Ask most people to name one thing they know about Marilyn Monroe, and chances are they will mention John F. Kennedy. And when it comes to Kennedy, talk of Marilyn is never far from their lips.
Monroe and President Kennedy are two Americans whose names have gone down in history. Alone they are legendary; together they are the stuff of romantic myth.
But what is the truth about Marilyn’s relationship with President Kennedy, and what role, if any, did he play in her death? Marilyn died of an apparent overdose in 1962, and Kennedy was shot dead a year later. Since then, spooks and hacks alike have churned out a seemingly inexhaustible supply of conspiracy theories.
In ‘The Assassination Of Marilyn Monroe’, Donald Wolfe places Marilyn and Jack Kennedy together as early as 1947. After meeting at a Hollywood party, Wolfe claims, Marilyn and the young senator had a brief affair.
Most fans of Marilyn will know that in 1947, she was an unknown actress, not yet part of Hollywood’s A-List.
The next rumours of a meeting between Marilyn and Kennedy occur sometimes in 1951, or else in 1954, at the home of Charles Feldman, Marilyn’s agent.
But photographer Milton Greene recalled that during the 1956 election campaign, Marilyn preferred the
incumbent Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the Stevenson-Kennedy ticket.
Though Marilyn would become an active Democrat soon after, and always had leftist sympathies, it seems true
to her character that, like many Americans, her loyalty was to the individual whom she trusted most rather than
the party he belonged to.
In ‘Goddess: The Secret Lives Of Marilyn Monroe’, Anthony Summers quotes Marilyn’s friend, Sammy Davis Jr, recalling acting as a ‘beard’, escorting her to clandestine liaisons between Marilyn and a friend while she filmed ‘The Prince And The Showgirl’ in England, shortly after her marriage to Arthur Miller.
Noting that Jack Kennedy briefly visited London at the same time, Donald Wolfe has surmised that Marilyn’s lover was not Davis’s friend, Milton Greene, but Kennedy.
There is no more reason to suppose Marilyn was having an affair with Kennedy than with Greene, and neither has been proved.
Wolfe places Kennedy and Marilyn together yet again in Chicago, 1959, while Marilyn was promoting her film ‘Some Like It Hot’. He also claims that Marilyn and Kennedy spent a weekend at actor Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica home later that year.
In the run-up to the 1960 election, Kennedy once again fought for the Democratic nomination. Though by this time Marilyn was a registered Democrat, Kennedy was not her favourite – but she soon changed her mind.
Marilyn separated from Arthur Miller that summer, and stayed in New York for the remainder of the year. By November, Kennedy had won the presidency.
Kennedy was well-known for his extra-marital affairs, though they were rarely acknowledged by the still deferential press. But in late 1960, columnist Art Buchwald wrote, ‘Who will be the next ambassador to Monroe? This is one of many problems which president-elect Kennedy will have to work on.’
In 1961, Marilyn returned to Los Angeles. In ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’, Donald Spoto reports that Marilyn was invited by Peter Lawford to attend a dinner in honour of President Kennedy, brother of Lawford’s wife Pat.
Kennedy’s aide, Pete Summers, confirmed that Marilyn was a frequent visitor to the Lawford house, and that ‘the president was really very, very fond of Marilyn – I did feel that she was so impressed by Kennedy’s charm and charisma that she was almost starry-eyed…but she was totally able to hold her own conversationally; she was very bright.’
Summers’ observation touches on the common ground between Marilyn and Kennedy. They were both attractive, complex and smart, and perhaps nobody else better understood the loneliness that fame could bring than they did.
Marilyn may have met the president again in early 1962, at a dinner party in New York. However their encounter was probably brief, as Marilyn failed to appear until the end of the evening.
Their third meeting was more satisfying. Kennedy was a guest at Bing Crosby’s Palm Springs home during the March convention, and Marilyn was one of a select few invited to stay that weekend.
Marilyn’s masseur, Ralph Roberts, has said that she telephoned him that Sunday. Her ‘friend’, she said, was suffering from back pain and needed advice.
‘A moment later’, Roberts told Anthony Summers, ‘I was listening to those famous Boston accents. I told him about the muscles, and he thanked me. Of course, I didn’t reveal that I knew who he was, and he didn’t say.’
On her return home, Marilyn confirmed that her Bostonian friend was indeed Jack Kennedy. ‘I think I made his back feel better’, she added, mischievously.
Ralph Roberts later told Donald Spoto, ‘Of course she was titillated beyond belief, because for a year he had been trying, through Lawford, to have an evening with her. A great many people thought, after that weekend, that there was more to it. But Marilyn gave me the impression that it was not a major event for either of them: it happened once, that weekend, and that was it.’
This contradicts the melodramatic picture of a long, tortured love affair between Marilyn and Kennedy. Far from being a lovesick starlet, Roberts suggests that Marilyn was a sophisticated woman able to tell the difference between a casual encounter and a serious affair.
In May of 1962, Peter Lawford persuaded Marilyn to appear at Madison Square Garden, one of many stars entertaining the president on his 45th birthday. Her sensuous rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ stole the show.
Afterwards she attended a party, and Wolfe claims that she also accompanied Kennedy to the Carlyle Hotel – but her former father-in-law, Isadore Miller, was Marilyn’s escort that night, and said that Marilyn left the party early to take him home.
Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, was noticeably absent from the proceedings. Some commentators have speculated that she may have declined to attend because her husband’s sometime lover, Marilyn Monroe, would be there. And if rumours were already spreading, Marilyn’s performance fuelled the fire.
Most biographers agree that Kennedy’s birthday also marked his final encounter with Marilyn. Even if the rumours were exaggerated, Kennedy had risked his reputation through his association with her. Though his dalliances with interns and call-girls could be swept aside, being linked to a celebrity was potentially scandalous.
FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, who loathed Kennedy, also kept a close eye on his sexual indiscretions. It is possible that Kennedy finally decided, or was counselled, that his loose friendship with Monroe could not go on.
Marilyn had defied studio orders when she sang for Jack, as her current film project, ‘Something’s Got To Give’, was already behind schedule. She was struggling with sinusitis as well as chronic insecurity and a worrying dependence on prescription drugs.
In June, two weeks after her last meeting with Kennedy, Marilyn was sacked by Twentieth Century Fox, who also filed a lawsuit against her. Marilyn was deeply humiliated, and though she remained defiant, her life was in turmoil.
Late in July, she and the Lawford’s spent a weekend at Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge. She told Ralph Roberts that the trip was ‘a nightmare’. Some have speculated that the Lawford’s were trying to convince a depressed Marilyn that the Kennedy affair was really over.
Others have suggested that Sinatra called in his Mafia connections to blackmail Marilyn into keeping silent about the affair. But the Mob despised Kennedy, having been pursued through the courts by his brother, Attorney General Robert – and Sinatra had recently fallen out with Jack, so it is hard to explain why either would have helped him at this stage.
Another rumour circulating was that Marilyn had recently aborted a baby, fathered by Kennedy. Just before her trip to Lake Tahoe, she had been seen leaving hospital with ex-husband Joe DiMaggio. But Marilyn’s medical records imply that the visit was part of her on-going treatment for endometriosis.
A week after the Cal-Neva interlude, Marilyn died. While John F. Kennedy is rarely placed at the scene of her death – he was at the family home in Boston – some still believe that Marilyn was in fact killed by order of the president.
Marilyn’s interest in politics is well-documented, and some sources suggest that she ‘knew too much.’ Reckless as he could be, it’s difficult to imagine that a man of Kennedy’s stature would be so naive as to disclose state business to any of his girlfriends, even a woman as alluring as Monroe.
Despite claims that Marilyn planned to ‘tell all’ to the press, it seems unlikely that such a shrewd manipulator of the media would ever make such a rash decision. As popular as Marilyn undoubtedly was, she could not eclipse Jackie Kennedy – who was idealised as a perfect wife and mother, the first lady of American hearts.
If Marilyn had confessed her affair with a married man, she would have been branded a home wrecker – just as Elizabeth Taylor was when she had affairs first with Eddie Fisher, then Richard Burton.
Marilyn might have been wounded when Kennedy erased her from his life, and she may even have blamed him for her subsequent career troubles. But however hurt she felt, she knew better than to take revenge just as she was being reinstated by Fox.
To suggest that Marilyn would have done so seems to imply that she was becoming irrational, driven to madness by an affair which, according to Ralph Roberts, was just a passing fling.
My own view is that, whatever unhappiness was caused by Marilyn’s ill-advised affair with Jack Kennedy, it probably did not lead directly to her death. If we consider the issues she was facing – a damaged career, drug addiction, an obsessive psychiatrist – the Kennedy affair may not have been the final straw.
Nonetheless, the truth remains elusive. Friends have said that Marilyn was always searching for someone to admire – and perhaps for a while, Kennedy fulfilled that need.
Certainly, Marilyn was not the first woman to become infatuated with John F. Kennedy. Her journalist friend, W.J. Weatherby, described her giddy excitement whenever Kennedy’s name was mentioned.
When Weatherby talked of seeing Kennedy ‘in action’, Marilyn replied coyly, ‘That’s not the same as meeting him – knowing him.’ Weatherby then asked her if she knew Kennedy, but she didn’t answer.
That unanswered question has created a trail of mystery which, forty-five years after Kennedy’s death, shows no sign of receding.