Excerpt from a CIA memo dated August 3, 1962
“2. Subject repeatedly called the Attorney General’s office and complained about the way she was being ignored by the president and his brother.
3. Subject threatened to hold a press conference and would tell all.” (from The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe)
About 1/3 of the way through The Empty Glass, a debut fiction novel written by J.I Baker, almost unable to grasp the significance of what I was reading, I put the book down and started reading about the recorded events surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn had just been dumped by Robert Kennedy and she told Robert Slatzer, a former lover, “If I don’t hear from Bobby Kennedy soon I’m going to call a press conference and blow the lid off this whole damn thing. I’m going to tell about my relationships with both Kennedy brothers.” The Empty Glass is narrated by Ben Fitzgerald, a deputy LA coroner, who has the misfortune to be called to Monroe’s house on August 5, 1962, and the book details the mysteries surrounding this bizarre case. As I read the book, I asked myself if this was true–how much of this incredible stuff that I was reading was made up? Was this a figment of the author’s imagination? To my surprise (well, shock, really), I discovered that not only has the author very carefully reconstructed the events and the names of that night, but he also included some portentous events from both JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe’s life. The interesting thing here is that we will probably never know for certain what happened that night at Monroe’s home. We can speculate all we want, but by writing a fiction novel, the author effectively steps into a sequence of events in which the outrageous details were hijacked and an alternative narrative created by the people who…yes, I’m going to say it.. by the people who wanted Marilyn Monroe dead.
I have a vague childhood memory of hearing my mother discuss Marilyn Monroe and agreeing with the consensus opinion that she committed suicide as she was aging and couldn’t handle the knowledge that her looks were fading. Anyway, Monroe was a well-known loose cannon, so the suicide fit with that tragic star image. Author J.I.Baker shows that if the story fed to the public for the first 24 hours sails unchecked, then it’s virtually impossible to change the accepted narrative without invoking that nutball, dismissive phrase ‘conspiracy theory.’ What’s so very interesting here is that the author, using fiction as his venue, presents this story bolstered with the very-real facts as told by a fictional character. By using this approach the author effectively strips away the official story of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide which some (including me at this point) would argue was fiction presented as fact. And this novel is perfect timing, by the way, as this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death.
The novel begins with the information that something has gone horribly wrong in Ben Fitzgerald’s life, and then the story segues to the night of August 5, 1962 when Ben is rousted at 2:15 in the morning from bed at the cheap hotel where he rents a room. He’s told to go to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood to the home of Marilyn Monroe as she’s committed suicide. Upon his arrival, Ben notes that the whole suicide story doesn’t fit the scenario:
Her fingernails were blue. The cause of death seemed obvious: an overdose. Except–Except the body was in the soldier’s position: legs straight, head down.
“I don’t have to tell you what that means, Doctor,” I say.
“Yes,” you say. “You do.”
“Well, it looked as though she’d been placed.”
“Placed,” I say. “People who overdose don’t drift happily away. There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”
“A person dying of barbiturate overdose would not have died clutching a phone. She might have answered it. But a person dying of a barbiturate overdose would have gone limp before the convulsions began.”
Curiouser and curiouser, Marilyn’s housekeeper, doctor and psychiatrist have timelines concerning the events of that night, but within a few hours, they all change their stories. And then Ben discovers Marilyn’s diary, her “book of secrets” which for the record was never found–even though memos from both the FBI and the CIA acknowledged an awareness of its existence. He doesn’t grasp the significance of this find and in hindsight admits:
I had no reason to believe it would jeopardise my own life or that of my family. So you ask: If I had known, would I have just walked away?
Sniffing that there’s a lot wrong with Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide,” Ben takes the diary and begins doing a little freelance investigation of his own. Big mistake.
Some factors about the autopsy strike Ben as odd and inconsistent with suicide. Marilyn’s stomach was empty, so how did the overdose occur? He’s told in no uncertain terms that ‘s not his job to “speculate,” but his curiosity leads him into a nightmare existence of surveillance and threats–an existence in which Ben becomes increasingly paranoid and powerless.
The Empty Glass is a fast-paced read, full of short, sharp sentences that match the novel’s subject. The novel covers the weekend before Marilyn’s death when she travelled to the Cal-Neva resort, and also includes the JFK-Florence Kater-Pamela Turnure affair, along with fictional diary entries in which Marilyn Monroe mentions “the general.” The diary entries didn’t ring true for me–perhaps they just didn’t sound like Marilyn’s voice. On the down side, I doubt the novel will appeal to readers unless they have an interest in Marilyn Monroe. On the positive side, the author did some phenomenal work with the facts and effectively deconstructed the official story.
review copy from the publisher.