Written by Hannah Blum
In 1961, a year before her death, Marilyn Monroe wrote a six-page letter letter to her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson about her time at Payne-Whitney’s psychiatric ward.
“Just now when I looked out the hospital window where the snow had covered everything suddenly everything is kind of muted a green. The grass, shabby evergreen bushes — though the trees give me a little hope — the desolate bare branches promising maybe there will be spring and maybe they promise hope.”
A part of Marilyn Monroe’s life deserves to be shared, and it pertains to her journey with mental illness, exposing not only her pain but her strength, depth, and brilliance. This is part of her story that you have you not heard.
Mental Illness in Marilyn’s Family
Gladys Baker, Marilyn’s mother, lived with schizophrenia. Sadly, she was in and out of mental institutions throughout Marilyn’s childhood. At one point, Baker was institutionalized for a decade until 1945.
It makes sense why Marilyn would have been searching for love in other places outside of herself. Still waiting for her mother to come home and give her the love she needed, but Glady’s was just as lost. It’s important to hold compassion for both because her mother had no other choice. Schizophrenia is still, present day, the most stigmatized mental illness. Treatment is still not as widely available. As much as we may want to point the finger at her for abandoning Marilyn, maybe it’s more appropriate to point the finger at the society that trapped them both. If only Gladys Baker could have prepared Marilyn for what was to come.
Marilyn’s grandmother, Della Monroe, struggled with postpartum depression and institutionalized mental illness. Her great-grandfather, Tilford Marion Hogan, died by suicide.
The Early Signs of Mental Illness in Marilyn
In Hollywood Legends Collectors’ Edition 2017 Marilyn – Her Untold Story, close family members reveal that Marilyn experienced periods of paranoia and delusions as a child, such as the incident involving the death of her dog.
Marilyn had a hard time connecting with other children in school, but she formed a close bond to her dog, Tippy. One day while Marilyn was at school, Tippy was hit by a car. A neighbor found his body and placed him in the driveway of Marilyn’s home. It was evident that Tippy was hit by a car, but Marilyn refused to believe this story. She was adamant that the neighbors, who complained about the dog’s bark, brutally murdered Tippy by severing the dog in two with a garden hoe. No one could convince her otherwise. Marilyn’s response to the incident concerned her foster parents Ida and Wayne Bolender. Mental illness can show up in early childhood.
Marilyn pushed forward despite the obstacles she faced as a foster child and worked towards a career as an actress. However, the signs of mental illness were still present in the rising star.
1949-1950 Did you hear that?
“Did you hear that?” is the question that 22-year-old Marilyn asked her acting coach, Natasha Lytess while preparing to audition for the film, The Asphalt Jungle. She complained to Lytess that she was hearing voices outside her door. Lytess became worried about the young actress’s mental health and expressed her concern to Marilyn’s boyfriend at the time, Johnny Hyde who acted as though this was typical behavior. Johnny Hyde died the following year. After his death, Marilyn was triggered into a deep low.
Lytess shared an apartment with Marilyn at the time. One night she came home to find Marilyn passed out, pale in the face with a mouth full of sleeping pills. Although Marilyn claimed she did not try to kill herself, Lytess believed otherwise.
Lytess wrote to one of her students sharing her genuine concern for Marilyn, and insinuated that Marilyn was heading down a dark road that would inevitably lead to her death if she did not acknowledge her mental health problems.
1956 Searching For A Peaceful Monster
In 1956 Marilyn entered her third marriage with American playwright Arthur Miller. She was searching for love, and although she found it, it did not last for long. Marilyn was more successful than ever, worshipped, she still is, but she still felt alone. On occasion, people would see her pouring the contents of pills into her champagne.
While filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England she discovered Miller’s diary where he complained that he was disappointed by their marriage and embarrassed by her. Marilyn was devastated and flew back to New York to meet with her psychiatrist.
On stationary, Marilyn wrote:
“On the screen of pitch blackness comes/reappears the shapes of monsters my most steadfast companions … and the world is sleeping ah peace I need you—even a peaceful monster.”
1958-1960 Darkness Dims The Light
While filming Some Like It Hot, Marilyn got into an argument with Miller over the phone. Shortly after, her acting coach, Paul Strasberg, found the actress laid out on the floor. Marilyn had overdosed on pills. In 1960, Marilyn and Miller publicly announced their separation.
Although Marilyn’s career was thriving, the voices were still present, and her struggles were surfacing more and more as the years went by. While filming The Misfits, Marilyn complained of hearing voices on set again. Her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson prescribed her three times the maximum dose of Nembutal to treat insomnia.
1961 A Deeper Marilyn Surfaces
Marilyn in Payne-Whitney’s Psychiatric Ward
Marilyn entered Payne-Whitney Hospital under the name, Faye Miller. She thought the hospital stay was to rest outside of the spotlight, but was immediately taken to the psychiatric ward, threatened with a straight jacket and placed in a cell. She was there for three days before her ex-husband and love of her life Joe DiMaggio demanded that Marilyn be released.
In the six-page letter to Dr. Ralph Greenson, she reflected on her time at Payne-Whitney
“There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney—it had a very bad effect—they asked me after putting me in a ‘cell’ (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed). The inhumanity there I found archaic … everything was under lock and key … the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time…”
She also writes about the situation where she lashed out at the staff, and in the last line, alludes to the stigma of mental illness.
“I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it … against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass—so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them if you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut.”
Marilyn was a perceptive individual, insightful, wise, and saw what others could not. Marilyn was empathetic, even though the monsters haunting her showed little compassion.These writings correlate with the message that many advocates share today; that people with mental illness are shaped by stigma.
1962 Good Bye Sweet Marilyn
Marilyn’s Depression Continues to Get Worse
Allan “Whitey” Snyder, Marilyn’s makeup artist, revealed that it was difficult for Marilyn to get up due to her depressive state. Around ten days before Marilyn’s death, friends took her on a trip to Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge, hoping it would cheer her up. According to Joe Langford, a security employee, Sinatra was shocked at how depressed Marilyn had become. She seemed to be falling deeper down a rabbit hole.
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn’s housekeeper became extremely concerned when she saw that her bedroom door was locked. She called Dr. Ralph Greenson, who broke through her bedroom window, and found Marilyn dead. She was only 36 years old. Her death was ruled as a probable suicide. When it was announced, the world went quiet. An incredible icon took her place as an angel.
Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962
We love you Marilyn.
We can learn from Marilyn’s story. The way we appear on the outside does not dictate how we feel on the inside. Her smile hid her suffering, but now we know, and although she is no longer here, I hope she feels seen beyond the surface. She is Marilyn Monroe, vulnerable, brilliant, bold, and beautiful. Her story goes far beyond the stage—a tale of tragedy and triumph.
Marilyn Monroe was interred at Crypt. No. 24 in the Corridor of Memories in Los Angeles, California. In her smile, hope was always present. She glorifies in life, and her death did not mere this final image.
This article is dedicated to Marilyn Monroe. As someone with bipolar disorder, I know what it feels like to search for peace, and I hope Marilyn has found that place.
Vanity Fair Marilyn and Her Monsters
Hollywood Legends Collectors’ Edition 2017 Marilyn – Her Untold Story
LIFE Magazine: Remembering Marilyn
People Magazine: Read Marilyn Monroe’s Harrowing Letter Going Up for Auction Detailing Her Sanitarium Stay: It ‘Had a Very Bad Effect’ on Her
In her first book, The Truth About Broken: The Unfixed Version of Self-Love, Hannah Blum redefines what it means to love yourself and takes readers on an unforgettable journey towards embracing what makes you different by sharing captivating stories that will never leave you after reading. A book that will give you a new perspective on mental illness as Hannah shares her unapologetic message rooted in her life as living with a mental illness in a society that has labeled her and others as broken.
7 thoughts on “Marilyn Monroe: What You Didn’t Know About Her Life with Mental Illness”
Reading this article made me love Marilyn Monroe even more she was a beautiful woman who sadly had to deal with mental illness.
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Hi Cassy! I feel the same way. I have always loved her, even when I was a kid I would ask my nana about what she was like. It says a lot about mental illness and that outward appearances are deceiving. Thank you for commenting! -Hannah
Enjoyed reading this Hannah. Have always loved Marilyn. God rest her soul. You really made her come to life in your writing.
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Thank you so much for reading! That means a lot!