Marilyn Monroe Recounts Her Harrowing Experience in a Psychiatric Ward (1961)

By the end of 1960, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe was com­ing apart.

She spent much of that year shoot­ing what would be her final com­plet­ed movie – The Mis­fits (see a still from the trail­er above). Arthur Miller penned the film, which is about a beau­ti­ful, frag­ile woman who falls in love with a much old­er man. The script was pret­ty clear­ly based on his own trou­bled mar­riage with Mon­roe. The pro­duc­tion was by all accounts spec­tac­u­lar­ly pun­ish­ing. Shot in the deserts of Neva­da, the tem­per­a­ture on set would reg­u­lar­ly climb north of 100 degrees. Direc­tor John Hus­ton spent much of the shoot rag­ing­ly drunk. Star Clark Gable dropped dead from a heart attack less than a week after pro­duc­tion wrapped. And Mon­roe watched as her hus­band, who was on set, fell in love with pho­tog­ra­ph­er Inge Morath. Nev­er one blessed with con­fi­dence or a thick skin, Mon­roe retreat­ed into a daze of pre­scrip­tion drugs. Mon­roe and Miller announced their divorce on Novem­ber 11, 1960.

A few months lat­er, the emo­tion­al­ly exhaust­ed movie star was com­mit­ted by her psy­cho­an­a­lyst Dr. Mar­i­anne Kris to the Payne Whit­ney Psy­chi­atric Clin­ic in New York. Mon­roe thought she was going in for a rest cure. Instead, she was escort­ed to a padded cell. The four days she spent in the psych ward proved to be among the most dis­tress­ing of her life.

In a riv­et­ing 6‑page let­ter to her oth­er shrink, Dr. Ralph Green­son, writ­ten soon after her release, she detailed her ter­ri­fy­ing 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.”

Mon­roe quick­ly became des­per­ate.

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.

Dur­ing her four days there, she was sub­ject­ed to forced baths and a com­plete loss of pri­va­cy and per­son­al free­dom. The more she sobbed and resist­ed, the more the doc­tors there thought she might actu­al­ly be psy­chot­ic. Monroe’s sec­ond hus­band, Joe DiMag­gio, res­cued her by get­ting her released ear­ly, over the objec­tions of the staff.

You can read the full let­ter (where she also talks about read­ing the let­ters of Sig­mund Freud) over at Let­ters of Note. And while there, make sure you pick up a copy of the very ele­gant Let­ters of Note book.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in August 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 430 Books in Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Reads Joyce’s Ulysses at the Play­ground (1955)

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Explains Rel­a­tiv­i­ty to Albert Ein­stein (in a Nico­las Roeg Movie)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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