Category Archives: Health

Marilyn: A Proto-Synaesthete?

Norma Jeane by Richard C. Miller, 1946

In an article for the New Yorker, no less, Robin Wright says, ‘I have something in common with Marilyn Monroe – and you might, too.’ That shared condition, she claims, is synaesthesia…

“Marilyn Monroe had a condition called synesthesia, a kind of sensory or cognitive fusion in which things seen, heard, smelled, felt, or tasted stimulate a totally unrelated sense—so that music can be heard or food tasted in colors, for instance. Monroe’s first husband, Jim Dougherty, told Norman Mailer about ‘evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds,’ Mailer recounted, in his 1973 biography of Monroe.”

While Marilyn was never diagnosed with synaesthesia, there’s a good reason for that – it wasn’t an established concept during her lifetime, although Wright believes it has been described in literature for centuries, noting that many artists, musicians and writers exhibit aspects of synaesthesia.

Maureen Seaberg first suggested that Marilyn might have been a synaesthete in a 2012 article for Psychology Today – a hypothesis supported by Mona Rae Miracle. (It would be interesting if a psychologist could examine other incidents from Marilyn’s life from this perspective.)

Marilyn photographed by Milton Greene, in costume for ‘Bus Stop’ (1956)

“It didn’t disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe’s displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia — no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn.

‘Synaesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as extraordinary sensitivity and/or extraordinary imagination … Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment … Marilyn’s awesome performance in Bus Stop (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out.'”

Unveiling Marilyn’s Beautiful Scars

Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.

Now you see her, now you don’t: Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’

“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.

The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’

Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?

Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’

Guess what? Everyone has scars too—even Marilyn.”

Shining a Light on Marilyn

Photo by Hans Knopf, 1956

In an article for the Biography website, Sara Kettler sheds light on some lesser-known aspects of Marilyn’s personality including her struggle to overcome a traumatic childhood and mental health problems; her passion for justice and equality; and her charitable nature.

“Monroe was generous throughout her life, a trait that was apparent even as she spent time in institutions and foster homes. She gave an acting teacher a valuable fur coat and offered money to people in need; shopping companions would often find Monroe had sent them items she’d ostensibly purchased for herself. She was especially generous with children, and offered assistance to child-focused charities like the Milk Fund for Babies and the March of Dimes.”

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.'”

Dr Ramon Acosta Pastor 1929-2016

Marilyn leaving the New York Polyclinic with Dr Ramon Acosta Pastor after gallbladder surgery in 1961. (Photo collage by Fraser Penney)
Marilyn besieged by fans as she leaves hospital  with Dr Pastor in 1961. (Photo collage by Fraser Penney)

Dr Ramon Acosta Pastor, a surgeon who treated patients including Marilyn during a long, distinguished career, has died aged 86, as Edmund Silvestre reports for the Philippine Star.

“MANILA, Philippines – Dr. Ramon Acosta Pastor, one of the surgeons who operated on Marilyn Monroe at a New York City hospital in 1961, passed away on Oct. 5 in his native Batangas City in the Philippines. He was 86.

He became closely acquainted with the late Hollywood icon when she underwent cholecystectomy (gallbladder surgery) on June 29, 1961 at the defunct Polyclinic Hospital in Manhattan and which was widely covered by the media. It was Dr. John Hammet, one of New York’s top surgeons, who led the surgical team.

Dr. Pastor’s photo beside Monroe appeared in several news publications, including the front page of The New York Times, wherein he is seen shielding Monroe from a mob of fans and members of the press while leaving the hospital after she was discharged on July 11, 1961.

That chaotic moment, the star of Some Like It Hot said in an interview, was the time she most feared for her safety.

‘It was scary. I felt for a few minutes as if they were just going to take pieces out of me. Actually, it made me feel a little sick. I mean I appreciated the concern and their affection and all that, but — I don’t know — it was a little like a nightmare. I wasn’t sure I was going to get into the car safely and get away.’

Dr. Pastor managed to walk Monroe into her limo unscathed. He hopped with her into the car and stayed by her side until she reached home.

The famed actress and sex symbol was reportedly complaining of pain from an intestinal disorder when she was rushed to the hospital from her apartment at 444 East 57th Street in Manhattan.

According to a New York Mirror story, Monroe awoke in distress in the morning of June 28, 1961, prompting her secretary, May Reis, to call her primary physician at Polyclinic. After diagnosis, the doctor decided her condition warranted immediate hospitalization. She was carried to the ambulance on a stretcher, with [ex] husband Joe DiMaggio joining her in the ambulance.

Dr. Pastor’s elder brother, Antonio, who was staying with him in New York City at the time, related that Dr. Pastor told him he took care of Monroe for two weeks after the surgery, personally attending to all her medical needs.

‘Marilyn Monroe instructed him not to accept any visitors while she’s recuperating, except Joe DiMaggio,’ said Antonio, recalling a conversation he had with his younger brother.

Still in the hospital on the Fourth of July, Monroe complained of the noise coming from fireworks, Antonio said, adding, ‘Dr. Pastor said he gave her the best possible solution — putting cotton in her ears.’

It was the fifth time that Monroe was hospitalized in just 10 months, according to reports.

The three-inch horizontal scar in the upper quadrant of Monroe’s abdomen as a result of the surgery was visible in the photos taken by lensman Bert Stern for the book The Last Sitting, commissioned by Vogue magazine in late June 1962, just six weeks before Monroe died.

‘Ramon was a very gifted doctor and he was very proud of having the honor of operating on Marilyn Monroe,’ said an old-time friend, Dr. Rebecca Magbag, a New York geriatrician, who is also a native of the Philippines. ‘But he was also very humble that he really didn’t talk much about it.’

‘He’s a very nice and warm guy, very handsome, very charming, compassionate with his patients and treated everyone equally,’ Dr. Magbag also said. ‘As an eligible bachelor at the time, a lot of women were swooning over him.’

Born on Nov. 23, 1929 in Batangas City to Dr. Juan Pastor and Concha Acosta Pastor, Dr. Ramon was a 1955 medical graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. He took his internship at Yonkers General Hospital in New York and finished his training in general surgery at New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital, in which he served as chief resident during his last year of training.

He became a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, but decided to turn his back on a lucrative medical career in the United States and returned home a year later to better serve the underprivileged in his small town in Batangas City.”

Immortal Marilyn in October

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Marilyn leaving hospital in 1959

Recent updates to the Immortal Marilyn website include a sensitive piece about Marilyn’s endometriosis and miscarriages; profiles of her contemporaries, Anita Ekberg and James Dean; a vintage piece from Uncensored magazine, about Marilyn and Frank Sinatra; an interview with Marilyn collector Sirkku Aaltonen; and a new regular feature, the weekly news roundup.

Marilyn: Story of a Stutterer

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Marilyn at home in 1962

Theologian Gerald McDermott has written an article about Marilyn’s stutter for the multi-faith website Patheos, suggesting that the iconic breathy voice she used in her movies helped her to control it.

“If stuttering was a recurring pattern in this troubled actress’s life, how was she able to perform?  How did she become such a famous movie star that people are now surprised to hear that she was a stutterer?  The answer is not crystal clear, but there are strong clues.

We know that for many of her years in Hollywood Marilyn had an acting coach named Natasha Lytess, who taught the young actress to breathe and move her lips before she actually spoke.  A focus on breathing helps many stutterers.  But Natasha also instructed Marilyn to enunciate every syllable, especially final consonants.

This exaggerated diction might have helped distract Marilyn, as stutterers are sometimes helpfully distracted, from her problem with starting words.  But at the same time the staccato style can produce a stopping and starting that makes it more likely the speaker will block on words starting with difficult consonants or vowels.

We also know that in the 1950s ‘breathy breathing’ was a popular therapy among speech therapists.  Charles Van Riper, for example, taught stutterers to slow down speech and prolong their words, and to use gentle breathing.

Wherever she learned it, this method worked for Marilyn most of the time.  She made many movies, and her stutter was never readily apparent once the movies got to the screen.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Her breathy speech became famous, and in fact is known today among speech therapists as a technique called the ‘Marilyn Monroe voice.'”

‘Marilyn Taught Me How to Walk!’

Marilyn by Jock Carroll, 1952
Marilyn by Jock Carroll, 1952

In a blog post for the Hips and Curves website, author Kim Brittingham studies Marilyn’s uniquely sensuous walk – and tries it out herself.

“In mere seconds, she transformed into a cinematic sex kitten. A subtle lifting of her shoulders. An alluring elongation of her back. The coy tilting of her head and a suggestive swing of her hips and va-voom! Immediately, people noticed. Our legendary bombshell was quickly surrounded by frantic admirers.

I imagined I was confident and beautiful. I psyched myself into a state of absolute belief. I felt it in my body.

I lifted my shoulders and immediately felt compelled to take a deep, cleansing breath. My limbs flooded with warmth and I felt my posture lifting and lengthening, my weight shifting from a burdensome sensation like a sandbag around my neck to a decisive, sure balance upon the backs of my hips. Then I let those hips sway.

There was definitely something to this. It was all in the way I carried myself. As if I felt like a million bucks. And all that pulsating and emanating I imagined I was doing – well, I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed one other person had picked up on it. And it had been easier than I thought. My god, I gasped. I’m a sorceress!

I began to suspect that beauty and attraction have less to do with the size and contours of our bodies, and more to do with the energy we emit. That when a woman fires up her inner Marilyn, the first thing people see is that je ne sais quoi that shimmers around her and winks, I’m special. That when we feel worthy of the space we occupy, we broadcast the best of what’s inside of us, like a radio signal, and the people we’re meant to take this journey with will pick it up.”

Patient Remembers Payne Whitney

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Marilyn was briefly committed to New York’s Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital by her analyst, Dr Marianne Kris, following a severe depressive episode in 1961, but was so disturbed by the experience that she called upon ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, who demanded her immediate release. She then spent six weeks recuperating in another hospital.

Author Steven Gaines has described his own five-month residency at Payne Whitney after a suicide attempt in 1962 when he was just fifteen years old, in an interview with Michael Musto for Out magazine.

“You thought Payne Whitney was going to be basically a fancy hotel.

I was shocked because it turned out the first week you go there—this is why Marilyn Monroe signed herself out—you go on the seventh floor and there were 24 patients, and a lot of them were in shock therapy and very ill. They put me in a quiet room, and I was kicking the door, so they shot me up and put me in a padded cell the first night. But the third floor was entirely different, and I spent most of the time there. That was very much like a hotel.

But very regimented.

Yes. You had to have breakfast at a certain time, make your own bed, and have therapy every day.

When Marilyn died a year and a half after her release from Payne Whitney, how did you react?

When it happened, I was in the hospital. Everybody was so upset. We thought, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’

So you were allowed to walk out of the establishment, but not go home?

Right. When you got to the fourth floor, you were allowed walk privileges. On the fifth, some people even went to work and were allowed to go home for weekends. At my grandfather’s shop—a corset emporium that also sold a full line of women’s clothing—my grandmother would say, ‘She’s a Friday customer.’ That would mean the mental home let you out for the weekend.”

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.”