Fifty years ago this month, on Aug. 5,1962, Marilyn Monroe’s body was discovered in her Los Angeles home. The circumstances have always been mysterious. Although the medical examiner’s verdict was probable suicide from a barbiturate overdose, President Kennedy and his brother hovered in the background in the days before her death. There was a long gap between when her physician declared that she was dead and when the police were called. The police investigation was shoddy. Conspiracy theories persist that she was murdered to keep her from revealing her affair with President Kennedy.
On the recent anniversary of her death, items appeared everywhere in the media. Newspapers, magazines, and television talk shows featured glowing appraisals of her. It’s difficult to imagine any icon from the early 196Os who continues to be as vivid in popular culture as Marilyn Monroe.
Graham Green once said that an unhappy childhood is a gold mine for a writer. That principle applies to creative people other than writers. As a child, Marilyn was in twelve foster homes as well as an orphanage. One of her guardians programmed her into wanting to become a movie star. Starved for affection, thinking that movie stars received plenty of love, she devoted her life to her career, but although she had the talent and the drive, she couldn’t bear the pressure.
Because the culture of the time saw beautiful women only as objects, Marilyn was forced to pretend that she was simple in order to navigate her way through a sexist labyrinth. As her character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes says, “I can be smart when I want to. But I’ve noticed that most men don’t like that.” Indeed the men in her life didn’t like a lot of things. Her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, beat her, and her third husband, Arthur Miller, emotionally abused her. Severe anxiety attacks led to self-medication.
The poignant life and tragic end of this vulnerable, talented, tormented woman is moving to the point of tears.
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While I’m a novelist, I’m also a former professor of American studies. I write essays in what I call my cultural-icon series. MARILYN MONROE: LEGEND AND TRAGEDY is part of that series, which also includes John Wayne: The Westerns and Rambo and Me: The Story behind the Story. Soon I’ll add essays about Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, and Bobby Darin—cultural giants who fascinate me as much as Marilyn does, because of the way these damaged personalities used their troubled childhood to create personas and careers that illuminate American culture.