How did Marilyn Monroe die?

On what would have been her 92nd birthday, the death of the tragic Hollywood sex symbol remains a source of wild speculation

Marilyn Monroe
(Image credit: Getty Images)

More than five decades after her death, the actress, singer and model Marilyn Monroe remains a cultural icon.

From winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in Some Like It Hot to serenading US President John F Kennedy with her unique rendition of Happy Birthday, the work of Monroe helped shape 1950s America.

Almost as widely studied and ananlysed were her off-screen struggles, including substance abuse, depression and anxiety. And for many, the cause of her untimely death in August 1962 is still open to speculation.

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On what would have been her 92nd birthday, The Week examines her life, legacy and death.

Early life

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on 1 June 1926 in Los Angeles General Hospital.

Because of her mother's mental instability and unmarried status, Norma Jeane was placed in a foster home for the first seven years of her life, the University of Illinois recounts. Marilyn would never know the true identity of her father.

In 1942 she married a fellow worker in an aircraft factory, but they divorced soon after the Second World War, at which point she became a model. In 1946 she signed a short-term contract with 20th Century Fox, taking as her screen name Marilyn Monroe.

A nude photograph on a calendar brought her a role in the film Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (1948). After several other minor roles, her performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) catapulted her to stardom.

Major success

In 1954 she married baseball star Joe DiMaggio and the publicity was “enormous”, says Encylopedia Britannica, but “with the end of their marriage less than a year later she began to grow discontented with her career.”

She married playwright Arthur Miller in 1956 and briefly retired from moviemaking until a role in Some Like It Hot (1959), which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Her final film role was in the dark revisionist Western The Misfits (1961), written by Miller, whom she had divorced the previous year.

Monroe’s 23 movies grossed a total of more than $200m (£150m), says Britannica, and “her early image as a dumb and seductive blonde gave way in later years to the tragic figure of a sensitive and insecure woman unable to escape the pressures of Hollywood”.


Monroe was found dead from a barbiturate overdose in the early hours of 6 August 1962, at her Los Angeles home. She was 36.

An empty bottle of sleeping pills was found by her bed, prompting authorities to list the official cause of death as “probable suicide”, but conjecture about what may have happened continues to fuel countless conspiracies.

Her critics argued that her love life “was in pieces”, says The Independent, but friends insisted the actress had “never been happier”, leading to a slew of theories.

John F Kennedy and his younger brother, US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, feature heavily in several Monroe murder conspiracies, including one suggesting that both men had an affair with Monroe and devised a plot to silence her after she threatened to reveal their infidelities, according to SBS News.

More outlandish still bis the theory proposed by Dr Steven Greer, who is the subject of the documentary Unacknowledged. He claims that Monroe was killed by the government because she was threatening to leak classified information about extraterrestrials, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

However, not all theories depend on the existence of a sinister deep state. Donald Spoto claimed in his 1993 book Marilyn Monroe: The Biography that her death was an “accidental overdose which happened because Monroe lied to her two doctors about the amount of medication she’d been prescribed”.

“Afraid of the possible consequences,” said Spoto, “the doctors staged Monroe’s death as a suicide with the help of her housekeeper.”

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