Marilyn Monroe Dreamed of Camelot

Netflix tapes bring new details to light about her death–and her relationship with the Kennedy brothers

Those raised without family love face unique challenges finding intimacy as adults. Marilyn Monroe faced these challenges while the Kennedy brothers did not. Their fatal attraction – and tragic collision – set the stage for one of the most publicized deaths in American entertainment history. This is the subject of The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, a new Netflix documentary about the death of the troubled American starlet.

The tapes in question are the property of Anthony Summers, an author who conducted over 600 hours of interviews for his seminal 1985 biography Goddess: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. His research coincided with the State of California’s 1982 re-opening of the case, which concluded that the results of the original police investigation were correct. Marilyn’s death, whether accidental or purposeful, was self-inflicted. It would take Summers’ tapes–and another forty years–for a more comprehensive picture to emerge.

As it turns out, there was no Earth-shaking conspiracy. The dimensions of the tragedy are entirely human and owe more to greed, loss and fear than the machinations of the CIA or the Teamsters (although both entities were involved). The tangled webs they wove around Camelot netted the innocent one grim August morning in 1962 when Marilyn was found face-down in bed, apparently the victim of a barbiturate overdose.

The daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic, Marilyn became a ward of the State of California at age eight. Shuttled between a series of institutions and foster homes, she grew up without the stability of family love. At age 16, she married her first husband. They would divorce the following year and she would plunge herself into the world of show business. Like many who enter the field, an overarching need for love and acceptance motivated her. But the same unique obstacles to finding private intimacy would inform her love affair with the public.

And the public did love her. Between 1949 and 1952, she would appear in a series of films that cemented her legacy as a film star of dynamic range and capability. By 1955 she was a screen legend and the wife of baseball giant Joe DiMaggio.

Theirs seemed a marriage made in heaven – the adorable starlet and the sports legend. But one unique challenge imposed by a loveless childhood is the inability to recognize love – or its opposite, abuse. While her star continued to rise, Marilyn found herself trapped in an increasingly possessive partnership with a controlling spouse. Their tragic union came to a climax during the filming of The Seven-Year Itch in 1955, when a rush of wind blew up Marilyn’s skirts and delivered an iconic, enduring image. The public loved it. DiMaggio did not. After the day’s shooting, they returned to the hotel and DiMaggio proceeded to beat her up. Marilyn would file for divorce just nine months after the wedding.

It was at this stage of her journey that Summers’ tapes become uniquely instructive. Like any good biographer, Summers solicited the testimony of eyewitnesses. He pulled everyone from studio secretaries to housekeepers to talent agents  into his dragnet. But that net soon widened to include FBI agents–understandable, given her next husband.

Playwright Arthur Miller seemed like the perfect brainy antidote to an abusive knucklehead like DiMaggio. But wedding the author of The Crucible and Death of A Salesman came with different risks. The FBI was investigating Miller for allegations of Communism and the House Un-American Activities Committee had subpoenaed him. The FBI would open a file on Marilyn herself when she wed Miller in 1956.

Summers’ tapes reveal that Marilyn’s liaison with the Kennedy family actually predated Jack’s inauguration as president. While still a senator, JFK took frequent trips to California to visit his father, who kept offices in Hollywood. Jack’s friendship with Peter Lawford would lead to an introduction and the future King of Camelot would join Marilyn’s list of romantic liaisons, along with Marlon Brando.

Her liaison with the Kennedys would resume with Jack’s election and the dissolution of her marriage to Miller. According to Summers, the great writer had branded Marilyn a “disappointment” and a “whore.” Given her background, Miller’s betrayal of her trust struck a fatal blow. She would spend time under psychiatric observation to combat an addiction to pills and emerge within two weeks determined to continue her pursuit of career success and true love. This made her ripe for a return to the Kennedy fold and so she made tracks in that direction, dreaming of Camelot.

 Those raised without family love face unique challenges finding intimacy as adults. Marilyn craved familial love and acceptance and the Kennedys were made-to-order in that regard. By this time, both brothers were married. But that didn’t stop them from pursuing parallel affairs with the starlet. Peter Lawford’s home in Malibu became the scene of numerous trysts. It was also the site of wiretapping projects instigated variously by Jimmy Hoffa and the FBI. Marilyn’s and Jack’s lovemaking became the subject of an audio recording, as did a lunchtime conversation in which Marilyn affirmed her opposition to the development of nuclear weapons.

Summers’ tapes affirm that Marilyn’s lunch partners were a diverse lot. In addition to JFK, she also lunched in Mexico with friends of Arthur Miller, known Communists. Marilyn’s no-nuke stance, her commie friends and liaison with Camelot assumed the dimensions of a national security risk. Just when she needed friends most, Robert Kennedy phoned her with instructions to never contact the family again.

Another unique challenge imposed by a loveless childhood is an absence of the sort of familial allies that stick by you through thick and thin. The Kennedy family closed ranks against her. And Marilyn Monroe sought oblivion in the booze and narcotics that eventually killed her.

No doubt, she died dreaming of Camelot.

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Jamie Mason

Jamie Mason is the author of The Book of Ashes, Certain Fury, and The North Atlantic Protocol. His most recent effort, THE BOOK OF JAMES, is a historical epic set in Viking-era Britain.

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