Not long before she died, a D.A.’s report shows, Monroe discussed suicide with an actress friend, Jeanne Carmen. Were she ever to kill herself, she said, she “would dress in a white nightgown, take an overdose of pills and go to bed. The sheets and spread would be white and she would have her hair and makeup done. A friend would be informed of the suicide to make sure that after her death she was neatly positioned and the bedroom was in order.”
A shabbier scene greeted police summoned to Monroe’s home in Los Angeles in the early hours of August 5, 1962. The star had evidently been dead for some time. She was naked, in a semi-fetal position, her face unmadeup, her hair a mess, in a disordered room. There were pill bottles on the bedside table, and the autopsy report was to give the cause of death as “acute barbiturate poisoning due to ingestion of overdose.” In the space for “Mode of Death,” autopsy surgeon Dr. Thomas Noguchi circled “Suicide,” adding the word “probable.” That was the verdict coroner Theodore Curphey announced at a press conference 12 days later, saying he thought the overdose had been “self-administered,” the pills swallowed “in one gulp.”
Fans thought the suicide finding a slur on Marilyn’s character, that her death had been a tragic accident. Others suspected the overdose had been administered by someone else, perhaps by injection — that their idol had been killed. The D.A.’s 1982 review opened with a formal Request for Investigation of the possible “murder” of “victim Marilyn Monroe” by a person or persons unknown. A mere four months later, though, the probe was closed down. A report was issued stating that there was “no credible evidence supporting a murder theory.” There was a possibility that the death had been accidental, but suicide was more likely.
A senior forensic pathologist consulted by the D.A.’s office took the view that the original medical findings on Monroe were accurate. In an interview this year, though, Dr. Steven Karch, a retired assistant medical examiner for the city of San Francisco, pointed out what he sees as troubling flaws in the forensic evidence. Monroe’s internist, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, told the D.A.’s investigators that he had prescribed only one of the medications that killed her. If so, asks Karch, where did the other medications come from? The records are contradictory on how the police and coroner’s staff handled the many drugs found at the house. A coroner’s document indicates that nothing was removed from the scene. The bedside table was still littered with pill bottles the following day; Monroe’s business manager, Inez Melson, the first person allowed access after the police left, told me she simply threw them away. Why, then, do other documents indicate that eight medication containers were analyzed at the coroner’s laboratory?
Most disquieting is the fate of specimens taken from Monroe’s body during the autopsy. When Dr. Noguchi asked the head toxicologist to test tissue samples, he told the D.A.’s staff years later, he was told they had already been “destroyed.” Why? Toxicologist Dr. Raymond Abernethy refused to comment when I asked him for an explanation. “The last thing in the world you do is dispose of tissue,” Dr. Karch says today. “To throw away the tissue is, I think, astonishingly damning. There’s no justification, because you never know when you might want to go back and look again.”
Given such irregularities, Karch adds, “you can’t rule out the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was murdered. If I had my druthers, I would classify this death as ‘undetermined causes.’ To me — and I’m not by nature a conspiracy theorist — the circumstances of her death remain a mystery.”
The only other person present in Monroe’s house when she died, supposedly, was Eunice Murray, her housekeeper. Questioned by the D.A.’s staff in 1982, Murray said she raised the alarm when — having woken “in the middle of the night” — she noticed a telephone cord under Monroe’s bedroom door. To avoid being disturbed, the actress usually left the phones outside her room at night, muffled by pillows. The unusual sight of the cord snaking under the door, Murray said, alarmed her enough to call Monroe’s psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, was dead by 1982, but years earlier he told police that he rushed to the house in response to the housekeeper’s call, broke a window to get into Monroe’s room, and found her unresponsive. He then phoned her internist, Dr. Engelberg, who hurried to the house. Monroe was “sprawled over the bed,” Engelberg told the D.A.’s staff 20 years later. “I took out my stethoscope and listened to make sure her heart wasn’t beating … she was dead. … I got on the phone and called the police.”
The D.A.’s report did not question the credibility of the principal witnesses, did not mention the destruction of forensic specimens, and essentially rubber-stamped the original findings.