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Mark Medoff investigates Marilyn Monroe’s death in his new play, ‘Marilee and Baby Lamb’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A gilded tornado of desire, Marilyn Monroe blazed a path of stardust across the American psyche.

But she also read Shakespeare and Steinbeck, drank sparingly and was determined to sculpt herself into a serious actress.

Many believe she was ready to leave Hollywood. But just as she stood on the precipice of re-invention, she died.

Conspiracy theories have swirled around Monroe’s 1962 death for decades, ever since the Los Angeles County coroner declared the cause a “probable suicide” from “acute barbiturate poisoning.”

Mark Medoff.

Mark Medoff.

Tony Award-winning New Mexico playwright Mark Medoff has decided to confront the controversy head-on, fueled by his own research into Monroe’s untimely death.

His play, “Marliee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess,” opens at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces on Tuesday, and Broadway producers have already expressed interest in the piece.

In 2007, record and concert producer Dennis D’Amico conducted a series of interviews with Monroe’s confidant, seamstress and best friend Lena Pepitone, who lived with the actress for 6½ years before her death at age 36.

A former student, D’Amico sent 20 hours of interview tapes to Medoff, who teaches at New Mexico State University, as a potential project.

Medoff told D’Amico to winnow the information down to 20 critical bullet points.

Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grating while in character for the filming of "The Seven Year Itch" in this Sept. 9, 1954 file photo. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman, File)

Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grating while in character for the filming of “The Seven Year Itch” in this Sept. 9, 1954 file photo. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman, File)

“The sentence that set me off was that Marilyn Monroe was an ‘autodidact,'” Medoff said in a telephone interview.

He decided to extrapolate the life of the self-taught star and her friend into a play, shattering preconceptions of the “dumb blonde” character she had portrayed so often.

Medoff’s first step was to envision a bedroom lined with bookshelves.

“Lena said she always had a couple of books going,” he said. “She was always reading.”

Marilyn Monroe is seen in this publicity photo from 1953.

Marilyn Monroe is seen in this publicity photo from 1953.

The pair were like sisters, he said. Monroe called Pepitone “Baby Lamb” for her curly black hair; Pepitone referred to Monroe as “Marilee.” The two sang to each other like schoolgirls before bedtime.

According to Pepitone, after being nearly devoured by her sex goddess image, Hollywood exploitation and a series of users and abusers, Monroe desperately needed a friend who would never betray her.

“She has never been allowed to be herself,” Medoff said. “She wanted to make herself anew. In the play, I have her asking to play Electra and Medea. She has to purge herself of all the stupidities and idiocy of her life.”

Two days before her death, Monroe planned to give a press conference naming the men who had tried to control her, identifying both John and Robert Kennedy and her psychiatrist as her lovers, according to Pepitone. She said Monroe planned to return to New York, possibly reunite with her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio, and resume her acting studies.

“There was no way they would allow her to bring down the Kennedys,” Medoff contends. “They didn’t do it personally. But it came through the Kennedy family. The Kennedy family had a relationship with the Mafia. Joe (Kennedy) had always been involved with the Mob.”

Medoff called the drug overdose ruling “logically impossible” for several reasons, citing previously reported details from the autopsy report. It said the star took more than 50 Nembutal and chloral hydrate capsules from the empty prescription bottles found next to her bed.

But there was no water glass on her night table. Her housekeeper said her bathroom was out of order with no running water. The autopsy found no tell-tale gelatin from the capsules in her stomach.

“She was held down with pillows so there were no marks,” Medoff said.

“Lena was not there when she died, so these are deductions, extrapolations,” he acknowledged. “She was placed in bed in a way, according to Lena, that she never slept.”

A puncture wound found in her armpit was dismissed as an ingrown hair, D’Amico said.

“Taking control cost her her life,” Medoff said.

“The thing that really convinced me (she was murdered) is that Marilyn called Lena the night before she died,” D’Amico said. “She said, ‘I can’t wait to come back to New York. I’m off drugs; I’m off booze and I’m feeling healthier than I’ve ever been in my life.'”

Pepitone was adamant that Monroe had been murdered, D’Amico said.

“She said over and over, ‘They killed her.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘There are too many Kennedys still alive for me to talk.”

Pepitone died in 2011.