TV & Movies

How Did Marilyn Monroe Really Die?

Netflix's new doc, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, suggests the Kennedys were involved.

Robert F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy at the President's 45th birthday party

On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Monroe was then one of, if not the, biggest movie stars in the world, and her death at age 36 immediately became a sensational news story. “MARILYN MONROE DIES; PILLS BLAMED,” screamed the front page of The L.A. Times. “Unclad Body of Star Found Near Empty Capsule Bottle,” a (slightly) smaller headline read. Speculation immediately began about the circumstances of Monroe’s death; specifically, over whether or not she had died by suicide. Sixty years later, the public remains fascinated by the story, as Netflix’s new documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes suggests. Directed by Emma Cooper and prominently featuring journalist Anthony Summers, the film dives into Monroe’s life and death — and, in particular, her relationships with both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

The film revolves around Summers’ 1985 book Goddess: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, for which he interviewed a wide net of her associates (and people who claim to have been her associates). While rumors of a relationship between Monroe and John F. Kennedy have circulated widely for decades, Summers claims that Monroe was actually having an affair with Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1962, and that a sudden rupture between the couple led, at least in part, to her death. But that’s not the only conspiracy theory out there. Dr. Thomas Noguchi, who performed her autopsy, wrote, “On the basis of my own involvement in the case, beginning with the autopsy, I would call Monroe’s suicide ‘very probable.’ But I also believe that until the complete FBI files are made public and the notes and interviews of the suicide panel released, controversy will continue to swirl around her death.” Monroe’s FBI file has been public for 10 years, and the conspiracy theories haven’t slowed down. Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what happened in the last hours of Marilyn Monroe’s life — and that’s exactly what’s kept people speculating.

Below, read about Monroe’s relationships with both Kennedy brothers, and the various conspiracy theories about her death.

How did Marilyn Monroe’s political views inform her ties to the Kennedys?

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926. Her single mother struggled with poverty and mental illness, and Marilyn — then known as Norma Jean — was raised in a series of foster homes. (She also spent time in the Los Angeles Orphans Home.) Her biographer Lois Banner, who wrote Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, argued that Monroe’s childhood experience of poverty instilled her with a “populist vision of equality for all classes.” As an adult, Monroe would continue to advocate for leftist causes and associate herself with individuals suspected of communism — most notably, her second husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. In fact, Banner largely attributes their relationship for her political activism as an adult: As she told Time, “What really made her really openly political was the marriage to Arthur Miller.” Her left-wing views would also draw her to John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert.

Monroe wasn’t merely a hanger-on to Miller’s staunch political beliefs. According to Banner, she had to be told to hide a radical book (The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, a muckracking journalist from the early 20th century) from studio executives on the set of All About Eve in 1950, six years before she married Miller. And in 1960, she co-founded the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy alongside Hollywood activist heavyweights like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Gregory Peck. She also supported Fidel Castro and the Civil Rights movement. It’s hardly surprising that the FBI started surveilling her in 1955 — especially given rumors of her relationship with then-Senator John F. Kennedy (see more on that below). But even if she hadn’t had any connection to the Kennedys, her political activities would probably have been enough to warrant the paranoid, highly anti-communist FBI to start a file on her.

The file, which was re-issued in 2012, sheds light ons the last seven years of her life. In 1955, for instance, she — along with other Hollywood talent — tried to get a visa to visit the USSR. And she was friends with Frederick Vanderbilt Field, a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family who had been disinherited because of his radical left-wing politics. She even visited him in exile in Mexico in 1962. According to Field, who wrote about the visit in his book From Right to Left two decades later, Monroe “told us about her strong feelings for civil rights, for Black equality, as well as her admiration for what was being done in China, her anger at red-baiting and McCarthyism and her hatred of (FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover.”

“When you put it all together, [her political side] is pretty substantial,” Banner told Time. “But in most of the biographies, including mine, it comes out as salt scattered on the biography, because one gets so fascinated by her psychological makeup. But the political involvements are no less real.”

What was her relationship with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy?

Equally real, if considerably more hazy, were Monroe’s ties to the Kennedy family. It’s undeniable that she had a relationship of some kind with John and Robert Kennedy — but what those relationships amounted to is difficult to prove. Any number of people over the years — including Anthony Summers — have claimed to have unearthed the real story, but since everyone involved is now dead, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened. Still, there’s plenty of gossip history to be unearthed.

In 2014, Matthew Smith published Marilyn’s Last Words: Her Secret Tapes and Mysterious Death, which drew on a series of tapes made by John W. Miner, the LA County prosecutor who was present at the star’s autopsy. Miner claimed that during the investigation into Monroe’s death, he met with the star’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who played him the tapes he’d recorded of their sessions. Although Miner wasn’t allowed to retain copies of the tapes, he took copious, “nearly verbatim” notes, which he then shared with Smith and, later, The L.A. Times. In the notes of these supposed tapes, the Times reported, Monroe doesn’t mention sleeping with John F. (Jack) Kennedy, instead focusing on his political accomplishments: “This man is going to change our country. … He will transform America today like FDR did in the ’30s.” She (allegedly) claimed not to have time for his brother Robert (Bobby) either: “As you see, there is no room in my life for him. I guess I don’t have the courage to face up to it and hurt him. I want someone else to tell him it’s over.”

Others suggest differently. In his 1996 book The Kennedys in Hollywood, Lawrence J. Quirk features conversations with Jayne Mansfield, who remembered hearing about Monroe and Jack Kennedy’s affair starting in the mid-1950s. According to Quirk, Mansfield felt competitive with Monroe, and envied her for marrying “big shots” like Joe DiMaggio and Miller — and for hooking up with a rising-star politician like Kennedy. Mansfield claimed that she, too, embarked on an affair with Kennedy, and that Monroe was back in the picture in the early ’60s after her split from Miller. “She was always seeing Jack, too, and she hated me for being her rival,” she told Quirk. She even went so far as to claim that Monroe had become pregnant by Kennedy and had an abortion. All of this is salacious, but it’s no more reliable than Miner’s phantom tapes.

Much more substantial is the only time Monroe and the Kennedys appeared in public together. They all convened at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, for the president’s 45th birthday party. The televised event was sold as a Democratic fundraiser — tickets cost $1,000, or around $9,500 accounting for inflation — and promised performances from Ella Fitzgerald, Maria Callas, and Monroe. Monroe’s sultry rendition of “Happy Birthday” became immediately infamous. Kennedy himself made a joke about it when he took the stage immediately after she departed, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

According to Summers — and The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, by extension — the birthday party was only the surface of Monroe’s relationship with the Kennedy brothers. The film claims that there were tapes of Monroe and Jack Kennedy “in the act of lovemaking,” and that she and Bobby were having an affair in 1962 — one that was cut off by the FBI’s investigations into her communist activities. Though the Kennedys weren’t seen publicly with Monroe after Jack’s birthday, “law enforcement informant Harry Hall” claims Bobby Kennedy was in Los Angeles on the night of her death, while private detective Fred Otash claims that Bobby Kennedy and Monroe “called her the night of her death from Lawford’s house. She said, ‘Don’t bother me, leave me alone, stay out of my life.’ A very violent argument.”

Other reports paint a less emotionally volatile portrait of Monroe’s relationship with the Kennedys. One of the most reliable sources Summers cites from the summer leading up to Monroe’s death is a confidential FBI informant, whose report is included in Monroe’s file. This informant would have had their own political agenda, and was not named. Still, their take is level-headed and detailed: According to the report, in late June of 1962, Marilyn discussed having “lunched … with President Kennedy just a few days previously. She was very pleased, as she had asked the President a lot of socially significant questions concerning the morality of atomic testing… [Marilyn’s] views are very positively and concisely leftist; however, if she is being actively used by the Communist Party, it is not general knowledge among those working with the movement in Los Angeles.” Summers pounces on the fact that Bobby, not Jack, was in California that summer, as proof of an affair — but this description of the lunch, whomever was present, hardly evokes bedroom talk. Instead, it suggests that Monroe was interested and involved in politics, and may have seen her connection to the president and his family as a way to exercise her influence.

Summers has recordings of many people talking about Monroe’s relationships with the Kennedys, including her friend Anne Karger, who told him that Monroe told her that she was “very much in love and was going to marry Bobby Kennedy” the night before her death (although she didn’t sound like she believed it). Monroe may have had a sexual relationship with Bobby Kennedy, but many of Summers’ sources are unreliable, making his overarching claim difficult to take as the unvarnished truth. Otash, for instance, only claims he was investigating Monroe at the time, without offering more substantial proof. Monroe’s death immediately became a sensation, and by extension a big business for those who wanted to capitalize on it — including Summers, who’s also written conspiratorially-minded books about the Romanoff family and Jack Kennedy’s assassination.

What are the conspiracy theories around her death, and are any of them true?

The conspiracy theories began flying thick and fast soon after Monroe’s death. In 1964, only two years after the fact, author Frank Capell published a 70-page pamphlet titled The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe, in which he alleged that Monroe had had an affair with Bobby Kennedy, and that the Kennedy family had been involved in her untimely death. (He also claimed that Monroe, Miller, and Monroe’s doctors were communists.) The FBI quickly began investigating, although nothing came of the investigation. In 1973, this conspiracy got going again when Norman Mailer wrote a biography of Monroe in which he claimed that Bobby Kennedy had killed her — though he quickly admitted that he’d made the story up to sell books.

Other theories have proliferated in the decades since. In Goddess, Summers claimed that Monroe overdosed and died en route to the hospital — and that Bobby Kennedy and his associates staged her suicide attempt to keep their relationship under wraps. In Marilyn Monroe: Murder Cover-Up, private detective Milo Speriglio made an even more outlandish claim: that she was killed by Jimmy Hoffa and his associate, Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, to send a message to the Kennedys to leave the mob alone. No theory is as out-there as the one proposed in the UFO documentary Unacknowledged: According to that film, Monroe was killed because she knew too much about the government’s secrets about aliens.

None of these theories — including Summers’ — hold water. Monroe was not killed to protect Jimmy Hoffa or aliens. (Politifact reports that there is no evidence supporting the conspiracy theories surrounding her death.) And if she did have a relationship with Bobby Kennedy, that relationship didn’t kill her. She was, instead, struggling with the glare of the spotlight, mental health issues, chronic insomnia, and, most concretely, a debilitating substance abuse disorder. It shouldn’t be hard to understand what happened to Marilyn Monroe. But it’s sometimes easier to imagine an extraordinary explanation for a tragic event than to reckon with the truth.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860, the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.