In November 2005 Millington Conroy, a businessman living in Rowland Heights, 40 miles east of Los Angeles, contacted Mark Anderson, a successful magazine photographer, to discuss an unusual commission.
He had in his possession two metal filing-cabinets, one brown, one grey, containing private papers and a collection of furs, jewellery and other assorted memorabilia, all belonging to Marilyn Monroe. Would Anderson be interested in photographing the collection?
The material – about 10,000 documents – had been thought lost for more than 40 years since the death of Monroe on the night of 4 August 1962. Now, here it was, a treasure trove, languishing in a Californian suburb.
It was the commission of a lifetime, the largest undocumented Monroe archive in existence. Yes, of course Anderson was interested, and, with the help of the biographer and Monroe aficionado Lois Banner, he set about creating a record of the archive’s contents, which is now to be published for the first time as a book.
There are letters from Monroe glowing with admiration for Robert Kennedy; a half-finished love letter to her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio found in her room after she died from a drug overdose; unseen pictures of Monroe as a child and young woman; touching fan mail; rare insights into her marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller; and extensive documentation of her squabbles with the Hollywood studio Twentieth Century-Fox.
In these documents the flesh-and-blood Monroe, usually lost in the heady blaze of the images of her on film and in glamour photographs, comes alive in the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life.
We can see her bookshop receipt for The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud, volumes one, two and three (she was a slave to therapy); the newspaper cuttings, both flattering and critical; her witty little telegrams. Then there are the bills for enemas, facials and prescription drugs, the uppers and downers that in her later years carried her through the day, and eventually killed her.
Frank Sinatra, one of Monroe’s lovers, is said to have suggested she buy the filing cabinets to protect her privacy when she was living in New York in 1958. In early 1962, when she moved to Brentwood, Los Angeles, she had the cabinets shipped down.
The grey one, containing private correspondence, was kept in the guest cottage at the Brentwood house; the brown one, containing business records, was stored across town in her office at Twentieth Century-Fox studios.
One account of Monroe’s last night claims that she actually died in the guest cottage and was subsequently moved to her bedroom in the main house and rearranged on her bed.
What is certain is that sometime on the night of 4 August the cabinet in the guest cottage was broken into, and that crucial files were removed – perhaps pertaining to Monroe’s relationship with the Kennedys and their links with the Mafia boss Sam Giancana, perhaps to her contractual arrangements with Twentieth Century-Fox.
How did these immensely valuable cabinets manage to vanish for so long only to resurface in a quiet corner of suburban California? The key to the mystery is Inez Melson, Monroe’s business manager in the mid-1950s, guardian of Monroe’s schizophrenic mother, and, following Monroe’s death, administrator of her Los Angeles holdings.
In the days and weeks after Monroe died Melson, who received nothing in Monroe’s will (the bulk of the estate and her personal effects were left to Lee and Paula Strasberg, her acting coaches), made sure the filing cabinets ended up in her possession.