How can Americans still live so contentedly with the Kennedy myth? While Monica Lewinsky can sleep safely in the knowledge that cover-ups aren't what they used to be, the the truth behind the death of Marilyn Monroe remains a blur of rumour, lies and misinformation. Although we may have despaired of knowing the truth about her, we've never grown weary of searching it out.
Despite its provocative title and the shocking revelations that Monroe was brutally raped in front of Frank Sinatra just a week before being given a lethal injection by her former lover, Bobby Kennedy, The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe (now out in paperback) is a quietly written testimony that moves relentlessly towards a conclusion that is both plausible and convincing. Until politics loses its self-interest (and Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane) there will not be a definitive book on the Monroe case, but this chilling account, drawing on key witnesses who have never before spoken out, may well be as good as it gets. Sensational though it is, this is the most plausible account of all the Monroe books I have read.
Wolfe provides an exhaustive exploration of Monroe's life, but the value of his work lies, inevitably, in the light he sheds on her death. Taking advantage of 40 years of medical advances and the testimony of prominent medical examiners, he blows apart the original autopsy verdict of "probable suicide" by showing that, although Monroe had a high level of barbiturates in her blood, no trace was found in her digestive tract, and the fatal dose could only have been administered by injection. The verdict: homicide, with enough drugs in her body to kill 15 to 26 people.
Hollywood and the Kennedys were quick to publicise reasons why Monroe should take her life. Her dismissal by 20th Century Fox for "spectacular absenteeism" from the filming of Something' s Got to Give - and in particular for leaving the set to sing at the president's birthday gala - was documented in the press at the time. But the rumours, fuelled by Bobby's brother-in-law, the actor Peter Lawford, were unfounded; 16 days after her humiliating dismissal, Fox's star was reinstated on a higher salary. Far from being depressed and suicidal, Monroe was flying high.
Her triumph was the beginning of the end. Cut off from the presidency as a security threat and encouraged by her victory with Fox, Monroe called a press conference for the Monday after her death, to expose the Kennedys. The threat was enough to incite efforts to keep her quiet. She was invited to Cal-Neva for a party orchestrated to ensure her silence. There, in the presence of Sinatra, a Kennedy supporter, and the mafia boss Sam Giancana, she was drugged, sexually abused and photographed. The pictures, claims Sinatra's photographer, were to be used to discredit her and stop her going to the press.
They were never needed, because a week later Monroe was dead. Wolfe's concluding account of her final hours is compulsive, revealing, through the testimony of Norman Jeffries, Monroe's caretaker, and corroborative statements from police and neighbours, that what looked to the world like a 4am suicide was, in fact, a 10.45pm murder with a five-hour cover-up operation. According to Wolfe's new evidence, Bobby was in LA that weekend. He visited Monroe with Lawford on Saturday afternoon, and a violent argument took place. Bobby left, returning at 10pm with two LAPD security men while Monroe was on the phone to her Mexican boyfriend; she put the phone down to let them in but never came back. Her late-night visitors stayed for just 20 minutes. After they left, Jeffries and Monroe's housekeeper found her comatose and naked on the bed in the guest cottage, clutching the telephone but still alive. An ambulance was called, but attempts to resuscitate her failed, and she died at 10.45pm.
Wolfe's account of what happened between Monroe's death and the official call to the police is the key to the case. Monroe's pink hacienda was a time bomb waiting to explode and incriminate the Kennedys; it had to be cleared, and a suicide scene had to be created, before the public heard of her death. In an operation masterminded by the LAPD intelligence chief, the body was moved to the bedroom while the house was ransacked and Monroe's "little book of secrets", which recorded conversations with the Kennedys, was safely removed. It has never been found.
Perhaps the last word should go to Monroe herself. "The truth is that I've never fooled anyone," she once said. "I've sometimes let men fool themselves."
Nicola Upson is the author of "Mythologies: the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld" (Overlook Press)