Marilyn Monroe's Death: What Actually Happened?

Everyone from Robert F. Kennedy to Jimmy Hoffa has been implicated in one of the most theorized-about conspiracies.
Marilyn Monroe's Death: What Actually Happened?

After Marilyn Monroe was tragically found dead on August 5, 1962, it didn’t take long for people to decide the whole thing stunk, and not like Chanel No. 5. The coroner had ruled her death a “probable suicide,” but that didn’t seem to make sense, and neither did an accidental overdose. As a result, everyone from Robert F. Kennedy to Jimmy Hoffa has been implicated in one of the most theorized-about conspiracies.

The Final Days of Marilyn Monroe

Monroe on the set of The Misfits

(Macfadden Publications/Wikimedia Commons)

Part of what makes conspiracy theories about Monroe’s death so intriguing is that the circumstances of her life leading up to her death don’t really point in one direction or another. She’d spent the previous year getting divorced, dealing with health issues, recovering from the flop that was The Misfits, and getting fired by her studio, which all sounds super depressing. She appeared to be turning things around, though, having gotten herself rehired, embarked upon an image rehabilitation media tour, and possibly made plans to marry Bobby Kennedy and/or get back together with Joe DiMaggio. At that point, it’s almost all secondhand sources because it’s surprisingly hard to get information out of ‘60s Hollywood folks these days.

The Day Of

Monroe's home

(JGKlein/Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the case, everyone pretty much seems to agree that Monroe was mad about something the day she died. She called an emergency session with her psychiatrist, who said she seemed “depressed and drugged” and later allegedly reported that she’d been “feeling rejected” by an “extremely important man” she’d been seeing, then allegedly called a bunch of friends to make variously cryptic but definitely emotional complaints. Peter Lawford, one of the only firsthand sources, said she’d ended their conversation, "Say goodbye to Pat, say goodbye to the president, and say goodbye to yourself because you're a nice guy," but there’s possibly reason to doubt him (we’ll get there). One of the biggest questions is whether Kennedy, who was in Los Angeles and who Monroe had tried to call at his hotel, stopped by. Monroe’s housekeeper said he did, but she changed her story a lot over the years.

The Official Story

New York Mirror

(New York Daily Mirror/Wikimedia Commons)

The housekeeper was the one who said she woke up at 3:30 in the morning to see Monroe’s light still on and called her psychiatrist, who came over, broke into Monroe’s bedroom, and found her dead. He then called her personal doctor to pronounce her dead before the authorities, which sounds sketchy, but they claimed it was on the orders of the studio, who basically were the authorities in those days. Police found the empty bottle for a prescription issued only a few days before next to her body, so that seemed to be that.

The Coroner’s Report

Sure enough, Monroe was found to have died of a huge dose of barbiturates, with levels in her blood so high that the coroner ruled out any possibility of an accident because not even the highest person forgets taking a handful of pills. He later noted evidence that the medication had been taken orally and that the only bruise on her body was unlikely to be evidence of injection because, well, you’ll see.

Something’s Got to Give

Some of Monroe’s friends were immediately suspicious because she’d seemed to them to be in a good mood lately, though drugs do tend to have that effect on people. Later, details leaked that seemed to confirm the worst, such as the lack of pills in Monroe’s stomach (explained later by the coroner as faster absorption by a body used to doing so), the bruise on her back, claims by her publicist’s wife that he’d been called much earlier than when her body was supposedly discovered (which is easy to misremember decades later), and the arrival of the FBI before the police. Admittedly, that one’s a little sketchy.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

(Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

By 1973, some of the first public claims of conspiracy were published in a “biography” of Monroe by Norman Mailer, of all people, who insisted she was killed by the FBI or CIA to send some kind of deeply unclear message to the Kennedys. Even Mailer didn’t believe his own book, admitting soon after that he’d made the whole thing up to get people to buy it.

Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa

(Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Others believed Jimmy Hoffa had Monroe bugged to get dirt on Kennedy and then used his mob connections to bump her off, um, out of spite? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and although a wiretapper known to have worked for Hoffa claimed to have tapes on Monroe, they were mysteriously absent when his tapes were seized by the Manhattan district attorney, who had presumably little reason to cover anything up.

Frank A. Capell

In Frank A. Capell’s The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe, he suggested that Kennedy had directly ordered Monroe’s death to keep her from revealing their affair, and man, why does it always come back to Kennedy? She was one of the most powerful women in the world -- why does her death have to concern some dude? Couldn’t Hoover have ordered it for political reasons? Anyway, Capell was a rabid anti-communist who was proven to have made things up about a senator he didn’t like, so there’s that.

Lionel Grandison

Red notebook

(Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

In 1982, a former coroner’s aide named Lionel Grandison surfaced with claims that the coroner had failed to note several bruises on Monroe’s body and he’d seen a “red diary” that she supposedly used to keep notes on state secrets. It later came out that Grandison had been fired from the coroner’s office for stealing from dead bodies, so if he didn’t swipe that diary, it probably didn’t exist.

The Accident Theory


(Alexbrn/Wikimedia Commons)

Another book, 1993’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, posited that the whole Kennedy thing was a red herring and Monroe’s death had been a simple accident, the result of her playing her doctors against each other to get them to prescribe what no one realized was a lethal combination of drugs. One of them, the book claims, happened to have been a sedative enema, which seems dubious as a general concept and which psychiatrists aren’t typically authorized to provide, leading he and the housekeeper to stage the scene as a suicide. The only real evidence of the theory is the word of prosecutor John Miner, who claimed Monroe’s body showed signs of enema usage, and well…

The Miner Transcripts

Tape recorder

(Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Miner claimed to have made transcripts from recordings played for him by Monroe’s psychiatrist that she presciently made the day of her death that showed she was anything but suicidal, but he was real sketchy about it, failing to mention the transcripts when he discussed the tapes with investigators and refusing to show them to Vanity Fair when he tried to sell them to them. It later came out that he’d been having money problems when he finally sold them to an author with another conspiracy theory to peddle. You’d make up wild stories about Arthur Miller’s dick too under those circumstances.

Her Estate


(Melinda Gimpel/Unsplash)

Another claim is that whoever was responsible for Monroe’s death was simply after her money. It is true that her will contained some strange provisions, such as a large percentage to a psychiatrist who’d had her committed against her will under deplorable conditions the year before, but there’s no evidence that it was illegally altered. Maybe she just hadn’t updated it in a while? You know how life goes.

The Time Warp

One of the more plausible theories is that Monroe was indeed just fatally distraught about her breakup with Kennedy but she’d left too much evidence of that. The owner of an ambulance company claimed she’d died en route to a hospital much earlier than officially noted, but she was returned to her home to allow enough time for the FBI to comb it for incriminating keepsakes, Lawford to destroy her suicide note (as his ex-wife claimed), and Kennedy to get out of the state before police “found” her. This could also explain why her publicist was supposedly notified much earlier, but again, these are people recalling an event way after the fact, and you don’t even know what you had for breakfast this morning.

The 1982 Investigation

Unlike most conspiracy-shrouded celebrity deaths, the case of Monroe’s death was actually reopened 20 years later, and authorities found … still no evidence of criminal conduct. They were careful to note, regarding the claim of Lawford’s ex-wife, that “if she was despondent and wrote a note saying, ‘Bobby Kennedy drove me to suicide,’ it is not clear that the taking of that note would have been a crime,” so make of that what you will.

What Actually Happened?

One of Monroe's last photos

(George Barris/Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, it’s very likely that Monroe truly was a tragic, troubled lady who couldn’t bear one more disappointment. Even if none of that Kennedy stuff is true, people who seem to have everything going for them die of suicide all the time, and she had been behaving increasingly erratically in the months leading up to her death. It turns out that’s it’s possible that coroners and police officers might just be better than we are when it comes to solving suspicious deaths.

Top image: Bert Parry/Wikimedia Commons

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