Pavane for Princess: No Poison for Marilyn, Shakespearean Dream

What does it mean that our culture entertains two conflicting narratives of Marilyn Monroe’s death? Two conflicting versions of the Marilyn Monroe myth, actually. Suicide blonde, driven to take her life by the fevers of sexual hypocrisy, by the drugs she used to numb the pain of being a victim of Power, of Hollywood, of us?

Or a murder victim killed by sinister forces who used a “poisoned enema” to silence her. That’s the alternative raised by the surprising publication, in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 5, of no less than three pieces that relate to Monroe’s death, one of which (I’m not making this up) suggests that her death was the result of murder by poisoned enema.

Yes, that’s the Los Angeles Times, that big daily on the left coast (not Weekly World News), that appeared to some to give credibility to an enema-related conspiracy theory of Marilyn Monroe’s death. The first document was the supposed “transcript” or “notes” of a tape Marilyn made for her psychiatrist. This document got the most attention—mainly, I think, because it discussed Marilyn’s orgasms.

But far more sensational is the “personal account” of John W. Miner, the former head of the medical-legal section of the L.A. district attorney’s office, who observed Marilyn’s autopsy, analyzed the medical forensics of her death and supplied his “transcript” of the now-lost Marilyn tape. Mr. Miner’s account concludes with a ringing call to remove Marilyn from her “water-impenetrable crypt” and have her re-autopsied.

The Miner “tape transcripts” (let’s call them M1)—his purported notes on a now-lost, long, rambling Marilyn Monroe monologue, based on a tape said to be once in the possession of her psychoanalyst—have been whispered about for years, as well as referred to by journalists such as Seymour Hersh and quoted or paraphrased in a number of books.

Mr. Miner presents these notes as evidence against the official verdict on Monroe’s death in August 1962, which the county coroner called a “probable suicide.” Mr. Miner says the tape demonstrated that Marilyn was not suicidal, but rather excited about her plans for the future, including the “Marilyn Monroe Shakespeare Film Festival” (more anon).

But Mr. Miner’s theory of how she actually died—the “poisoned enema” conspiracy and what you might call the “Clue of the Purple Colon,” which appears in the second document, Mr. Miner’s “personal account” of his investigation (let’s call this document M2)—is new to me. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention to the cottage industry of M.M. conspiracy theories, which has become an industrial-strength publishing phenomenon.

The mainstreaming of a document which concludes that Marilyn Monroe was killed by a “poisoned enema” is, to say the least, a startling development in contemporary culture; it suggests we’ve reached a point where the once-marginal Marilyn-was-murdered conspiracy theories have become almost as credible in the popular imagination (and the mainstream media) as the original narrative.

A Conspiracy Taxonomy

So I think it’s time to construct a taxonomy of Marilyn Monroe conspiracy theories and examine how the L.A. Times’ startling publication of the Miner documents will inevitably feed into a fevered subculture of uncorroborated theories that do a disservice to the person who once was Marilyn Monroe, a person now increasingly buried by myth and mystification.

I’m not suggesting the L.A. Times was wrong to publish them—and there was an accompanying article (M3) that raised some questions about them—but the weight of M1 and M2 is to make a virtual prosecution case for murder.

I’d suggest that it’s probably too late to find out the truth with any certitude—there have been so many conflicting and changing stories about what went on the night she died—but I’m interested in what the two narratives tell us about Marilyn and about ourselves, why we choose to believe one or the other.

Consider the implications to be found in a compressed version of the suicide narrative (let’s call it N1) that is to be found on the back cover of the paperback of one of the more mainstream Marilyn biographies, the one by Barbara Leaming:

“You will come away filled with new respect for Marilyn’s incredible courage, dignity, and loyalty, and an overwhelming sense of tragedy after witnessing Marilyn, powerless to overcome her demons, move inexorably to her own final, terrible betrayal of herself.”

Note that it’s “ her demons,” “ her … terrible betrayal of herself.” Bad as we are, bad as our culture is, she did it, she’s to blame: that “terrible betrayal” of yourself is precisely something you choose and must bear responsibility for, demons or no demons.

So that’s N1(TB): suicide by terrible betrayal. Which takes its place alongside the other suicide narrative, N1(WS), suicide because We Suck as a culture in our sick lust for celebrity sex symbols that drives them crazy. “We,” American culture, drove her to it.

N1 also has a relatively innocent Kennedy version (as opposed to the ones where they have her snuffed)—let’s call it N1K—a connection not necessarily linked to her death. I think that after the J.F.K./Rat Pack sex-addict stories surfaced, most people who believe in N1 assumed it’s been proven that Marilyn had an affair with J.F.K.

The narrative within the narrative of a J.F.K. affair usually pictures the Kennedys afraid that revelation of the affair would scandalize the nation and taint the Presidency. And it seems to be a fact, according to even mainstream N1 biographers, that Marilyn spent nights under the same roof as J.F.K. And although there’s no proof they spent nights under the same sheets, it’s certainly not in the extreme, “poisoned enema” realm of conspiracy-theory possibility to believe they did.

I tend to credit the J.F.K. rumors—was there any actress in Hollywood he didn’t sleep with? But with R.F.K. (N1K2), all you have is a Rashomon of versions. Some say they were confidantes, some they were lovers, some that she was obsessed, some that he was obsessed—there are scattered sightings together, he was reported present in L.A. by some the day she died. But no real evidence of anything more than public appearances and private dinners has surfaced.

Which brings us to the Marilyn Murder Narrative (N2). I have been mostly skeptical about the many variations of these. I remember when I gently poked fun in print at Norman Mailer when he first nudged it out of the shadows back in the 70’s at a press conference to accompany his attempted metaphysical inflation of the Marilyn myth in a lavishly hollow book that was not his best work. (Mailer later told 60 Minutes he’d changed his mind—that he now thought it was “10 to 1” against conspiracy, but at the time he communicated his irritation with me for doubting the possibility of murder.)

But over the years, my resistance to the possibility has been weakened by revelations of just how down and dirty the Kennedy-Teamster war was, by a torrent of books by writers who couldn’t resist the temptation to link Marilyn’s death to the mob, the Kennedys, the alleged wiretap blackmail tapes, sinister psychoanalysts, you name it.

And the L.A. Times documents, particularly Mr. Miner’s “personal account” of his investigation (M2), had me going for a while with its firsthand detail. I’m indebted for resisting the temptation to one of the few scrupulously skeptical analyses of Marilyn conspiracy theories you can find on the Web: “The ‘Assassination’ of Marilyn Monroe,” by Mel Ayton, originally published by Crime magazine, July 24, 2005.

Still, let’s look at where the L.A. Times documents fit into the second narrative, N2, the murder narrative. Once you start down the N2 road, you find several key branching paths to follow. Initially, one branch—let’s call it N2A—had Marilyn murdered by the Kennedys to silence her about either (N2Asub1) their sexual affairs, or (N2Asub2) secrets she’d learned about the Kennedys’ Castro assassination plots from pillow talk. (Hey, I’m just reporting on what’s out there in the culture; think of me as an anthropologist, your Claude Levi-Strauss of conspiracy-theory studies.)

But recently—largely, it seems, through the indefatigable efforts of British Marilyn-conspiracy theorist Matthew Smith—a competing subnarrative has emerged (N2B): Marilyn wasn’t killed by the Kennedys, she was killed by enemies of the Kennedys. (The enema of my enemies is my friend?) Enemies who wanted to embarrass the Kennedys by the torrent of bad publicity that would come out when Marilyn’s death uncovered her illicit relationship with J.F.K. and/or R.F.K.

And when this didn’t ensue, Mr. Smith contends, these same Marilyn-murdering conspirators (the usual suspects: renegade C.I.A. guys, along with assets from the military-industrial complex, the Mafia, etc.) went on to kill J.F.K., then R.F.K., and also to ruin Teddy’s political career at Chappaquiddick. In Mr. Smith’s view, Marilyn’s murder is the key fulcrum to the entire history of the past half-century. She was the J.F.K. assassination before the J.F.K. assassination.

The Clue of the Purple Colon

So much history dependent on an enema, huh? What’s interesting about the Miner memo of his investigation, M2 (which for a time had been made unavailable on the L.A. Times Web site, but try Googling “Miner’s Account of Monroe’s Death”), is that he was there in the morgue on August 1962. He begins, Raymond Chandler style: “For me it began when I looked at the naked body of a 36 year old woman. She was dead. She was beautiful. She was Marilyn Monroe, awaiting her autopsy.”

He describes how he and Deputy Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi “searched her entire body surface and orifices with magnifying glasses to look for any traces of needle injections. He then took smears from her … ”—T.M.I. alert!

Then he takes us through his case that Marilyn was murdered by a “poisoned enema.”

First, he attempts to disprove the standard N1 theory “that Miss Monroe swallowed a large amount of Nembutal capsules.” She died of a Nembutal overdose, he says, but “without leaving any traces of the drug in her stomach or duodenum …. Even though the stomach contents disappeared [!] … we can conclude this from the fact that, had she taken so many capsules orally, [because of] the yellow coloring of the capsules … there should have been yellow dye stains in the stomach or duodenum. There were no such stains.”

So she didn’t swallow the Nembutal, and she wasn’t injected. The only way she could have as much Nembutal as she did in her system, he argues, was through its administration by enema (not suppository—this seems a major forensic point for Mr. Miner).

The fact that she had a fatal Nembutal-dosed enema is proven by the Clue of the Purple Colon (he didn’t call it that; I did): the purplish discoloration proving, according to him, that the drugs in the enema had irritated the lining of the colon.

His final conclusion: Nembutal capsules were broken open, their contents dissolved in water, and the infusion added to the enema, causing a fatal overdose.

“It must be concluded from the medical evidence alone,” Mr. Miner declares in the L.A. Times, “that Marilyn Monroe was killed by person(s) unknown.”

Mr. Miner doesn’t join in the speculation about who those unknown person(s) were. In fact, he discounts speculation about the alleged J.F.K. and R.F.K. liaisons being an important factor, citing the “tape transcripts” in which she declares she’d never embarrass the President and that she wasn’t obsessed with R.F.K.

But he does suggest the intervention of people with power when he points to “a very strange circumstance: the disappearance of much of the specimen materials that had been submitted for examination. The stomach contents, the organ samples, the smear material somehow all vanished! I know of no other such instance.”

Now Mr. Miner’s a serious guy. Back in 1962, in addition to being the D.A.’s medical-forensics liaison to the chief medical examiner, he was an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at U.S.C. Medical School.

But he does seem to omit a crucial possibility in his conclusion: accidental overdose (N3subAOD). Marilyn had been taking too many pills for too long, and when that happens and tolerance builds up, the line between maintenance dose and overdose is dangerously thin. As a reporter, I’ve investigated cases in which people died that way. And for all we know, Marilyn—who expresses a fondness for the health benefits of enemas in the “tape transcripts”—may have infused her own enema with pills and miscalculated.

And there’s the possibility that the other drug found in her system had a synergistic effect with whatever amount of Nembutal she’d taken. That was chloral hydrate, which Mr. Miner describes somewhat pejoratively as “a knock-out drug popularly referred to as a ‘Mickey Finn.’ It is infrequently prescribed for insomnia.”

“Infrequently prescribed” means it sometimes was prescribed for insomnia, not always given with homicidal intent. It seems possible to me that she didn’t necessarily have the intent to commit suicide, although building up a near-fatal barbiturate tolerance is certainly a cry for help. Nor is it necessary to believe that someone “poisoned” her enema by (as M2 describes it) breaking open a lot of Nembutal capsules, dissolving them in water and adding them to the enema infusion.

So Mr. Miner omits the accidental-overdose possibility (N3subAOD), which would throw both N1 and N2 into doubt.

But he does rather pointedly, if you read M1 and M2 closely, add in a fourth possibility: The maid did it (N2TMDI). In M1 (are you following this? That’s the so-called “tape notes”), Marilyn talks about wanting to fire her housekeeper. And in M2 (his “personal account”), Mr. Miner tells us the maid admitted to mysteriously doing a load in the washing machine at Marilyn’s place at midnight on the night of the death—behavior, Mr. Miner implies, that might be connected with laundering away the “poisoned enema” evidence.

If the N1 narrative (Marilyn driven to suicide) can be used to blame Monroe herself, to blame society, to blame us, the N2 narratives (Marilyn was murdered) tell a different story. In effect, they exculpate us, our culture, our stupid values, and place the blame for the tragedy on a few sinister powerful individuals. We’re good, Marilyn was good, our culture isn’t that bad. And they—the unknown assassins of Marilyn—are the locus of evil in our world.

Farewell, Cleopatra

I don’t know what to make of M1, the supposed “tape transcript” or notes. (Mr. Miner said that Marilyn’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, played the tape for him in 1962 to prove she wasn’t suicidal. Mr. Miner says he’s releasing his transcript now to counter conspiracy theories that Greenson was involved in her murder.) The document that the L.A. Times published is what Mr. Miner (now 86) claims were his notes off those tapes, taken not while they were being played, but from memory afterward, although how long afterward he was vague about when repeatedly questioned about the timing of his “note taking” on MSNBC’s Dan Abrams show.

Yet there are a number of features of the “transcript” that sound intimate or goofy enough to be real. In particular, Monroe’s meditations on literature: her claim, for instance, that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses gave her the idea of making this confessional free-association tape.

Yes, there’s a lot of talk about movie stars: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, her ex-husbands—all pretty boring to me. There’s ambiguous talk which could be interpreted as her promising to be discreet about an affair with J.F.K., and some emotional attachment she claimed that R.F.K. had for her, almost all of which has the slightly shopworn ring of book-proposal material (the tour of the husbands, what Arthur Miller was like in bed).

But then there’s her purported Shakespeare fantasy, which is naïve, endearing, earnest and slightly daffy—the appealing qualities that made Marilyn Monroe seem more than a blonde bombshell.

Apparently, according to Mr. Miner’s notes of Marilyn “free associating,” she badgered Laurence Olivier to agree to give her Shakespeare lessons if she would first spend a year studying Shakespearean “basics” with acting guru Lee Strasberg.

But Mr. Miner’s notes at this point seem to capture something hard to make up:

After she claims to have “thrown all [her] pills in the toilet,” she tells Greenson on this purported tape (which has disappeared or been destroyed), “I’ve read all of Shakespeare and practiced a lot of lines. I won’t have to worry about the scripts. I’ll have the greatest script writer who ever lived working for me and I don’t have to pay him.”

She goes on to entertain the absurd notion that she could play 14-year-old Juliet at her age, 36. (“Don’t laugh,” she wisely admonishes.) But adds: “I’ve some wonderful ideas for Lady Macbeth and Queen Gertrude”—somewhat more plausible roles.

She tells us she plans to “produce and act in the Marilyn Monroe Shakespeare Film Festival.” There’s a touching earnestness to it that’s hard to fake.

Actually, she was probably born to play Cleopatra, world-renowned sex symbol. Indeed, in a way, she did “play Cleopatra” in the popular imagination (and both women died of poison). In Shakespeare, Cleopatra is the iconic sexual distraction from affairs of state that led to the downfall of one of the three pillars of the world—in Cleopatra’s case, Mark Antony; in Marilyn conspiracy theory, it’s J.F.K.

There’s a further Shakespearean resonance of another kind to all of this. I’m just finishing revising a chapter of my book on Shakespeare scholarly controversies, a chapter that deals with the “revision” question in King Lear. (I’m sure you all read my detailed treatment of the “revisions” in Hamlet in the May 13, 2002, New Yorker.) The Lear chapter focuses on the two endings of Lear, or more precisely the two versions we have of Lear’s last words.

One school of scholars argues that the 1608 Quarto version of Lear, which ends with Lear crying out “Break, heart, I prithee break”—usually interpreted as a cry for self-annihilation—is a more explicitly suicidal version of Lear’s end than the 1623 Folio version. That version, beloved of readers, actors and directors, is more ambiguous, giving us a Lear who dies— perhaps—thinking he has seen signs that his beloved daughter Cordelia still has breath in her: “Look on her! Look her lips, / Look there, look there!”

If the first ending implies suicide, the second implies a delusion or fantasy of renewed life. The problem is that the scholarly controversy over whether Shakespeare revised Hamlet and Lear—and what changes can be proven to be his and not that of contemporary interlopers, compositors, theater managers, actors, etc.—is still an unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, debate (as certain Shakespearean biographers fail to acknowledge).

And so we are left in doubt about the two versions of Lear’s last words. Two different endings, two possible narratives. Here, as with Marilyn Monroe’s death, we must entertain what Keats called, in reference to Shakespeare, “negative capability”: entertaining two or more conflicting possibilities in the absence of certainty.

I doubt Marilyn was murdered. I’m not even sure she intended to commit suicide. I don’t know if her body should be disinterred for re-autopsy, but I think her persona should be disinterred from uncorroborated conspiracy theory. And I wish she’d had the chance to play Cleopatra. Just sub a poisoned enema for the asp.