Helen Donlon
talks to Keith Badman
about his new biography of
Marilyn Monroe

 

There are 1,600,000 google hits for Marilyn Monroe. Her life – in shades of siren, actress, zephyr, oddball, co-dependent – played out over and over and over again in the same old bromides. Hundreds of books published year after year. And yet the mundanity of the never-ending vouchsafe photo-montages and centrefold collectibles seem no more hackneyed to me than the scuttlebutt tell-all tales and tomes beloved of the clothesline publishers. If it has all been said, why keep saying it?

But I’ve just read Keith Badman’s moving new book The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe. And therein, things have taken a turn for the new. Keith is the bestselling author of various music books (The Beach Boys, The Beatles off the Record) and his efforts as a nitpicking researcher have earned him the moniker “the Colombo of the entertainment world”.

So why Marilyn?  Badman’s very impetus was his being annoyed at the endless books on her; the hundred different scenarios circumscribing the who, what, when, where, why, of her squalid death. It was all because of the Kennedys. It was all because of the doctor. It was all because of the mafia connection. And on and on. As he says, there was no authentic picture of how the story really fitted together, just a patchwork of the best snatch-quotes from the most headline-worthy names, and a perfect tragedy that was too good to edit once it was defined. The myth set in amber like an angry, clobbered wasp.

“And I thought . . . this is ludicrous. I felt that, out of respect to her, she deserved to have the truth be told.”

So after he handed in his Beach Boysmanuscript he got down to it.  If anyone is the right person to set upon this all too gilded story, it’s Badman. He’s one of the finest sleuths I know, and sharp as cut glass when it comes to detecting factual discrepancy.

“Marilyn had no idea how dangerous she was. Her life was incredible. Look at the cast, for starters. Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, Sinatra, Dean Martin, JFK, Sam Giancana . . . and she had no idea of the dangerous ground she was treading.”  Monroe had also had the courage to break away from the studio system and set up Marilyn Monroe Productions.

“She actually fought the studio – 20th Century Fox –  and they looked upon her as troublesome. Marilyn was in some ways the original women’s libber. She just wasn’t happy playing the star system. At home she was Norma Jean but she was always expected to be Marilyn Monroe. Her IQ was higher than either of the Kennedys. I thought that was astounding, given how she is so often portrayed.”

According to Badman she was also a precursor to the now abounding fitness book market, developing and releasing her own beauty/fitness manual way before the advent of the VHS tape and pre-empting Fonda by some 30 years. “She wasn’t who people think she was, and basically that’s because she listened to the wrong people. She was very with it, and she was so sharp, so witty.”

Reading Warhol’s hilariously caustic Diariesthe other night it struck me how closely Monroe had been a part of the Capote New York circle, moving comfortably and holding her own amongst the most egregious of this chattering circle of freaks. My entire view of her until recently was LA doldrum-smattered.

“Oh, she had no time for LA,” Badman says. “ ‘The varicose vein of the US’ she called it. She had to go there to film of course, and she bought the place in LA for when she was working, because she had to, but LA didn’t come to her rescue. She had lots in common with Truman Capote. And Montgomery Clift, who also disliked LA.”

Clift allegedly never went about without a bloated pocketful of drugs. According to Badman, it was Clift who taught Marilyn to pierce the top of the nembutal capsule and pour the contents straight into liquid. Now apparently, when you do that you don’t get the yellow dye normally associated with nembutal because the dye is in the wrapper. This is important, considering her post-mortem forensics, which made a lot of this absence.

Badman wanted to go right back to the beginning then, wipe clean all he’d read, and start again. He treated everything as hearsay until he himself could nail it down. He went back to the original reports from the time of her death, and to the autopsy.

“And I knew that it would be a complete waste of time talking to someone now about what happened forty years ago. So I looked at what was said, there and then, at the time of her death. And there were names, not famous ones, who spoke back then who no-one else had bothered to track down to revisit what they had actually said at the time. Peter Lawford for example changed his stories every year.”

“One star had been on TV in 1978 and a friend of mine in the US sent me a tape of the interview. She said she’d been with Marilyn the week before her death. So I contacted her and she was very helpful every step of the way until the questions came, and suddenly she couldn’t really quite help any more. People have been making a living off lies about Marilyn, and about her death. In some cases a fleeting meeting with Marilyn had been turned into a fully fledged career living off the legends.”

“At the time of her death, the reports and interviews needed to get to press as soon as possible, and those were usually the most honest. Then trying to interview people myself was often quite strange. Every time I’d come across a new character in the story I’d often find they had no real connection to

Marilyn, yet they were the ones repeating the same lies that went down as fact in history. People who claimed to have been there who weren’t. One guy had come forward and said when the Cal-Neva lodge incident happened JFK had been there, and this was apparently purely on the basis that Marilyn had said she’d been intimate with Kennedy. It was a ludicrous claim though because JFK wasn’t there. Even the Hyannisport Times printed the lie based on his claims.”

Badman spent months in various archives and heaped up piles of articles, letters, and anything else he could get his hands on.

“I spent time at the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts. I went through Bobby Kennedy’s notes, and his desk diary. It’s a lot of legwork to do your research this way and a lot of authors haven’t been prepared to do it. I went through all the handwritten notes, and made sure I carefully checked appointments, schedules for dates. I got access to airport flight records. It’s amazing what you can find. I’d find things like flight times in JFK’s diaries which would contradict stories of where he supposedly was at the time according to other biographers.”

Collectors also played a part in helping Badman fasten Monroe’s movements.

“Monroe also left traces of where she’d been. When she flew to fly for the JFK gala, the hours unaccounted for when she was there, how much the famous dress cost (it cost 1,400 dollars and not the 8,000 dollars others have claimed). I found someone on eBay who was selling the original receipt for the limousine she used that day. I managed to sleuth the exact dates on which she met with JFK. All the hardcore facts.”

The result is a 448 page hardback volume also containing  previously unpublished photographs and interesting bits of  sequestered memorabilia.

“I hope to say this now ends the story. Someone would now have to prove me wrong after all the time I’ve spent forensically getting it nailed down. There’s a wonderful archive at the New York Public Library. This was great when I was trying to get her exact childhood details for instance. The documents on her childhood were amazing. Her mother, it turns out, didn’t abandon her, despite so many reports to the contrary. Unreported for many years, the truth is that her father, in fact, was the one who tried to adopt her. I also joined every newspaper archive I could, and I mean in the UK as well as the US. I wanted every angle. One thing I noticed across the board was that reports made at the time immediately following her death, before opinion had taken root and changed things, were a lot more accurate but differed a lot from what went down in history. These accounts were honest, because there wasn’t time to alter them.”

One of the most consequential aspects of the case that Badman was hellbent on resolving was the question of whether her death could really have been a suicide.

“Well, first of all she was clearly planning trips to New York and Mexico at the time.  I’ve got all the evidence to prove it now too.”

In Badman’s eyes then there definitely was a cover-up going on, and the aim of his book became to lay out a blow-by-blow account of the last few days of her life, shattering the lies, myths and manipulations that he perceives as being obstacles to the truth.

“I decided to try and set the record straight once and for all. Because by this time she’d had enough of the Kennedys, for one thing. She was so strong-willed, and I was fascinated by this. There was apparently also a cover up by the studio regarding her death so that they could claim insurance. It’s convenient tidying up the death of a movie star.”

“Nothing really changes in that industry. A lot of what happened to Marilyn then continues to happen to others now. When I started I was, regrettably believing the rubbish I read. I believed these were honest accounts. Now I have no doubts at all about how she died, and I now also see her as a very different person from who I thought she was.”

“By hanging around with Sinatra she was led to the underside. Being with Di Maggio brought her into a very different sort of world from that.  Then the Kennedys, and Peter Lawford, the showbiz crowd and of course the mafia acquaintances. There is no doubt that she was led, and often badly, by the people she was hanging round with. I feel very sorry for her, and angry at how she was abused. How her hospitality was abused. I did hundreds of interviews and ended up with a massive jigsaw puzzle between them and the documents and items I’d amassed. In the end when it all adds up to a perfect story there is no need to get the shoehorn out – because finally it all fits.”

________________________________

The illustrated hardcover edition of
The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe
is now available from JR Books.

________________________________

Helen Donlon

email: hdonlon@well.com