Monday, December 27, 2010

Keith Badman: The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe (a book)

Keith Badman: The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe. The Shocking True Story. London: JR Books, 2010. Release date: 25 Sep 2010.

Where other read detective stories I devour Marilyn Monroe books. There is a new one about once every month. In 1996 I counted I had read or browsed 176 of them, some 70 of which were still currently available. There may have been some 150 new ones since. Most of them one really just needs to browse, as they are usually only new compilations of photographs with the text re-edited from familiar sources. But every now and then there is a genuinely original book such as Keith Badman's.

The title "the shocking true story" does not sound promising, does it? There have been many similar ones since the actress's death in 1962. But from Keith Badman's website I conclude the title originates with the publisher, not the author. Badman is a British popular culture expert who has published books on The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and The Small Faces. He has also been called a "Columbo" of popular culture studies because of his thoroughness in collecting evidence. In his Marilyn Monroe book Badman calls his method "forensic", but that would be an exaggeration, although he presents a lot of new evidence that would be very useful for a police or legal investigation. Hard evidence such as telephone records, airport flight records, appointment books, and original receipts.

I have been comparing the Marilyn story with Rashomon because in both witnesses of the same event give wildly incompatible accounts of it.

I agree with Keith Badman that Marilyn's death was covered by the greatest conspiracy in the history of Hollywood. There were many parties by her corpse during the 7-8 hours before the first policeman was alerted to witness rigor mortis. Nobody told the truth, and many changed their stories several times. The official explanation was agreed on (and the press release was probably at least drafted) before the police came - in order to optimize insurance terms for the studio and to avoid inquest. There never was an inquest because of the need to cover up the Kennedy connection. The Kennedys had nothing to do with Marilyn's death but it was inconceivable even to consider the First Family in the context of Marilyn's death in 1962. The most delicate aspect was that Attorney General Robert Kennedy was on a clandestine visit to Los Angeles when Marilyn died, and it was necessary to get him back to San Francisco, the city he was officially visiting, before the police was alerted to Marilyn's home.

The biggest fabricator was Marilyn, herself, and fatally, she was not being honest even with her doctors, who were not au courant of each other's prescriptions. Ralph Greenson tried to wean Marilyn off from Nembutal and ordered her chloral hydrate. But Hyman Engelberg kept ordering her Nembutal. Although Nembutal was dangerous, Marilyn could somehow handle it. On her last day Marilyn had already taken Nembutal when a close associate took her bottle away, and, as a substitute, Marilyn took chloral hydrate, with lethal results combined with the Nembutal already in her system. Her housekeeper was watching tv and did not hear her alert. Peter Lawford was busy hosting a party. They all reacted but first when it was too late. Keith Badman estimates the time of Marilyn's death to have been at 20.40 on Saturday 4 August, 1962. The first policeman, Jack Clemmons, arrived at 4.35 on Sunday morning 5 August. I find that Badman's account of the circumstances of Marilyn's death makes sense.

What I like in Keith Badman's book:
1. The hard facts, including by-the-minute schedules of events where we have previously had a jungle of hazy descriptions.
2. The patient and entertaining debunking of many familiar fabrications (Norman Mailer, Robert Slatzer, Jeanne Carmen, John Miner...).
3. Badman tells or reminds us (pp. 32-33) that Marilyn's final unfinished film Something's Got To Give was originally planned as a Frank Tashlin / Jayne Mansfield vehicle. This remake of the screwball comedy My Favorite Wife was rewritten in the style of the contemporary Doris Day comedies. - My remark: neither Frank Tashlin nor George Cukor would have been good directors for Marilyn Monroe, and the Marilyn touch was very different from Jayne Mansfield and Doris Day.
4. Badman stresses that Marilyn cut her ties with the MCA in September 1961, and for the first time in her professional life was without agency representation. (This being the time of great turbulence around the MCA.)
5. In the beginning of 1962 Marilyn for the first time in her life bought a house of her own, having lived in over 35 rented flats or rooms for the previous 16 years. However, Badman stresses that the Brentwood house, within easy reach from Century City, was the place where Marilyn would stay only while making a film. Since 1955, Marilyn considered New York her home town and her Manhattan apartment her real home.
6. Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were platonic friends only.
7. Marilyn and John Kennedy went to bed only once, and it was not a big deal for either. Badman's account of the Kennedy affairs feels sober and convincing.
8. The Marilyn-Kennedy fabrications originated in anti-Kennedy smear campaigns.
9. Marilyn's terror before the movie camera. Marilyn had a love for the still camera and a fear for the movie camera.
10. The weekend 21-22 July 1962: MM was treated for endometriosis, not for an "abortion of a Kennedy baby".
11. The account of previously unreported steps in the history of the MM-Fox reconciliation, the status of her new agreement, and the terms of continuing the production of Something's Got to Give.
12. The sober account of the relationship between MM and Joe DiMaggio, her best friend.
13. The account of the wiretapping of MM's house and the partial removal of it. During the night after MM's death Fred Otash's men "dusted" the house so efficiently that not even one of MM's own fingerprints remained.
14. The explanation of some of the contradictions in Eunice Murray's statements: MM's bedroom door could not be opened because MM had died in front of it. Although MM usually slept with her curtains stapled fast, in Brentwood she did not have to do that because the bedroom window faced the darkness of the garden.
15. MM's "final words" ("say goodbye to the President... ") were a fabrication by Peter Lawford.
16. Nobody who knew MM thought her death was a suicide.
17. Some irregulaties in the autopsy results were based on the special way MM took drugs, on the fact that she didn't eat on the day she died, and her extraordinary tolerance levels.

What I find wanting in Badman's book:
1. The account of Marilyn's psychological condition remains superficial. In this area J. Randy Taraborrelli's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2009) (yes, another of those titles...) is the best so far. Personally I think the biggest battle in Marilyn's life was that for her mental health. Because of the terms of medical confidentiality the crucial facts will remain secret forever, and that is the black box of every Marilyn Monroe biographer. We have traces and clues, however, which lead to the conclusion that Marilyn may have suffered from what we now call a borderline personality disorder. Because of the special conditions of Marilyn's childhood (father unknown, mother since early childhood in mental hospital) there would have been little foundation for the transference needed in traditional psychoanalysis. Remarkably, however, seeking help, Marilyn only consulted psychoanalysts since 1951. But the treatment given by Ralph Greenson was not psychoanalysis. It was something unique and completely different, tailored only for Marilyn, based on the urgency to save Marilyn from self-destruction. Seven psychiatrists declined to treat Marilyn but Greenson did, with methods condemned by his colleagues. Badman claims that the influence of Greenson and his colleagues was damaging. I find this deeply unjust. Greenson did his best, and he might have succeeded with his patient who had been playing with fire for years.
2. Badman fails to report that the hate press Marilyn was receiving after the interruption of the production of  Something's Got To Give was largely orchestrated by the Fox PR department as reported in extenso in Peter Brown and Patte Barham's book The Last Take.
3. The account of the Cal-Neva weekend, Sunday 29 July 1962. Badman convincingly proves that the Kennedys, including Patricia Kennedy Lawford, were not there. But he agrees with claims that MM was there in the company of, among others, the gangsters Paul D'Amato, John Roselli, and Sam Giancana. And in these circumstances Peter Lawford fulfilled his mission to inform MM that she had to stop contacting the Kennedy brothers. Badman repeats the Cal-Neva accounts that sound like a nightmare sequence from Twin Peaks. It would be interesting to read a sober book-length study of that weekend only, exposing the fabrications one by one.
4. The biggest problematic question remains MM's relationship with the Kennedys. 1961-1962 were years when the Cold War threatened to become hot. After the Bay of Pigs the Kennedys tried to oust Castro's government with all means, even with the help of gangsters such as Roselli and Giancana. There was also the Frank Sinatra connection. Peter Lawford, a member of Sinatra's Rat Pack, was married with Patricia, the sister of John and Robert. Badman, like some others before him, claims that MM threatened to give a "tell-all" press conference about the Kennedys. She did not mean it seriously, but according to Badman, Robert Kennedy did, and that was the reason for his secret visit to Los Angeles on the day MM died. - I find this theory unbelievable as MM was a dedicated Kennedy person. - I also find the account of Robert Kennedy's behaviour on MM's final day impossible to believe.

The book is fascinating but still not yet the definitive account of the final years. I think we are now more than halfway to the truth, however. There are still key witnesses alive who have never commented. They may have promised to take the secrets with them to the grave.

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