The original coroner’s report ruled that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, but there is enough mystery still surrounding her death that it could have been suicide, accidental overdose, or perhaps even murder. In Altar of Bones, KGB general Nikolai Popov and Mike O’Malley (Ry’s father) orchestrate Marilyn Monroe’s murder. That, of course, is fictional, but I tried to match the circumstances of the murder to what is known about Marilyn’s death. For instance when her body was discovered she was completely nude, yet she was known to always sleep in a brassiere for fear her breasts would sag. So in Altar of Bones, Popov takes off Marilyn’s bra to see her breasts.
This much is known to be fact. Sometime after 10 p.m. on the night of August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe slipped into a coma caused by an overdose of chloral hydrate in the bedroom of her home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood. She never regained consciousness.
Marilyn had moved into the house on Helena Drive not too long before. The furniture she’d ordered from Mexico hadn’t arrived yet so, as is described in Altar of Bones, the house had an unfinished look, with piles of records in a corner, magazines strewn about, cartons of books stacked on the floor.
Marilyn had had a love affair with John F. Kennedy (also a major plot point in Altar of Bones). She also had a relationship of some sort, very likely a love affair, with Robert F. Kennedy, which ended just before she died. In the year and a half before her death, she was in and out of psychiatric clinics seeking treatment for her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She had become addicted to the barbiturate Nembutal in an effort to combat her crippling insomnia. Her psychiatrist, Dr, Greenson, whom she was seeing almost daily, and her personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, both liberally prescribed barbiturates for her.
Her addiction had begun to interfere with her work. She was fired from the set of Something’s Got to Give shortly before her death because she either wouldn’t show up at all or would show up so looped up on pills that she couldn’t remember her lines. Also, as she says in her own words in the book, she suffered from a chronic respiratory infection during this time, causing her to miss even more time on the set. However, as is mentioned in Altar of Bones, on August 1st she had struck new deal with 20th Century Fox.
Eunice Murray, who was Marilyn’s housekeeper but was employed by Dr. Greenson, reported that at 7:30 on the night of August 4th she heard Marilyn on the phone sounding happier. Marilyn then came to the door and said good night. By 8:20 Mrs. Murray turned in herself. Marilyn’s friend, model and actress Jeanne Carmen, said that Marilyn called her later that night and asked for more sleeping pills. But Carmen had had a few drinks and didn’t feel comfortable driving, so she told Marilyn she wasn’t able to bring her the pills.
Mrs. Murray said that she went into Marilyn’s room at 3:30 a.m. and found her unconscious with the telephone clutched in her hand. The police were never able to discover whom Marilyn was talking to, and the phone call records from the night of her death were erased, so it’s impossible to verify if she did in fact speak with any of the people who claimed to have talked to her that night or whom else she might have talked to. In Altar of Bones, the phone is on the bed, and Marilyn tries to grab it when Popov and O’Malley attack her, so she is found with the phone off the hook, under her body, as she was in fact found.
After finding Marilyn, Mrs. Murray called Dr. Greenson and Dr. Engelberg who both came to the house. The doctors determined she was dead, but waited half an hour before calling the police. They said they were stunned and were talking over what had happened.
When the police arrived, Greenson and Engelberg told them Marilyn had committed suicide. They led the police into the bedroom where her nude body lay covered by a sheet and pointed out bottles of sedatives. She didn’t appear to have suffered convulsions and vomiting as people often do when they die of an over overdose. No drinking glass was found in the bedroom, but Marilyn was known to open up capsules to speed the effect of the drug. Despite Marilyn’s reported call asking Jeanne Carmen to bring her more pills, the police found a number of pills by her bedside. Engelberg had prescribed the Nembutal that was found (in fact he had refilled a Nembutal prescription just the previous day) but not the other pills.
Apparently actor Peter Lawford, who was married to Patricia Kennedy (sister of JFK and Robert) was called too after Marilyn’s body was discovered. Eventually he told the police he got a call from Marilyn around 7:30 or so the night of her death and that she was groggy and depressed and said to say goodbye to Jack. Lawford admitted he made an early morning sweep through house looking for Marilyn’s diary and that he tidied up and did what he could before reporters got wind of what had happened. Rumors persisted that Marilyn called Robert Kennedy the night of her death. He was in northern California on the 4th, but there were suspicions that he’d gone to L.A. in the afternoon and then quickly returned to northern part of the state.
Mrs. Murray went on a six-month vacation to Mexico right after Marilyn’s death.
The coroner’s report found Nembutal in Marilyn’s liver but not in her intestines or blood stream, indicating she took the pills so much earlier in the evening that they could not have been what killed her. Instead, she died from chloral hydrate, which was found in her blood stream. Dr. Engelberg had been trying to wean Marilyn off Nembutal and replace it with chloral hydrate as a sleep aid. Physical evidence showed that Marilyn died of a rectally administered overdose of chloral hydrate. Which is how she is killed in Altar of Bones.
Marilyn had overdosed in the past because she’d lose track of how much medication, she’d taken. It’s possible that’s what happened the night of her death.
The coroner ruled that Marilyn died of a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs. The coroner’s report, including tissue samples taken during the autopsy, and the police records of her death have gone missing.
Marilyn’s death has been a subject of constant speculation through the years. In 1982 the L.A. District Attorney’s office reexamined Marilyn’s death because there had been so much outcry and so many allegations of conspiracy and cover up. They didn’t find any specific evidence of foul play, but they did conclude that the original investigation wasn’t conducted properly.
Check back next week next week for details about Marilyn’s life in her last years, when the flashback scenes in Altar of Bones are set.