[This book review went unpublished, since neither of Murphey's regular outlets wanted to include anything so “out of bounds.” The review was written in late 2000. It is published directly to this Web site in December 2003.]
The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe
Donald H. Wolfe
William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998
Though non-fiction, Donald Wolfe's book is as compelling as any detective thriller. We are reading about the death, and much about the life, of a beloved figure who was part of the younger years of many of us. Marilyn Monroe was not just another Hollywood "sex Goddess"; there was little cheap or tawdry about her public image (at least until she sang her languid "happy birthday" to John F. Kennedy at his Madison Square Garden birthday party), and she combined genuine comedic talent with a stunning softness and loveliness.
That is where many readers will perhaps be inclined to leave Wolfe's book: as just another gripping crime story or inside look into the life of a famous personality. If it doesn't cause them to think soberly, however, about America's law, politics, democracy, media, entertainment, the superrich and overall national character, they will have missed the book's broader significance.
Wolfe builds upon what is by now a massive investigational literature examining the sub-rosa lives of many who have towered over the American scene - most especially the Kennedys, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Clinton. Although this literature is substantial both in quantity and quality, and for the most part comes from commentators who would be loath to describe themselves as conservative, it has as yet hardly disturbed the surface of Americans' public understanding, which is rendered smooth by platitudes and cartoon-like caricatures. To take the literature seriously is to step into another world.
Now, more than 35 years after Marilyn's death, Wolfe has the benefit of the slow accretion of evidence and of revelations from witnesses who say that for many years they were afraid to speak. Unfortunately, the interviews reveal that much of the documentary evidence has disappeared; and the witnesses have never been put under oath or made subject to cross-examination (procedures that themselves hardly guarantee veracity, as recent court cases remind us). The books written by the various investigators are based on interviews that have revealed a more and more candid telling with the passage of time. Wolfe himself, an acquaintance of Marilyn's and a long-time screen writer, has done a meticulous job, but is not a professional historian or an official with judicial authority. The evidence seems clear and convincing, but there must always be the caveat that much of it would necessarily be contested if an adversarial process were gone through. (There is reason, then, for Wolfe's indignation that an orderly process was not followed according to such legal procedures as a coroner's inquest and a Grand Jury investigation, at the time.)
Wolfe adds his own extensive inquiry to that of several other investigators. In our discussion here, we will assume that the facts he relates are correct, but this must always be understood as subject to the caveat just mentioned.
Wolfe's account tells how by the time of her death late in the evening on August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was so enmeshed in sex, highest-level politics, the Mafia, and concerns over national security that her life was in the gravest danger. She
. had maintained a long-standing sexual relationship with both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as with several other men;
. had kept a diary - her "book of secrets" - that included the content of many conversations with the Kennedys about such things as Castro and the Mafia;
. had seen her relationship with the Kennedys turn hostile after their decision to dump her, and even told friends that she was going to hold a press conference and "reveal everything";
. had extensive dealings with the gangsters, Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli, who were close to Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys (indeed, a week before her death she is said to have flown to Lake Tahoe in Frank Sinatra's private plane and to have spent a weekend with Giancana, Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra, where she was drugged and photographed while being used sexually);
. was at the center of a cocoon of Communists (her psychiatrist, with whom she held long daily sessions; her doctor; and her housekeeper), for whom she was no doubt an invaluable window into information important to American national security; and
. was accordingly under surveillance by the CIA and FBI.
The witnesses tell the story of Robert Kennedy's having visited her twice on the day of her death, surreptitiously flying to Los Angeles from San Francisco (where he was to give a speech two days later) by way of an air-ambulance service. The first visit was between three and four in the afternoon, when Robert Kennedy arrived with Peter Lawford and a raging argument ensued, with Kennedy demanding to know (as revealed on surveillance tapes) "where is it?" The second visit was "late in the evening," according to neighbors who saw Robert Kennedy and two men, one carrying a black satchel, go past their window. Kennedy ordered the housekeeper and handyman out of the house, and was there with the two other men until about 10:30, at which time the housekeeper and handyman (who had gone to another neighbor's house) saw them leave. Marilyn was immediately thereafter found comatose, and the later toxicology report showed that she had been injected with enough barbiturates to kill 15 people. If this account is true, Marilyn's death was a murder; and, moreover, one that was not committed with any particular subtlety to avoid detection. That itself is chilling, since it implies that Robert Kennedy could count implicitly on the success of a later cover-up. Such a cover-up depended upon a mixture of venality and fear that came after the event, at which time a "suicide" scenario was concocted and evidence suppressed. For the psychiatrist, doctor, housekeeper and handyman, the details of the cover-up had to be improvised on the scene, as evidenced by their having told one story and then almost immediately having changed it drastically. There was an autopsy, but a contrived coroner's finding of suicide in the face of what Wolfe believes was overwhelming evidence to the contrary; no coroner's inquest; the theft or destruction over time of various reports and police files; and political barriers placed in the way of grand jury investigations.
What I have recounted barely does justice to Wolfe's detailed explication of the events and the evidence; for that, there is no substitute for reading the book. The beginning and concluding chapters set out the details of the murder, and tell the events before and after. The middle chapters tell the story of Marilyn's life, providing essential context.
Wolfe does not himself comment on the social and political implications. Nevertheless, those implications are important for what they suggest about twentieth century America. They include:
That there is a strange discontinuity of ideas and perceptions when public images retain a stubborn immunity from reports that would destroy those images and that, among serious commentators, are widely acknowledged to be true.
That there is a similar discontinuity between Americans' picture of legal institutions as pursuers of justice, and the reality of vast collusion even in the case (again, if Wolfe's account is to be credited) of the murder of a universally-loved personality. Such collusion, if it occurred, totally discounted the value of Marilyn's life. In the context of political connections and advancement, and the fear of doing anything other than going along, she was a throw-away.
Ironically, Wolfe's own text shows some conformity to accepted images. Even after he has related the extent of Communist penetration in Hollywood and about the cocoon of Communists that had clustered around Marilyn, the text is able to speak of "HUAC witch-hunts" (a reference to the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of Communist activity within the film industry). And after telling of Marilyn's sexual liaisons with John F. Kennedy during her marriage with Arthur Miller, Wolfe is still able to talk in terms of how "desperately [she] needed her husband's support."
But these are minor impediments to a book that deserves to be taken seriously. It is more than just a murder mystery.
Dwight D. Murphey