Marilyn Monroe has captivated the public imagination for decades with her instantly recognizable blonde bob and iconic hourglass figure. After the recent premiere of Netflix’s Blonde, which fictionalizes Marilyn’s life, it seems that everyone has questions about the star, including how the iconic actress died.
The woman seemed to have it all: fame, beauty, money, power. So, when the mega-sensation and sex symbol of the 1950s, died suddenly at the age of 36, everyone was left wondering what in the world happened to Marilyn.
In addition to the new film, which stars Ana de Armas, Marilyn's also the subject of a Netflix documentary, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, which came out in April and delves into the details of her death. For such a public figure, she led a relatively private life.
So, how did Marilyn Monroe die, exactly? Well, here’s what to know.
Warning: The following contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
How old was Marilyn Monroe when she died?
In the early morning hours of August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead of an apparent sleeping pill overdose in her modest Los Angeles home, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Reporters from The New York Times wrote that Marilyn had gone to her bedroom around 8 p.m. the night before and was eventually found “nude, lying face down on her bed and clutching a telephone receiver in her hand when a psychiatrist broke into her room at 3:30 a.m." The initial news story said she had been estimated to have died six to eight hours prior to being found.
Eunice Murray, Marilyn's housekeeper, told the Times that she became worried when Marilyn didn’t respond to knocks on her bedroom door. Murray had seen a light go on in Marilyn's room around 3:25 a.m. but found the door locked. She reportedly called Marilyn’s psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, who came to the house and broke a window to access Marilyn’s room.
Inside, Greenson found her lifeless, with one hand clutching a phone. Another doctor was called. Marilyn was pronounced dead, but police weren’t called until 4:20 a.m., about an hour after Murray had initially called Greenson. (Doctors said they needed permission from Marilyn’s movie studio before alerting the authorities.)
Marilyn didn't leave any notes behind, the Times reported.
Did Marilyn really die of an overdose?
The official word is that Marilyn died of an overdose. And an autopsy report found that Marilyn died from acute combined drug toxicity, chloral hydrate (a calming medication usually used on patients before surgeries), and Nembutal (a sedative and anticonvulsant), according to People, and pill bottles were found by her bed.
However, no water glass was found in her room, which she would have likely needed to swallow all those pills, and there was no pill residue in her stomach. Cyril Wecht, a prominent forensic pathologist, told People that this suggests that “she might have been injected” with the drugs.
The coroner also allegedly took samples from Marilyn’s stomach and small intestines and asked the toxicologist to do tests on them, but they were never done.
What happened before her death?
Marilyn struggled with her mental health for years before her death. Apparently, Dr. Marianne Kris, Marilyn’s New York-based psychiatrist, persuaded her to enter the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in 1961, one year before her fatal overdose, per Gothamist.
Marilyn hated her time at the clinic and left when her ex-husband John DiMaggio picked her up three days later, according to The New York Times. "I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn't committed," she wrote to her psychiatrist at the time.
DiMaggio then moved her to another hospital where she could be treated for alcohol and drug addiction, per StyleCaster.
What did Marilyn say before she died?
Marilyn’s therapist, Dr. Greenson, remembers his time with Marilyn the summer before her death. “She couldn’t sleep, and she said how worthless she felt,” he told Vanity Fair in 1991.
“She talked about being a waif, that she was ugly, that people were only nice to her for what they could get from her. She said life wasn’t worth living anymore,” Dr. Greenson added.
What did friends say about Marilyn’s death?
Marilyn’s close friends were shocked when they heard the news about her death. Interviews in The Los Angeles Times include comments from friends insisting her death was not intentional.
“This must have been an accident,” Marilyn’s good friend, Pat Newcomb, said. “Marilyn was in perfect physical condition and was feeling great.”
Newcomb added that she had plans to go to the movies with Marilyn the next day. Her attorney also said that she had promised to see him the following Monday, per Men’s Health.
What new evidence is revealed in the documentary?
The documentary raises doubts about when and where Marilyn actually died...and who she might have been with that day.
The film suggests she might have actually died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, instead of in bed. “No, she wasn’t [dead at home],” ambulance company owner Walter Schaefer says in the documentary. According to Schaefer, Marilyn was comatose but alive when the ambulance arrived and took her to the ER.
Writer John Sherlock also says in the doc that Greenson told him Marilyn was alive at home and died on the way to the hospital. “She died in the ambulance,” Sherlock says. “Then they took her back to the house. [Greenson] told me he was in the ambulance.”
But there are photos of her body being wheeled out of her home, making the whole thing incredibly confusing.
So, why is this such a big deal?
“What I learned was information that changed completely what we thought we knew about her mysterious death,” author Anthony Summers says in the documentary. The changing story, he says, “suggests that the circumstances of her dying were covered up.”
Where, exactly, was Robert F. Kennedy the night she died?
Marilyn was reportedly romantically involved with both Robert F. Kennedy (then the U.S. Attorney General) and his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
The doc argues that RFK might have been in touch with Marilyn around the time of her death (a.k.a. he was in California, and possibly even at Marilyn's house at one point that day), and that the delays and timeline changes allowed him time to get out of town, The Hollywood Reporter explained.
In the tapes, Murray says that RFK was actually at Marilyn's home on the day of her death, putting him in Los Angeles the night she died.
"Bobby Kennedy called her the night of her death from [his sister's] house. She said, ‘Don’t bother me, leave me alone, stay out of my life.’ A very violent argument. ‘I feel passed around, I feel used, I feel like a piece of meat,'" says private detective Fred Otash in the documentary.
So why does it matter that RFK was apparently in LA? Well, over the years, a theory has circulated suggesting that the Kennedys may have been involved in covering up Marilyn's death to keep RFK's name out of the whole situation.
Another, more far-fetched conspiracy theory suggests that the family may have feared that Marilyn had learned (and would share) government secrets through her relationships with the brothers. Summers says in the documentary that it’s possible that “the Kennedys said, ‘Sh*t, she can make public that we’ve been discussing nuclear matters’….[and] thought, ‘We’ve got to stop all this. We can’t deal with Marilyn Monroe anymore.’”
Either way, it seems like no one wanted people to know where RFK was on August 5.
Some details remain a mystery.
There’s actually a lot of, well, mystery that still surrounds Marilyn’s death.
According to People, Summers did a 1983 interview with Murray where he says there was a "moment where she put her head in her hands and said words to the effect of, 'Oh, why do I have to keep covering this up?' I said, 'Covering what up, Mrs. Murray?' She said, 'Well of course Bobby Kennedy was there [on Aug. 4], and of course there was an affair with Bobby Kennedy.'"
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