In some ways, it seemed in August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was trying to pull her life together. She had just bought her first house in California’s Brentwood neighborhood for $75,000, she was on the cover of Life magazine and she had just been rehired on the film Something’s Got to Give.
But in other ways, it seemed like the bleakest of times for model-turned-Hollywood star. She had divorced her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, the year prior, there were rumors about an alleged affair between her and President John F. Kennedy, and her normally picture-perfect appearances had been replaced with nails in need of a manicure and pedicure.
On August 5, 1962, Monroe was found dead in her home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive. She had a phone receiver in her hand and was lying face down without any clothes on. By her side was an empty pill bottle that had held 50 capsules of Nembutal, a drug often used as a sleeping pill.
The shocking tragic ending to Monroe’s rise to glory from abandoned childhood to movie star royalty was a real-life Cinderella story. While her death at the age of 36 was ruled a probable suicide, theories still abound about what may have actually led to her passing in her final days.
Monroe's love life going through ups and downs
Despite being known as one of the greatest sex symbols in pop culture history, Monroe’s personal life was plagued with drama.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, Monroe was shuffled between orphanages and foster homes throughout her childhood. She was just 16 when she married to James Dougherty, which lasted from 1942 to 1946, later marrying baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954 and Miller from 1956 to 1961.
It was her marriage to Miller that lasted the longest. During the period, she had suffered several miscarriages and, at times, blamed herself for her drug and alcohol use. Her substance abuse and creative differences while the couple worked together on the 1961 film The Misfits added to the stress. Though they finished the film, Monroe chose the January 20, 1961 divorce date in hopes of burying the news in the wake of the presidential inauguration of JFK — who ironically she was soon linked to.
Just over a year later, in March 1962, Monroe reportedly met JFK at a Palm Springs party at Bing Crosby's home, before their famed public appearance at a Democratic fundraiser on May 19, 1962, where Monroe sang her sultry rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in her breathy voice wearing a dress made by designer Jean Louis that gave the illusion she was naked.
JFK responded to the performance by saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.” But little did the world realize that less than three months later, Monroe would no longer be around.
While experts argue about the amount of impact the divorce from Miller and rumored JFK affair may have had on Monroe’s state of mind, her ups and downs with lovers (which also included romances with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and director Elia Kazan) were a tumultuous factor throughout her life.
Her career was in a slump
After a string of box office disappointments with 1960’s Let's Make Love and 1961’s The Misfits, Monroe had started to feel the effects of her waning stardom. To add to that, the way she handled herself on the set of 1962’s Something’s Got to Give, caused her to get fired on June 8, 1962, by 20th Century-Fox Studios.
The movie studio said that her constant delays had cost the production $2 million and sued her for $500,000. “Management is what's wrong with the business,” Monroe had said, according to the New York Times. “To blame the troubles of Hollywood on stars is stupid. These executives should not knock their assets around.”
The public battle had tarnished her reputation, but Monroe knew what she had to do and was preparing to turn things around. She had landed on covers of prestigious magazines like Life and Paris Match — and negotiated with the studios to be hired back on Something’s Got to Give, heading back to work that very Monday. She also reportedly was making plans to give a press conference in the coming days.
While it appears she pulled all her ducks in a row and was poised for a comeback, the impacts of the situation may have still had a lasting effect on her mindset.
Monroe was newly seeking help from a psychiatrist
Monroe’s troubled upbringing mixed with the pressures of fame haunted her throughout her life. Some of her most famous quotes allude to the demons that swirled in her mind: “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered,” “Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a $1,000 for a kiss and 50¢ for your soul,” and “If I close my eyes and think of Hollywood, all I see is one big varicose vein.”
Her birth mother had spent much of her life in psychiatric clinics, and Monroe was determined not to follow her fate. In 1961, she checked into Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic — but was even further traumatized to find herself locked in a padded cell.
At the time of her death, she was seeking help from psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson. In fact, around 5:15 pm on Saturday before her death, she had talked to Greenson for about an hour on the phone and “was told to go for a ride when she complained she could not sleep, police reported,” according to her 1962 Los Angeles Times obituary. He thought she was headed to the beach for some fresh air.
The empty pill bottle next to her was from a prescription that had just been given to her a few days prior — and she was supposed to take one per night, said Dr. Hyman Engelberg. Also found on the bed stand were another 12 to 15 medicine bottles.
Her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, had seen Monroe head to her bedroom at about 8 pm on the Sunday night she’s believed to have died. Around 3:25 am, she then noticed Monroe’s light was still on and went to check on her — but didn’t hear any responses. She called Greenson who came over and broke the window to find Monroe’s dead body.
While both conspiracy and logical theories have been thrown out into the public realm, the truth behind Monroe’s death will forever be a mystery. The last six months of her life will soon come to the screen in the series tentatively titled The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, inspired by Keith Badman's 2010 book The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe.