When Marilyn Monroe died aged just 36, she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. You’d think, then, that her obituaries would reflect her beloved celebrity status. But whereas some of America’s biggest publications wrote heartbreaking eulogies that celebrated the icon, others released statements that were, shall we say, less than flattering. In fact, some were just downright rude – and the Los Angeles Times went further than most.
Monroe – an award-winning actress, model and somewhat controversial figure – died in August 1962. She was found in her Los Angeles home by her housekeeper, and the screen star seemed to be the victim of an apparent suicide. Understandably, her sudden and unexpected passing sent shockwaves throughout the world. And the salacious details surrounding her demise only fueled the media storm that followed.
You see, it was initially reported that Monroe had passed away as a result of an overdose from barbiturates, as drugs were found at the scene. And the authorities later confirmed the cause of her death: the star, it appeared, had committed suicide. Toxicology results – alongside empty pill containers by her bedside – appeared to back up that declaration, too. With no suspicions of foul play, then, Monroe’s final journey could be made.
Yes, four days after Monroe’s death, she was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery’s Corridor of Memories. And while the funeral itself was private, hundreds of fans packed the surrounding streets to say goodbye to the star. But the press weren’t done with Monroe just yet, it seems, as through their obituaries they had one last opportunity to tell the world how they really felt about her.
Yet when Monroe first came into the world, it’s highly unlikely that those around her would have predicted the stardom that she would one day enjoy. In fact, even her name had been different; after her birth on June 1, 1926, she was given the decidedly less glamorous moniker of Norma Jeane Mortenson. Monroe’s mom, Gladys, wasn’t aware who her little girl’s father was, either, so the future actress never knew him. But tragically, her history of family heartbreak didn’t end there.
For the first few years of Monroe’s life, you see, she lived with foster parents. And as Gladys had to work, she stayed in the city and only went to see her daughter at the weekends. Happily, though, when Monroe was seven, the pair moved into a house in Hollywood and resided there – along with some lodgers. But that situation wouldn’t last a year.
At the beginning of 1934, a breakdown led Gladys to discover that she had paranoid schizophrenia, and she was consequently admitted to a local mental health facility. At this point, with no parent to care for her, Monroe continued to live at her mother’s house with the lodgers. And during this period, the future star was reportedly sexually assaulted.
From there, Monroe went to an LA orphanage before finally moving in with Grace Goddard – a friend of her mother’s. After more accusations of sexual abuse, however, she was sent to Sawtelle to live with a relative of Goddard’s. Then, a few years later, Monroe was forced back to the Goddard household – although not for long. Soon, the family decided to up sticks, leaving the future star to make a stark choice.
As Monroe was a teenager at the time, her foster family could not take her out of California. As a result, then, she would have to go back to the orphanage – unless she opted for a different path, that is. Yet while Monroe couldn’t legally live on her own, she could, it seems, marry a legal adult. So, she tied the knot with 21-year-old James Dougherty. The marriage, however, didn’t last.
It would be Monroe’s short-lived union with Dougherty, though, that set her on a path to stardom. After Dougherty enlisted in the Merchant Marines, you see, his young wife took work in a local munitions plant. There, a chance encounter with an Army photographer led to her signing with the Blue Book Agency in 1945 as a model. So, within just a year, Monroe managed to grace the covers of some 33 magazines. And from there, the bright lights of Hollywood beckoned.
In 1946 Monroe signed with 20th Century Fox, chose her now-famous stage name and divorced her husband. The upcoming star then made her movie debut in 1947’s Dangerous Years, yet her contract with the studio soon ended. A brief stint at Columbia Pictures followed, but in time she was once again on her own. Off the back of the actress’ successful supporting roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, though, she found herself in demand, and a seven-year deal with Fox was quickly brokered.
Yet despite Monroe’s multi-year contract, she didn’t become a global star overnight. She initially honed her craft in small-budget fare such as 1951’s Home Town Story. That same year, Monroe also appeared in As Young as You Feel and Let’s Make It Legal. And in 1952 she was being heralded as the year’s “it girl.”
That same year, Monroe gave three of her most iconic performances. The first was as Rose Loomis in Niagara, which ultimately cemented her reputation as the blonde bombshell. And while women’s groups in America protested the movie’s allegedly overtly sexual tone, audiences lapped it up. They adored Monroe, too, prompting one critic from The New York Times to note, “She can be seductive – even when she walks.”
Monroe’s next big movie was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which added the next familiar layer to her persona: the “dumb blonde.” The star played a gorgeous showgirl looking for a rich husband in the classic film, which turned out to be a smash hit. And as well as displaying Monroe’s bombshell looks, the picture also showcased her vocal and physical talents – a combination that viewers couldn’t resist.
Hot on the heels of that success came How to Marry a Millionaire. Monroe once again played a gorgeous woman out to find a wealthy husband, and the film became the star’s biggest commercial success so far. That same year, she appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine’s first-ever issue. As such, Monroe’s reputation as a sex symbol was assured.
Then, the following year, Monroe married a sporting legend. Yes, she tied the knot with baseball hero Joe DiMaggio in January 1954. The pair split just nine months later, however. And after the actress starred in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, she declared herself bored with what she saw as repetitive roles. So, she started her own production company called MMP.
And Monroe’s next project – 1956’s Bus Stop – earned her a Golden Globe nomination. While portraying a saloon entertainer with big dreams, Monroe prompted one critic to note that the movie “effectively dispels once and for all the notion that she is a mere glamour presence.” As if to underline that point, the star married playwright Arthur Miller that year, converting to Judaism for the wedding.
But although life might have seemed rosy for Monroe from an outsider’s perspective, the reality was about to be very different. You see, while the star was filming her next picture, The Prince And The Showgirl, in 1956, she experienced some professional problems; apparently, she and her co-star Laurence Olivier didn’t see eye to eye at all. More tragically, Monroe supposedly suffered a miscarriage during the shoot. Nor did her personal issues end there.
The next year, Monroe spent a brief time in hospital after overdosing on barbiturates, after which she chose to take some time off from Hollywood. When she returned in 1958, though, it was to make yet another iconic movie: Some Like It Hot. And the picture – which was a smash hit upon its release in 1959 – ultimately earned Monroe a Golden Globe, too. But, sadly, this success wasn’t to last.
During the shoot for Monroe’s next picture – 1960’s Let’s Make Love – she often didn’t show up for work, causing production delays. To make matters worse, the star effectively ended her marriage to Miller by having an affair with co-star Yves Montand. And to top it all off, the movie bombed.
That same year, meanwhile, Monroe made what would ultimately be her final movie. But The Misfits – which had been written by her estranged husband – proved to be even more difficult to shoot than Let’s Make Love had been. There was the strain of working with Miller, for one, and it certainly didn’t help that the star was addicted to barbiturates during this time. Monroe’s substance abuse was so persistent, in fact, that her make-up often had to be applied while she was asleep. And as if that wasn’t enough, she also suffered from gallstones during the production.
Monroe and Miller ultimately divorced in January 1961, following which the star spent the next six months dealing with health issues. Her gallbladder was removed during this period, for instance; she also underwent an operation for endometriosis and spent a month in the hospital with depression. But by the beginning of the next year, Monroe had moved into her own home in LA – and she was even dating DiMaggio again.
Then, not long after moving house, Monroe went back to work. But while starring in Something’s Gotta Give, she was once again plagued by ill-health – this time with sinusitis. Against medical opinion, Monroe continued the shoot, only ultimately taking time off when the condition worsened. And there was further bad luck to come. Even though Monroe had invited the press to snap pictures of her during a nude scene, her studio decided to drop her.
Yet while Fox soon realized its mistake and later negotiated reinstating Monroe, those plans never came to fruition. On August 5, 1962, the star was found dead in her home from what we now know to have been a barbiturate overdose. She had passed away the day before at just 36 years of age. And once word spread of her untimely passing, the media went into a frenzy.
Many well-respected publications ran obituaries for Monroe – but a number of them weren’t the kind that served as glowing reports of her achievements. Some, in fact – such as the piece that ran in Time magazine – chose to focus on the negatives. More specifically, the publication commented on the star’s perceived lack of professionalism. “She was always late for everything,” the obituary reads. “Her tardiness was measured in weeks instead of hours.”
But Time magazine’s strong opinions didn’t end there. For instance, despite Monroe’s success, the obituary decries her offering “a photographer exclusive rights to nearly nude shots of her.” Then, just to reiterate the point, it says, “Last week, she negotiated still another sale of a nude photograph to a picture magazine.” And Time was far from the only news outlet to criticize the late star.
The New York Times chose, for instance, to focus on Monroe’s personal possessions – or lack thereof. The obituary in the newspaper of record points out that her bedroom “was neat but sparsely furnished.” And just to labor the point, the article adds, “Her one-story stucco house… was far different from the lavish Beverly Hills Hotel suites more typical of her.” But the American media weren’t the only ones to castigate Monroe in their tributes.
British newspaper The Guardian also took several swings at the late Hollywood star. In its obituary, she is described as a “pretty woman whose beauty crumbled overnight.” Monroe was also apparently “charming, shrewd and pathetic,” as well as someone who, “in the end, sought ultimate oblivion.” But perhaps the most damning critique of the actress came from her hometown paper.
The Los Angeles Times – or LA Times – had seemingly taken a dislike to Monroe. Whether it was because of the culture of the time, Monroe’s part in a changing of attitudes or something completely different, the paper was brutal towards her. And lazily describing the star’s death as “due to an overdose of some drug” was just the start of it.
From such cold beginnings, the obituary goes on to decry the physical state of Monroe’s dead body. It reads, “She was unkempt and in need of a manicure and pedicure.” This supposed nail-care situation, the publication says, indicated “listlessness and a lack of interest in maintaining her usually glamorous appearance.”
The LA Times obituary also describes Monroe as “a troubled beauty who failed to find happiness as Hollywood’s brightest star.” And as was the case with many other reports, the paper made note of the fact that the star had been nude when she died. The piece adds that Monroe had passed away while “lying face down on her bed and clutching a telephone receiver in her hand.”
And in an echo of The New York Times’ obituary, the LA Times then describes the late star’s possessions – specifically the linen on her bed. The unflattering tribute reveals that Monroe had been lying “under a sheet and champagne-colored blanket” that had been “tucked up around her shoulders.”
The piece then goes on to very matter-of-factly describe the moment when Monroe’s doctor Ralph Greenson and her housekeeper Eunice Murray had discovered her body, stating, “Dr. Greenson took the receiver from her hand and told Mrs. Murray, ‘She appears to be dead.’” And as if all that wasn’t insulting enough, the news outlet then gave a scathing critique of the actress’ working life.
The paper cites Monroe’s career as being “on the skids after two straight movie flops.” This, it posits, had been the cause of her depression. The obituary also takes time to point out that the drugs that had been responsible for her death were in “12 to 15 medicine bottles on Miss Monroe’s bedside stand.”
In addition, the LA Times alleged that Monroe’s 50-pill Nembutal prescription had been “issued only two or three days” before her death. Given that the bottle was now empty, then, the paper seemingly implied that the star had ingested far more than the recommended daily dose. And from there, the piece goes on to describe in detail the final time that Monroe had left her house.
“Miss Monroe’s body was wrapped in a pale blue blanket,” the obituary reads, “and strapped to a stretcher as it was removed from the home.” The article then recounts the authorities’ next steps, saying, “Miss Monroe’s body was loaded into the back of a station wagon and transported to the Westwood Village Mortuary.” But the grim, unfeeling coverage didn’t end there.
Yes, the obituary even goes on to describe what happened to Monroe’s remains in rather disturbing detail. “The body was later transferred to the county morgue, where the nation’s number one glamour girl became Coroner’s Case number 81128 and the body was placed in Crypt 33,” the piece reads.
Yet despite the slew of negative press coverage, many of Monroe’s friends refuted the idea that she’d deliberately ended her life. “This must have been an accident,” Pat Newcomb, the star’s press agent, told the LA Times. “Marilyn was in perfect physical condition and was feeling great. We had made plans for today.”
Monroe’s colleagues raced to defend the star, too. Joshua Logan, director of Bus Stop, described the star as “one of the most unappreciated people in the world.” And even Laurence Olivier – with whom the late star had apparently clashed during the making of The Prince and The Showgirl – was angry on her behalf. He reportedly thought her “the complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation.”
Now we’re in the 21st century, though, we’re generally far more aware of the pressures that global fame can exert on stars. As such, obituaries for celebrities tend to be far more sympathetic than the ones that were published following Monroe’s death. But despite the crass way in which the icon was depicted by the press, she continues to have millions of fans to this day – many of whom no doubt remember her in a much more flattering light.