‘Widespread Panic’: Marilyn, Fred Otash and the Making of a Modern Myth

Widespread Panic is the latest offering from crime novelist James Ellroy – author of The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential – on the exploits of disgraced cop turned Hollywood P.I. Fred Otash. Along with filmmaker David Fincher, Ellroy has been trying to get a TV series about Otash off the ground for almost a decade.

“From The Modern Master of Noir comes a novel about the malevolent monarch of the 1950s Hollywood underground – a tale of pervasive paranoia teeming with communist conspiracies, FBI finks, celebrity smut films and strange bedfellows. Freddy Otash is the man in the know and the man to know in ’50s L.A. He operates with two simple rules – he’ll do anything but commit murder and he’ll never work with the commies.

Freddy is an ex-L.A. cop on the skids. He snuffed a cop killer in cold blood – and it got to him bad. So Chief William H. Parker canned him. Now he’s a sleazoid private eye, a shakedown artist, a pimp – and, most notably, the head strongarm goon for Confidential magazine. Confidential presaged the idiot internet – and delivered the dirt, the dish, the insidious ink and the scurrilous skank on the feckless foibles of misanthropic movie stars, sex-soiled socialites and potzo politicians. Freaky Freddy outs them all!

In Widespread Panic, we traverse the depths of ’50s L.A. and dig on the inner workings of Confidential. You’ll go to Burt Lancaster’s lushly appointed torture den; you’ll groove overhyped legend James Dean as Freddy’s chief stooge; you’ll be there for Freddy’s ring-a-ding rendezvous with Liz Taylor; you’ll be front and centre as Freddy anoints himself the ‘Tattle Tyrant Who Held Hollywood Hostage’.”

Marilyn was one of many stars targeted by Confidential (see here), and media coverage of Ellroy’s novel has made much of Otash’s proclaimed links to MM.

“His most notorious activities in this era centre on his skulduggery with Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy – and it’s here, if that’s even possible, that the Fred Otash story becomes even murkier and more complicated. Otash later claimed that, around 1961, he was hired by mafia bosses to ‘dig up information on Kennedy’, reporting back on any rendezvous the politician had with women. He bugged houses Kennedy visited for liaisons and gained access to the most intimate scenes … Otash claimed he was bugging Monroe from 1961 and he gave numerous conflicting accounts of her mysterious death. In one interview he insisted it was ‘an accident’, in another he claimed, ‘I know for a fact that she committed suicide. She felt she was passed around and used and having nothing left to live for’. In 1985, he told the LA Times that on August 5 1962, the night of the actress’s death, he had been hurriedly hired by actor Peter Lawford, to ‘do anything to remove anything incriminating’ from the death scene that linked Monroe to Lawford’s brothers-in-law, President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, both of whom allegedly had affairs with Monroe.” – Martin Chilton, The Telegraph

Fred Otash

However, as Monroe biographer April VeVea writes here, Otash’s claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.

“Otash released a book [Investigation Hollywood] in 1974. This book was ghost written by Raymond Strait, Jayne Mansfield’s press agent, who will go on to write slanderous books about many different people in Hollywood including co-authoring Eric Root’s book on Lana Turner. There is NOTHING about Marilyn in this book, let alone his later claims. In 1985 Otash first came out with his claims that he had wired Marilyn’s home, had heard her killed, etc. These tapes have never been released although Otash’s daughter claims they exist as well as Ray Strait claiming he had heard them.

Only after many people had come out of the woodwork did Otash come out and say that he had bugged her apartment (see Anthony Summer’s Goddess, 1985) as well as her home on 12305 5th Helena Drive. There has never been any bugging equipment found at the apartment on Doheny Drive. Actress Veronica Hamel claimed that 5th Helena Drive was wired and bugged and that she spent $100,00 to get the wiring removed. The main issue with her claim is that there is no proof that she actually owned the home. Records support the Nunez family (who bought the home in 1963) still owning it until 1980. There are also no reports from when she supposedly found the bugs in 1972. Hamel apparently first made the claim in the 1980s.

Otash’s story has changed a few times over the years. First he was hired by Bernard Spindel who worked for Jimmy Hoffa who wanted evidence against the Kennedys. There is only one account of Bobby ever going to Marilyn’s home so it is unlikely that her house would be bugged. Otash further claims that in mid July of 1962 Marilyn asked him to bug her phone. With how private Marilyn was, it is unlikely that she would want someone like Otash (an informant for Confidential) to listen to her private conversations. Donald Wolfe states in his book [The Final Days of Marilyn Monroe, 1998] that Spindel wasn’t hired by Hoffa but actually by James Jesus Angleton and the CIA. He gives no clear reason why he believes this. Wolfe then goes on to say that the tapes were seized by NY-DA Frank Hogan in 1966. According to the DA, ALL files from Spindel were destroyed. How convenient. In 1992 Otash then turns his story around and makes the outlandish claim that he was hired by Howard Hughes who wanted to get the dirt on the Kennedys for Richard Nixon.

Otash’s claims heavily rely on the idea that Marilyn was sleeping with both Kennedy brothers. There is nothing to support these claims and transcripts of his tapes continue to be kept away from the public (Otash claims they were seized and destroyed in 1966). Fred Otash’s daughter Colleen continues to refuse to allow the public to view her father’s files or transcripts which is proof enough for me that she has her own doubts about their validity.”

Returning to Ellroy’s Widespread Panic, Marilyn is mentioned several times – with the novelist evincing a lurid imagination to rival Otash himself. “It’s January 16, 1954 … I quashed a story about Marilyn Monroe’s Mexican marriage,” Ellroy writes in Otash’s voice. “Marilyn grovels, grateful.” The ‘Mexican marriage’ is most likely a reference to Robert Slatzer’s claim to have briefly wed Marilyn in 1952.  Slatzer, a journalist, penned a Confidential story in 1957, claiming to have enjoyed a fling with Marilyn five years earlier.

As Rebecca Swift notes in an article for Immortal Marilyn, Slatzer wouldn’t mention their ‘marriage’ until the 1970s, while shopping his book on Monroe. In 1992, Donald Spoto revealed in his biography of MM that she had written a cheque in Los Angeles on the same date as her alleged Tijuana wedding to Slatzer. So it seems unlikely that she would have tried to ‘quash’ a story that had yet to be invented, about an event that probably never happened.

Elsewhere, Ellroy has Otash claim that Marilyn “dispensed head to rogue pharmacists, XXX-exclusive.  They dispensed noxious Nembutal back.” A cursory glance into Marilyn’s address books reveals that she was acquainted with numerous doctors, some of whom were undoubtedly willing to write dubious prescriptions for the barbiturates she craved. Nonetheless, the idea that Marilyn would have needed to bribe them with sexual favours is, quite frankly, absurd. As a Hollywood superstar, she already had the clout (and cash) to get whatever she wanted. (But then, this is fiction…)

It’s unclear whether Otash contributed to any of Confidential‘s Monroe exposés. The magazine’s most infamous scoop – the ‘Wrong Door Raid‘ of 1954 – was leaked by Phil Irwin, an associate of rival P.I. Barney Ruditsky. One of the magazine’s chief writers, the virulently anti-communist Howard Rushmore, also had his sights on Marilyn.

Interestingly, Otash’s supposed bugging of Marilyn’s home and her alleged affairs with the Kennedys aren’t featured in Widespread Panic, which suggests Ellroy is well aware that the evidence is thin. His scepticism on this matter was first glimpsed in American Tabloid, his 1995 novel following three rogue lawmen in the period before John F. Kennedy’s assassination. One of them, an FBI agent, is inspired to spread a rumour about Marilyn and the President after flipping television channels and seeing them on separate shows. He correctly guesses that this will delight FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who loathed Kennedy.

“Your Marilyn Monroe aside had me going for quite some time,” Ellroy has Hoover write to his aide. “What a myth you have created!” The agent’s fabrications are duly added to the Bureau’s files on Marilyn. “Even though Mr. Hoover knew full well that President John F. Kennedy was not playing bury-the-brisket with Marilyn Monroe, he kept her under surveillance anyway,” Ellroy comments, adding that during a six-week period, her file would mention further liaisons with “Louis Prima, two off-duty Marines, Spade Cooley, Franchot Tone, Yves Montand, Stan Kenton, David Seville of David Seville and the Chipmunks, four pizza delivery boys, bantamweight battler Fighting Harrada and a disc jockey at an all-spook R&B radio station.”

One assumes Yves Montand’s name was dropped in just to add a dash of credibility to this risible laundry list. Ellroy does a good job here of spoofing Marilyn’s real FBI files, which are, for the most part, little more than a compendium of tabloid gossip and outright lies. No more or less reliable, therefore, than the opportunistic claims of Fred Otash – which, perhaps, is the point James Ellroy has been making throughout his own literary career.