Marilyn Monroe Was More Mentally Ill Than We Knew

Revelations from a new biography, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.

By Lori Leibovich

In 1961, Marianne Kris, the psychoanalyst treating Marilyn Monroe, was convinced that her famous patient was on the verge of suicide. So she did what most psychiatrists at the time would have done: She committed Monroe to a mental institution. Knowing the star would never go to a psychiatric hospital on her own- Monroe was terrified of sanitariums because her mother lived in one for most of her life and her grandmother had died in one- Kris told Monroe that she was going to a private hospital for some "rest and relaxation." It was under these false pretenses that Monroe arrived at New York's Payne Whitney hospital on Feb. 5, where she was quickly escorted by orderlies through several steel doors, then forcibly thrown into a padded room with barred windows. "I'm locked up with these poor nutty people," Monroe wrote to her acting teachers Paula and Lee Strasberg. "I'm sure to end up a nut too if I stay in this nightmare. Please help me."

This episode, well-known to Marilyn followers, is recounted again in the new best-selling biography, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. The author, J. Randy Taraborrelli, writes that a Payne Whitney intern who visited Monroe after she tried to break down the bathroom door in her room told her, "You are a very, very sick girl. And you've been sick for a long time." Taraborrelli's 541-page biography is based on more than a decade of research and includes quotes from FBI files released in 2006 through the Freedom of Information Act, unpublished accounts from reporters' notebooks from the 1950s and letters to, from and about Monroe that have never before been published. Of course he promises discoveries that are "explosive" and "revelatory," but there aren't really any, not a to a Marilyn obsessive like myself. Instead, there is the deepening of the much more ordinary tragedy that continues to fascinate, about a woman Taraborrelli calls "a brave soldier in a devastating battle with her own mind."

Monroe died of an overdose in 1962. By some estimates, more than 300 books have been published about Monroe, and writers as esteemed as Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, and Joyce Carol Oates have attempted to wrest some kind of meaning from her short life. Was she a victim of Hollywood, or only truly happy when she was hounded by fans and posing for cameras? Was she Norma Jeane, the abandoned waif in search of love and approval, or Marilyn, "every man's love affair with America," as Mailer proposed, or both of these women rolled into one tortured psyche? Did we (or the Kennedys, FBI, et al.) kill her, or did she kill herself?

Taraborrelli delves into the early relationships that shaped Norma Jeane Mortenson, including her relationship with her mother, Gladys Baker, a paranoid schizophrenic. He also uncovers evidence that suggests that, beginning in her late teens, Monroe heard voices and believed she was being followed. This would mean that her psychosis likely predated her meteoric rise to fame and her descent into drug addiction. Is this interesting? Only in that it disrupts the romantic, self-flagellating narrative we prefer-that "we," the insatiable public, ruined her. In, fact it's not all that surprising given her family history.

The book does not delve into what is to me the most interesting about Monroe's mental illness: the unorthodox relationship the actress shared with Ralph Greenson, the psychiatrist who was treating her at the time of her death. Greenson was a brilliant and flamboyant analyst who treated several famous actors (Vivien Leigh, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis) and wrote the seminal text The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis. Greenson believed his patient, haunted by her abandonment as a child, would benefit from spending time with a stable, happy family. So he chose the closest family at hand, his own. After daily-sometimes twice daily- sessions in his private home office in Santa Monica, Marilyn would often join the Greenson family for meals or just to hang out; she attended parties there (once showing up for Greenson's daughter's birthday celebration and teaching the guests how to do the twist) and, Taraborrelli claims, she even spent the night on occasion.

Taraborrelli, who has penned biographies of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, among others, is more measured about Greenson than many Monroe chroniclers, some of whom have claimed he was directly responsible for her death. "[I]n the 1950s and 1960s all sorts of vanguard treatments for mental illness were being tested," he writes. Greenson's methods were roundly criticized by his colleagues, and he was despised by most of Monroe's friends, many of whom thought he was a Svengali who was manipulating the fragile actress. "You are seeing too much of that guy," Marilyn's close friend Pat Kennedy Lawford told her, according to Taraborelli. "He's got you under a spell or something."

Greenson was indeed territorial with his patient. He installed a housekeeper, Eunice Murray, at Monroe's Brentwood home and instructed her to keep watch over the actress and report any dangerous or suspicious behavior to Greenson. The psychiatrist even intervened in Monroe's business negotiations. When she was on the verge of being fired by 20th Century Fox for missing so many days of work on the (never completed) film Something's Got to Give, Greenson personally guaranteed the director that the star would arrive to set promptly and ready to act. (He couldn't keep this promise, though; Monroe was so depressed and drugged out at this time that she was eventually fired.)

Perhaps the most fascinating wrinkle in the Greenson-Monroe story was uncovered in August 2005, when the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story about the discovery of "secret tapes" that Monroe allegedly made for Greenson shortly before her death. The transcripts of these tapes were given to the Times by former L.A. prosecutor John W. Miner, who investigated Monroe's death. Miner, now in his 90s, said that Greenson allowed him to listen to the tapes and take notes on the condition that he never reveal their contents. Miner kept his promise for 30 years but was moved to go public in an attempt to clear Greenson's name after a Monroe biographer accused him of ordering a sleeping medication that proved fatal in combination with the Nembutal that was already in her system.

The transcripts are peppered with many headline-making bits, including Marilyn's confession that she had a lesbian affair with Joan Crawford, an admission that sex with ex-husband Arthur Miller was only "so-so," and her intention to break things off with her paramour, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. But beyond these juicy details, what the tapes prove most profoundly is that Marilyn's relationship with her analyst was bizarre, complicated, and, it would seem, filled with love. "Ever since you let me into your home … I've thought about how it would be if I were your daughter instead of your patient …. I know you couldn't do it while I'm your patient, but after you cure me, maybe you could adopt me," said the woman who had spent her entire life in a conscious and unconscious quest to replace the man who had abandoned her before she was born.

But it gets even weirder. If Marilyn saw Greenson as a father figure, this was a daddy who taught her how to have "the greatest pleasure there is," an orgasm. "You said … that when I did exactly what you told me to do I would have an orgasm and that after I did it to myself and felt what it was, I would have orgasms with lovers." Clearly, theirs was a case of transference and countertransference run amok. (For his part, Taraborrelli reviewed Miner's handwritten transcripts and believes Miner to be a "very nice, congenial man" who would have "no reason to lie," but finds Miner's "explanation that he reconstructed his copious notes from memory is troubling.")

Today, Greenson would surely have his license pulled, and his mug would be splashed on the cover of the New York Post and on TMZ. Still, the task before Greenson was Herculean. He was essentially charged with treating someone who was untreatable, a borderline paranoid schizophrenic (his diagnosis), someone who was suicidal and could procure the prescription drugs she was addicted to from any number of sources-but who couldn't be institutionalized. In notes about Monroe's case that Taraborrelli references, Greenson writes that he felt he had to keep her from being "committed once again, for I know she won't survive it a second time."

The "truth" of Marilyn Mornroe's relationship with her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson will always remain open to interpretation; Greenson died in 1979 and while his papers are housed in a special collection at UCLA, most of the documents pertaining to his treatment of Monroe have been sealed until 2039. Undoubtedly, he crossed all kinds of lines in his attempts to help Monroe, and may have even damaged her further.

We are always looking for an external villain to explain Marilyn Monroe's tragic life and death. We blame the Hollywood fame machine, the wrong husbands, the Kennedys, and Ralph Greenson, too. But there is no villain in this sad tale. At the heart of the story, there is something much simpler: A very, very sick girl.

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Cookie and editor of the anthology Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives.

[photo credit: Bruno Vincent / Staff / Getty Images]