Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, three sentences were paraphrased from a TMZ report without attribution. The Daily Beast has added the attribution and regrets the error.
“This is like Lindsay Lohan dying,” a studio executive told me, reacting to the news Sunday afternoon that 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy had been pronounced dead a few hours earlier at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “It really doesn’t come, unfortunately, as a shock.”
While Murphy, the star of Clueless, Don't Say a Word and, most memorably, 8 Mile, may have had a clean-cut image for most of her fans, inside the small world of Hollywood, the sentiment yesterday was unanimous: She was a mess.
“She was a space cadet most of the time when I saw her,” said a studio executive.
Virtually everyone I spoke with who knew her—none of whom would allow their names to be used—suggested that it was a given that she had a drug problem, involving both heroin and cocaine, though none admitted to directly seeing her use or abuse narcotics. “She had too many drugs and too little food,” said a makeup artist who had worked with her, adding that she sometimes “nodded off” in front of her.
“She was a space cadet most of the time when I saw her,” added the studio executive. Others echoed that privately.
Murphy had been dogged by such rumors for years, even feeling it necessary, in 2005, to make a statement about cocaine following a big weight loss: "I have never tried it in my entire life. I've never even seen it. I am also way too high-strung. I can't even take a Sudafed. Can you imagine? My God. I think my heart would explode."
But things had gotten a lot worse recently, especially since Murphy, who had earlier dated Ashton Kutcher, married British director/producer Simon Monjack at his Hollywood house in a small ceremony in May 2007.
Monjack’s reputation rivaled Murphy’s. He was arrested on expired visa charges in the middle of the night, less than two months before he got hitched to Murphy; had a $470,132 judgment against him from a British bank and a $50,000 judgment from his ex-wife; and had been evicted from two apartments for failing to pay back rent. (Monjack's lawyer told reporters the charges were made by "disgruntled ex-girlfriends" and that immigration lawyers had concluded the marriage had no bearing on his visa status.)
After her marriage to Monjack, she was spotted at a number of industry functions seemingly “out of it,” a fellow actor told me late Sunday. Some acquaintances weren’t sure the matchup was the best for an actress who might be battling her own demons and was in public denial of any problem. Actor and sometimes publicist Joel Michaely had been inseparable from Murphy for a few years and was her closest platonic friend. Michaely seemed to be a stabilizing influence on Murphy. But after Monjack came on board, Michaely was out. “She’s going through some things in her life right now,” an acquaintance told me he said, “and I don’t want to be around her right now.” (Michaely could not be reached for comment.)
Last year, Murphy began acting bizarrely while on the Los Angeles movie set of Across the Hall, one crewman told me. Monjack also drew attention. He not only loitered on the set, but interrupted so frequently that the movie’s producers called a summit to figure out how to block him from the set without further infuriating Murphy.
Things got worse this November. While filming the upcoming movie The Caller, Murphy was replaced with Twilight star Rachelle Lefevre. In the world of Hollywood, no star, even a difficult one, is fired. Though Murphy’s publicist denied her dismissal had anything to do with bad behavior, sources close to the production company said that she had been so difficult on set, showing up late, and sometimes unable to film, that they replaced her. Saturday Night Live subsequently did a skit mocking her out-of-it demeanor.
On November 29, Murphy and Monjack flew back to Los Angeles after a stay in New York. Paparazzi waiting to meet them were kept at bay by American Airlines security because of “a medical emergency.” The EMT workers who got on the plane found Monjack incoherent. At Marina Del Ray Medical Center, where he was brought by ambulance, he emerged disheveled several hours later, but didn’t talk to the press. A Murphy rep said the ER detour was only an asthma scare, and he was well enough for the couple of stop at an In and Out Burger on the way home.
The Daily Beast has learned that on December 1, at a premiere, two autograph seekers waited to get some signatures from Murphy. They were regular fans and she knew them. Later, they told an acquaintance that she “seemed totally out of it.”
Today, Murphy’s publicist, Nicole Perna, issued a statement: "In this time of sadness, the family thanks you for your love and support. It is their wish that you respect their privacy."
That is unlikely to be the case until the authorities finish their examination about the cause of death. All they will release so far is the timeline. The Los Angeles Fire Department responded shortly after 8 a.m. to a 911 call from Monjack and Murphy’s West Hollywood Hills home at 1895 West Rising Glen. Brittany Murphy's mother, Sharon, who divorced her convicted mobster husband, Angelo Bertolotti, when Brittany was only 2, evidently found her daughter unconscious in the shower. A British neighbor, Claire Staples, came outside when she heard the early-morning commotion.
The ambulance that arrived was too large, The Daily Beast learned, to enter the house’s driveway. According to TMZ, paramedics "quickly determined Murphy was in full cardiac arrest and immediately administered CPR." They worked on Murphy on a stretcher. Staples watched as they pumped her chest in a vain effort to revive her. "The paramedics continued CPR en route to the hospital," TMZ reports, "but Murphy never responded."
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center spokeswoman Sally Stewart said Murphy died at 10:04 a.m., although one person at the scene told The Daily Beast that she was dead on arrival. Although cardiac arrest was unofficially mentioned in the confusion at the hospital, Stewart would not provide an official cause of death or any other information.
Los Angeles police officially opened an investigation into Murphy’s death, said Officer Norma Eisenman. Early this afternoon, a uniformed sergeant arrived and told the small group of reporters that it was “not a crime scene.” Four hours later, by early evening, when the street was crammed with reporters and TV trucks, two plainclothes detectives arrived, and sealed the scene.
The Daily Beast has learned that Murphy, as do many stars, used an alias—Lola Manilow—when booking cars and hotels and travel. Police would not say whether they were looking into Murphy’s prescription history, nor whether they were checking prescriptions possibly written to her alias. The coroner has slated an autopsy for Monday or Tuesday. Monjack insisted, to no avail, that Cedars-Sinai not do an autopsy, sources told me, but the Murphy family is cooperating completely with the police and coroner. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Coroner's Office attributed her death to what appeared to be "natural causes."
It should be an interesting report. Murphy, together with a handful of other celebs—Victoria Beckham, Teri Hatcher, and Christine Taylor—were dubbed in the press “Lollipop Syndrome” girls, for their gaunt bodies and huge heads. It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1999, she beat out Melissa Etheridge to land the lead in the never-made biopic of another celebrity who died too young. The subject: the healthy-sized Janis Joplin.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.