Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, died on August 4, 1962 from an acute overdose of barbiturates, a fact that experts do not dispute. What is not clear, however, is whether she took those drugs intentionally, by mistake or under force. Dozens of theories pose different variations on these themes of suicide, accidental overdose and murder. Exactly what happened on the night of her death remains a mystery to this day.
Officially, the cause of death for Marilyn Monroe is listed as a "probable suicide," and a convincing argument can be made that she did in fact take her own life. Her biological father, whose identity remains unknown, was not present for her as a child, and her mother was reportedly abusive and mentally unstable. She spent nearly all of her childhood and early adolescence in foster homes as a result, after which she into an arranged marriage of convenience to her neighbor, James Dougherty, at only 16 years old. This marriage, along with two others to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, ended in divorce, and she was rumored to have been involved in numerous scandalous affairs in a quest for happiness throughout her life. Allegedly, she had attempted suicide several times during the 1940s and 1950s, incidents which were largely kept out of the press by studio publicists.
By 1962, her monumental career was said to be slipping away. The studio which had promoted her in the past, 20th Century Fox, now considered her to be a liability. Her last movies were not commercially successful, and her behavior on the set of her unfinished film Something's Got to Give had become very erratic. She became dependent on various substances, including alcohol, to cope with her past, chronic stage fright and the pressure of fame, and she spent some time in a psychiatric hospital in 1961.
In this context, Monroe had access to large quantities of Nembutal, a barbiturate she often used (or abused) to help her sleep. She also had a prescription for another less-addictive sleep aid, chloral hydrate. The idea that she committed suicide by ingesting an overdose of Nembutal and chloral hydrate could be seen as an unfortunate end to a very troubled life.
Accidental Drug Interaction
According to one line of thought, Marilyn Monroe's death was the result of an accidental drug interaction, caused primarily by a lack of communication between her personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson. By 1962, the actress had developed a clear addiction to Nembutal, but she agreed to let Greenson wean her off the medication by switching to chloral hydrate. Some people think that she secretly continued taking Nembutal, and Engelberg had provided a refill only days before her death. Neither doctor was apparently aware of the other's actions concerning her addiction, and when she took both medications at the same time, a fatal drug interaction supposedly occurred.
A third theory suggests that an individual or group of conspirators murdered Monroe to guarantee her silence. Through a mutual friend, she met President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, and rumors of sexual affairs with both men ran rampant through the tabloids. Some individuals who have studied the circumstances surrounding the actress' death believe she was killed so that John and Robert could escape further scandal and keep their reputations and careers intact. Additionally, she reportedly had talked with the President about political matters, so another possibility is that the brothers, under Robert's lead, authorized her murder because of the risk she posed to national security — a neighbor who lived next to her bungalow testified that she saw Robert Kennedy and two other men enter the house the night of Monroe's death around 7:00 p.m., and one man was said to be carrying a black medical bag. The apparent connections between the Kennedys, Sam Giancana and the mafia also have led to speculation that she was killed to send a message to the First Family.
Problems With the Theories
The suicide theory has a major flaw in that the degree of digestion of the Nembutal in Monroe's system suggested that she had been alive at least for a few hours after taking a dose. Similarly, the chloral hydrate was already concentrated in the liver rather than the blood, further suggesting that she had taken the medication earlier in the day. Although the physical evidence suggested she died quickly, no drugs were found in her stomach, and no drinking glasses were found at the scene that might have helped her take pills. Physical examinations revealed no injection marks, leaving only the possibility of additional later doses administered rectally, but experts believe it is unlikely that she could have taken treatment in this way without help. Reports also indicate that her body was clearly moved.
The accidental overdose idea does not explain the claims that Robert Kennedy and additional men were seen on Monroe's property. It also doesn't provide a reason as to why virtually everyone involved changed the story they related to police at some point. The loss or destruction of much of the evidence or paperwork related to the case is also suspicious. The murder line of reasoning is questionable, however, because an ambulance reportedly was dispatched.
The fact that some degree of cover-up was involved in Monroe's death is clear, but why officials attempted to blur the truth is the real mystery. If she committed suicide, they might have changed their stories and influenced records to make her seem more mentally stable and protect her from additional stigma, or to try to make her image more immortal, just as it has become, with an alluring air of uncertainty. With an accidental overdose, the secrecy surrounding her death may have been an effort to protect the reputations of her doctors, who failed to coordinate their efforts for care. The concept of a seductive woman betrayed by government leaders or "taken out" by the mafia is worthy of Hollywood, indeed, but if it happened to Monroe in real life, keeping it quiet would have kept an untold number of career and political plans possible. Whether or not her death was self-inflicted, accidental or a criminal act, it was a tragic end to a Hollywood icon's fascinating life.