Marilyn Monroe: the health lessons of a tragic life
- Created on Saturday, 02 October 2010 02:01
As readers of my former newsletter know, I am drawn to reading biographies, and I was drawn to reading the biography of Marilyn Monroe. It's not because she was so famous, and it's not because she was so beautiful, or even that I especially liked her movies. The only movie of hers that I really loved and admired was her last one, The Misfits. It was magnificent, and she was great in it.
I was drawn to the life of Marilyn Monroe because of the incredible arc that her life took. The transformation of her circumstances, the swing of her pendulum from alpha to omega, was more extreme and more extraordinary than anyone could imagine. Her life, the train she was on, was one-of-a-kind, and she rode it alone.
Her childhood was marked by abject poverty and abandonment by both her parents: her mother due to mental illness and her father because he just didn't care. He resented her very existence from the moment her mother refused to get an abortion. Norma Jeane Baker (her real name) was shuttled among foster homes and orphanages, and finally wound up in the custody of a friend of her mother's, Grace Goddard. But, during the very brief period that she lived with her mother (Gladys), Norma was raped by a man, a tenant who lived in their house. Gladys hushed it up, refusing to have the man prosecuted- because she didn't want to lose the rental income. Norma anguished over that for a long time.
What was her diet like growing up? I'm sure it was the typical American diet, but worse than average. Sometimes, for days at a time, she would be fed nothing but stale white bread and dated milk because that's all they could afford. Realize, it was during the Great Depression. The state of knowledge of nutrition back then was very limited. Few people realized the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Norma was skinny as a little girl, and the boys teased her, chanting, "Normal Jeane, the human bean."
But, once she entered puberty, Norma Jeane filled out quickly. Overnight it seemed, she acquired the voluptuous figure for which she became famous. And the boys did take notice. When she was 15, her caretaker Grace Goddard was preparing to move from California to West Virginia because of her husband's job transfer, and they decided not to take Norma with them. At Grace's insistence, Norma was married off to the boy next door, Jim Dougherty- on her 16th birthday.
Though in real terms, her marriage to Jim lasted only two years, they were two of the best years of Norma's life. She came to love her husband, and she enjoyed married life. Although she was later married to two famous men, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her marriage to Jim was the happiest and least troubled. Jim's problem was that he had wanderlust.- not for other women but for adventure. He decided he would support the war effort by joining the merchant marines. Norma begged him not to do it, but he did. So, she went to live with her mother-in-law who got her a job at the Radioplane factory in Van Nuys, California, where they made military parachutes. And that is where Norma Jeane was discovered- by military photographers who were putting together a calendar of American beauties who were supporting the war effort on the job. Her photos were dazzling, and many took notice. It was a military photographer who prepared a portfolio of her pictures and urged her to take them to a modeling agency, which she did.
I should point out that it was in her late teens that Norma developed a major sleep disorder that would plague her for the rest of her life. It played a crucial role in her life and also in her death.
But before delving into her career, I want to address her habits. It was during her marriage to Jim Dougherty that she began smoking and drinking. According to official reports, Marilyn Monroe was never a heavy smoker. However, many pictures have surfaced of her smoking, and many of the key people in her life were heavy smokers, and I think it's reasonable to assume that she was at least a moderate smoker. Of course, most people back then smoked. It's amazing that a person for whom beauty was her most valuable asset would smoke at all. However, the harmfulness of smoking was not widely known or discussed then, and the stigma about it did not exist. The modern anti-smoking campaign had not yet begun.
Regarding alcohol, she started out as just a moderate drinker, but eventually, she did become addicted to alcohol. Her favorite drink was French champagne. Many times, she drank herself into a stupor. She used alcohol as an escape, and it had a very destructive effect in her life. But again, there was little consciousness about it then. Everybody drank. As for other recreational drugs, she dabbled in them at Hollywood parties, and she even dropped Acid with Timothy Leary a few times, but for Marilyn Monroe, it was mainly prescription drugs and alcohol that decimated her.
Regarding fitness, she did calisthenics and light weight lifting to stay in shape. She also did some jogging. But by the time she made The Misfits in 1960, she weighed about 140 pounds. Where you really notice it is in the swim scene at Pyramid Lake in Nevada. She looked heavy, and to my eyes, she looked older than 34. Also, her hair was so damaged from over-treatment that she had to wear a wig.
But getting back to Norma Jeane at 19, she became an overnight success as a model, gracing magazine covers, doing commercials, and even posing for what were called "girlie magazines" - the predecessors of Playboy and Penthouse, although they were much more tame. It was then that she was encouraged to change her hair color to blonde- which she resisted doing at first. But once she did it, she never went back.
The switch from modelling to acting seemed like a natural progression, but it wasn't easy. Her first contract was with 20th Century Fox, and the first thing they did was change her name. "Marilyn Monroe" was chosen because her mother's maiden name was Monroe, and the "MM" sound was considered sensuous and erotic. Norma always liked the name Marilyn, and from then on, Norma ceased to exist. Everyone, including family and friends, had to call her Marilyn.
However, she was only given bit parts in B movies, and Fox let her go at the end of a year. That was devastating to Marilyn, and she largely disappeared from view for 8 months. It has been rumored that she had a baby during this time and gave it up for adoption. And when she returned to acting at Columbia Studio, she initially fared no better. However, her first major boost came from a small role in The Asphalt Jungle, which was followed by a small but impressive performance in All About Eve, in which she was said to outshine Bette Davis. From that point on, the 1950s became her decade, and she grew to become the biggest, most adulated movie star in the entire world and the ultimate symbol of female beauty and sexuality.
However, Marilyn continued to have major sleep problems, and studio doctors encouraged her to take barbiturates. These are very strong drugs- real knockout pills- and the morning hangover from them is nasty. To counteract that, they prescribed uppers or amphetamines- commonly known as Speed. That combination, of taking barbiturates at night to sleep, and amphetamines in the morning to wake up, is ravaging to both mind and body. A person living like that is surely in a nosedive. Today, it would be considered medical malpractice to prescribe such a regimen. But, that was Marilyn Monroe's life for at least 10 years.
Plus, she was drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and stressing out over her career, her troubled romances, and her many conflicts with the studios. And what toll did it take on her health? In her mid-20s, she developed a severe case of acute appendicitis that almost killed her. In her early 30s, she developed a severe case of gall bladder disease which also required surgery- they said she was packed with gallstones, For years, she had chronic abdominal pain and digestive complaints and became addicted to enemas. She took an enema daily, sometimes multiple times daily. She was diagnosed with colitis and was treated for that. She was prone to diarrhea, for which she was given injections. She was diagnosed with manic depression and given drugs for that. Also, she underwent years of Freudian psychoanalysis- often having long, intense sessions with her analyst on a daily basis. She even became close personal friends with Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. Towards the end of her life, Marilyn's psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, became her Svengali, or shall I say, her Rasputin. She even decided where to live just to be close to him. I can't help but think it was a very unhealthy and codependent relationship.
As for her diet as an adult, she ate everything, but she was especially fond of steak, liver, seafood, caviar. It was more an animal-based diet, but remember, at the time, those with income who could afford to live well, that's what they ate. She was not very domestic and preferred to eat out, but she did try to cook for her husbands. For Joe DiMaggio, she learned from his family how to make home-rolled Italian pasta. For Arthur Miller, she learned from his family how to make traditional Jewish dishes. The only fruit or vegetable mentioned in the book as a favorite of hers was grapefruit.
Marilyn Monroe developed a reputation as the ultimate Hollywood diva- always showing up late on the set, being unprepared to perform, being unfit to perform, stumbling over her lines, and costing the studios a fortune from delays and overruns. But, I don't think it was appreciated just how sick she was. It's a miracle The Misfits got finished at all. During the making of it, production shut down for a week because she had to be hospitalized, and it's believed that she attempted to kill herself by overdosing. In her final movie project, which went unfinished, called Something's Got To Give, she kept succumbing to infections- over and over again. It' seems that her whole immune system was breaking down.
To me, the biggest tragedy of Marilyn Monroe's life was that she desperately wanted to give and receive love. The love that she desperately needed as a child- that every child hungers for- never came to her, and it continued to elude her as an adult. Public adulation was one thing, but in her private life, she had mostly heartache, disappointment, and abuse. By nature, she was a very kind, generous, and compassionate person, and she did a lot for people. For instance, she gave her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, the full down payment for a house. She gave the son of Lee Strasberg, another acting coach, her racy Ford Thunderbird. During her marriage to Arthur Miller, she paid all their bills, including his massive legal bills for his "un-American activities." And when she lived in New York City, she would dress in disguise wearing a black wig and go down to the Bowery and hand out money to the bums. Yet, because of her ill-health and all the abuse heaped upon her (including physical abuse from Joe DiMaggio), her relationships suffered, and most of them ended badly. And most pivotal of them all was her relationship with President John Kennedy, with whom she had a long affair which started in 1951, and also his brother Robert Kennedy, with whom she subsequently had an affair.
And lest you have any doubt about it, I assure you that Marilyn Monroe was murdered. She did not commit suicide. She did try to commit suicide several times in her life, but not on the day she died. She died of a massive overdose of barbiturates, a combination of Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate. It was said that she had enough drugs in her system to kill 7 people. However, on autopsy, her stomach was completely empty. There were no drugs and no residues of pills or capsules in her stomach. It is widely believed that the drugs were administered by enema. Apparently, she held secrets about the Kennedys and about the US government learned from them that were a major security risk. If she had gone public with them- as she was threatening to do- it could have toppled the Kennedy presidency. So, she had to be taken out. The irony is that just 15 months later, President Kennedy was taken out, and once again, the Orwellian spin-machine sprung into action to control the public perception.
After Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962, there were repeated calls for a criminal investigation of her death- as late as the 1990s, 30 years after the fact. Yet, they always went unheeded. It's chilling to think that we live in a world in which truth is issued by decree. Not only was it a matter of "case closed," the case was never even opened.
So, what are the lessons to be learned from the life of Marilyn Monroe? First, don't be fooled by appearances. Yes, she was beautiful and sexy, but, she was also quite ill and spiraling downward. And, in the 10 years that she was in the spotlight, she aged rapidly and deteriorated markedly. Second, don't assume that just because a person is rich and famous and can afford the best medical care that they will receive good care. Marilyn Monroe's medical care was atrocious. You can argue that they gave her barbiturates because that's all they had back then, that the less brutal benzodiazepines and newer sleep drugs hadn't been developed yet. But the truth is that, to this day, Medicine has nothing constructive to offer for sleep. No prescription sleep drugs are safe and healthy. They may knock you out, but they don't deliver sound, healthy sleep. They may be less bad than what Marilyn Monroe took, but that doesn't make them good. The lesson is: don't go down that road. Don't get started with it. Just say no to it. It's a slippery slope, and once you start, it's very hard to stop. If you want to take something for sleep, try low-dose melatonin. Try theanine, which is the calming amino acid from green tea. There are relaxing herbs you can try, and the one I like best is lemon balm. Taking calcium and magnesium at night may help with sleep. And although I don't sell it, the amino acid glycine may help with sleep. All of these are safe. But avoid all prescription sleep medicines. They are ruinous.
There have been over 100 biographies written about Marilyn Monroe, but the one I read was The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe, published 1998. It is very good.