MISSING toxicology samples, general uncertainy and a number of conspiracy theories. The death of Norma Jeane Mortenson - Marilyn Monroe to you and I - has long been disputed. As the 50th anniversary of her death approaches, are we any closer to finding out the truth at last?
The toxicologist, R L Abernethy, began his examination on August 6th - the day after Monroe was found dead. He found the cause of death to be evident; a huge overdose of barbiturates, around a third of which was Pentobarbital, more commonly known as Nembutal, which is a fast-acting sedative hypnotic that leads to unconsciousness. Contributing factors led to the cause of death being recorded as ‘probable suicide’ - Monroe was found in a room locked from the inside, and no needle was found.
Sceptics have long been suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Monroe’s death, with a number of theories ranging from the 35-minute gap between Monroe being declared dead by her doctor and when police arrived, to CIA involvement. Some believed that president John F Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, had a part to play. Monroe’s last phone call was to the president and RFK is said to have visited the actress in Los Angeles on the day she died, but no foul play was uncovered.
However, the release of the original autopsy reports and diagrams by the Los Angeles County Coroner in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death may very well reignite suspicions, despite an outside coroner employed by the district attorney in 1982, concluding that even with the introduction of more advanced technology, the outcome would more than likely remain the same as it had been 20 years previously - even though the 1982 District Attorney report states that around 15 medicine bottles were at the scene, in contrast with the eight referenced in the coroner’s report. Fingerprint collection, had it been more advanced, might have aided the initial investigation, as too might clearer records on medicine.
As seen with the likes of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, doctors’ records can be subpoenaed which, along with more stringent records of prescriptions, allows authorities and investigators a far clearer picture of the death as a whole.
Autopsy reports themselves, however, have not changed as much, in practice. Descriptions of how and where bodies are found including surgical scars and organs remain the same, as does the recording of any contributing factors found at the scene - in this case, prescription medication.
What is evident is that there were recognisable discrepancies in the reports in the immediate aftermath of Monroe’s death. What is not clear, however, is how much of this can be innocently explained away as a result of relatively primitive techniques available to the forensic team and coroners.
Marilyn Monroe’s style and influence lives on, fifty years after her death and will almost certainly continue to do so. Her appearance as an attractive curvy woman - she wore a size 14-16 - has been a source of inspiration for many women struggling with body image, but the perceived impression of a ‘dumb blonde’ was rather far from the truth. Away from the silver screen, Monroe hob-nobbed with intellectuals and wasn’t averse to debating politics - indeed, reports of meetings between herself and Robert Kennedy over America’s policy over Cuba were followed up with a political discussion with John F Kennedy on the morality of nuclear testing. Monroe was a well-known supporter of a SANE Nuclear Policy. Following her death, close friends recalled her passion for equal rights and rights for the poor and ethnic minorities. She even requested - unsuccessfully - that the journalist conducting what turned out to be her final interview ended his article with a quote from her: ‘What I really want to say: that what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers. Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe.’
That her request was unfulfilled gives rise to the possibility that that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Monroe’s crippling stage fright and frequent illness, culminating in a hospital visit in July 1960 during the filming of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, was largely unnoticed - or if it was, it was acutely avoided. Overwhelming feelings of isolation were at first seen as Monroe’s escape from the Hollywood lifestyle. The reality is that, along with what appears to have been anxiety issues, it might well have been her downfall too.
The conspiracy theories will no doubt linger on, as will Monroe’s legacy. Elton John’s line - “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did” - has never been more accurate.
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