Dear Marilyn Redux

6 Aug

This is an edited redux of a previous blog I wrote about my ephemeral connection to the late, great Marilyn Monroe. Since it is now officially the 50th Anniversary of her death in 1962, I am republishing this small memoir.

So here’s my story…

Before I became a full-time novelist, I served as a researcher on a couple of books, one of which was a best-seller. It was called “Marilyn, the Last Take” by Peter Brown and Patte Barham. The book concerned itself with Marilyn Monroe’s last (unfinished) film, the prophetically titled “Something’s Gotta Give”.

Incidentally, it also purported to uncover the truth about Marilyn’s so-called murder at the hands of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

The book was an immense best-seller, mainly because of the Kennedy connection. By this time, in the late 1980s, the shocking news that the president’s mistress had been none other than Hollywood’s most famous and tragic blonde was old hat. The truth was that Kennedy treated Monroe as a serviceable doll, and when he was through with her handed her off to his brother. Monroe, however, was not just another easy bimbo and refused to endure such shabby treatment. She pestered the President and his brother with daily calls and letters, insisting that she was going to spill the beans and had, in fact, called a press conference for the following Monday morning. That Sunday, however, she was found dead in her bedroom and the press conference never happened.

These became the ingredients for the perfect mystery cocktail for whatever you wished to dream up. You have the hysterical White House handlers, the unstable star, the pre-emptive murder made to look like a suicide, and the subsequent cover-up. The fact was that sometime during the research phase the authors and I discovered that there was no proof whatsoever that the Kennedy’s had a connection to Monroe’s death. Marilyn had been “sliding toward extinction” for most of her life. She was forever getting plastered on the weekends from booze and pills, subsequently calling up her friends, members of the Rat Pack, and treating them to long, teary farewells. “Say goodbye to the President for me,” she supposedly gurgled that last night to Peter Lawford, “and say goodbye to you, too, ‘cause you’re a pretty nice guy.” Her friends even had a phrase for it – “Marilyn’s dangling the phone again.”

Usually one of them would race off to her house, revive her, call her shrink and have her stomach pumped out – and all would be well until the following weekend. Then it would start all over again, except that last weekend when everybody was tired. No one went to help her, thinking that someone else would step in. At worst, it could only be labeled a negligent homicide – that people knew she was dying but did nothing about it. The truth was that she had been dying every weekend for the last couple of years and her friends were simply tired of it.
Peter and Patte decided to contact their publisher, Random House, to tell them that they could not tie the Kennedy’s to Monroe’s death. Random House was having nothing of it. “You sold us a story in which the Kennedy’s killed Marilyn Monroe, and you’d better deliver it or our lawyers will certainly have a case on their hands.” It was the late Gore Vidal’s cynical prophecy come horribly to life – that the new literature takes real names, real places, and real events and simply makes all the rest up.

After the publisher’s scary dictate, the authors and I had to go back to emphasize every untruth, every veiled accusation, and every raving innuendo made by some nutcase who claimed to know the unvarnished truth. But the publishers got what they wanted – a best seller. It even engendered an episode on “Unsolved Mysteries” – which was a bonanza of publicity for the book and its subsequent release in paperback – in which Robert Stack solemnly urged the public to write the Los Angeles Supervisor’s office to “at last uncover the truth about Marilyn Monroe’s murder!”

When the book was scheculed to come out in paperback, the authors once again contacted me. “Unsolved Mysteries” received only 8,000 letters and my job was to read them all in the hope that they might provide a real clue that could be used in the paperback edition.

Let me say that I found no legitimate clues. But, oh my God – those letters gave me a harrowing insight into the public’s collective mind that I have never forgotten.

I got to the Antonovich office in the morning and was led to a stark, windowless room where boxes and boxes of the letters were piled. The first thing to surprise me was that the letters came from all over the world, from wherever the show was broadcast – mainly from Australia and New Zealand but also from Europe and even Vietnam. Antonovich couldn’t have used these signatures because only American Citizens could have signed his petition to reopen the Monroe murder case.

The sub-category I next became aware of, because they were the most numerous, was what I called the “Marilyn for Sainthood” letters. There was something so evanescent about her cotton-candy screen image that people could pin any hope or belief to her memory. To these writers, she was the Tragic Victim of an unfeeling world, too pure to live in its muck, a secular saint that was too fine for this hard, hard world. “Yes,” they said, “yes! By all means reopen the case so that her true glory can shine again!” My God, I thought after reading them, this is how saints and redeemers are created. Marilyn was becoming Our Lady of the Overdose! She had become a sort of gossamer mannequin that you could clothe in any costume you wanted. What those letter writers seemed to forget was that Billy Wilder had called her the “meanest woman in Hollywood” or that Tony Curtis had said that “kissing her was like kissing Hitler”; they had also forgotten that she was an erotic vagrant of epic proportions and that she had terrorized directors and producers with her sheer and utterly selfish unprofessionalism. Yes, she burnt a hole in celluloid like no one else, but at what a cost – to both herself and the studios that employed her. In truth she was just ordinarily insane, like her mother, and that’s from where our pity should spring. But to these writers, she was a goddess and enshrinement was their only end.

The next category I noticed were the Kennedy haters. They would write to anyone who asked them to vent their spleen about that terrible family. “She was assinated!” wrote one of them. (Need I mention that grammar and spelling skills were not readily apparent in most of these letters?) “The Kennedy’s were behind it and she was assinated!” (Yes, I thought, and after that she was rectified!) One particular writer went into lengthy discussion about how he could prove that it wasn’t Teddy Kennedy who had driven Mary Jo Kopechne into the drink, but that it was actually John F. Kennedy. John, you see, had actually survived that nasty “assination” attempt in Dallas, and the family had secretly installed him – almost a vegetable – on Chappaquiddick Island. Apparently they trusted him with the car keys, however, and poor Mary Jo paid the price. Teddy had come forward to cover the entire thing up!

They assinated her!

Then there were the letters that went into what I called the Sacred Relics pile. These writers wanted Monroe’s body disinterred for any number of reasons – one saying that we would find a chip on her breast bone, where the aforementioned FBI agent had nicked it when he gave her that embolism. The most plaintive came from a gentleman from a foreign clime. “Please do a DNA test on Miss Monroe’s remains. The test will prove that I am the long-lost child she gave up for adoption in 1949, signed, Quon Duc Pho of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.”

The most bizarre grouping of letters came from what I soon called the Lonely Woman Club, which exists mainly in Australia and New Zealand, but with ancillary chapters in places like Wyoming and Montana. Twenty-page hand-written letters would describe their bleak lives on distant ranches or farms. “People have often compared me to Miss Monroe,” went one of them, “and they often remark that I, too, am sad and tragic and not fit for this life.” Then a tiny slur against Monroe: “Only I am a natural blond!” Invariably these women would send snapshots of themselves posed provocatively against the corral fence, beside their best friend in the world, their horse Fluffy. I thought the first one was odd when I read it, but along about the thirtieth (complete with snapshots), I realized that these women (and they were only women) were so pathetically lonely that they would write to just about anyone who asked them, even a stranger on a television show. Then, almost as an afterthought on the last page they would remember the ostensible reason why they had written and add, “please add my name to reopen the Marilyn Monroe murder case.”

Perhaps the most profound thing I learned from these letters is that people are truly comforted by conspiracy theories. It is far safer to think that there was an important reason behind the death of a politician or a movie star; that cabals and conspirators with their elaborate and improbable plots are behind everything. What terrifies people most seems to be pure, uncaring randomness – because if even the likes of a protected, cocooned star like Marilyn Monroe can be doomed by random chance or chaos, what hope do the rest of us have?

Rest in peace, Marilyn. But I doubt the world will let you.


3 Responses to “Dear Marilyn Redux”

  1. laniersmith August 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    I was 10 years old living in the hell hole of Fontana California when she died. I have vivid memories of that Sunday morning in 1962. I heard the news on the radio while I was eating breakfast. I was so upset by the news and I remember thinking. “If I had known her maybe I could have helped her.” What an odd thing to think at 10 years old. My father came in and said. “Why are you crying. She was just a dumb movie star.” He had no idea what she was about. ….and neither did I.

  2. Matthew Wright August 6, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    I really enjoyed your expose of the ‘back story’ behind the Brown-Barham book and particularly the pressure from the publishers.

    I’ve had a couple of experiences in my own books where I’ve had to go back to the publisher (Penguin, in both instances) and explain that the thrust wasn’t quite going to be what was sold to them originally – some negotiation needed, but they agreed with all good will.

    That said, I can see how the commercial potential might well intrude further for a subject such as this one. Whether that compensates for the compromise of the authors’ intent is another matter – but publishing contracts, once made, can often be difficult to get out of.

    Apropos the Monroe ‘conspiracies’, I read the memoir of the coroner who dealt with the case, who made it quite clear that she’d suffered accidental and self-inflicted OD. But there always seems to be that streak in the popular mind that makes it impossible for celebrities to die in any shabby way.

  3. paulaacton August 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    I have nominated you for an award please pop by and collect it when you get chance

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