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The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe’s Plastic Surgery

Posted on Jul 28, 2014 at

It’s no secret that Marilyn Monroe had surgical tweaks to perfect her beauty, though many of her fans don’t want to believe it.

The right to medical privacy ends 50 years after a person’s death. Monroe’s medical records were auctioned off fall 2013 . For almost two decades, her X-rays had been kept under lock and key in the office of Norman Leaf, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon who inherited them on the retirement of Gurdin, his medical partner. (Gurdin died in 1994 at age 83.) In his 2010 memoir, Are Those Real? True Tales of Plastic Surgery From Beverly Hills, Leaf wrote that “Gurdin had mentioned to me casually over the years that Marilyn had been a patient of his and that he had seen her shortly before she died.”

A Sacred Relic When Leaf eventually tired of paying storage fees for Gurdin’s files (which, legally, don’t have to be preserved after seven years), it was time to rescue Monroe’s records before disposing of the others. Once he found it, Leaf treated Monroe’s chart like a sacred relic, showing it reverentially to a select few who would appreciate it. I was lucky to be in that group. It was like being invited to see the tooth of the Buddha.

The story of Monroe’s surgery starts in 1949 or 1950 and is a (somewhat fuzzy) part of Hollywood mythology. According to Patrick McGrady, author of the book The Youth Doctors, Monroe was a $75-a-week contract player and getting nowhere fast when she allegedly overheard herself referred to at a party as a “chinless wonder.” Monroe consulted John Pangman, a surgeon who often operated in Gurdin’s office, who diagnosed a mild flatness of the chin and performed a cartilage graft, according to McGrady. Needing time to recover, Monroe postponed a screen test by explaining that she had fallen on her chin. When she finally took the test, the director said, “Honey, you should have cut your chin two years ago.”

Fake Name The medical records tell a similar story, with slight variations. On July 14, 1958—years after the original procedure— the actress showed up at Gurdin’s office using her husband, Arthur Miller’s, last name for cover. The visit was for an evaluation of a flat chin, which was apparently a remnant of the graft that Pangman, possibly working with Gurdin, had implanted in 1950. (Leaf later wrote that the graft was bovine, or cow, cartilage, since semi-soft silicone implants had yet to become the standard of care.) On the chart, Gurdin noted that the original graft had absorbed or dissolved over time, leaving virtually nothing but a scar under Monroe’s chin. There is no notation about whether Gurdin or Pangman replaced it, and no mention of work on Monroe’s nose—although Leaf claimed that Gurdin told him in private conversation that he and Pangman also refined Monroe’s nasal tip.

In an interview nearly 20 years ago, Dorothy Henderson, Gurdin’s nurse, told me she clearly recalled assisting Pangman at Monroe’s early chin graft operation, although she didn’t remember Gurdin being there, nor a nose job taking place. Neither did John Williams, another Doc Hollywood, who in an 2001 interview with London’s Daily Mail said he witnessed Pangman’s operation on Monroe’s chin, but that the implant was sponge, not cartilage. (That seems plausible to me, since Pangman was experimenting with a plastic sponge for breast implants years before silicone gel implants were developed.) Williams recalled Pangman’s description of Monroe as an up-and-coming actress who felt this would help her appearance in photographs. “She photographed beautifully after that and I realized how simple and important it could be for facial balance,” said Williams.

Broken Nose? Fast forward to 1962. Monroe’s only other visit to Gurdin recorded in the chart was an emergency consultation on June 7, 1962, less than two months before her death. The actress arrived with her psychiatrist. By this time, she was divorced from Miller and checked in under the alias Joan Newman, a name plucked from a list kept by nurse Henderson to disguise celebrities’ identities. There were many Joan Newmans in Gurdin’s files, Leaf wrote (“they appeared over and over again in those golden years”) but he knew this particular file was Monroe’s because the address noted was “12305 Fifth Helena, LA 49”—an obvious reference to the great star’s last abode.

The reason for the 1962 visit was an accidental fall, said Monroe, who feared she had broken her nose. There was “swelling and tenderness,” Gurdin wrote. Insiders believed the fall was no accident, but rather the result of abuse by the psychiatrist. “Mike Gurdin told me he thought she was beaten up,” says J. Arthur Jensen, associate clinical professor of plastic surgery at UCLA, who discussed Monroe with Gurdin when he was writing a book, The Kennedy Assassination

Second Opinion In 1962, the radiologists who reviewed Monroe’s X-rays detected no break in her nose. But Leaf was curious: Would more modern tools find something different? Recently, he sent the film out for a second opinion, and this time radiologists found “a minute fracture of the tip of the nasal bone,” he says—a condition that, even if detected, would not have required treatment.

The chart being auctioned contains nothing about Monroe’s alleged breast issues. I learned of those in 1995 when I interviewed Rosemary Eckersley, a friend of Monroe’s and the widow of Franklin Ashley, another legendary Hollywood surgeon, known for rejuvenating John Wayne. (Yes, John Wayne had facial work). Shortly before Monroe’s death “her breasts were infected,” Eckersley said, probably from liquid silicone injections. “Marilyn wanted Frank to do something about them, but he wouldn’t.” More accurately he couldn’t, because it’s almost impossible to remove free silicone after it’s injected.

We will probably never know the whole truth about Monroe’s cosmetic surgery. But one thing about the actress is certain: She was intensely interested in her appearance. “When my looks start to go, so will most of my fans,” she once said.

This article was originally published by Allure

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