Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and 5 Celebrity Prescription Drug Deaths

Updated on December 13, 2017
Timothy Anderson profile image

Tim Anderson is a freelance writer/researcher with articles published in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy magazine, TV Guide and others.

Marilyn Monroe is considered America's greatest sex symbol ever.
Marilyn Monroe is considered America's greatest sex symbol ever.

1. Marilyn Monroe

Before she became famous as Hollywood's top sex symbol, she was California's "Artichoke Queen," having won a beauty contest in Castroville, California in 1948.

We know her today as Marilyn Monroe, but she was born Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926 in Los Angeles. After her mother began suffering from mental illness, the young beauty ended up being shuttled between various foster homes. So to escape from her unhappy situation, the 16-year-old married her first husband, James Dougherty, whom she'd met at work. But the marriage would only last four years.

Afterwards, she began doing some modeling and bit movie parts. A favorite of pin-up artists, one of her photos ended up in the first issue of Playboy magazine. Hollywood movie offers were pouring in, and she was soon starring in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire.

Marilyn Monroe had now become a major star and cinema's reigning sex symbol.

Nonetheless, the acclaim and popularity came with a price, and the rising star battled depression, anxiety, and drug dependence after she began taking prescription barbiturates and other drugs. By the early 1960s she was addicted to a number of them.

On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead in her bed. A later autopsy would suggest she been dead for several hours before being found, and would reveal she had lethal amounts of chloral hydrate and pentobarbital in her system. The Coroner declared her death a "probable suicide," but today many conspiracy theorists believe she was murdered.

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Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.

2. Elvis Presley

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in 1935 to Gladys and Vernon Presley in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was a twin, but his brother Jesse didn't survive and was buried in an unmarked grave. Today, the exact burial spot is unknown, lost over time.

When he was a teenager, the Presley family moved to nearby Memphis, Tennessee where the young singer and guitar player began to perfect his craft. Although he couldn't read music, he simply studied and played by ear.

In 1954, while playing with some friends at the Sun Studios, Elvis began to play a lively version of "That's All Right." They made a recording the same evening, and three days later it was playing on Memphis' radio stations, and his career was off.

During his lifetime Elvis had ten albums that were number one in sales and eighteen singles that hit number one on US Pop charts. He also filmed over 30 movies, saying his favorite was 1958's King Creole. Curiously, other than two concerts in Canada, Presley never performed outside the U.S., even though he'd lived in Germany for a year in the 1950s.

In the last years of his life, Elvis put on weight and relied heavily on prescription drugs his doctor was only too happy to provide. When he died at home in his bathroom, Elvis' autopsy will later reveal there were ten different drugs in his bloodstream.

Of these Elvis Presley songs, which one is your favorite?

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Michael Jackson -- The King of Pop.
Michael Jackson -- The King of Pop.

3. Michael Jackson

Born in Gary, Indiana in 1958 to Joe and Katherine Jackson, Michael was the eighth of ten children. In 1964, Joe organized five of his sons into a group called The Jackson Five, with Tito, Jackie, Marlon, Jermaine and Michael. The five brothers were soon topping the charts with hits like "I'll Be There," "ABC," and "I Want You Back." The family left Gary in 1969 and moved to Los Angeles where their fame continued to grow.

In the early 1970s, Michael began to morph into a teen idol and started recording solo, though occasionally appearing with his brothers. Michael Jackson songs were soon topping the charts, and two of his early hits were "Ben," and "Got To Be There." But the moonwalker dancer and singer shot to super-stardom in 1982 when he released his album Thriller and the accompanying music video. The video, narrated by horror legend Vincent Price and directed by John Landis, was shot at a cost of $500,000 making it the most expensive music video of the time.

As the pop singer's popularity grew, so did his bizarre behavior. Jackson had many cosmetic surgeries that would drastically alter his appearance. He had a childish fascination with Disneyland and Disney's movie, Peter Pan, eventually building his own small version of Disneyland near Santa Ynez, California which he called Never-Never Land.

In the last years of his life, Jackson suffered from insomnia and like Elvis, had a physician only too happy to prescribe whatever drugs he demanded. On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson died in his rented Beverly Hills home from cardiac arrest caused by propofol and bensodiazepine intoxication. His autopsy found an incredible array of mood and anti-depressant drugs in his system, including Valium, Lorazepam, midazolam, lidocaine, propofol, and others. Jackson's personal doctor would later stand trial and be convicted for involuntary manslaughter and spend two years in prison.

Heath Ledger - posthumous Academy Award winner.
Heath Ledger - posthumous Academy Award winner.

4. Heath Ledger

The actor who would win an Academy Award as "The Joker" in a Batman movie, Heath Ledger was born on April 4, 1979 in Perth, Australia. Earlier in life, he was something of a chess prodigy and when only 10 he won Western Australia's Junior Chess Championship.

Having acquired the acting bug as he grew into his teens, he headed for Los Angeles after turning 19 and soon he was starring in The Patriot with Mel Gibson, followed by A Knight's Tale and others. But his break-out role that captured international attention and acclaim was as a cowboy named Ennis Del Mar who was a closet gay and eventual lover of rodeo rider Jack Twist, a role played by Jake Gyllenhaal. At just age 26, Ledger found himself with an Academy Award nomination for the 2005 Best Actor Oscar, although he would lose to Phillip Seymour Hoffman who won for Capote.

Shortly after finishing his role as The Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight, Ledger was found unconscious by his housekeeper in his New York City apartment. When emergency technicians arrived shortly after 3:30 p.m. they prounounced the actor dead. A subsequent autopsy would find oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, doxylamine and other drugs in his system. The medical examiner will rule Heath Ledger's death an accident from "abuse of prescribed medications."

Ironically, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death six years later would be for similar reasons.

The Dark Knight opened in theaters six months after Ledger's death and grossed more than $400 million in just 18 days. He was posthumously award both a Golden Globe, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as The Joker, one of only two actors -- Peter Finch is the other -- to win an Academy Award after their deaths.


5. Prince

His birth name really was Prince. Born in 1958 in Minneapolis, Prince Rogers Nelson loved music and playing the guitar. He was so good that he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records before he turned 18.

The public loved him and his flamboyant style and flashy costumes and over the years he would rack up eight Grammys, a Golden Globe Award, six American Music Awards, and win an Oscar for Best Original Song Score for "Purple Rain."

During his career, he sold over 100 million records worldwide, and in 2004 -- his first year of eligibility -- he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In April 2016, after feeling ill, Prince cancelled two shows in Atlanta and flew back to his home in Minneapolis in his private jet. While enroute, the jet made an emergency landing in Illinois where Prince was taken to a local hospital and administered Narcan.

After regaining consciousness, against the advice of doctors, he left the hospital and finished his flight back home. But less than a week later he was found unconscious in the elevator of his mansion and paramedics were unable to revive him. Nearly two months after his autopsy, the Anoka County Medical Examiner's Office announced Prince's death was due to an accidental overdose of fentanyl, a popular prescription pain killer.

Prince was just 57, but one of the early casualties of the opioid epidemic which was beginning to sweep through America.

How well do you know Prince songs?

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Jimi Hendrix, the Purple Haze paratrooper.
Jimi Hendrix, the Purple Haze paratrooper.

6. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was born almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Seattle, Washington. As a kid, he often carried around a small broom and pretended he was playing a guitar, his family too poor to buy him the real thing.

Then one day an elderly neighborlady let him have an old, busted ukulele, and the persistent lad learned to play his miniature "guitar" by ear. He especially loved Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." By the time he was 15 Jimi had his own guitar and began teaching himself to play in earnest.

As a teen, however, he had a penchant for getting into trouble and to avoid jail time he ended up joining the U.S. Army as a paratrooper. Eight months later he was an official member of the celebrated Screaming Eagles in the 101st Airborne Division. Army life, however, did not sit well with him and after less than two years in the service, he was given an early discharge.

Jimi Hendrix plays the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

In 1966, he moved to London where he soon had three top ten hits, including his signature song "Purple Haze."

The fuse for his rocketing success was lit. The following year he returned to the United States to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. His album Electrice Ladyland hit number one in the U.S. and by the time he headlined at Woodstock in 1968, Jimi Hendrix was the world's highest-paid performer.

But there was a dark side to his success: Hendrix had a drinking problem that worsened when he began experimenting with drugs. Sometimes when inebriated he would become violent and combative, fighting demons only he could see. And as his success and accolades grew, so did his drinking and drug use.

On September 17, 1980 while in London, Hendrix had dinner and a bottle of wine with lady friend Monika Dannemann. They went to bed and the next morning she woke up next to him and found him unresponsive. He was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. A subsequent autopsy determined he'd choked to death in his own vomit due to barbiturate intoxication. Dannemann would later admit that Hendrix had taken nine prescription sleeping pills called Vesparax, which were 18 times higher than the recommended dosage.

Hendrix was just 27 when he died. Rolling Stone will later call him the world's greatest guitarist, and sixth greatest overall artist in history.

Judy Garland as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
Judy Garland as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

7. Judy Garland

Frances Ethel Gumm. That was the first name of the young lass who would grow up to star in one of America's most beloved movies, The Wizard of Oz.

Born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922 to parents who were in the entertainment business, the toddler they nicknamed "Baby," and two older sisters were soon singing and performing onstage in local theaters and at social events. In 1928 they all moved west to Lancaster, California and spent the next seven years perfecting their craft and moving up the ladder of success, eventually changing their name to "The Garland Sisters," with Frances using the name "Judy."

Louis B. Mayer caught their act and offered Judy a contract with MGM. It was 1935, an important year in Judy's life. Not only did the 13-year-old sign with Mayer, but The Garland Sisters broke up, and a few months later their father died at age 49 from meningitis. But she had little time to mourn or dwell on her losses; Mayer had smartly teamed her with another young actor named Mickey Rooney and the pair shot to great success in various Andy Hardy films. Judy Garland movies were making the studio a lot of money.

After The Wizard of Oz, which of the following Judy Garland films is your favorite?

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This success, however, came with a hidden cost. Unbeknownst to the public, the studio was churning out one film after another, trying to cram as many Andy Hardy and other teen-related films as possible into each year, knowing their young stars were maturing quickly. Judy and Mickey were given amphetamines to stay awake and alert during the rigourous filming schedules. And when they weren't filming, the young actors were often shuttled from city to city to promote their current movie.

By 1938, when she was filming The Wizard of Oz for release the following year, Judy Garland was just 16 and already addicted to the prescription drugs the studio demanded she take. It would begin a lifelong battle she would ultimately lose. Her final years were full of embarassing drug-induced scandals, and in one incident she was booed onstage by the crowd and had to leave.

On June 22, 1969 her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, found his 47-year-old wife unconscious and unresponsive in the bathroom of a home they were renting in London. After an autopsy the coroner would declare her death to be caused by an accidental overdose of barbiturates. Her blood contained a lethal dose of Seconal, and two prescription bottles of the barbiturate - one half empty - were found next to her bed.

In 1997, Judy Garland was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The American Film Institute would name her song "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" the number one movie song of all time, and name her the eighth greatest female star of the golden era of film.

Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

© 2017 Tim Anderson


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