IT IS 50 years since the death of screen goddess Marilyn Monroe but despite the passage of time, conspiracy theories still abound. It was murder staged as suicide. The mob was involved. And Bobby Kennedy was involved in some twisted attempt to protect his brother’s presidency.
But now the daughter of the renowned photographer who discovered the young Norma Jean, and who captured some of her most famous poses, has unearthed new evidence to be included in a new book featuring over 100 of her father’s never before published photographs, which she hopes will finally quash the rumours.
“I wanted to delve deeper and set the record straight. The dead have to be defended and I’m defending them,” Susan Bernard said.
Her father, Bernard of Hollywood, first came to California in 1937 when he was just Bruno Bernard, a refugee from Nazi Germany.
Within three years he had founded a glamour photography studio on the Sunset Strip and become one of the greatest still camera men of Hollywood’s golden age.
He photographed all the great stars of the era — Maureen O’Hara, Elizabeth Taylor, Maurice Cheval, Sofia Loren, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Yul Brenner, Clarke Gable and John Wayne.
Then one day in 1946, his life, and that of a stunning young woman with a “peaches and cream complexion” was to change forever.
As he left his studio, he spotted a woman, wearing tight white shorts, walk past. He followed her, gave her his business card, and said he’d like to take test shots of her.
Norma Jean Baker came to the studio the next day and posed for shots which, within days, Bernard had submitted to a talent scout at 20th Century Fox Studios, who called her for a screen test.
Susan said her father instructed the studio to do a non-speaking screen test – because Norma Jean had no formal acting training — and to do it in colour.
She did the test, Fox signed her, and within weeks, the actress Marilyn Monroe was created.
She remained close to Bernard over the years. He captured not just some of the most famous Monroe images of all time, but also some of the most iconic movie pictures of all time, including the famous “white dress” shot of Monroe standing over a subway grill on the set of The Seven Year Itch, her white halter dress billowing in the rush of uprising air.
Susan, who is in Glengarriff, Co Cork, this week for the Maureen O’Hara Film Festival, spent the last year trawling through her father’s photos and records to compile Marilyn: Intimate Exposures, to mark the 50th anniversary of the actress’s death.
But the book had a deeper meaning for her as she set out to prove her father’s theory: that Monroe’s death was an accident.
Susan revealed how her father was researching the death as he battled cancer before he died in 1987.
“He was trying to denounce all the ridiculous conspiracy theories that surrounded her passing. He felt that was just invented history,” Susan said. “He didn’t believe that Bobby Kennedy had anything to do with it.”
After months of research, Susan tracked down John Bates Jnr, a son of John Bates, who was a good friend of Bobby Kennedy.
It led to the discovery of intimate family snaps that show Bobby on a family holiday elsewhere the weekend of Monroe’s death in LA. The candid snaps are included in the book.
“I know there will be a lot controversy about this. I know that there are people who don’t believe this, and who still believe it was murder,” Susan said. “But my father believed it, and it’s shown in his writings, that this was an accident. It’s not that she did it on purpose. She was taking a lot of drugs and I believe it was accidental.”
One of the most poignant of her father’s photographs captures a devastated Monroe wiping a tear from her eye just seconds after announcing her divorce from baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954.
The stark non-airbrushed shot shows a frail Monroe without makeup and without proper nail varnish.
Bernard was to describe this moment as “the beginning of the end”.
“I hope this book documents what is accurate, that it will be moving and will show another dimension of Marilyn, who she really was and ultimately denounce the conspiracy theories,” Susan, 63 said.
She has had an equally remarkable life, posing for Playboy aged 17. She was Playmate of the Month for its December 1966 issue, and in 2000, Playboy Magazine named her in the 100 most beautiful women of the century.
Today, she is an author, producer and president of Bernard of Hollywood Publishing/Renaissance Road, Inc.
She preserves, internationally exhibits, publishes and licenses her late father’s work, generating feature articles in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, American Photo and Entertainment Weekly.
“My life has been extraordinarily full and blessed and being a centrefold in Playboy just adds another dimension,” she said. “It draws a parallel with Marilyn. It shows that a woman could be attractive, as well as smart.
“Now, we all know that. But back in the 1960s, we weren’t sure if women could be both — we were fighting for it.”
She said she is delighted to be unveiling her father’s exclusive photographs for the first time in Ireland this week as part of the Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival.
“In America, Maureen is still one of the great, great stars, and one of the great beloved stars. She was not just one of the great beauties, she was one of the great actresses,” she said.