How did Marilyn Monroe die? Initially deemed a "probable suicide," questions about a mysterious bruise, lack of evidence, and political motives mounted so heavily that the investigation was reopened in 1982.
In the pre-dawn hours of August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s housekeeper Eunice Murray and her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson noticed she’d become unresponsive inside the bedroom of her house at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. When they broke through her window, they realized the awful truth: Marilyn Monroe died in the waning hours of August 4, in what looked like a barbiturate overdose. She was just 36 years old.
In life, Marilyn Monroe was a worldwide icon in an era when that truly meant something. The glamorous Hollywood star was not only beautiful, but she was also romantically linked to some of the most admired men of her time. When Marilyn Monroe died at just 36 years old, it shocked the world.
Monroe had married the legendary playwright Arthur Miller — before tying the knot with baseball god Joe DiMaggio. She was friends with Frank Sinatra and had a sultry affair with John F. Kennedy. Monroe naturally positioned herself as a powerful woman that men of power needed by their side.
But it was her on-screen talent that brought her to the proverbial table. Monroe’s skirt blowing in the wind in The Seven Year Itch is plastered across vintage Hollywood cafes to this day. And her comedic turn in Some Like it Hot turned standard fare into a timeless classic.
She even sang “Happy Birthday” in front of an awestruck crowd to the President of the United States. Then, suddenly, the magnetic star was dead. It was August 1962 and the world was left wondering: How did Marilyn Monroe die?
Marilyn Monroe’s Early Life As Norma Jean Mortenson
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California, Marilyn Monroe’s bubbly exterior guarded a deep interior fragility and a lifelong struggle with substance abuse. This, in turn, resulted from a rough childhood the star largely spent in foster homes.
Her rise to stardom was thus all the more impressive, as the enormous leaps she made in the next two decades ultimately made her the most famous movie star in the world. By the 1950s, Monroe’s filmography had already grossed the modern equivalent of approximately $2 billion.
Clearly, her desperate dream of growing up to be rich and famous had paid off in spades — though the inherent trauma of her youth never left. Plagued by anxiety and depression, the young star regularly turned to drugs and alcohol for temporary relief.
“[She] was drinking champagne and straight vodka and occasionally popping a pill… I said, ‘Marilyn, the combination of pills and alcohol will kill you.’ And she said, ‘It hasn’t killed me yet.’ Then she took another drink and popped another pill.” — James Bacon, a close friend of Marilyn Monroe.
Eventually, Monroe’s habits began affecting her work. Her continuous inability to show up to the set on time, if at all, alongside her failure to remember her lines when she did, got her fired from her last film, Something’s Got to Give.
Directory Billy Wilder later recalled that it was “worth a week’s torment…to get three luminous minutes on the screen.”
Given her private struggles, it’s not so surprising that Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 would be considered a suicide.
Marilyn Monroe Is Found Dead
Though John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford wasn’t there when she died, the actor was the last person to speak to Monroe alive. On the phone, she ended their last conversation by saying, “Say goodbye to Pat [Lawford’s wife]. Say goodbye to the president. And say goodbye to yourself because you’re a nice guy.”
In the early morning hours of August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson and personal physician Dr. Hyman Engelberg were summoned to the actress’s Los Angeles bungalow at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive.
Monroe’s longtime housekeeper Eunice Murray made the initial, panicked calls to the star’s doctors after waking up at 3 a.m. and finding the light still on in Monroe’s bedroom. She knocked to check if everything was alright — but a locked door and no response caused her concern.
Greenson managed to reach his client by breaking through the bedroom window. He found Monroe naked in bed — a telephone clutched tightly in her hand. The psychiatrist understood rather quickly that everyone needed to face facts. He calmly notified Engelberg on the other side of the door.
“She appears to be dead,” said Greenson.
Engelberg pronounced Marilyn Monroe dead at around 4.30 AM and contacted the police. Meanwhile, one of her lawyers, Milton “Mickey” Rudin rushed over and handled preliminary matters on the phone. Her publicist Arthur Jacobs, who was at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert, hurried over.
Jacobs refused to recount the night of Marilyn Monroe’s death ever since. He explained that the scene in Monroe’s bedroom was “too horrible to talk about” years later.
The myriad of prescription pills that littered her nightstand certainly connoted suicide — but the lingering question of what really caused Monroe’s death never went away.
How Did Marilyn Monroe Die?
By dawn, the bungalow’s yard was riddled with reporters. Monroe’s body was transported to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office to undergo an autopsy. Performed that same day, the toxicology results showed her blood contained high levels of chloral hydrate when Marilyn Monroe died, likely from sleeping pills and the barbiturate Nembutal.
Nonetheless, the coroner deemed Monroe’s death a “probable suicide” in the official death certificate. He concluded that the levels of chloral hydrate were so high that the sleeping pills must have been ingested “within a very short time” — within about one minute.
The authorities, meanwhile, stated in their police report that Marilyn Monroe’s death might have been accidental. Her friends, however, couldn’t believe the vivacious star had died so suddenly.
Friends Respond To Marilyn Monroe’s Death
Upon hearing the news of Monroe’s death, actress Sophia Loren broke down crying. Author Truman Capote, meanwhile, recounted his friendship with the actress in a letter from Spain. It painted a much rosier picture than one of bleak hopelessness patched up by pills and booze binges.
“Cannot believe that Marilyn M. is dead,” he wrote. “She was such a good-hearted girl, so pure really, so much on the side of the angels. Poor little baby.”
Numerous friends of Monroe’s soon began claiming that the official report of her death was a lie — and that there had been a glaring effort to cover up her murder from the public.
Bacon recalled seeing her just a few days prior and recalled that she was in tremendous spirits.
“She wasn’t the least bit depressed,” he said. “She was talking about going to Mexico.”
Another friend, Pat Newcomb, said he had seen Monroe the night before her death when the two jovially made plans to go to the movies the next day. He said she “was in perfect physical condition and was feeling great” — potentially because she had just rekindled an old flame with ex-husband Joe DiMaggio.
One of her associates bluntly asked, “Does that sound like she was depressed about her career?”
Marilyn Monroe had also just been rehired on Something’s Got To Give and left no suicide note. Her autopsy report claimed countless pills caused her death, but no trace of the capsules was found in her stomach. Thomas Noguchi, junior medical examiner on the case, later even called for it to be reopened.
Perhaps most suspicious was the fact that Monroe’s housekeeper was seen washing the dead starlet’s bedsheets in the middle of the night as police arrived at the bungalow.
Ominously, the deputy coroner who signed Marilyn Monroe’s death certificate said he did so “under duress.” Slowly but surely, people had had enough of the official story — and countless reports and books spurred a new investigation in 1982.
Though it concluded that the evidence reviewed “fails to support any theory of criminal conduct,” it plainly admitted that the investigation discovered some “factual discrepancies and unanswered questions.” The new investigation ultimately called her death a probable suicide.
However, theorists believe Monroe’s personal affairs provide a wide range of potential homicide motives, some of which are rather considerable.
What Caused Marilyn Monroe’s Death And Was There A Conspiracy Behind It?
Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory is that Robert Kennedy orchestrated Marilyn Monroe’s death. Popularized by actor Gianni Russo of Godfather fame, the motive here was purportedly to shield John F. Kennedy from irrevocable character ruination should their affair ever see the light of day.
As her ex-boyfriend, Russo explained that the mob and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana were after the actress in order to get to the president. The plan was to film the two and Robert Kennedy having a threesome, and blackmail the president into invading Cuba to return its casinos back to the mob.
When Monroe learned of the plot, she threatened to report those involved to the media. Robert Kennedy then had her killed, in order to squash the entire ordeal.
Other theorists were more suspicious of Monroe’s money, and those in control of it, purposefully injecting her with barbiturates to get full access to the actress’s funds.
Regardless, most agree her death was likely achieved by a fatal injection — supported by the lack of pill capsules in her body and a small, mysterious bruise on her lower body that was never explained.
There was also the matter of her will and an untold amount of mysterious documents that were stuffed into shopping bags and removed by her business manager Inez Melson within 48 hours of Monroe’s death. This was all done while the police were taking statements.
The actress’ will, meanwhile, was filed for probate on Aug. 16 and established a trust of $100,000. This provided her mother with an annual $5,000, the widow of her acting coach with $2,500 per year, $10,000 for her half-sister, another $10,000 to her former secretary, and $5,000 to playwright Norman Rosten.
While none of these generous grants are out of the ordinary, one last item was rather curious. Monroe purportedly felt her New York psychiatrist, Dr. Marianne Kris — who had forcefully incarcerated her in a padded cell in the Payne Whitney Clinic in 1961 — deserved 25 percent of her estate.
In the end, we may never know for certain how Marilyn Monroe died, but we do know that a bright, talented young woman accomplished her dreams, but died tragically as a result.
After this look at the how Marilyn Monroe died, check out these candid photos of Norma Jeane Mortenson before she became Marilyn Monroe. Then, learn everything there is to know about the death of Bruce Lee.