is the presenter, and arguably the true subject of this British-produced feature, directed by Emma Cooper, who previously collaborated with him on another book-to-film project, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2019.) “I had never seen any of her films. I wasn’t hugely interested in her,” Cooper admitted to Indiewire. “I found those stock images of her in the white dress, and I thought, ‘What is there for me to know? What is there for me to say about this?’ It was kind of helpful because I had no baggage.”
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe begins far from Hollywood, at Summers’ secluded home in the misty hills of rural Ireland. “The truth and Marilyn, it’s like going into the lion’s den,” he declares. “There’s a mystery about the story. The Kennedy brothers. The Cuban revolution … I hope I’ve not got obsessed.” The audio then cuts to tape, with an unnamed woman saying, “Nobody ever knew everything.” Readers of Goddess may recognise her as Pat Newcomb, Marilyn’s last publicist; in the book she is quoted as saying, “Marilyn Monroe never told anybody everything.”
“I have often said that I could put together a scenario that would absolutely blow the minds of anyone who read it,” boasts another disembodied voice, from an unidentified male. “But it would be terribly costly to government agencies, friends of mine, people I know. But I can’t say anything, and I knew it all.” (Of course, this rather grandiose claim contradicts the previous words of Newcomb, whom many believe knew Marilyn better than anyone in her final years.)
In 1982, Summers was dispatched to Los Angeles by a British newspaper editor, assigned to report on the L.A. County District Attorney’s investigation of Marilyn’s death, prompted by feverish media speculation. The verdict of this inquiry — deliberate or accidental overdose — differs only slightly from the original verdict of probable suicide, but Summers was hooked. “Two or three weeks turned into three years,” he says. “Marilyn Monroe had been part of my growing up, but I had a very peripheral knowledge of her life,” he concedes. “She was also a remarkable actress. Marilyn became the most famous woman in the world. She still is … I did what you always do when you come to a dead end. I went back to the beginning.”
In That Moment
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles in 1926, but ‘Marilyn Monroe’ entered the world some twenty years later, when the newly-divorced model changed her name and signed her first film contract. Over footage from star-studded premieres, newsreels of eager starlets lining up for auditions, and surveys of her own glittering career, Marilyn remembers her childhood dreams. These tapes are derived from the few lengthy interviews she gave to Marie-Claire and LIFE in the years before her death.
“When I was a kid,” she says, “and I remember at the movies on Saturday afternoon, I’d never come out of the movie; they’d have to come and get me … Although I was a kid and I didn’t know anything about acting, I wanted to know.” After these dreamy recollections, we swiftly descend to a lower plane in the first of Summers’ ‘unheard tapes’ to be formally identified.
Al Rosen was a powerful agent in Hollywood’s golden age, and although he never represented Marilyn, he claims to have known all about her — a common thread among Summers’ interviewees, as we shall see. “I’m talking about in the beginning,” he says. “Every studio used to have a black book … So every girl, like Marilyn Monroe, when they get started … All the casting directors, they would write in their black book who could be laid.” If nothing else, Rosen’s leering attitude epitomises the ‘Hollywood wolves’ whose crude advances Marilyn swiftly learned to navigate. “It soon became clear that Marilyn was no pushover,” Summers comments. “She wanted to be taken seriously. She worked the system to her own advantage.”
“My husband knew her first,” says Gloria Romanoff, widow of restaurateur Mike Romanoff, describing her as “a generous girl, warm girl, really rather lovable. She was very much on the restaurant scene and the club scene … It was sort of the mecca for agents. All the pretty girls hung out there. And Marilyn was among them, of course.” Two musical numbers from an early B-movie, Ladies of the Chorus (1948), map her transition in progress, from the doe-eyed ingenue cooing ‘Anyone Can See I Love You,’ to the creaky burlesque of ‘Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy …’
While Rosen’s sleazy innuendo misses the mark, Marilyn’s relationship with agent Johnny Hyde undoubtedly helped to launch her career a few years later. They met in 1948, when Hyde, at 53, was more than twice her age. Summers describes Hyde as her “sugar daddy,” although she refused his proposal of marriage.
It was Hyde, “a dear, sweet little man,” who approached director John Huston when he was casting The Asphalt Jungle, and suggested he test Marilyn for a supporting role as Angela, an “easy-living, green-eyed blonde.” In a reconstruction of sorts, Huston’s interview is lip-synched by a voiceover actor. Given that Huston was such a charismatic figure, and a celebrity in his own right, the effect is rather unconvincing. The same process is applied to other speakers, with varying success.
“I knew it was risky, and I knew that if we got it right, the viewing experience of this film would be so different,” Emma Cooper told Tudum. “The reason I did it was because I felt with the volume of tapes and voices that we were putting into the film, you could only stand looking at tapes going around and reading the captions, the subtitles, for so long.”
Looking back on his first meeting with Marilyn, Huston describes her as “very fresh, very attractive. Rather timid — shy. And we talked to her and gave her a script. She went away and came back a day later, and Marilyn read her lines very beautifully … she was ideal for the part. That was that.” Her rise to fame had begun, if slowly. We then cut to clips from her later film noir vehicles, such as Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953), plus footage of her accepting awards from Redbook and Photoplay, with a coy litany of ‘thank-yous.’
“She was very bright, she wanted to learn and was interested in everything to help her control her career,” says Jane Russell, Marilyn’s co-star in the musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953.) “And every night after work, we were going home exhausted — she’d go to the coach. But she wanted to be good. Then when the camera went on, it was like a whole electric light went on …” The camera veers between footage from Marilyn’s signature number, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ and an actress miming the older Russell’s recollections.
“We spent quite a bit of time as a team going, ‘What would Jane Russell be doing?’” Cooper explains. “And I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I think she’d be just at home, having a drink, in an amazing, kind of like, bedroom/dressing-room outfit.’ So, we were able to go to town a little bit … If we’re going to do it, well, let’s have some fun with it.”
“I just felt like I was on the outside of the world, and suddenly everything opened up,” Marilyn says, over footage from the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953.) “I said, ‘Gee, what happened?’” However, Marilyn wasn’t talking about fame, but a much earlier time, when the teenage Norma Jeane first caught the eye of boys in her neighbourhood. In an example of shrewd editing, we then cut to her ‘Heat Wave’ number (from There’s No Business Like Show Business, 1954), spliced with another audio clip: “I want to do the best I can in that moment, when the camera starts until it stops. That moment I want to be perfect … I tell you, I’m terribly grateful because I remember when things weren’t like this at all.”
“I saw her a time or two. Years had gone by,” Huston reminisces. “By now she was dressed to the Ts, and she’d become the sex symbol of this country. And it wasn’t just a sex thing at all. Women felt just the same as men. There was something deeply moving about Marilyn, always.” This sense of accelerating momentum is emphasised by grainy footage of faceless backroads, shot from a moving car.
“We were close during the picture, and we considered ourselves friends,” Jane Russell says, “but Marilyn kind of went from one group to another. She would take off, and it would be another. That would become the shell for a time. She didn’t go back and seek out anyone that had become close to her.” In 1955 Marilyn decamped to New York for several years, seeking greater privacy and artistic growth. “There was something so vulnerable, something you felt could easily be destroyed,” Huston reflects. “When you tackle so-called mysteries, things are difficult …”
One of the most significant breakthroughs in Summers’ research came when he made contact with the family of Marilyn’s last psychiatrist, the late Dr. Ralph Greenson, who treated her for two years and precipitated her return to Los Angeles. “Well, I hated Hollywood,” his son Danny admits. “I had met movie stars at parties and found the whole thing to be obnoxious. My notion was these people were phonies and narcissistic characters. I hated ‘em. So when I found out that Dad was seeing Marilyn, I was not jumping up and down and cheering. He couldn’t see her at the office, she was too goddamn famous. He was seeing her at home. I thought, what a bunch of BS.”
Danny was in his early twenties, and had returned to the family home after studying medicine at Berkeley. His younger sister Joan, an art student, was more impressionable. “I mean, here’s the sex symbol of the world, what womanhood should be in a nutshell,” she reflected. “There was something about Marilyn that put her apart from everyone else. But there were times when I would pick her up in my Hillman Minx, Marilyn without makeup, just a scarf in her hair … and yet I would suddenly have five people washing my windows … There was an at-homeness with her body that I have never seen anybody else have. To be almost animal-like in their feel and movement and beautiful and very, in a sense, poetic.”
“He thought that Marilyn had a tendency to paranoid reactions,” Summers says while leafing through Dr. Greenson’s files. “However, she wasn’t schizophrenic, and her paranoid-like reactions are more masochistic. He thought that the tendency towards acting out of the ‘orphan girl’ reactions seemed to him central. ‘She is a waif,’” he reads aloud. “Marilyn’s troubled childhood was a time that the grown woman was never going to forget.”
Footage of a closed white double-door, which will be a recurring motif, is followed by a glimpse of her mother, Gladys, at the Rockhaven Sanatorium in 1964 (taken from David L. Wolper’s classic documentary, The Legend of Marilyn Monroe.) These images signify Gladys’ mental breakdown, and Norma Jeane’s removal to the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home at nine years old. “And I’m not calling myself an orphan,” Marilyn says of this time. “I was brought up a waif … Yeah, I was never used to being happy. So that wasn’t something I was counting on.”
“My father had never had a patient commit suicide,” Danny explains. “He never treated anyone as unorthodoxly as he treated her. His feeling was that because of who she was, she could never be hospitalised. So given that he couldn’t do that, his feeling was that the best shot he had was to try to treat her in this highly unusual, unorthodox way … She starts hanging out with the family.”
“That’s how more of a friendliness came about,” says Dr. Greenson’s widow, Hildi. “She had a mind that searched and an honest mind that tried to find whatever her truths were.” After her frequent sessions, Marilyn would stay for dinner with the Greensons. “It must have been somewhere along the line that I began to talk to her,” Danny goes on, “because I certainly know that my opinion changes. Within that family, I was the new arrived left-winger. We’d get into these conversations and, lo and behold, Marilyn would end up on my side. So a friendship developed. I began to like her, and to recognise that there was more to this person than met the eye.”
She also confided in Joan and Hildi. “Well, Marilyn told me that there was a new man in her life,” Joan remembers. “That he was just really terrific. It was girlie talk … She said that this person was so important that she couldn’t tell me who it was. Calling him ‘The General’ … And I remember thinking it was real peculiar that here I’m sitting with Marilyn Monroe. We’re talking about boyfriends, and I’m meeting some schlub at art school …” As Hildi remarks, “It was simply titillating.”
“Rumours about JFK and Monroe are legion,” Summers interjects. “Robert Kennedy was another matter. That was beginning to interest me more.” Robert Kennedy was, of course, the Attorney General, a point hammered home as Joan’s words, ‘The General,’ are repeated on a loop. It never seems to occur to him that Marilyn might have been exaggerating to impress a young girl. “RFK would maybe fit into the pattern of the end of Marilyn’s life,” he suggests. “After all, from her mid-twenties, her romantic involvements were with famous men.”
A Little Makeup
The narrative looks back, again, to Marilyn’s short-lived second marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. “He was a wonderful athlete,” she says. “I met him [when] he had already retired. I had very few friends. It’s just that I like people, but for friends, I like few people … I saw him for around a year and a half, two years, and we married … He understood a few things about me, and I understood some things about him, and we based our marriage on it. And I say some things …”
“She was quite taken with Joe DiMaggio,” Gloria Romanoff believes, but “I don’t think they had a lot in common. I think she was very touched by his genuine concern for her, but then, [she was] soon quite bored with his over-possessiveness.” It was a marriage built on headlines: one newsreel is titled, ‘How to Marry a Baseball Hero.’ Just weeks after their wedding in 1954, on a honeymooners’ trip to Japan, Marilyn left Joe behind and flew to Korea. As she sings to thousands of enraptured G.I.s, he tells reporters back in Tokyo, “Everything is fine. The only thing I have to complain about is I haven’t seen very much of Marilyn …”
A few months later Marilyn arrived in New York, where reporters asked if it was true that she could “broil a mean steak” for her husband. “Well, I’m learning,” she laughs. A very different scene unfolded soon afterwards as Billy Wilder, director of The Seven Year Itch, shot footage of Marilyn standing over a subway grate, with her billowy dress rising, as crowds of onlookers cheered. “People were heckling from the sidelines, and people were running up for autographs,” Wilder says. Later that evening, Joe arrived: “He didn’t like it very much, his wife making a spectacle of herself,” the director recalls, failing to mention that Monroe was simply doing her job.
“Joe got very upset about it,” adds Gladys Whitten (nėe Rasmussen), Marilyn’s on-set hairdresser. “They had a suite in a real old, beautiful hotel. And he beat her up a little bit. Marilyn said that she screamed and yelled for us. But we couldn’t hear her through those thick walls … It was more on her shoulders. But with a little makeup, she went ahead and worked.” Stories of Joe’s explosive temper are not uncommon, but this allegation is presented without corroboration. Nonetheless, shortly afterward, a tearful Marilyn, besieged by the press, stepped outside the marital home with her lawyer to confirm the couple’s recent separation over a “conflict of careers.”
“Our marriage wasn’t a happy one,” she would reflect. “I don’t know what else to say.” In 1956, almost a year after their divorce, Marilyn was still fielding intrusive questions. “Yes, I’m happy to be home. In my hometown,” she told columnist Kendis Rochlen during a press conference, held to announce her first movie under a new studio contract. “So you’re a happy girl now?” Rochlen inquires, and Marilyn shrugs. “All we know is that in New York, you and Joe DiMaggio are friends at a distance,” Rochlen persists. “How great a distance?” “Well, we haven’t seen each other,” Marilyn replies, smiling wistfully. “I’d rather not answer …”
“My Dad had told me that she got depressed at times,” Danny Greenson says. “About how terrible she felt about herself. ‘Nothing would turn out right, nothing would go my way …’ And she talked about this whole litany of depressive thought. ‘Everything I do turns to shit, I don’t have anybody. I’m a waif …’ We all need to get out of childhood in one piece, but if nowhere along the line do you get that reinforcement that you are worth love, that there’s something to you, what you end up with is a sort of emptiness.”
In psychoanalysis, and as a method actress, Marilyn was encouraged to dig deep into past experience. “When I was put in the orphan’s home they pulled me,” she told journalist George Belmont in 1960, “and I kept crying and screaming, ‘I’m not an orphan.’” From her earliest years in foster care, she was made painfully aware of her own parents’ absence: “I called every woman, I would say, ‘There’s a mama.’ If I would see a man I’d say, ‘There’s a daddy.’”
Peggy Feury, a classmate at the Actors Studio, had briefly worked with Marilyn on a scene from Noel Coward’s Falling Angels in 1955. “I liked her, and we’d talk a lot. I was at the Strasbergs’ parties with her a lot,” she says, claiming they discussed Marilyn’s childhood memories of sexual abuse. “She knew people who were psychotic from such episodes, and she felt that at least she’d survived that. Marilyn said, ‘It did happen. I knew it was wrong. But to tell the truth, I think I was more curious than anything else. Nobody ever told me about sex. And frankly, I never did think it was all that important.’”
Summers seems nonplussed, but this minimising of trauma may have been a coping mechanism. There is also a bitter irony in hearing a woman known for her seductive powers admit that sex brought her little satisfaction. When Goddess was first published, Summers seemed ambivalent as to whether the abuse had occurred. In the age of #MeToo, and with Emma Cooper’s input, stories like Marilyn’s are now being taken more seriously.
Unfortunately, this opportunity for greater understanding of her psyche is quickly squandered, with the addition of a lurid anecdote from Henry Rosenfeld, a New York dress manufacturer who became one of Marilyn’s long-term admirers (although on her part at least, the relationship was not overtly romantic.) “She wanted to know her father so badly,” he reveals to Summers. “I remember a party and this game we’d play. Everybody said what they’d want most in the world. And she said she’d want to put on a black wig, pick her father up at a bar, have him make love to her, and then she’d say, ‘How does it feel to have a daughter that you’ve made love to?’”
Although Rosenfeld claims to have been “a very, very close friend … until the end,” his decision to share this disturbing tale is troubling, to say the least. And if true, the incident provides another example of the emotional damage Marilyn incurred from these multiple childhood traumas.
“Men, eminent men … If there’s any mystery about Monroe’s death, they seemed to me to be central,” Summers says, over footage of Arthur Miller announcing their engagement in 1956. “I met her a long time ago and I hadn’t seen her in years,” Miller tells reporters. “But I think I’ve got the woman who is going to be my wife.” Asked what attracted her to America’s leading playwright, Marilyn replies, “Have you seen him?”
Over photographer Milton Greene’s footage from their intimate wedding, Marilyn echoes the words of Sigmund Freud: “I think love and work are the only things that really happen to us.” Miller gave her a ring inscribed, ‘Now is forever,’ while Marilyn wrote on the back of a wedding photograph, ‘Hope, hope, hope.’ For a woman so ceaselessly objectified, earning the love and respect of a revered intellectual was invaluable. “She had very strong goals for herself,” Peggy Feury says. “She was so bright about acting. She’d always come over, sit with me at the Studio … and she’d figure out what she wanted to do with the scene. She really cared.”
Only weeks later, while filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England, Miller would feel the full force of his new wife’s overwhelming fame, and growing reliance on sleeping pills to quell her volatile moods. The first blow to their marriage was struck when Marilyn found Miller’s journal open on his desk. According to her ever-present acting coach, Paula Strasberg, he had written “something about how disappointed he was in me, how he thought I was some kind of angel but now he guessed he was wrong. He’d married a woman as flawed as his previous wife had been.” Marilyn also told Strasberg that Miller had described her as “a whore,” but this may have been a projection of her own fears. “She thought he wanted to love her,” Summers comments, “but how could she be protected against love’s tenderness or brutality?” Although she never forgot this wounding episode, the marriage recovered and for a while, was loving and tranquil.
“She wanted a baby,” says Milton Greene, her business partner at the time. “In fact, during The Prince and the Showgirl she said when it’s over, she’s gonna go home and have a baby. And I said, ‘Well, great’ … If you gave her a choice between children and stardom it would have been children, without question.” She also grew close to Miller’s family, and would later show Danny Greenson a photo of herself with father-in-law Isidore. “And she said to me, ‘this was my happiest period,’” Danny recalls. “And I asked her why … she said, ‘I was pregnant then.’” Marilyn’s first pregnancy with Miller, in 1957, was ectopic — a life-threatening symptom of her chronic endometriosis — and had to be terminated. She became pregnant again in 1958, during filming of Some Like It Hot, but would miscarry shortly after returning to New York.
“She was so wonderful, All the way through,” says Sydney Guilaroff, who styled Marilyn’s hair for several films. “She had a very naïve quality about her, very soft, gentle quality. That’s the way she could be, you see … that’s the way she was, not could be. She was evanescent. And I – well, she wasn’t happy many times, Mr. Summers … Everything connects in a person’s life, especially hers … And it’s sad.”
“She was slightly discombobulated at all times,” says Billy Wilder, over a blend of professional and amateur footage from Some Like It Hot. “But by God, when you suffered through the thirty, forty, fifty takes sometimes, you had something there … Something absolutely unique that cannot be duplicated. I had no problem with Monroe. Monroe had problems with Monroe. She had problems with herself.”
“I can give you the reason for that one,” Guilaroff says. “But I can’t say anything. And I knew it all … It makes me very unhappy to talk about it. And she’s been gone twenty years, Mr. Summers. I can’t bring myself to talk about it.” Nonetheless, the hairdresser would later devote a full chapter to Marilyn in his 1996 memoir, Crowning Glories.
“She was not the fresh little girl that I’d known originally,” says John Huston, who directed her in The Misfits (1961.) “She’d be late on the set always. Sometimes the whole morning would go by; sometimes she’d be all right. Occasionally, she’d be practically non compos mentis. The narcotics were the problem. I discovered that her marriage was breaking up … I remember saying to Miller one day that if she went on at the rate she was going, she’d be in an institution in two or three years, or dead. And I said anyone who allows her to take a drug ought to be shot. It was almost an accusation against him, an indictment against Miller.”
Huston’s prediction would soon prove chillingly accurate, but it was grossly unfair to Miller, who still cared for Marilyn to the point of despair. On a more positive note, Huston also perceived Marilyn’s growth as an actress. “She went right down into her own personal experience. For everything,” he says. “She would reach down and pull something out of herself that was unique and extraordinary. She found things about womanhood in herself. She had technique. It was all the truth. It was only Marilyn, but it was Marilyn — plus.”
Marilyn and Miller were divorced in January 1961, on the same day as President Kennedy’s inauguration. (While this may seem auspicious, Marilyn had chosen this court date to avoid the press.) As well as facing her third divorce, she was grieving for Clark Gable, who died just days after they worked together on The Misfits. After expressing suicidal thoughts to her New York analyst, she voluntarily entered the Payne Whitney Clinic. Expecting a routine rest cure, she instead found herself on a psychiatric ward. Given her family history, this was Marilyn’s worst nightmare.
“And she came out of there through the mob of newsmen and switches herself on and looks fairly composed,” Summers says, over footage of her leaving hospital in March. While the media swarm was unconscionable, Summers neglects to mention that after several fraught days at Payne Whitney, Marilyn had secured a transfer to an open hospital where she spent three weeks in recovery. A few months later, she returned to Los Angeles, renting an apartment before buying a house in the suburb of Brentwood.
Something to Talk About
At around the midway point, the documentary’s focus shifts away from Marilyn to the Kennedy brothers and their cohorts. One of Summers’ key sources, Arthur James, was a realtor from Laguna Beach, who claims to have known Marilyn since before she married DiMaggio. “See, my father owned half of Republic Studios at one time,” he says. “So I grew up with all those people.” However, James is not included in either of the two address books Marilyn kept at the time of her death, nor has his name appeared in the countless letters, bills and receipts auctioned in recent years.
“That’s when the Kennedys came back in there,” James says of Marilyn’s return to Los Angeles. “But Jack, that started in the early or mid-50s. He used the Malibu Inn and drank at the Malibu Cottage – the raunchiest-looking thing you’ve ever seen in your life. Jack wasn’t known here at all. He was a senator … No one ever expected Jack to become the president or the nominee. He’s just some smart-ass rich kid …”
“He’d been out here on and off all through the ‘50s,” Gloria Romanoff says. “He had lots of friends here.” However, there is no proof of Marilyn having known John F. Kennedy before the 1960s — in fact, the Madison Square Garden concert and after-party may be the only occasion on which there can be no doubt that they did meet. All of their other supposed encounters are essentially anecdotal. With Marilyn’s busy schedule well-documented, and the President’s daily activities a matter of public record, the possibilities are reduced even further.
James also says that her alleged affair with Robert began “after Jack … in ’61, the meeting headquarters was at Peter Lawford’s house.” Lawford, a British-born actor and Rat Pack alumni, was married to Patricia Kennedy (sister of Jack and Bobby.) Marilyn was friendly with the couple and often visited their home at Santa Monica — not Malibu, as James erroneously suggests.
“Just the things that were going on at that beach-house,” says Jeanne Martin, then married to fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin. “Not discreet at all. Of course, there was nothing discreet about any of the Kennedys at all. I mean, it was just mind-boggling. Peter would obviously be pimping for both Kennedys. They would do it just as soon in front of anybody … Yeah, their wives could be in the other room, and many times were. I mean, I found a hand on my breast — the president owned it,” Jeanne tells Summers, agreeing that Bobby was also a ‘grabber,’ although “not in the sense that Jack was. They were tacky, they were corny … They were chips off the old block.”
“You know, his father was a bigger wolf than he was,” says Al Rosen of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a major investor during Hollywood’s silent era, and former lover of actress Gloria Swanson. All this may indicate attitudes of entitlement and a history of philandering among the Kennedy men, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to Marilyn. Her association with the President remains clouded by gossip, but it is generally accepted that she did indeed meet his brother, the Attorney General, more than once in Santa Monica.
Their first encounter most likely occurred at a dinner party in February 1962. “She was talking about going over to Lawford’s house,” Danny Greenson recalls, adding that she told him, “‘I want to have something to talk about.’ We talked about some political questions,” he explains. “She actually ended up writing them down and putting them in her purse, and then she went there.” Gloria Romanoff then picks up the story: “She was seated with Bobby and had made some little notes, feeling that she really wasn’t bright enough for the crowd. And at one point he got up and called his father long-distance to say that he was seated with Marilyn Monroe, and would his father like to speak with Marilyn. And I think he asked her to dance.” Their accounts are supported by her own words in a letter to stepson Bobby Miller.
After this sketchy prelude, Summers introduces the other main player in his conspiracy theory. Fred Otash, a disgraced police officer turned private detective, supplied the notorious Confidential magazine with some of its biggest Hollywood scoops. “Being a private detective is a dirty job. There’s no two ways about it,” he told Mike Wallace in a 1957 television interview. “I do a certain job … and I try to determine if the facts and the items are true.” Asked if he would take any case that paid well, Otash replied, “I won’t take a case for a member of the Communist Party … I sort of draw the line there.” When questioned further on how he justified invading other people’s privacy, Otash said, “Well, I feel this way. If you can see or hear it, you’re not invading any privacy.”
Marilyn was notably absent from Otash’s 1974 book, Investigation Hollywood. In fact, he would not appear in Monroe lore for another decade, when Summers interviewed him for Goddess. “I worked for and against the Mafia,” Otash tells the author. “I worked for and against the government. I worked for and against the White House. And I worked for Hoffa. You can’t be head of the Teamsters unless you’re approved by the Mob,” Otash comments. “Hoffa was the Mob.” America’s most powerful (and corrupt) union leader, Jimmy Hoffa was interrogated by Robert Kennedy during his investigation into organised crime, beginning in 1961, and culminating in a court case two years later. Footage of the confrontation between Kennedy and Hoffa is shown here, although it is not mentioned that the trial occurred a year after Marilyn died.
“Hoffa wanted to neutralise Kennedy,” Otash says. “What Hoffa wanted was for me to develop a derogatory profile on Jack and Bobby Kennedy and their relations with Marilyn Monroe. And the strategy that was agreed upon was to use electronic devices …”
Her Own Place
“The house on the Helenas was the first piece of property that she ever had owned in her whole life,” Joan Greenson says. “And my father encouraged the idea that she, as a person alone, could put down roots and have her own place. It was something that hadn’t occurred to her. And she was very excited about establishing her own sort of family. What Pop wanted her to do was to have her stand on her own two feet. In a sense, the less important we became in her life, the better off. That meant she had her own life.”
Nonetheless, Marilyn was now seeing Dr. Greenson for daily sessions, and he also worked closely with her physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, in an attempt to reduce her dependency on numerous prescribed medications. From April 1962, Greenson became her chief advisor at Twentieth Century Fox, where she had begun work on Something’s Got to Give. The film’s producer, Henry Weinstein, was a family friend; and Marilyn’s new lawyer, Milton Rudin, was Greenson’s brother-in-law.
“He thought very highly of her, George Cukor did,” says Robin Thorne, a student nurse who worked at the home of Marilyn’s last director. After consulting his journal, Thorne said that Cukor had told him, “Marilyn will turn out to be the most popular actress of her generation, probably of this century. Her best films would have come late in her career. She had a great untapped talent.” These prescient words are spoken over footage of the daring pool scene from Something’s Got to Give, the first nude scene featuring a major star since the 1920s. Despite this clever publicity stunt — a small blow against censorship — the project was ill-fated.
“Mr. Cukor, on this film, has been wonderful to me,” Marilyn had said in 1960, when they worked together on Let’s Make Love. (His comments to Thorne may date back to the same period.) “Trying to be happy is almost as difficult as trying to be a good actress,” she added. “You have to work at both of them.”
Production on Something’s Got to Give began amid financial crisis at Twentieth Century-Fox, and would soon become mired in studio politics. Over the following weeks, Marilyn was repeatedly absent from the set due to poor health. In mid-May, she flew to New York and performed her delectable rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ at a Democratic fundraising gala. “It was one of the most exciting things of her life,” Henry Rosenfeld says. “Just being the one to sing. She was picked.”
Earlier that month, as Danny recalls, Dr. Greenson left for a vacation in Europe. “When he left, my dad said, ‘You guys have to pitch in as much as you can.’” Danny thought Marilyn was “in fairly decent shape,” but as Hildi explains, Dr. Greenson “wanted to make sure that she wasn’t running into some trouble. There was always great danger that she might get involved with somebody or something …” By June, Marilyn had been fired by Fox and fell into a deep depression, forcing Greenson to return home early. But this disastrous turn of events is overlooked in the documentary, which returns instead to the alleged surveillance operations in Brentwood and Santa Monica.
“The bugs were installed in the bedrooms and on the phones,” he says, “and there were four bugs altogether installed out there. They were placed under carpets, in the chandeliers, and in ceiling fixtures. You could wire a telephone five miles from the location. I had sent John Danoff out there” (in 1961.) We then see several photographs of Bernie Spindel, Hoffa’s emissary, wiring up an unrelated property. In Goddess, Otash claimed that Spindel had hired him at Hoffa’s behest. “The conversation that came across the receiver would fade in and out,” Danoff chimes in, “and then I’m beginning to recognise the voices, the Bostonian accent and Marilyn Monroe.”
“So there were numerous tapes made on Marilyn and Jack at the beach house in the act of lovemaking,” Otash claims. “And someone wired up Marilyn’s house on behalf of Hoffa. Bobby Kennedy was there many times.” However, no such tapes have ever been retrieved; and according to Marilyn’s homecare assistant, Eunice Murray, Bobby visited Brentwood only once with Peter Lawford, for a brief tour of her new home in June 1962.
Telephone records show that during the same period, she made eight calls to Bobby at the Justice Department in Washington. “Whenever she called, I would always answer and she would talk to me,” says Angie Novello, Bobby’s secretary. “It was as though she were reaching out. And Bob would call her back, and they’d talk.” It’s possible that they discussed Marilyn’s ongoing dispute with Fox, as the studio was then producing an adaptation of The Enemy Within, Kennedy’s book about his crusade against organised crime.
“He was such a sympathetic kind of person; he never turned away from anyone who needed help, and I’m sure he was well aware of her problems,” Novello told Summers, as quoted in Goddess (but omitted from the documentary.) “He was a good listener and that, I think, is what she needed more than anything.” Pointing out that Bobby was also friendly with another troubled star, Judy Garland, Novello observed that nobody had hinted at an affair with her.
In the summer of 1962, tensions were escalating between the U.S. government and revolutionary Cuba’s communist allies, and although the Cuban Missile Crisis would not erupt until October, Summers refers to Marilyn’s FBI files to suggest another tenuous link. On July 13, an unnamed informant quoted Marilyn as saying she’d lunched with Robert Kennedy at Peter Lawford’s house just days earlier, before he headed to Nevada to witness a nuclear weapons test. “They had, she said, discussed the morality of atomic testing, and Marilyn was described as positively and concisely leftist.”
“They were just loose-lipped,” Summers says. “They were bloody idiots, weren’t they? Because she was in touch with people who were regarded as communist, all of whom were talking to Fidel Castro’s people. This is very possibly the thing to which the Kennedys said, Shit … We’ve got to stop all this. We can’t deal with Marilyn Monroe anymore.” However, this seems like an over-reaction. Along with other left-leaning celebrities, Marilyn had been an undeserving target of J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-communist scrutiny since her marriage to Arthur Miller. In February 1962, she had spent time with communist expatriate Fred Vanderbilt Field, during a trip to Mexico — a fact also noted in her FBI files. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe she was anything more than a typical Hollywood liberal. As a known member of SANE — the Hollywood Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy — her views on atomic testing were in line with contemporary public debate.
“We met in Laguna a month before she died, and she told what had really happened with the Kennedys,” Arthur James says. “I can go into the dirt, but she was hurt. Terribly hurt when she was told directly never to call or contact again. Robert or John. That was an order. Jack didn’t contact her. Bob did. And that’s what killed her. I don’t care what anyone else says. It was the beginning of the last day, if you will.”
However, there is no evidence of Marilyn visiting Laguna Beach that summer. Her days were mostly occupied with doctors’ appointments, negotiations with Fox, interviews and photo shoots. Efforts to wean her off barbiturates had stalled, and Greenson’s ‘unorthodox’ therapy was of little practical help. “I like to stay in the here and now,” Marilyn told journalist Richard Meryman. “Fame is fickle. It has its compensations but it also has its drawbacks. And I know it. I’ve had you, fame. So long …”
“I thought she was definitely on the downward path,” Gloria Romanoff says. “And I just could never understand whether she understood there was help to be had, and people did care about her. And whether she was just letting go.” Gloria was not listed in Marilyn’s final address books and it’s doubtful they were still in regular contact — but as a general observation, it rings true. However, the contributing factors behind Marilyn’s existential despair (broken relationships, career in crisis, and spiralling addiction) are never fully considered.
At 8 pm on Saturday, August 4th, Marilyn went to bed and never awoke. Her time of death is a matter of some conjecture, but her autopsy would show a massive ingestion of sleeping pills. “The public version of the story, the accepted version of 1962, turns on the word of Mrs. Murray, and of Dr. Greenson,” Summers says. Eunice Murray had been hired on Greenson’s recommendation several months before. The inquest recorded that she became concerned at 3 am on Sunday, August 5th, when she noticed that Marilyn’s light was still on, and her bedroom door was locked. She telephoned Dr. Greenson, who broke Marilyn’s window and found her lying dead in her bed. At 4:25 am, the police were called.
Actress Natalie Trundy — soon to wed Arthur P. Jacobs, head of Marilyn’s PR firm — raised doubts about this timeline. “I will never forget that night,” she says, “because we were at the Hollywood Bowl and someone came to us …” She estimates they were informed of Marilyn’s death at around 10:30 pm. However, in an age before computerised ticketing, it seems odd that staff would have known where Jacobs was seated. “My husband fudged everything off,” she adds. “Don’t forget, that was his business.” Jacobs’ assistant, Juliet Roswell, adds that he told her, “I went out to Monroe’s house at 11 o’clock.” Nonetheless, there were no sightings of Jacobs at Marilyn’s house that evening. His employee, Pat Newcomb, arrived shortly after the police on Sunday morning.
Ken Hunter, who worked for Walter Schaefer’s private ambulance company, claimed that he was called to Marilyn’s house that night. “She was on her bed,” he says, “on her side.” Hunter’s allegation, Summers says, “stands by itself” — but during the 1982 investigation, the former driver told the Assistant D.A. that Marilyn was dead when he came to the house, and he left when the police arrived. On tape, Schaefer tells Summers that a dying Marilyn was taken “to Santa Monica emergency,” but admits, “I don’t know who was involved.”
Schaefer was not present at the house. In the face of hearsay, Summers insists that seven more of Schaefer’s staff confirmed the story, which now takes a madcap turn. “Greenson and I were both at a lunch … ‘64, somewhere like that,” journalist John Sherlock says. “They took her to St. John’s (hospital), and that she died in the ambulance. And they took her back to the house … he was in the ambulance.” However, when Marilyn was pronounced dead at 3:50 am, her body was in rigor mortis, indicating she had passed away several hours before.
“I had heard on good authority that the Saturday that this happened, Bobby Kennedy had come into town,” police informant Harry Hall says. “Bobby was in town, and supposedly left … I heard it from a federal agent. Yes, it was definitely from the FBI.” Trundy chimes in, “I think he was at (Lawford’s) house on the beach. In fact, I do remember that.”
However, Bobby Kennedy’s recorded activities suggest otherwise. On Friday he flew to San Francisco with his wife and four of their children, and they travelled 130 km south to the ranch home of lawyer John Bates in the remote hamlet of Gilroy. Bobby’s arrival was noted in the press, as he was preparing to address the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday. Photographs taken on Saturday show the Kennedys on a horse ride, swimming in a pool and enjoying a barbecue; and on Sunday, they attended a local church service and had lunch at the ranch before heading to San Francisco. Therefore, it seems highly improbable that Bobby also made a round trip to Los Angeles.
Reed Wilson, one of Fred Otash’s eavesdropping operatives, also worked for the FBI’s Criminal Intelligence Program. “There were tapes recorded on the day of her death,” he claims. “Bobby Kennedy called her the night she died from Lawford’s house. And she said, ‘Don’t bother me, leave me alone. Stay out of my life.’ A very violent argument … ‘I feel passed around, I feel used, I feel like a piece of meat’ … She was raising a stink, calling John and the White House, and complaining about the situation. The picture that I remember is that she’d been hot and heavy for Bobby. At first. And then she got the cold shoulder … It had come to where she said, ‘I don’t even want to see you, why did you come here? If you want to see me, you come to see me. I’m not coming down there.’ The call to the White House, I understood it to mean, ‘Get your brother away from me. I hate all of you.’ There was a turning point in [her] feelings.”
Needless to say, no such recordings have been produced, and it’s unlikely that Bobby was at Lawford’s home on that day. Summers proceeds to an interview with Mrs. Murray. “The Kennedys were an important part of Marilyn’s life,” she says. “I wasn’t included in this information, but I was a witness to what was happening … And it became so sticky that the protectors of Robert Kennedy had to step in there and protect him.” Murray did not mention a Kennedy cover-up in her police interviews or her 1974 memoir, Marilyn: The Final Months. Without hearing the full interview, it’s impossible to know what line of questioning led her to make this statement. The investigation of Marilyn’s death, says Harry Hall, was “more of a hush-hush. Because the man that was involved was really the boss. He was the Attorney General, so he could have the FBI do anything.” Nonetheless, no credible evidence of a government conspiracy has emerged in the sixty years since Monroe died.
Journalist Billy Woodfield, one of the first to arrive on the scene, claims to have found evidence of Bobby leaving Santa Monica that night. “I went out to see a helicopter pilot. And he produced his log … I saw an entry that said he took Kennedy to meet a flight en route to San Francisco. Two or three in the morning. I called the Herald Tribune. Also a call was made to Bobby Kennedy’s people … We decided that we would not go with the story.” Woodfield did not produce evidence of the helicopter log.
Otash and Wilson now re-enter the story, supposedly hired by Peter Lawford to clear Marilyn’s house of compromising evidence. “Lawford showed up completely disorientated and in a state of shock, saying that Marilyn Monroe was dead, that Bobby Kennedy was there, that they had gotten in a big fight, that he was spirited out of town back up north. He was convinced there were diaries around and maybe a note.” The notion of Marilyn keeping a regular diary seems out of character, as the 2010 book, Fragments: Intimate Notes, Poems, Letters shows her writing habits were sporadic and disorganised. Neither the unseen photographs of Marilyn and the Kennedys, “seized from at least one picture agency by the FBI,” or the “covert recordings” which “may have been seized by law enforcement” have since emerged, and indeed, may never have existed.
“I was there at the time when she died,” FBI agent Jim Doyle says. “There were some people who normally wouldn’t have been there. Immediately. Before anybody even realised what happened. It had to be instructions from someone higher up, higher than Hoover. The Attorney General or the President.” Doyle did not state the time of his arrival, and his presence has not been mentioned by others at the scene.
“There have been several conspiracy stories,” Summers admits. “There are people, on very thin evidence — I think largely made-up evidence — who suggest that people wanted to hide the precise circumstances of her death because Marilyn was murdered. Although I made a lot of progress in the work and indeed found out a lot of things to do with her dying and the circumstances of her dying that had not been found out before, I did not find out anything that convinced me she had been deliberately killed. She died committing suicide or taking a huge accidental overdose of drugs. But I did find evidence that the circumstances of her death had been deliberately covered up … the evidence suggests that it was covered up because of her connection with the Kennedy brothers.”
His final interviewee, Peter Lawford — who Summers describes as a “key character in the cover-up” — agreed to meet him in a bar. “She was dead. I’ve had to deal with it,” a distraught Lawford reflected. “I should have got in my car and gone up there. I should have known better.” Lawford was one of the last to speak with Marilyn on the telephone on the night of her death. He had invited her to dinner, but she declined. Noticing that her voice was slurred, he became alarmed and called his manager, Milton Ebbins, for advice. Ebbins cautioned him not to go to the house, and contacted Marilyn’s lawyer, Milton Rudin, on Lawford’s behalf. Rudin called the house and spoke to Mrs. Murray at about 9 pm, who saw that Marilyn’s bedroom door was closed and told him she had gone to sleep.
Although Lawford has been depicted as a cowardly, even sinister figure in Marilyn’s final months, it’s difficult not to be moved by these pitiful words from a broken man, haunted by his past. Furthermore, the focus of his remorse is not having been part of a ‘cover-up’ after her death, but having failed to save her life. It should be acknowledged that Lawford was well-acquainted with Marilyn’s drug problems. He could not have known that she would die that night, having survived so many times before.
The documentary ends as it began, with Marilyn reliving her youthful dreams over footage from happier times, as she walks the streets of Manhattan and waves to Peter Mangone, a teenage fan with a home movie camera.
Methods and Conclusions
“You could say the essential mystery that haunts Monroe’s life is whether her death was accidental or a suicide,” Variety’s Owen Glieberman reflects, adding that The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe “captures how, right up until the end, her story was bigger than she was, a story nearly as big as America.” Emma Cooper, in Glieberman’s view, “does a fine job of evoking Marilyn’s glory and her humanity; the archival clips she has assembled interweave Monroe’s unparalleled glamour with the way that, in private moments, she gave off a more soulful kind of luminescence.”
“Listening to the recorded comments, we can judge the veracity of what we’re hearing,” Glieberman adds. “Cooper introduces a strikingly effective technique, having actors, talking on dial phones, lip-sync to the tapes, in clips that are shot with the grainy muted colours of old paperbacks. You could classify this enhancement as a dramatic distortion, yet it delivers the words we’re hearing with a heightening clarity that helps to dissolve the line between past and present. The effect of the technique is to transform the entire movie into a documentary noir, a ’40s/’50s plunge into the darkness.”
Glieberman is virtually the sole critical voice defending this conceit. “The potentially compelling artifice of watching people lip-sync pre-existing conversations tends to clash against the stated mission of a documentary that strives to correct the record,” David Ehrlich writes for Indiewire. “Watching someone pretend to be John Huston or Billy Wilder smacks of falsification to the point that their real voices start to sound fake, as if the actor playing Huston were doing an overly broad imitation of the director’s signature growl.” Other reviews point to this “clumsy device” as symptomatic of the film’s “awkward approach” to its subject.
The content of these tapes is underwhelming, Ehrlich judges. “Despite the teasing promise that Summers’ bunker full of ancient cassette tapes will offer some rare insight into the life of America’s most self-evident celebrity — and the even more tantalizing hint that they might shine new light on the ‘mysterious’ circumstances of her death — Cooper’s film does no independent research of its own, and therefore can’t possibly offer any tidbits that weren’t first reported in the pages of Goddess … Isn’t that what podcasts are for?”
A central problem, the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney suggests, lies in the omnipresence of Anthony Summers, whose “prosaic voiceovers … often border on self-aggrandisement,” and by “casting himself as the sole slayer of falsehoods … cheapens the sorrowful subject it purports to dignify.” What saves Cooper’s documentary, Rooney adds, is “the wealth of fabulous archival material, expertly assembled by editor Gregor Lyon,” and “its most consistent rewards are in the more general overview of her life, often heard in the star’s own words from interviews.”
“Summers’ methods and conclusions are sound, and as a reporter retracing the steps he took 40 years ago, he shows a suitable degree of respect, and sometimes even anguish, for his subject,” Stephanie Zacharek writes for TIME. “On the one hand, this approach solves a significant problem: how do you make a visually dynamic film drawn mostly from audio sources?” she says of the mimed reconstructions. “But on the other — there’s no kind way to put it: It’s cheesy.”
“Much of The Mystery of Marilyn leaves an unpleasant aftertaste,” Zacharek adds, pointing to Al Rosen’s crass remarks. “By now, the idea of the casting couch should shock no one. And no one who loves Marilyn Monroe, or even just the image of Marilyn that we know, is likely to pass judgment on her for anything she did on her way to becoming a star … And yet hearing an old coot salivating about how Marilyn used to ‘put out’ comes off as yet another instance of how, even in 2022, we just can’t let Marilyn alone.”
“Though Cooper and Summers touch on conspiracy theories — including the idea that Monroe was, perhaps, murdered for her associations with the Kennedys — no great weight is given to any of them,” Fran Hoepfner writes for The Wrap. “The result is not some great revelation so much as it is a repetition of misery. How much longer will the suffering of Monroe be re-litigated and reaffirmed?”
“A lot of this feels like hearsay, and the idea that the Kennedys covered up their ties with Monroe, or that they were somehow involved with her passing is the stuff of tabloid magazines,” The McGuffin’s Allen Almachar comments. “There are many ‘What Ifs’ and odd occurrences during the latter half, with the documentary tossing out theories without flat out accusing anyone.”
“The show does touch upon why so many people believe her Kennedy attachment could have resulted in a murder cover-up, with some proposing she was adamantly against the use of nuclear weapons around the time the States were investing in them,” Digital Spy’s Tilly Pearce concedes. “But could a 36-year-old Hollywood star — labelled a matter of national security and a communist in FBI files — really have that much of an influence over some of the most powerful people in the world? To the point that outside forces felt the need to step in and remove her from the equation?”
“While revisionist history would have it appear that Marilyn’s Kennedy affair was scandalous and public, it was actually far from it,” Pearce continues, noting that only one innocuous photograph of the alleged lovers remains. “In fact, the extent of Marilyn’s relationships with Bobby and JFK varies from biographer to biographer.”
“The human element of Monroe’s life is lost in a sea of wild conjecture,” Christian Gallichio writes for The Playlist. “Further, Summers doesn’t make for the most tantalising subject — his work has almost always skirted the line between legitimate research and exploitation … The Unheard Tapes is too enamoured with Summers and his purported revelations to dive into the implications of so many seeking to profit off of her life.”
“Cooper’s film also goes on a series of bewildering flights of fancy, as Summers tries to connect Bobby Kennedy’s relationship to Monroe to his investigation into Jimmy Hoffa,” Gallichio concludes. “It’s all a bit ridiculous and, honestly, the film feels quickly cobbled together in an effort of corporate synergy, lest we forget that Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is coming to the streamer later this year. What other reason would Netflix have for digging up Goddess, and Summers himself, to rehash information that’s been available since the Reagan era?”
In an article for The Guardian, Summers has expressed his disapproval of the upcoming Netflix biopic, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates — which she has described as “radically distilled,” meaning that she liberally used biographical sources (including Goddess) as fictional fodder. “Sexual experiences, mostly miserable ones, dominate Blonde, with an emphasis on the tyranny and treachery of many of [Marilyn’s] men,” Summers observes. “When Oates’ novel came out, her defence was that, in a work of fiction, she ‘had no particular obligation’ to the facts. In my view, that is not so …”
“Our cultural fascination with Monroe bears no explanation,” Adam White writes for The Independent. She is, after all, the prototype of all kinds of modern media phenomena, from the mystery and allure of the ‘dead blonde’ in popular entertainment … to the hyperfixation with young women struggling in the spotlight … It has become harder to find modern work that celebrates Monroe outside of her demise, the talent she had, or her otherworldly charisma as a movie star. In fairness to The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, we do get clips of many of her most famous roles … But these moments feel present by genre necessity, a bit of context tossed in at the start before the conspiracies begin.”
Perhaps the final insult is the inclusion of a police photograph – “the gruesome money-shot,” as Rachael Bletchly calls it in The Mirror — showing a dead Marilyn lying face-down in bed. Interviewing Summers for the Sunday Times, Andrew Wilson (who is also working on a Monroe biography) revealed that the publisher of Goddess’ first edition had insisted on including “the shocking image of Monroe on the mortuary slab, her face saggy after a post-mortem examination.” The picture was removed from reprints, but the inclusion of a similar photo in The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe — even if the filmmakers’ choice rather than Summers’ — seems to encapsulate this documentary’s many contradictions.