MARILYN & THE LAWFORDS
by Tara Hanks
“Say goodbye to the president…and say goodbye to yourself, because you’re a nice guy.” – Marilyn Monroe
“Say goodbye to the president…and say goodbye to yourself, because you’re a nice guy.” – Marilyn Monroe
These were supposedly Marilyn Monroe’s last words, spoken on the telephone to Peter Lawford, just hours before she died. Her words have an ominous quality, or ‘terminal’ as Lawford later remarked. Marilyn’s own words were later rephrased as the title of a documentary about her death.
But did she really say those words? Lawford didn’t mention it in his initial dealings with press and police. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he began to talk more openly about Marilyn and his former brother-in-law,
President John F. Kennedy. By then, both Kennedy and Monroe were long dead. And even then, Peter didn’t always use exactly the same words. In one account, he substituted ‘the president’ for the more intimate ‘Jack’. Was Lawford’s memory really that hazy?
Peter Lawford was born to an English aristocratic family in 1923, less than three years before Norma Jeane Mortenson entered the world in the ‘poverty ward’ of the Los Angeles City Hospital. Despite their very different backgrounds, however, Monroe and Lawford had one crucial experience in common; they both had miserable childhoods, leaving them feeling insecure and unloved.
Lawford’s family moved to Hollywood at the outbreak of World War II. Already strikingly good-looking, he began acting while still a boy, and by the tender age of 22, had won the lead role in MGM’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel about a man who exchanges his soul for eternal youth.
While Marilyn Monroe’s meteoric rise was just beginning, Peter was an established leading man. In his 2008 book, Marilyn Revealed, Ted Schwarz wrote, “She loved to run and worked to keep (her) figure…it was while running that she met the handsome, athletic young actor, Peter Lawford, a man who ran and surfed…”
This was circa 1950-51, and Lawford’s fame was at its peak. He was better known for his love of surfing and hectic social life than for his movies. A double date was arranged between Peter and Marilyn, Peter’s friend Joe Naar, and actress Barbara Darrow. Rumour has it that the date did not go well because Peter was disgusted by the filthy state of Marilyn’s apartment, as her pet Chihuahua, Josefa, was not house-trained. (However, it should also be noted that several other sources have claimed that Peter actually pursued Marilyn for some time, but she wasn’t attracted to him.)
Lawford first met Patricia Kennedy in 1949, and they were married in 1954. By 1960 they had three children, with another on the way. As Patricia’s brother, John F. Kennedy (or ‘Jack’) prepared to fight for the presidency, the Lawfords were settled in a luxurious Santa Monica beach-house. While Peter did not fit in very well with most of the Kennedy clan, finding the brothers too macho and competitive, he became quite close to Jack, who in turn was impressed by Peter’s Hollywood connections.
Early that year, Marilyn returned to Hollywood after a long absence with husband Arthur Miller on the east coast. While filming Let’s Make Love, Marilyn befriended Pat Kennedy Lawford, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli, who has published books on both women. He states that Marilyn joined the Lawfords at the Democratic Convention in July, though there are no photographs of her there. While Marilyn was a Democrat, letters to friends suggest she did not initially favour Jack Kennedy.
After her divorce from Arthur Miller at the end of the year, Marilyn had an intermittent affair with Frank Sinatra, leader of the ‘Rat Pack’, which also included Peter Lawford. Sinatra had fallen out with Lawford years before, but Pat persuaded them to reconcile. Impressed by Lawford’s connection to Jack Kennedy, Sinatra publicly endorsed the soon-to-be president.
Although previous accounts of Monroe’s final years have focused mainly on her encounters with Peter Lawford, in recent times her friendship with Pat has been re-evaluated. “There were a lot of beautiful people hanging around our backyard pool on the beach in Santa Monica”, Christopher Kennedy Lawford wrote in his 2005 memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal. “Marilyn Monroe was there in her scarf, trying to stay out of the sun. She had a quiet voice, would smile at me and head out to walk on the sand with my mom. My mother told me Marilyn was like ‘her little sister.’ It surprised her that Marilyn was so open with her. My mom didn’t come from a background where emotions and feelings were openly shared. Marilyn Monroe trusted my mother’s love for her. There was nothing Marilyn had that my mom needed.”
Speaking to Anthony Summers, author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1986), Peter recalled Marilyn’s often fragile state of mind during overnight stays at Santa Monica, adding that it was Pat who provided Marilyn with emotional support. “I’m a light sleeper,” Lawford said, “and one night I woke up for some reason. It was dawn, and I looked out of the window and saw a figure standing on the balcony. It was Marilyn with a robe on, and it seemed like she was drunk, and I went out and said, ‘Are you okay?’ There were tears streaming down her face. Pat by then had woken too, and we brought her in and talked to her.”
The handful of verified encounters between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers all occurred in the presence of their in-law, Peter, and they mostly met at large dinner parties in the Lawford house. On only one occasion – at Bing Crosby’s Palm Springs home in February 1962, during the Democratic Convention – can we be reasonably sure of any intimacy between Marilyn and Jack Kennedy, as her masseur friend, Ralph Roberts, has said that she called him from Palm Springs, and mischievously asked him to advise the president about his current back problems.
Of course, there are many other, unconfirmed rumours. Gossip columnist James Bacon once claimed that Lawford flew with Marilyn (disguised as a secretary, with spectacles and notepad to hand) to Washington on several occasions, for assignations with Kennedy. But as most of Marilyn’s final months can be accounted for – she was working on a movie, Something’s Got to Give – it is questionable, though not impossible, that either Monroe or President Kennedy would have found time for such escapades.
Most famously, it was Lawford who arranged for Marilyn to appear at the President’s birthday gala in May 1962, introducing her on stage as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe’, a joke regarding her unpunctuality, which seemed a lot less funny after her death, less than three months later. It was this wickedly seductive performance of ‘Happy Birthday’ that would link Marilyn for ever after in the public imagination with the president and his fabled family.
Given that Peter knew of, and was sympathetic to Marilyn’s vulnerability at this time, it is all the more confounding that he might still have encouraged her reckless flirtation with the married president. Perhaps he didn’t see it as significant – after all, both Marilyn and Jack were constantly pursued by the opposite sex – or maybe he didn’t realise that what to them could have seemed like harmless fun would be shocking, even scandalous to others.
In private, Peter’s life was starting to unravel. He was a heavy drinker, and often swapped pills with Marilyn. In time his addictions would outstrip even hers – and, coming from a privileged background, Peter never had to cultivate the inner strength that Marilyn, despite her many problems, must have possessed to achieve all she did. Peter’s marriage to Pat was under strain, due in large part to his constant womanising. And just before his trip to Palm Springs with Marilyn and the president, Peter had fallen out badly with his friend, Frank Sinatra.
Having publicly endorsed Jack Kennedy’s election campaign, Sinatra was furious to hear from Peter that the Kennedy’s no longer required his services. Jack’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, considered Sinatra, with his rumoured Mafia connections, to be bad for the president’s image. At the same time, Bobby had declared war on organised crime – which turned mobsters against the Kennedy’s, and left Sinatra looking foolish.
None of this was Peter’s doing, but it was Peter, not Jack or Bobby, who was asked to break the news to Frank. Angry and humiliated, Frank took out his frustrations on the hapless Peter, who was deeply hurt by this rejection. Without Sinatra’s support, Lawford’s career also suffered.
On the last weekend of July, 1962, Marilyn travelled to Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge, a casino and hotel on the California-Nevada border. The Lawfords also attended. It is unclear whether Frank invited them personally, or whether Marilyn brought them along. Nonetheless, the weekend did not go well. Marilyn is said to have spent most of her stay in her chalet, and at one point the Lawfords may have had to revive her after she, probably accidentally, took too many pills. Sinatra was furious and threw all three guests out the next day. There are also other dark rumours about Marilyn’s ‘lost weekend’, stories of her being sexually compromised, or blackmailed. However, the evidence is conflicting at best. What seems more likely is that the Lawfords tried to convince Marilyn to break off all contact with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and probably she didn’t take this curt brush-off any better than Sinatra had done. Once again, Peter was left to clear up the Kennedys’ mess.
While Pat flew directly from Nevada to the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts, Marilyn and Peter returned to Los Angeles by helicopter. According to Barbara Lieto, widow of the pilot, Peter nagged Frank Lieto to land at Santa Monica. Lieto refused, but reluctantly agreed to drive Peter and Marilyn home after they arrived in Los Angeles.
After taking Marilyn home, Peter allegedly spent half an hour in a public telephone booth, streets away from his home. It’s quite possible that he called one of the Kennedys to report back on Marilyn, and didn’t make the call from home because he believed his house was wiretapped. There is some evidence, though inconclusive, to suggest that Marilyn’s home was also bugged – perhaps by the FBI, who had been surreptitiously monitoring her since 1956.
A week later, Marilyn would die. On the afternoon of Saturday, August 4th, Peter may have taken Bobby Kennedy to Marilyn’s house. Some writers, like Donald Spoto in Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1992), have denied that Bobby was even in Los Angeles that day. He was, reportedly, spending the weekend with his family at a friend’s mountain retreat near San Francisco. However, Peter Lawford’s neighbour, Ward Woods, has said that he saw Bobby in Santa Monica that day, and others claim to have spotted him with Peter near Marilyn’s home in Brentwood.
Dressed in her robe, Marilyn was probably not expecting guests. It was only in the 1970s that Peter himself first spoke of the visit, and over the years his memories seemed to grow ever more dramatic. In his 2002 book, RFK, David C. Heymann quotes Peter as having said that Marilyn pulled a knife on Bobby. But speaking to J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2009), Dean Martin cast doubt on the various statements attributed to Peter over the years. “If you knew Peter like I knew Peter,” Martin said, “you would know that he would never have said those things about Marilyn and the Kennedys – especially if those stories were true.”
If Bobby Kennedy really did visit Marilyn that day, he must have upset her considerably. It’s likely that he had once again warned her not to contact either him or his brother, Jack. Monroe’s psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson, was called to the house at around 4pm and talked with Marilyn in her bedroom for two hours. By the time he left, she seemed calmer and was taking phonecalls.
One of these conversations, sometime in the evening, was with Peter. He later told police that he invited Marilyn to dinner but she was tired, and declined. But if the story of Bobby’s confrontation with Marilyn is true, it’s more likely that Peter was calling to check on her mood. She seemed distant and her voice was slurred, but this was not unusual. However, after the so-called ‘say goodbye’ speech, Marilyn became incoherent. Peter shouted her name but got no response. He hung up, then tried to call back but the line was busy.
Among Peter’s dinner guests that evening were his old friends, Joe and Barbara Naar, and his agent, Milton Ebbins. It may have been Ebbins who persuaded Peter not to go to Marilyn, because he then called Marilyn’s lawyer, Milton Rudin, on Peter’s behalf. Rudin then called Eunice Murray, Marilyn’s housekeeper, who went to Marilyn’s door, and told Rudin that Marilyn had gone to bed and all was ‘fine’. Rudin then relayed the message back to Ebbins, who told Peter not to worry.
But after 11pm that night, Peter must have realised that something was wrong. He called Joe Naar, then driving home, and asked him to check on Marilyn, then changed his mind. An hour later, the private investigator Fred Otash has claimed, Lawford arrived at his office in a frantic state. Marilyn was dead, or dying, he told Otash, and he was worried – not so much about her anymore, but that she might have left a suicide note. He asked Otash to go to Marilyn’s house with him and ‘sweep’ it for any evidence of her involvement with the Kennedy brothers.
Though it seems that Marilyn may have passed away at some point during the evening of August 4th, police were not called to the scene until around 4am, August 5th. This left several hours unaccounted for, when proof of foul play, or other evidence relating to the Kennedys’ potentially scandalous association with Monroe, could have been removed.
In his 1999 book, The Final Days of Marilyn Monroe, Donald Wolfe interviewed Norman Jeffries, nephew of Eunice Murray, then working as a handyman at the house. Wolfe quotes Jeffries as saying that Robert F. Kennedy reappeared at the house just before 10pm, sending Jeffries and Murray to a neighbour. When they returned at about 10.30, the men were leaving. They found Marilyn in the guest cottage, lying comatose, and called Dr Greenson, but he was unable to revive her. Lawford then arrived, followed by Marilyn’s publicist, Pat Newcomb: additionally, a police offer claimed to have later stopped a speeding car in the area, with Kennedy, Lawford and Greenson inside.
There are several problems with Jeffries’ story, the foremost being that no one else has mentioned him being at the house that evening. Marilyn’s ‘neighbour’, Hanna Fenichel, lived two streets away, and has never been referred to in any other Monroe biography. Neither has the police offer, Lynn Franklin. Bobby Kennedy is believed to have flown back to San Francisco earlier that day. Finally, Pat Newcomb was sick that weekend and was photographed at the house on Sunday morning, wearing pajamas and apparently still in shock.
If, as Anthony Summers hypothesised, ‘In all probability, no serious crime was committed that night,’ there are still many unanswered questions. And if Peter Lawford had intervened sooner, when he first became worried about Marilyn, he might have saved her life. That he chose instead to stay away, in fear of damaging his reputation or, perhaps, that of others, reflects on him, and everyone else involved, very badly indeed.
Nonetheless, Peter Lawford may be no more to blame for the events of that night than any of the other players. Like most of Marilyn’s friends, Peter was only too familiar with her deep depressions and long-term substance abuse. Only a week before, he and Pat had, allegedly, revived Marilyn after another near-overdose.
Marilyn’s funeral was arranged by ex-husband Joe DiMaggio. Blaming the Rat Pack and the Kennedys for Monroe’s tragic end, DiMaggio invited only a few surviving family members and close friends. Peter and Pat Lawford arrived at the service uninvited, and were unceremoniously turned away. Eunice Murray, who knew that Pat had been a good friend to Marilyn, thought this was a mistake.
Monroe’s death marked the end of an era, and two years later, the Lawfords divorced. Pat never remarried, but became an active campaigner for the literary arts and other good causes until her death in 2006. She had survived Peter by more than two decades. He would marry three more times, including once for just two months in 1977 to Deborah Gould, the woman behind some of the more outlandish claims about Marilyn’s final days.
After their parting, he met Patricia Seaton and they stayed together until his death in 2004. By then, Peter was a shadow of his former self, his looks and career ruined by years of drinking and drug abuse. Seaton collaborated with author Ted Schwarz, who would later write about Marilyn, on a biography of Peter. David Marshall, author of The DD Group: An Online Investigation into the Death of Marilyn Monroe, considers Patricia Seaton Lawford to be a fairly reliable source of information on Peter Lawford and the events of 1962.
For most Monroe fans, Lawford himself remains a divisive figure. While he and Pat Kennedy were genuinely fond of Marilyn, they were also part of the destructive Hollywood circle that eventually tore her part. Dean Martin’s former wife, Jeanne Martin, told author Anthony Summers, “I saw Peter in the role of pimp for Jack Kennedy. It was a nasty business – they were just too gleeful about it, not discreet at all…the things that went on at that beach house were just mind-boggling.”
In his recent Monroe biography, Ted Schwarz sums up the unlikely, and finally damaging alliance between Marilyn and Peter. “Peter Lawford was handsome, friendly, well-liked…He was also weak, an addict, and refused to see common sense…To admit that Marilyn was dangerously out of control was to be forced to admit that he was as well.” Had Marilyn been more self-assured at the end of her life, she might never have become so reliant on Peter, who was, as it turned out, scarcely able to take care of himself. The consequences were disastrous for Lawford, and fatal for Marilyn.