Jan Moir: Should owners be allowed to knock down the house where Marilyn Monroe lived and died?

Situated behind high brick walls at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, little of the property where Marilyn Monroe lived and died can be seen from the street. If you peer through a crack in the security gates, all you can see is a glimpse of citrus orchard and a section of pantile roof.

Listen hard and all you will hear is the distant hum of traffic on San Vicente Boulevard to the south or the occasional trill of birdsong.

Graceland this is not. Gift shops? There are none. Access all areas is most firmly denied. After all, this is a private home, one that has been bought and sold several times since Marilyn died there on a Saturday night in August 1962, all alone in her bedroom, after taking an overdose of barbiturates.

Suicide; an accident; a murder? The facts of the case remain shadowy to this day, while the layers of myth, suspicion and dark rumour form a cloud that hangs eternally over the pretty bungalow.

The house may have been the scene of an infamous death, but it is also a discreet residence that has never encouraged sightseers or ghoulish pilgrimages.

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Yet there has been outrage over the fact that the owners — nameless individuals hiding behind a hedge fund, who bought the property in 2017 — have been given permission to demolish Marilyn’s 2,900 sq ft Spanish colonial-style home, complete with guest house and swimming pool, and build a new property on the site.

When the news broke last week, Hollywood historians, neighbours and conservationists had a collective fit and launched a campaign to stop the demolition at all costs.

The Los Angeles Council received hundreds of calls demanding action and responded by issuing a motion asking the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission to consider the home for inclusion in LA’s list of historic monuments.

This was rushed through and unanimously approved, which gives everyone a 75-day reprieve to figure out what to do next. Council member Traci Park held a press conference to discuss the fate of Monroe’s former home, where she talked of the “global concern” that has flooded her office over the past couple of days.

“The overwhelming sentiment here is clear,” she said. “This home must be preserved as a crucial piece of Hollywood’s and the city of Los Angeles’ history, culture and legacy.”

To this end, the council has now halted the building permits (claiming they were issued ‘in error’ in the first place) while the Commission evaluates the house as a potential cultural landmark.

Yet while the modest 1929 home is the only tangible connection the world has with the final days of the tragic film star, not everyone agrees that the beatification of a building that Monroe briefly inhabited is the moral way forward.

Camera IconView of the front entrance of Marilyn Monroe’s former Spanish Colonial-style house as Los Angeles City Council voted to launch a process to designate actress Marilyn Monroe’s former home, where she died of a drug overdose in 1962, a historic and cultural monument, blocking plans to demolish the property. Credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

People mean well, of course they do; but are they in danger of confusing prurience with preservation? Cinematographer Steven Smith lives in the area and has mixed feelings.

“I feel like we should preserve history, but would the neighbours want bus tours coming here all day long?’ he said. ‘This is a quiet residential neighbourhood.”

Another local, who did not wish to be named, was more succinct.

“Marilyn has gone. She’s been dead a long time. We should let her go.”

Stacey Segarra-Bohlinger, a local politician and “cultural protectionist”, disagrees. “I’m completely for saving Marilyn Monroe’s house,” she tells me.

“It would do a huge disservice to the citizens of LA if it was demolished. Why? Because she’s such an iconic figure: a symbol of the golden era of Hollywood and part of this city’s history.”

This is demonstrably true, but shouldn’t we also be asking ourselves what it is we want from the legacy of a long-dead film star, and if it is fair to place yet another burden of need and expectation upon Marilyn Monroe?

On a bright, hopeful day in February 1962, Monroe moved into 12305 Fifth Helena Drive — the first and only home she had ever owned.

She was 35 years old and paid $77,000 for the property, putting half down in cash and taking out a mortgage on the rest, paying it back at $320 per month.

It was supposed to be the beginning of the rest of her life after divorcing her third husband, Arthur Miller.

For someone who had grown up in foster homes and orphanages in Depression-era America, being a homeowner at last was a thrill and a solace for Marilyn.

She went to Mexico to buy authentic furnishings, mirrors and paintings. She planted a herb garden.

The last cheque she wrote was for a new chest of drawers. In an interview with Life magazine, given just a few weeks before her death, she talked about how much she loved her new home, sweetly declaring: “Anybody who likes my house, I’m sure I’ll get along with.”

View of Marilyn Monroe's Spanish Colonial-style former house as Los Angeles City Council voted to launch a process to designate actress Marilyn Monroe's former home, where she died of a drug overdose in 1962, a historic and cultural monument, blocking plans to demolish the property.
Camera IconView of Marilyn Monroe’s Spanish Colonial-style former house as Los Angeles City Council voted to launch a process to designate actress Marilyn Monroe’s former home, where she died of a drug overdose in 1962, a historic and cultural monument, blocking plans to demolish the property. Credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

In late June, it was from this very house and this street that she travelled to the Bel Air hotel, four miles away, to pose for a photo shoot commissioned by Vogue magazine.

This was what turned out to be The Last Sitting, the series of famous photographs taken by Bert Stern which showed Marilyn looking more beautiful and captivating than ever.

None of this suggested a suicidal frame of mind. But only a few weeks later she was dead, transitioning overnight from Hollywood sex symbol to an international emblem of mourning.

“Probable suicide,” was the coroner’s official verdict, but no one knew for sure, then or now. Rumour abounded. Who did or did not roar up Fifth Helena Drive in the night, in a panic, on a kill mission, keen to cover up? Who knocked on the door, rattled the window, administered the lethal dose, the final blow, the cruel last words?

Over the years, conspiracy theorists have claimed that those who wanted Marilyn dead included Jack and Bobby Kennedy (she was said to have had affairs with both brothers), the CIA, Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the Russians, the Mafia, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra, Fidel Castro and various disgruntled ex-husbands.

Was she really murdered by an agent of the state, or a madman; or was it more likely that, as a chronic insomniac and known addict and abuser of prescription drugs, Marilyn Monroe simply accidentally overdosed on her sleeping pills and tranquilisers?

What is not in any doubt is that by dying young at the peak of her fame, Marilyn became — just like Princess Diana would a quarter of a century later — a kind of symbol for suffering and victimhood.

They were two candles in the wind; two ciphers upon which the troubled and the troubling could project their deepest insecurities, along with their heartfelt admiration. And in the absence of Marilyn Monroe herself, Marilyn’s house makes a gratifyingly solid proxy.

Outside 12305 Fifth Helena Drive this week, the supplicants have left their offerings, just like they have being doing for six decades. Fans have left assorted bunches of pink and red roses at the gates to the house, along with carnations tied with a ragged ribbon, a single yellow bloom stuck into a plastic water bottle and a sprig of gypsophila; all shrivelling in the 85 degree heat.

On top of the property’s intercom, more superstitiously inclined fans have left the talismans they hope will protect Marilyn’s spirit and legacy: bulbs of garlic to guard against evil, sticks of cinnamon to bring good luck and dissipate stagnant energy.

They must travel here by car, for there is no public transport to speak of in Brentwood, an affluent suburb in west LA. Many celebrities live here, but they tend to congregate in the more upscale area “above Sunset”, as in to the north of Sunset Boulevard.

Up there, where the air is rarefied, Arnold Schwarzenegger lives on a six-acre property complete with a menagerie of farm animals. Gwyneth Paltrow has a sprawling home complete with yoga barn, grand salon and gourmet kitchen; while last year Reese Witherspoon put her 10,000 sq ft, seven-bedroom Brentwood mansion on the market for $25 million.

Down here in Fifth Helena Drive, the living is slightly more modest, but only by LA standards. The properties may be tightly packed together, but the streets are still lined with palm trees and bougainvillea, while expensive cars gleam on driveways.

There is no shortage of film star presence, either. In 2002, Ewan McGregor bought a house in this neighbourhood, and his former wife, Eve McGregor, still lives here, following their divorce in 2020. Eve describes Marilyn’s house as “a beautiful, charming home, always has been” and is pragmatic about the fact that renewed interest in the property will only encourage more sight seekers to make the pilgrimage.

“They do already. It goes on all the time. The house is on Google Maps, so they park their cars and walk down here and leave things,” she said, pointing to the wilting flowers outside number 12305.

Is she pro-preservation or not? “I really don’t care what they do with the house, one way or another,” she shrugged.

However, many others are deeply invested. There are those who are determined to preserve a piece of Hollywood history at all costs, versus those who feel that Marilyn Monroe should be left in peace. “Hasn’t she suffered enough?” one neighbour suggested.

Sometimes I can’t help but agree. Look at Marilyn Monroe’s final resting place, three miles away in the Westwood Village Memorial Park, where she is interred in the Corridor of Memories.

After her death, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner reportedly paid a private seller $75,000 for the crypt next door, saying that “spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up”.

In 2009, the Hollywood Reporter claimed another neighbouring crypt had been purchased for $4.6 million.

Even today, the marble surface of Marilyn’s above-ground crypt is covered with lipstick kisses left by fans, while the metal nameplate has to be regularly replaced because of the oxidisation caused by the lipstick.

Perhaps Marilyn herself would welcome the attention and glory of being remembered so affectionately; perhaps not.

Back at Fifth Helena Drive, it’s just another ordinary day on planet Marilyn. Two reporters from an international news agency are sending up a drone to capture pictures of her home, another bunch of roses has been placed on the kerbside and Estara Gold, a massage therapist in a smart black uniform, is parking up her car, about to pay a house call.

She found Marilyn an inspiration, she says, and thinks the city should do everything possible to keep her memory alive. “Marilyn bought the house herself — it is feminine power and beauty at work,” she said.

“She inspires other women to do something big with their lives. I think it should definitely be a stop on the Hollywood star tour.”

At the time of her death, Marilyn Monroe had been a property owner for six months, a single woman for over a year, a big Hollywood star for about a decade — and now a mystery that will endure forever.

The rust-making kisses, the cinnamon sticks, the garlic and the onslaught of adulation … Can any of it stop the home that she loved from being turned into a shrine? Or is that what she would have wanted all along?

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