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The X-Rays of Others

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Marilyn Monroe's x-rays, white-on-black films of her chest and pelvis, are up for grabs this weekend. The images, long held by the star's deceased gynecologist, will be sold at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Julien's Auctions, a Hollywood firm specializing in the sale of celebrity memorabilia, expects to fetch at least $3,000 for these rare pix.

I heard this news one recent morning while dressing. Without thinking, I looked up at the small TV in my bedroom as a CNN anchor, Brooke Anderson, primed viewers on the upcoming event. Monroe's clear-dark lung fields filled most of my screen, revealing the particular curves of her whited-out heart. I couldn't help but notice the breast shadows peeking out at the edges of her ribbed thoracic cavity.

Immediately I regretted my glance. These were her films.

Norma Jeane Mortenson, who assumed the name of Marilyn Monroe, died on August 5, 1962 at the age of 36, a few weeks before my second birthday. My knowledge of the beautiful, troubled icon draws from a few, scattered and wistful remarks by older men over the intervening years, her movies and, mainly, her fame -- kindled with time by cultural references: Andy Warhol's silk-screens and songs like Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" the Clash's late Joe Strummer alludes to her death in his melodic "Ramshackle Day Parade," a personal favorite.

Monroe chose a career in the limelight, lifted by swirls of glamour, rumor and rare beauty. Her private figure, loaded with confusion and despair, spilled into our popular culture years ago. Still, 37 years after her death, I wonder if any traces remain of her hidden self, confidential and unexposed. Perhaps the x-rays don't belong in the public domain.

The chest, abdominal and pelvic images were part of the personal health record that she, presumably, once entrusted to her physician for safekeeping. Now, digitized versions of these films can be found in a flash, on websites for Julien's auction house and other Internet platforms. Close inspection of one shot reveals it was taken at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. There's a medical record number. The patient's name is listed as DiMaggio, Marilyn. The date was November 10, 1954.

Monroe's x-rays are hardly sexy, less titillating than some of her ordinary photos. Still, they contain privileged information -- the sort intended for her doctors' eyes only, and that might be protected by modern health care privacy laws.

As a doctor, I know that I shouldn't view the films. She was not my patient and never will be. There's nothing to learn here, no medical mystery to solve. The only reason to look would be to satisfy curiosity, or to consider making a bid at auction.

Darren Julien, founder of Julien's Auctions, says the x-rays are a good investment. He would know; a few years ago he received a sum of $7,000 for Elvis Presley's medical images. These are a unique kind of novelty item that collectors would prize, he told me. "Anything associated with Marilyn Monroe is highly valuable."

The images, proffered by the family of Dr. Leon Krohn, include two standard chest x-rays: an anterior-posterior and a lateral film in separate sale lots, and three images of her lower torso showing instruments and contrast dye. Other items for sale include the reclining couch from the office of the star's psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, a place where Monroe may have bared her deepest secrets, some intimate garments and hand-written letters.

When Monroe was hospitalized in 1954, medical privacy laws were essentially non-existent. Now, a physician would have to ask a patient's permission before displaying her films before a classroom of students, on TV or the Web. The images would be stripped of any identifying labels.

This story, on patient's rights and privacy, relates to that of another woman who received care in the same era. Henrietta Lacks, the subject of Rebecca Skloot's current best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, died of cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She was 31 years old and had five children. Without her explicit consent, physicians took malignant, ever-replicating cells from her tumor to establish valuable cell lines that have been used -- and sold -- for medical research ever since, while the family stayed impoverished for decades.

It seems ironic that Monroe, who was hospitalized for gynecological reasons and died childless, has no descendants to hold her records near, to intervene or somehow say "no, the x-rays are off-limits." Rather, it's her doctor's children who've cut the deal.

I can't help thinking that she, who struggled so in her life, in and out of strangers' households, love affairs and flicks, is defenseless now again. The films render her vulnerable, again, to more inspection. The loss of privacy is irrevocable, a violation after death.

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