The Sad Life and Untimely Death of America's Fantasy

By Alexandra Kathryn Mosca 

   It=s no surprise that nearly 40 years after the death of Marilyn Monroe, the postmortem speculations continue, as do the conspiracy theories that accompany them. By now, we all know these purported theories by heart. After the suicide and accidental overdose scenarios have been exhausted, musings turn to murder suspects. Fingers point alternately at a popular U.S. President, notorious for his philandering, his younger brother the U.S. Attorney General, assorted mobsters, the FBI, the CIA and all the way to a disgruntled housekeeper. Even Monroe=s own psychiatrist has been under suspicion in trying to answer once and for all just who might be responsible for the death of one of  the greatest sex symbols to have ever lived.

   Homicide and suicide speculation notwithstanding, it seems that Monroe=s fate was sealed from birth. Some people rail against their destiny, while others are tacitly complicit in it. Monroe, was one of the latter, fated from the start to a life characterized by a sense of doom. Born to, and subsequently abandoned by a mentally unstable mother, rejected by a father she never knew and her formative years having been spent in a succession of abusive foster homes, resulted in wounds that cut so deep, no love affair, fame nor money could hope to heal. Whereas a less vulnerable person might have overcome these conditions, Monroe just never could. Sensitive, needy and emotionally fragile, she descended into an abyss of self‑destruction. Turning to alcohol, drugs and sex to fill the void within, they proved an unsatisfying substitute for the security and happiness which continually eluded her. It was just a matter of time before the circumstances of her birth would ultimately do her in. As an intimate remarked after her death, AThe amazing thing about her is that she survived as long as she did.@

   To be sure, there were those who believed that on a certain level Monroe craved the release from suffering the end would bring; attempts at suicide brought her to the brink of death numerous times. And throughout the years, Marilyn herself made many references to death, ASometimes I wonder why I go on. I feel miserable, I hate it, it hurts too much. Death has got to be better than this,@ she once said during a turbulent time in 1957. And on another occasion, AI=d almost rather be crazy than feel this anxiety churning inside me; I=d rather be dead.@ She  went so far as to predict that like her idol, Jean Harlow, she too would die young.

   Born Norma Jeane Baker on June 1, 1926,  Marilyn=s unfortunate premonition came true when her life ended in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 1962. But in the intervening years Marilyn gained a worldwide acclaim seldom seen before nor duplicated since. Her career spanned 16 years and included 29 movies C AHow to Marry a Millionaire,@ AGentlemen prefer Blondes,@ ASome Like It Hot@ C in which she often portrayed the happy, carefree, Agood‑time girl.@ A persona she had carefully constructed, and one which so deftly masked her tortured existence.

   Marilyn was found dead and naked (as she usually slept and out of which, predictably, the press made a great deal) in the bed of her Brentwood California home, ostensibly  from an overdose of sleeping pills. Summoned to the scene by Eunice Murray, her frantic housekeeper, were Monroe=s psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson and Dr. Hyman Engleberg, her personal physician,  soon joined by her attorney, Mickey Rudin and press agent, Pat Newcombe. Unexplained hours passed before the police were alerted.

   Acting on authorization from somebody at the house, never named, Marilyn=s remains were removed to the Westwood Village Mortuary. However, upon discovering the identity of the deceased and the circumstances of the death, the body was ordered into the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner for an autopsy. The autopsy took place that same day, Aug. 5, by Dr. Thomas Noguchi, then a young, relatively unknown deputy chief medical examiner. Dr. Noguchi would go on to develop a reputation as Athe coroner to the stars,@ dissecting the corpses of such Hollywood luminaries as Natalie Wood, William Holden and John Belushi. Ironically, even the body of Robert F.Kennedy, would turn up on Dr. Noguchi=s autopsy table.

   A preliminary autopsy report stated that death had occurred as a result of a Apossible overdose of barbiturates,@ specifically Nembutal and chloral hydrate, although no evidence of  barbiturate or capsule residue was found in her stomach. Thus, the murder conjectures. This notation was amended on Aug. 17 to Aa probable suicide@ and finally amended again on Aug. 27 to Aacute barbiturate poisoning‑ingestion of overdose.@ Inconclusive and differing opinions by medical experts unendingly ensued.

   Once the autopsy was completed, the body of Hollywood=s most famous sex symbol remained in the hospital morgue, waiting to be claimed. It was stalwart and dependable Joe DiMaggio who, with permission from Marilyn=s next of kin, half sister Berniece Miracle, assumed the responsibility of making the funeral arrangements. So it was that on Aug. 7, her body was, for the second time, taken to Westwood Village Mortuary, this time to be embalmed and prepared for her funeral. But not before a Life magazine photographer, after bribing a morgue attendant with a bottle of whiskey, was able to sneak into the hospital morgue and snap some photos.

   To obtain a photo of the deceased star, the press attempted to bribe mortuary workers for the opportunity to take a few pictures in the embalming room. Reporting these incidents to their superiors, the funeral home arranged for six Pinkerton security guards to watch the building, as Marilyn=s body was prepared. A small incision and some careful suturing minimized the swelling in her neck in what otherwise was a routine embalming.

Dressed in a favorite green Pucci dress she had only recently worn at a press conference, and placed in the bronze casket chosen by DiMaggio, she was ready for the finishing touches. Accustomed as she was to having her =hair & makeup= done for movies and personal appearances throughout her life, there was an irony in this final appearance C  even in death she had to look her Amovie star@ best.

   To that end, her personal hairdresser and make‑up man Allan AWhitey A Snyder received a call from DiMaggio reminding him of a promise he had long ago made in jest. In 1952, after undergoing an appendectomy, Marilyn, on the day of her release from the hospital, summoned Whitey to do her makeup for the waiting press. It was then that Marilyn extracted a promise. APromise me that if something happens to me C  please, never let anybody touch my face but you. Promise you=ll do my makeup, So I=ll look my best.@

"Sure,@ Whitey jokingly assured her, adding Abring the body back while it=s still warm and I=ll do it.@

Several weeks later, as if to seal the deal, Whitey received a gold money clip from Tiffany=s as a gift with the engraving: AWhitey dear, While I=m still warm...Marilyn@

   Now 10 years later, he made good on that promise. Following a few nips of vodka to steady his nerves, he did her makeup for the last time. However, the requested hairdresser, Sidney Guilaroff, did not fare as well, fainting at the sight of Marilyn=s corpse. Instead, a wig was used, retrieved from the prop department of AMisfits, A her last completed film.

   Unable to leave her alone, DiMaggio spent the entire night beside her casket in the Chapel of Palms reposing room. Snyder found him there in the morning when he came to check the makeup. Rumors had flown before her death that they were to be reunited in marriage, making intentional suicide all the more impossible, for DiMaggio in particular, to fathom. Joe DiMaggio, who long believed that her movie star life had been her undoing, stipulated in no uncertain terms that her Hollywood circle be excluded. He went so far as to draft a statement saying, Alast rites must of great necessity be as private as possible so that she can go to her final resting place in the quiet she always sought.@ No stars, producers, agents, press (save for Walter Winchell, a pal of Joe=s) or show business friends were to be allowed. Turned away at the funeral home gate were such Hollywood luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

Among the 30 or so, who were invited to attend, were Berniece, Lee Strasberg, Marilyn=s acting teacher, mentor and surrogate father, his wife Paula, who had served as Marilyn=s drama coach, Monroe=s  maid, Eunice Murray, her housekeeper, secretary, driver, masseur, Mickey Rudin her lawyer, publicist, hairdresser and her psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson and his family. Her first husband, James Dougherty, as well as Arthur Miller, her second, chose not to attend. And Marilyn=s mother, confined to a sanitarium, never learned of her daughter=s death. In fact, she seemed after some time not even to be sure who Norma Jean had been.

   The funeral took place in the small chapel at Westwood Memorial Park on Wednesday, Aug. 8, a day, some say, was the date Marilyn and Joe were to be remarried. Strains of AOver the Rainbow,@ one of Marilyn=s favorite compositions, echoed throughout the mortuary=s chapel, as mourners entered for the 1:00 P.M. service. Simple memorial folders were passed out. A minister read scripture from the book of Amos and the book of John, and the congregants recited the 23rd Psalm, after which a tearful Lee Strasberg, delivered the eulogy. But the most poignant moment was to follow. No one, it seems, remained unaffected by the sight of America=s stoic hero, Joe DiMaggio, stooped over the casket, eyes brimming with tears, kissing Marilyn for the last time and placing three delicate roses in her hand, while whispering the words, AI love you.@

   Exiting the chapel into the sun‑drenched afternoon, mourners walked in silence behind the brand-new hearse. A mere 200 yards away, in the Corridor of Memories section, stood the marble wall crypt, into which Marilyn was only the second person to be entombed. A bronze plaque read simply: >Marilyn Monroe 1926‑1962.= After the funeral had ended and the mourners left, hysterical fans and eager Press, who had been kept at bay during the funeral, stormed the cemetery, trampling graves, crushing flowers and grabbing anything that would serve as a souvenir. Cameras clicked and movie film rolled for the last Marilyn Monroe production.

   That evening, DiMaggio returned alone to the now dark and deserted cemetery, to sit with Marilyn as he would often do in the years to come. And for the next 20 years, as a symbol of his continuing love and devotion, he had red roses placed in the urn next to her crypt twice weekly, as she had once requested.   

   A player in her own tragedy, Marilyn Monroe nonetheless lived her short life on a grand scale, dying a legend and leaving the world with smoldering images of the sex goddess she portrayed. So in a curious way perhaps fate had been kind. As she herself said so tellingly to a friend on her 33rd birthday, AI know I have to die, but I hope I don=t have to get old and sick to do it.@ Troubled as she was at the height of her youth and beauty, how could she have endured the passing years in an industry which looks with disdain at its aging stars? Captured on celluloid, tape and photos she is frozen in time, forever remembered as young, sexy and glamorous. An image of which Monroe surely would have approved. But she also unintentionally left behind another, more  searing image, that of Norma Jean Baker, the unhappy, unwanted, little girl she never quite stopped being through all the public adoration and notoriety. The real person who lived for a time as America=s fantasy, dying as all real people must do; proving to be all too mortal.

   In the end, it is perhaps the final words of Lee Strasberg=s eloquent eulogy which paints this goddess as human as the rest of us. AI cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked good‑byes, but in that peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality‑I will say au revoir. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.@ 



Copyright (c) Kates-Boylston Publications Inc.