The headlines on December 20, 2009, didn’t seem to make sense: How could Brittany Murphy, the 32-year-old actress, beloved for her upbeat roles in film favorites like Clueless, 8 Mile, and Uptown Girls, be dead?
But there it was in newspapers and on sites around the globe. She had reportedly collapsed in her West Hollywood home and was declared dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 10:04 a.m. that Sunday morning. A Los Angeles coroner told the Associated Press that the cause of death “appears to be natural.”
“A bright light that lit the world is forever dimmed, but will live on in the hearts of those that Brittany touched,” her family said in a statement. “Brittany was an incredibly loving and passionate person and an artist to her core.”
Even with the facts out there, something seemed off. On February 4, 2010, an updated coroner’s report was released, citing anemia and prescription drugs played a role in her death that ultimately was caused by “community acquired pneumonia.”
And as it turns out, the mystery was just beginning.
Murphy's husband and mother first got sick in Puerto Rico
In November 2009, Murphy traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to film a movie The Caller, and her husband, Simon Monjack, and mother, Sharon Murphy, went with her, according to a Hollywood Reporter story by family friend Alex Ben Block.
Immediately things went wrong. Murphy was fired the first day, with some reports pointing fingers to Monjack’s on-set drunken behavior. But they stayed on the island to vacation and Monjack and Sharon both caught Staphylococcus. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Murphy gave her husband CPR after he says he had a “mild heart attack.”
Eventually, Murphy also caught Staphylococcus aureus — and it hit her hard. By mid-December, she had a terrible bout of laryngitis and was going through her second period in a month that caused anemia. For six weeks, she thought she could overcome it and didn’t seek medical attention, but finally called on Friday to make an appointment for Monday. But she never made it through that weekend.
Murphy served as a caretaker for her mother and husband
Even though she was dealing with her own ailments, Murphy had been taken care of both her mother, who struggled with neuropathy after surviving breast cancer and her husband, who dealt with seizures and sleep apnea.
Trapped in her $3.9 million home on Rising Glen Road she bought in 2003 from Britney Spears, but now hated, the only comfort zone she could escape to was her bathroom. Yet even there, her thoughts were anything but calm. “She spent hours sampling the cosmetics and perfumes that crowded every inch of counter space, critically studying her body image,” Block wrote.
There was only one thought that kept her going: a new start in New York City. She thought that if they could only get back to the East Coast (she grew up in nearby Edison, New Jersey), Monjack could find work as a screenwriter and director and she could get back into independent films.
But that December Saturday night, things were ominous. “The electric power kept going out, and the backup generator failed,” Block wrote, noting there was a 45-minute blackout around 3 a.m. “They used flashlights when it went dark, afraid to light candles near the wheezing oxygen machine Simon relied on to ease his sleep apnea, bouts of asthma and frequent respiratory infections.”
And then the health troubles set in. “On her final night, Brittany was gasping for breath, her lips turning blue from a lack of oxygen as her lungs filled with fluid,” Block wrote. “She took the antibiotic Biaxin, migraine pills, cough medicine and an over-the-counter nasal spray. The day she died, she had also taken an anti-depression drug (fluoxetine, aka Prozac), an anti-seizure drug (Klonopin), an anti-inflammatory (methylprednisolone) and a beta blocker that Simon gave her, as well as Vicoprofen to ease pain from her period.”
Soon after, she fell in the bathroom and told her mom, “I’m dying. I’m going to die. Mommy, I love you.” Her mom desperately called 911, but it was too late.
Monjack wanted a book written about how Murphy died of a 'broken heart'
In the weeks following Murphy’s death, Block spent time with Monjack and Sharon, both giving interviews and Monjack trying to convince Block to write a book about Murphy’s tragic passing.
“Simon wanted the book because he was convinced — before the autopsy report on Brittany came back — that she had literally died of a broken heart caused by the shoddy way she had been treated in Hollywood,” Block wrote. He cited how she had been dropped from Happy Feet 2 and stories and frustration with unfounded stories about Murphy’s drug use.
“Only later would I realize that much of what Simon told me — about his family, education, marriage and career — was exaggerated or simply fabricated,” Block said.
Her husband died under similar circumstances five months later
While the world continued searching for explanations for Murphy’s passing, another shocking occurrence was revealed: Monjack died on May 23, 2010, at the age of 39, in the same bedroom as Murphy, also from acute pneumonia and anemia, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The odd coincidence of the cause and place raised more suspicions, but Sharon was quick to quiet them. “It is with great relief that Simon's preliminary autopsy findings have been released, so the media speculations can stop,” she said. “As I was sure of, just like my daughter Brittany, there was no kind of drug overdose.”
It wasn’t the first time Sharon felt the need to keep the story straight. When Block’s piece was published in January 2011, she told Entertainment Tonight the quotes were “100-percent untrue.”
Murphy’s parents fought over theories about their daughter's death
Questions continued to come up over the years and in November 2013, Murphy’s dad, Angelo Bertolotti, told Good Morning America his take: “I have a feeling that there was definitely a murder situation here… Yeah, it's poison. Yes, yes, I know that.” He had ordered additional toxicology reports and claimed that his daughter’s hair showed there were 10 heavy metals in her system.
But Murphy’s father hadn’t been in her life much, as she shared a tight-knit relationship with her mother. “They were adorable together,” Murphy’s former agent and manager JoAnne Colonna told The Hollywood Reporter. “They finished each other’s sentences. Both were bright and bubbly, and that relationship never changed.”
Sharon quickly denied Bertolotti's claims in an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter: “His claims are based on the most flimsy of evidence and are more of an insult than an insight into what really happened.” She went on to describe how a hair sample is unreliable.
She ended the letter defiantly: “She was my baby, and we stood together throughout Brittany's life. Now I must stand up for her again. It is time for those who really knew and loved her to put those who want to exploit her on notice: Your lies will no longer be tolerated, and as long as I live will continue to be exposed.”
Bertolotti died in 2019 at the age of 92. A May 2020 documentary attempted to dig into the truth, but simply raised even more questions, which remain to this day.