Marilyn Monroe detailed her experience in a psychiatric ward with harrowing letters, 1961
Marilyn Monroe, the American actress, model, and singer, who is wildly accepted as the most prominent figure in popular culture, lived a life thrust heavily into the public eye.
Monroe lived very much in the fast lane, marketed as a major celebrity and one built around being sex icon. Through the success came serious downfalls as her private life was troubled amid the relentless high-profile attention.
With battles against depression, substance abuse and crippling anxiety, Monroe’s life began to spiral out of control in 1960 as she worked to complete her final ever film, The Misfits. Written by her then-husband Arthur Miller, the film details a beautiful, fragile and divorced woman (played by Monroe) who falls in love with a much older man.
Many commentators of the film have made direct correlations between Miller’s script and his faltering marriage to Monroe, a dysfunctional relationship which was spiralling into the abyss. Filming of the project was gruelling both physically and mentally as temperatures on location, out in Nevada’s deserts, reached in excess of 100 degrees on a daily basis.
For Monroe, the film was a tainted nightmare. While she struggled with her own mental health issues, her co-star Clark Gable dropped dead of a heart attack shortly after filming and her husband, Miller, was falling in love with photographer Inge Morath in front of her very eyes.
Monroe and Miller announced their divorce on November 11, 1960, shortly after the film wrapped. The actress, struggling to deal with ongoing issues, consulted her psychoanalyst, Dr Marianne Kris, who admitted her to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. Monroe, exhausted at the time, believed she was visiting the clinic for a rest cure. Instead, though, she was instantly greeted by a padded cell and remained there for four days.
After her release from the facility, Monroe penned the thoughts of what was her most harrowing life experience. In a series of letters that were sent to her second psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson, Monroe detailed the experience:
“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. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows — the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: ‘Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here’.”
Explaining further, Monroe explained how she tried to keep her wits about her, attempting to relate the experience to her days acting on set. Desperate to regain some control, the actress also details how she threatened to cut herself with a razor if she was continually treated like “a nut”.
“I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’. I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life—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’. I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn’t let me out I would harm myself—the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I’m an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself. I’m just that vain.”
“He told me I was a very, very sick girl and had been a very, very sick girl for many years,” she wrote. “He asked me how I could possibly work when I was depressed. He wondered if that interfered with my work. He was being very firm and definite in the way he said it. He actually stated it more than he questioned me so I replied: ‘Didn’t he think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin perhaps and perhaps Ingrid Bergman they had been depressed when they worked sometimes but I said it’s like saying a ballplayer like DiMaggio [her second husband] if he could hit ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.'”
Monroe was only forced to stay at the facility four days after her second husband, former baseball player Joe DiMaggio, rescued her and demanded an early release. Despite the staff of the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic objecting, Monroe was released.