Category Archives: Death

Collecting Marilyn’s Medical Mysteries

Over at Atlas Obscura, Eve Kahn explores the darker side of celebrity memorabilia, and the market for medical items such as pillboxes, prescriptions and X-Rays of stars like Marilyn who died in unusual circumstances.

“Scott Fortner, a major buyer and scholar of Marilyn Monroe’s former possessions who loans widely to museums, owns bottles for her prescription eye drops and anti-allergy pills. He has bought related paperwork, too … Because of his focus on objects that she owned, he says, he is not much interested in medical records such as her chest x-rays that hospital staff may have taken home. And he would firmly draw the line against acquiring anything invasive, prurient and morbid …

Fortner points out that there is plenty of other illuminating and emotionally powerful material to collect instead, which she would have wanted her fans to know about. Throughout her tumultuous career, while shedding husbands and movie personas again and again, she somehow remembered to preserve her own memorabilia down to the drugstore receipts and eyedroppers. ‘She saved everything,’ Fortner says. ‘She didn’t throw anything away.'”

Debbie Reynolds 1932-2016

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Debbie Reynolds, star of Singin’ in the Rain and other classic Hollywood musicals, has died after suffering a stroke, aged 84 – just one day after her famous daughter, Carrie Fisher, also passed away.

She was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas in 1932. As a child she moved with her family to Los Angeles, and was crowned Miss Burbank in 1948. She began her career at Warner Brothers, where she was renamed Debbie.

In Three Little Words (1950), a nostalgic musical about the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, she played Helen Kane, the singer famed for her 1928 hit, ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You‘ (later revived by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.)

Debbie Reynolds sings 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' to Carleton Carpenter in 'Three Little Words' (1951)
Debbie Reynolds sings ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ to Carleton Carpenter in ‘Three Little Words’ (1950)

After moving to MGM, Debbie’s big break came when she was cast in her first dancing role, as chorus girl Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), recently named as the all-time Greatest Movie Musical (and fifth-greatest movie overall) by the AFI. She went on to star in Frank Tashlin’s Susan Slept Here (1954), and with Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap (1955.)

In 1956, she played a bride-to-be in The Catered Affair. That year, her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher was feted by Hollywood’s fan magazines as the dawn of a new, all-American golden couple. They were swiftly paired in Bundle of Joy, with Debbie playing a shopgirl who takes in an abandoned baby.

Their daughter Carrie was born in 1956, followed by son Todd in 1958. He was named after Eddie’s mentor, theatrical impresario Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash soon after.  The Fishers’ seemingly idyllic life was shattered in 1959, when Eddie left Debbie for Mike Todd’s widow, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal rocked Hollywood, although the two women resumed their friendship after Taylor divorced Fisher a few years later. Debbie married the millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, in 1960.

Debbie was the best-selling female singer of 1957, thanks to her hugely popular theme from Tammy. She later released an album, and went on to appear in Henry Hathaway’s How the West Was Won (1962), and opposite Tony Curtis in Goodbye Charlie (1964), in a role first offered to Marilyn Monroe.

Debbie With Tony Curtis in 'Goodbye Charlie' (1964)
With Tony Curtis in ‘Goodbye Charlie’ (1964)

In later years, Debbie would claim that evangelist Billy Graham approached her in 1962, after experiencing a premonition that Marilyn’s life was in danger. As Debbie did not know Marilyn well, she instead contacted a mutual friend, hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff, who allegedly spoke with Marilyn by telephone just hours before her death.

“She was a gentle, childlike girl who was always looking for that white knight on the white horse,” Debbie said of Marilyn, adding, “And why not? What sex symbol is happy?” Debbie also claimed that they attended the same church, although no further details have been uncovered.

Throughout the 1960s, Debbie played a three-month residency in Las Vegas each year. Her performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) earned her an Oscar nomination. Her second marriage ended in 1973. Four years later, her daughter Carrie Fisher found fame In her own right as Princess Leia in Star Wars.

With daughter Carrie Fisher in 2015
With daughter Carrie Fisher in 2015

Carrie would later become an acclaimed author. Postcards From the Edge, a novel about her close, if occasionally fractious relationship with her celebrated mother, was filmed by Mike Nichols in 1990, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the leading roles. Todd Fisher has also worked extensively in film, as well as assisting his mother with her business ventures.

The Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio opened in Los Angeles in 1979, and is still thriving. Her third marriage, to real estate developer Richard Hamlett, ended in 1996. She starred in several Broadway musicals and appeared in numerous television shows, including The Love Boat, Hotel, The Golden Girls, Roseanne, and Will & Grace. A former Girl Scout leader, she has also worked tirelessly for AIDS and mental health charities.

Debbie played herself in The Bodyguard (1992), and was reunited with Elizabeth Taylor for a 2001 TV movie, These Old Broads. One of her final roles was as Liberace’s mother in Behind the Candelabra (2013.) Her memoir, the aptly-titled Unsinkable, was published in 2015; and a new documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, premiered at Cannes in 2016, and has since been acquired by HBO.

Debbie with her Hollywood costume collection
Debbie with her Hollywood costume collection

Debbie Reynolds will also be remembered fondly for her efforts to preserve the legacy of Hollywood’s golden age, which began when she purchased costumes from classic films (including many made for Marilyn) at an MGM auction in 1970. Her dream of opening a movie museum was sadly never realised, and in 2011, she relinquished her collection.

Among the many Marilyn-related items sold in a two-part event at Profiles in History was the cream silk halter-dress designed by Travilla, and worn by Marilyn as she stood over a subway grate in an iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch. The dress sold for $4.6 million, a sum surpassed only by the sale of Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress at Julien’s last month for $4.8 million.

Although the buyer was not named, the Seven Year Itch dress is rumoured to have been purchased by Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the Canadian company which is the licensing arm of Marilyn’s estate.

When Warren (and Natalie) Met Marilyn

Warren Beatty with girlfriend Natalie Wood, circa 1962
Warren Beatty with girlfriend Natalie Wood, circa 1962

Hollywood legend Warren Beatty has given a rare interview to Vanity Fair‘s Sam Kashner, in which he revealed a brief encounter with Marilyn shortly before her death in 1962.

“Peter Lawford had invited him out to his house in Malibu for a night of tacos and poker, and Monroe was there. ‘I hadn’t seen anything that beautiful,’ Beatty recalls. She invited him to take a walk along the beach, which he did. ‘It was more soulful than romantic.’ Back in the house, he played the piano. (He’s a good pianist, by the way, enamored of jazz greats such as Erroll Garner.) Marilyn sat on the edge of the piano in something so clingy that Beatty could tell she wasn’t wearing underwear.

‘How old are you?’ she asked.

‘Twenty-five,’ he answered. ‘And how old are you?’ he asked cheekily.

‘Three. Six,’ she said, as if not wanting to bring the two numbers together. By then, the tacos had arrived, and no one really played poker that night. Warren noticed that Marilyn was already a bit tipsy from champagne, even before the sun had set.

The next day, the producer Walter Mirisch’s brother Harold called. ‘Did you hear?’ he asked. ‘Marilyn Monroe is dead.’ Warren was one of the last people to see Marilyn alive—a story that Beatty tells only reluctantly. He really is one of Hollywood’s most discreet people, in a town and an industry marinated in its own gossip.”

In his 1985 book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Summers that he had contacted Beatty about the rumour of him meeting Marilyn at Lawford’s home just a few hours before she died. Beatty responded that this was true, but did not wish to speak further at that time.

By his own account, Lawford had invited Marilyn to his home that evening but she declined. It may be true that Beatty met Marilyn not long before she died, as she was a regular guest of Peter Lawford and his wife, Pat. However, it seems unlikely to have occurred on the night of her death.

In 1962, Beatty was dating actress Natalie Wood, whose biographer Suzanne Finstad gives a similar account of their meeting (including the conversation about age), but stated only that it occurred at some point over the summer, and most significantly, she added that Wood was also present.

UPDATE: An extract from the newly-published book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life, is featured in People magazine this week. Taken from a previously unseen essay by Wood herself, it includes her thoughts on Marilyn’s death, and may shed new light on Beatty’s story as well. (A former child actress, Natalie had a featured role in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!, the 1947 film in which Marilyn made her screen debut.)

“‘I had known her and seen her days before her death,’ Wood writes. ‘Her beauty, charming wit, and joy of life seemed paradoxical to the tense loneliness which she faced in her life, and was to me, clearly apparent. I realized that her tragedy reminds us all how vulnerable we are, and I chose to try to be stronger.'”

And finally … ‘doyenne of dish’ Liz Smith has also questioned the timing of Beatty’s anecdote, in her latest column for New York Social Diary.

“Beatty places the meeting on the night before her death — or the night of, really. He says he received a call ‘in the morning’ from an agent, telling him Marilyn had died. But the facts say otherwise. MM actually refused an invite from Lawford the Saturday night she died.

It’s most likely that Warren, fiftysomething years on, just forgot the exact evening. It is a very tender and considerate memory, in any case. This gallantry is typical of Warren, whose exes almost always adored him, even as they became his exes.”

 

Revisiting Marilyn at Westwood

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In an article for Atlas Obscura, Oleg Alexandrov investigates the story behind Marilyn’s final resting place at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

“After dying of a drug overdose in what was an apparent suicide on August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was interred three days later at Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. The funeral arrangements were handled by Joe DiMaggio …

Feeling some resentment toward the entertainment industry for Monroe’s demise, DiMaggio had no interest in making the funeral a Hollywood affair. Westwood was, at a the time, a quiet, out-of-the-way cemetery chosen because it was also the final resting place of Monroe’s childhood guardian, Grace Goddard, and her surrogate mother Ana Lower. The private service was restricted to a small group of the star’s closest friends and associates.

Ironically, thanks to the presence of Marilyn Monroe’s grave, Westwood has been a popular place for celebrity burials ever since …

For 20 years after her death, DiMaggio had red roses delivered to her simple grave three times a week. Today, it is regularly adorned with flowers, cards, letters, and other mementos left by the regular visitors it attracts.”

Galician Author’s ‘Niche For Marilyn’

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A Niche For Marilyn, a 2004 novel by Galician film historian Miguel Anxo Fernandez, has been published in English for the first time by Small Stations Press. Here’s a synopsis:

“Frank Soutelo is a down-at-heel private detective, the son of Galician immigrants, based in Los Angeles, California. He doesn’t get much choice in his assignments and has to take pretty much what’s on offer, so when he gets hired and paid an advance of twenty-five thousand dollars, he’s understandably pleased, and his secretary even more so. The unusual thing, however, is what he’s been asked to do: to recover the body of the actress Marilyn Monroe, which has reputedly gone missing from her grave in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Big Frank, as he is known, is about to get drawn into a world that is unfamiliar to him: a world of necrophiliacs, zealous watchmen, uniformed chauffeurs and high-class mansions. The question is will he be able to extricate himself from this situation with his dignity and heart in one piece?”

Fernandez Nicho

It’s a short novel (142 pp), and not really about Marilyn herself so will only be of marginal interest to fans. Some may find the themes of body-snatching and necrophilia too morbid, so be warned. It is narrated by detective Frank Soutelo, who views Monroe compassionately albeit as something of a victim – both in life, and death.

San Francisco Remembers Marilyn

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Photo by Elliott Erwitt, 1960

The San Francisco Chronicle has reposted their front page from August 18, 1962, in which news of Coroner Theodore Curphey’s report on Marilyn’s recent death shared space with a story about President John F. Kennedy, who was visiting California as work on the San Luis Reservoir commenced. (Click on the photo below to enlarge.)

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“In Hollywood, gloom still hung over the film industry two weeks after Monroe’s death.

‘Monroe’s will was filed for probate yesterday in New York,’ the story read. ‘The actress, reported by many … to be virtually broke, left an estate estimated to be more than a half-million dollars.’

‘A short while later, in Los Angeles, Coroner Theodore Curphey officially ruled that Miss Monroe’s sleeping pill death Aug. 4 or 5 was a probable suicide.’

Whether the glamour icon killed herself was never proved beyond a doubt, but her impact on pop culture remains unquestionable.”

Vernon Scott Remembers Marilyn

Marilyn with Vernon Scott in 1953
Marilyn with Vernon Scott in 1953

Vernon Scott was a famous show-business writer who knew Marilyn throughout her career. This is an extract from an article he wrote for his syndicated UPI column on August 8, 1962, commemorating her death. (He would survive her by forty years – you can read more about Mr Scott here.)

“The beautiful girl-woman had nothing left now. She couldn’t work under the terms of her studio contract although there were scores of offers. Nor could she lose herself in another romantic entanglement … The heartbreak of her marriages to Miller and DiMaggio had wrung her almost dry of emotion. What, then, was there left for the most glittering glamour girl in memory?

In a recent magazine story she said, ‘I was brought up differently from the average American child because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy.’ Again, she said, ‘Fame may go by and so long, I’ve had you fame.’ In death Marilyn could not say, ‘So long, I’ve had you, life.’ She had only a tiny piece of life, and for those of us who knew and admired Marilyn Monroe there remains soul-scaring remorse that none was able to provide her with the knowledge that she was indeed loved and cherished.”

Thanks to Deb Skylar

The Drugs That Killed Marilyn

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Dr Howard Markel has written an article for PBS about Marilyn’s fatal overdose. While there are some inaccuracies – for example, he says she had been drinking alcohol when she died, which is incorrect – his citing her prescription drug addiction as a ‘modern epidemic’ rings true.

“Lonely and harassed, Marilyn found getting to sleep especially difficult. To counteract her insomnia, she often cracked open a Nembutal capsule (so that it would absorb faster into her bloodstream), added a chloral hydrate tablet (an old fashioned sedative better known in detective stories as a ‘Mickey Finn’, or ‘knockout drops’,), and washed them both down with a tumbler of champagne. This is a particularly lethal cocktail, not only because each of these drugs increase, or potentiate, the power of the other, but also because people who take this combination often forget how much they previously consumed, or whether they took them at all, and soon reach for another dose.

What remains most cautionary to 21st century readers is that the majority of the substances Marilyn was abusing were prescribed to her by physicians, all of whom should have known better than to leave a mentally ill patient with such a large stash of deadly medications. The barbiturates that killed her are rarely, if ever prescribed, today. Nevertheless, Monroe, like Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Prince, and too many other famous Hollywood stars who overdosed, was adept at manipulating her doctors to prescribe the drugs she craved and felt she needed to get through her tortured days and nights. This treacherous course worked, albeit haphazardly, until it didn’t work anymore and resulted in a talented young woman dying far too young.

Marilyn once told a reporter, ‘the [best] thing for me is sleep, then at least I can dream.’ Sadly, Marilyn Monroe’s overdose represents the darker side of medical progress. Five decades after she died, and with the development of so many new, addictive, and potentially lethal painkillers and sedatives, this epidemic has only grown worse. Today, physicians, nurses, family members, and patients are all still struggling to grapple with its effects and stem its deadly tide.”

Gary Vitacco-Robles on Marilyn, and ‘Icon’

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Gary Vitacco-Robles, author of the acclaimed two-volume biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, has been interviewed by ES staffer Sirkku Aaltonen over at her MM Book Blog, and has shared the exciting news that he is currently working on a third installment about Marilyn’s untimely death.

“Nearly the week I completed the editing process for ICON Volume 2, significant new information surfaced. Even now, with the approaching auction of the contents of Marilyn’s New York and Los Angeles filing cabinets, we have new information and evidence available which will be published in the auction catalogues. Collector Scott Fortner contacted me about the documents related to Marilyn considering the purchase of a Manhattan townhouse in late 1961, around the time Dr. Greenson was encouraging her to purchase a home in Los Angeles. How I wish I had access to that material during my research! Although Volume 1 is in its second edition, there is potential for Volume 2 to have one as well. As you know, I’ve been involved in the Goodnight, Marilyn Radio investigation into Marilyn’s death since February of 2015. I’ve appeared as Nina Boski and Randall Libero’s frequent guest and current weekly panel member for three seasons and will participate as an investigative team member for the Seeking the Truth Conference in Los Angeles in September. I’ve now acquired the 641-page LA District Attorney’s investigation materials and final report from 1982 and had the privilege of consulting with forensic experts such as Dr. Cyril Wecht; psychiatrist Dr. Reef Kareem; and suicide expert Dr. Scott Bonn. This 21st century investigation will yield new results and impact our perceptions about her death. This research is worthy of a Volume 3, of which Ben Ohmart, my publisher (BearManor Media), is very interested in supporting. So, I am currently researching and outlining ICON: The Life, Times & Films of Marilyn Monroe Volume 3/The 1982 & 2016 Investigations into Her Death. That’s just a working title. Each volume in denser and longer than the previous one; I believe the third will be the biggest of the trilogy. Things naturally align in threes, so I’m happy for a third volume.”