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What ‘non compos mentis’ meant for Marilyn Monroe on The Misfits set

Bruno Cooke April 28, 2022
What ‘non compos mentis’ meant for Marilyn Monroe on The Misfits set
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Director John Huston once accused Marilyn Monroe of being “non compos mentis” on the set of his 1961 film The Misfits, in which she played Roslyn Taber. What does the phrase mean in the context of Huston’s statement, and how did Marilyn Monroe die?

‘Non compos mentis’ meaning explained in context of Marilyn Monroe’s drug use

“Non compos mentis” means “not of sound mind”. It’s a Latin phrase, uncommon in daily conversation. According to Wiktionary, it’s most likely to come up in legal contexts.

The phrase comprises three words – “non” meaning “not”; “compos” meaning “in control” or “having mastery”; and “mentis” meaning “of mind”. 

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Why did John Huston say she was not of sound mind?

Entertainment Online writes that when Monroe reported for work on John Huston’s film The Misfits, she was “drinking heavily and abusing drugs”. It was this that made director Huston “aware she was a problem”. 

“She’d be late on the set always,” he told journalist and author Anthony Summers, whose research forms much of the backbone of Netflix documentary The Unheard Tapes. 

“Sometimes the whole morning would go by. Sometimes she’d be alright. Occasionally, she’d be practically non compos mentis,” Huston said.

“I remember saying to (Monroe’s then-husband Arthur) Miller one day,” he recalled, “I said, ‘you know that if she went on at the rate that she was going, she’d be in an institution in two or three years, or dead’. And I said anyone who allows her to take a drug ought to be shot.”

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Monroe died just one year later as a result of a drug overdose

Arthur Miller, who wrote The Misfits, was married to Marilyn Monroe from 1956 until their divorce in 1961 – the same year Huston says she was “non compos mentis” on set.

Incidentally, three days after the production wrapped, co-star Clark Gable had his fourth heart attack. He died 11 days later, on 16 November 1960.

The toxicology analysis that followed Marilyn Monroe’s death on 4 August 1962 concluded the cause was acute barbiturate poisoning.

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But it wasn’t only sleeping pills Marilyn Monroe was using in the months before her death 

On her bedside table, according to a 2016 PBS column, were “sedatives, soporifics, tranquilisers, opiates, ‘speed pills’ and sleeping pills”. The bottle labelled Nembutal – sleeping pills – was empty.

But, PBS writes, in the months leading up to her death, Monroe was also “consuming, if not abusing”, several other drugs. 

These apparently included barbiturates (amytal, sodium pentothal, seconal, phenobarbital), amphetamines (methamphetamine, Dexedrine, Benzedrine and dexamyl), opiates (morphine, codeine, Percodan), a sedative called Librium, and alcohol.

The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes became available to Netflix subscribers on 27 April 2022.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.