Marilyn and Bobby

DONALD SPOTO

June 04, 1993|By DONALD SPOTO

This week we mark the 25th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death; in August, it will be 31 years since Marilyn Monroe's.

Americans, still steeped in their aboriginal puritanism, are oddly inclined to believe the worst of people and so continue to relish the tabloid TV talk shows, the made-for-TV movies and all the weary old fantasies of a love affair between Kennedy and Monroe -- an affair that supposedly led to her death. This has been an appalling vilification of two good and decent people -- a rumor utterly without foundation.

Marilyn Monroe's image -- not far from the reality -- was a conjunction of frank carnality, winsome innocence and touching vulnerability. For a while in the 1950s, America adored her, but when she died there was a ''what can you expect?'' attitude in the land -- that puritan smugness again. It continues to this day, and it suggests that a woman like Marilyn, precisely because she evoked such strong emotions, really can't have been much good.

Kennedy's fall from grace happened almost as quickly. Overnight, it seems, the man who had touched the lives of millions and brought hope to the poor and disenfranchised was believed to have been the unprincipled lover of the self-destructive Marilyn Monroe.

A major moment in the history of this fantastic story was the publication in 1973 of Norman Mailer's ''Marilyn,'' in which the author imagined that government intelligence agents might have killed her in an attempt to frame Kennedy, the attorney general, for having an affair with her. Blasted by critics for his foggy ruminations, Mr. Mailer was interviewed on ''60 Minutes.'' He conceded to Mike Wallace that a Kennedy-Monroe affair and Kennedy's connection to her death were, after all, highly unlikely -- in fact, that he didn't believe his own fantasies at all. ''I needed money very badly,'' he said. Mr. Mailer had his best-seller, and the public was hooked on a monumental deception.

A biographer is obliged to tell the truth, even at the risk of saying something good about someone. During research for my biography of Marilyn Monroe, I learned that stories of a romance between her and Robert Kennedy are utterly without basis in fact.

There have been claims, for example, that they met secretly in Los Angeles on November 18, 1961. But on that date Kennedy was in New York, Monroe in California. Others cite a rendezvous on February 24, 1962 -- when Kennedy was in Germany, she in Mexico. Still others refer to a meeting on March 14, 1962, but Kennedy was in Washington addressing the American Business Council, and Marilyn was in Los Angeles with Joe DiMaggio.

The most preposterous accusation, that Robert Kennedy met Marilyn Monroe on the last day of her life (August 4, 1962) and that he was directly involved in her death, is just as easily dispatched. That entire weekend, Kennedy and his family were in Northern California with John Bates and his family. Bates, a distinguished attorney, was in 1962 chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the San Francisco Bar Association. He, his family, his em- ployees and the local press documented the Kennedy visit in photos and news stories that weekend. They were interviewed for my book in 1992. Robert Kennedy never left the remote Bates compound outside San Francisco and knew nothing of Monroe's death until late Sunday.

Not a single credible witness, not a shred of evidence can be found to the effect that Kennedy and Monroe were lovers, much less that he was in any way involved in her death. Still, many Americans refuse to yield a tenacious grasp on the malicious fantasy.

In fact, the details of Monroe's death are more dreadful than any of the untenable hypotheses advanced over the years. But the truth can emerge only when the lies are dispersed.

Donald Spoto's seventh biography, just published, is ''Marilyn Monroe.'' He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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