July of 1962 was a tense time for the United States and the entire world, a period of perilous confrontation between the West and Communist nations. The Soviet Union declared that it would defend China against any attacker. Americans had begun to die in Vietnam. And in tests that month, the U.S. detonated a series of advanced nuclear bombs.
On July 26 an official of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division — the counterespionage department — filed a cryptic note at headquarters in Washington based on reports from agents in Mexico City: “Info received from informants [names deleted] advised Marilyn Monroe attended a luncheon at the residence of Peter Lawford with President Kennedy. Informants characterized Monroe’s views as positively and concisely leftist.”
This strange document and others filed under Marilyn Monroe — Security Matter — C (the “C” stood for Communist) were to be withheld by the U.S. government for more than 40 years. Behind them lies a disquieting story that began five months earlier in an exotic foreign city.
In February, lounging in a Mexico City hotel suite, the world’s most famous movie star had sipped champagne with a scion of one of America’s most illustrious families. Marilyn Monroe was getting acquainted with Frederick Vanderbilt Field, great-great-grandson of the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Monroe had flown south to buy paintings and furniture for her Mexican-style house in California, and Field, who had lived in Mexico for years, was on hand to show her around. An ordinary meeting of the rich and famous? Not so, we now know, as far as the FBI was concerned.
Monroe, as the Bureau already knew, had for some time been having a dalliance with President John F. Kennedy. Three weeks earlier, at a dinner party in Los Angeles, she had also had a first tête-à-tête with his brother Robert, the Attorney General. It was a scenario filled with potential risk, for the woman involved with two of the nation’s leaders was drinking too much, abusing prescription drugs and seeing a psychiatrist almost daily.
Her friend Field, meanwhile, was no ordinary plutocrat. He was an unrepentant supporter of communism and was being watched constantly by U.S. agents. Monroe’s association with Field, coupled with her involvement with the Kennedys, made her a security risk.
The FBI’s July 26 document, made available this year, was written 10 days before Monroe’s death.
Back in 1985, when my biography of Monroe was published, I suspected that the authorities had not told the full truth about the actress’s final months. Freedom of Information Act requests for documents the FBI might have on the actress turned up the “105” file on her, a designation applied to “foreign intelligence matters.” Most of that file, however, was withheld under “B1,” an exemption covering matters of national security.
Three years earlier, the office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney had conducted a review of the circumstances of Monroe’s death, a probe prompted by continuing public controversy and a claim by a coroner’s aide that he had been coerced into signing her death certificate. The D.A.’s investigators, I learned, had been told by the FBI that there was certain material they could not see — material concerning Monroe’s visit to Mexico.
I brought suit against the FBI to release its 105 file, a move that prised out two documents that were almost completely blacked out by the censor’s pen. To release the full contents, FBI attorneys asserted, would violate the request of another agency — almost certainly the CIA — and compromise sources. Though I moved on to other assignments, I did not give up on the 105 file. Each year, I had my lawyer press the FBI to release the withheld documents.
This past year, the FBI finally provided me with more than 100 pages, this time with far less censorship. Soon after, I obtained some 500 pages from the D.A.’s 1982 case review. Together, the documents throw new light on Monroe’s death, one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century.
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