I can’t really say when I first became aware of the Romanovs, the ill-fated family that ruled Russia for over 300 hundred years and culminated in the person of Nicholas II, the last tsar of the dynasty. It probably was when I saw Anastasia, a 1956 film which won Ingrid Bergman the second of her three Oscars and was a highly fictionalized story based on Anna Anderson, the most famous of the Anastasia claimants.
Seeing Nicholas and Alexandra after its release in 1971, I was further fascinated by the story about the decline of the Romanovs and the eventual murder of the imperial family. Coupling the history as outlined with the fiction of Anastasia, I spent years believing the youngest of the daughters had somehow survived the brutal execution and grew up to be Ingrid Bergman, figuratively if not literally.
That made for a better story than simply the killing of the Romanovs and the subsequent claims of an imposter. It didn’t occur to me at the time that my preferred narrative added additional horrors to Ms. Anderson, who was already a clearly traumatized and damaged soul.
The bodies of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their daughters were exhumed in 1991, and the bodies of the only son and the remaining daughter were found in 2007. Subsequent DNA testing determined that Anna Anderson wasn’t Anastasia, which was enough for me. But this false story continues to be reinforced by the animated movie and a Broadway musical. Who wants truth when a lie sells tickets?
Marilyn Monroe sold a lot of tickets in her lifetime. Her death in 1962 was deemed a probable suicide, an unsatisfactory conclusion for a bona fide screen legend and arguably the greatest sex symbol of the 20th Century. Fred Lawrence Guiles’ biography Norma Jean was published in 1969, and I purchased my copy of it with saved up allowance from the little book store with the sweet lady shopkeeper, who must have considered me her most precocious client.
Guiles provided the first telling of the story of Monroe’s life and the difficulties she had as a child, a young starlet, and a full blown Movie Star. But it was Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography that first asserted that she was murdered by the FBI or the CIA (or both) to protect the Kennedys. Over the years, conspiracy theories ripened to include more direct association by JFK or RFK (or both) in her death. Perhaps a more satisfactory ending to Monroe’s story for some, I suppose, as it removes the onus of suicide from the narrative, while distracting from the known truth of her life.
But if we allow ourselves that escape hatch, our Marilyn becomes even more a victim of the men in her life. This diverts our attention from Marilyn as a strong, if troubled, woman. After all, she was instrumental in creating her public persona, then leveraging her star power to fight with the studio for more money and better parts, and ultimately founding her own production company.
Whether that fatal overdose was accidental or intentional will never be known. But administered by murderous hands? Who wants truth to get in the way of selling books?
President Kennedy may have a role in the wishful narrative of the death of Marilyn Monroe, but his own assassination provides the richest harvest of dubious theories surrounding any event in American history. Growing up in Texas, I remember listening to the grown-ups talking in hushed tones about all the possibilities of who really killed JFK, why Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, and the tantalizing possibility that a couple of cousins had worked at Ruby’s notorious Carousel Club.
It seemed to me that the longer they talked, the more diverse the field of who was involved grew. Could it have been Castro? LBJ? What about the FBI, CIA, or KGB? Perhaps the Mafia was behind it. Clearly it had to be some figure or combination of players acting together to murder the most powerful man in the world. Who wants to believe that a lone crackpot could successfully pull off such an affront to the United States? After all, we’re not that vulnerable. Are we?
There isn’t a happy ending to any of these stories—people still end up dead. It takes Quentin Tarantino to rewrite history that way. Of course, a bunch of folks are going to end up dead by the time he’s done, but at least it’ll be the right people who got killed. I can see Mr. Tarantino revising the Monroe and Kennedy stories to give them a Hollywood finish, but even he might be unable to clean up the Romanovs. But, I’m pretty sure he could come up with three or four alternate histories for the fine messes we’ve gotten ourselves into today.