Having read Lois Banner’s biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, I was intrigued when I came across The Empty Glass in a magazine. The fact that it was about the mystery of Monroe’s death, but it was a novel, was very interesting. The cover also attracted me. It is eye-catching and graphic, but in some way also attractive. Having read the book it seems like a metaphor for Monroe’s situation at the end of her life – her dead eyes, face turned away, and a man so close to her. She looks unhappy and lost, and the lipstick writing screams of a desperate cry for help from a woman trapped behind an image.
Author J. I. Baker creates deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald as his narrator, and puts him on the scene at Monroe’s house, along with the police, in the hours after she died. He finds Monroe’s diary, in which she wrote the ‘truth’ about her affairs with Robert and Jack Kennedy. The diary is at the centre of one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding the star’s untimely death. Its contents, whatever they were, were certainly incriminating (at least for the Kennedys) and a lot of people didn’t want them getting out.
Fitzgerald is asked to track down a next of kin and looks in the diary for a number and finds one for ‘Mrs Green’, but whoever answers the phone claims not to know a Mrs Green. Fitzgerald becomes suspicious, and effectively begins his own investigation when he steals the diary.
Baker uses a lot of actual facts from the scene of Monroe’s death to motivate his narrator into investigating a possible cover-up or conspiracy. There were plenty of things that made her death look suspicious: she was found lying flat on her front, holding the phone – a position someone dying of an overdose would not have been able to maintain; the colouration on her body also suggested she had been moved after death; there was bruising on her hip, suggesting either violence or an injection; and of course, there was no water glass. At least, not when Baker’s Fitzgerald arrives at the house – one appears while he is there. The autopsy reveals no lethal amount of drugs in her system, meaning that she did not digest them – so how did they kill her? Both Banner and Baker posit that Monroe was given the lethal dose either in an enema or an injection. All highly irregular and very, very, suspicious.
As in real life (as Banner states), Fitzgerald finds that records ‘went missing’ in the weeks after Monroe’s death. The more he tries to find out the truth, the more he is hounded and accused. People follow him, they search his apartment while he is out, they threaten his son and ex wife. The only person he trusts is a journalist he met at the crime scene – but he’s not even sure if she’s worth trusting.
Baker writes in a typical – but still good – noir style that both engages and ‘creeps out’ the reader. I read this 352 page book in two sittings, proving just how compelling it is. That said, I did not necessarily ‘enjoy’ all of it. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads; as a book it is worth 5 but it was so distressing to read that I could not bring myself to say that I loved it. It would feel wrong. I do not love this story, I am fascinated by it. Similarly, Fitzgerald is fascinated by the mysteries of Monroe’s death. He does not enjoy his investigation, but he is compelled to continue it, no matter what the risk. But why?
The answer is similar to that of why the world is still entranced with Marilyn, why we still revere and admire her, why she still fascinates us. Her appeal was and is still based not only on her incredible beauty and attractiveness, but also on her obvious vulnerability and our collective urge to ‘save’ her. She was also a wonderful comic actress and very charming and funny. Plus, she wore amazing clothes and had fantastic hair. Even on a shallow level she is fascinating. I very much recommend reading an in-depth biography of Marilyn – Lois Banner’s is great because it approaches her from a feminist point of view but also a more psychological one, which for me worked very well. Either way, read something that examines Monroe psychologically rather than just gushing about her hair, make up, and wardrobe. Those are part of her psychology – but only a part. There is so much more.
The Empty Glass is a very troubling book. Not only is its subject matter disturbing, the journey that Fitzgerald takes is frankly terrifying. Knowing that the corruption goes all the way up through the LAPD and into the highest levels of American power only makes it all the more disturbing. Anyone with any affection for Monroe will find this book upsetting and personally I had to sit for a few minutes in silence once I finished it, and then hug my mum.
I do not think it is compulsory to read this book in order to fully understand Monroe (as much as one can 50 years after her death) but it is a very interesting book that if anything only prompts more questions. I for one would love to read (or for that matter, conduct) an interview with J. I. Baker and ask him about source material and how much he speculated or invented – and why he felt the need to write this book, in this form.
There is a website, emptyglassnovel.com, that is quite interesting; and Twitter accounts for Ben Fitzgerald (@monroedeath – subtle) and the journalist Jo Carnahan (@jocarnahan1). I find these Twitter accounts quite surreal and a bit off-putting. This along with the promise in J. I. Baker’s welcome DM to his followers that by visiting emptyglassnovel.com they might ‘even learn who killed Marilyn Monroe!’ is a little sensationalist and perhaps could be viewed as exploitative. It unsettles me in the same way that reading people saying they loved the book does. The marketing of the book makes you want to go ‘You know she was a person!’ – but the actual book does not. Baker – through Fitzgerald – treats Marilyn as a person and respects her, even if other characters do not. I think it is a brilliant book and very intelligent, but I cannot say I loved it, purely because it is so distressing and dark – and based in a reality of which we cannot know the darkest depths.
Published in the US on 19th July 2012 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin USA. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.