In the novel, Marilyn Monroe drinks from the altar of bones and it fundamentally changes her. This change correlates with what really happened in the life of this tragic film icon in the last months of her life.
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson (quickly changed to Baker by her mother), had a difficult childhood. Her mentally unstable mother was in and out of institutions, and her father (whose identity is subject to question) was not in the picture. Young Norma Jeane spent much of her childhood in foster homes and with various relatives. She may have suffered sexual abuse.
From this difficult back ground, Norma Jeane achieved success as a model and then, under the name Marilyn Monroe, as an actress. But by 1960 her life was unraveling. She had had two miscarriages in recent years and her third marriage, to playwright Arthur Miller, was foundering. She suffered from acute insomnia and relied heavily on prescription drugs. She also drank a great deal. She and Miller separated after the filming of the movie The Misfits. Their divorce was finalized in January 1961. The movie opened to mixed reviews and was not a box office success. Her co-star, Clark Gable, died of a heart attack before the film was released.
In the winter of 1961, Marilyn spent time in the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. She later described this time as a “nightmare.” She contacted Joe DiMaggio, to whom she had been married (he was the second of her three husbands), and he helped her transfer to the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
Marilyn needed money and was restless without work. In 1962 she was hired for $100,000 to appear opposite Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse in the movie Something’s Got to Give (in contrast, Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1,000,000 for Cleopatra). During filming, Marilyn was ill, running a 101 degree fever, and suffering from horrible insomnia and crippling menstrual periods. After three weeks of shooting she had only managed six days of work. She was so heavily dependent on barbiturates that they had to hide notes around the set to help her remember her lines. And yet the odd thing was, she looked sensational in the rushes.
In May 1962 Marilyn flew to New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden. The way she sang the song more or less announced their love affair, with the result that Kennedy was pressured to end the relationship. There were rumors that Marilyn later had an affair with Robert F. Kennedy, but it has never actually been proven one way or another. They certainly were close and spent a great deal of time together.
On Monday, June 1, Marilyn had her own birthday party on the set of Something’s Got to Give. But she didn’t go to work for the next few days and on Thursday, June 4, she was fired.
This is the point in the book when Katya Orlova gives Marilyn the altar of bones because she is dangerously ill following an abortion. Though Marilyn is known to have had abortions, there’s no evidence that she had one at this point in her life. What is consistent with the historical record is that Marilyn’s life began to turn around. She started working out. A masseuse said her muscle tone was the best it had been in years. Photos taken in a swimming pool right before she died show how much slimmer she was. She managed to get hired back for Something’s Got to Give. The plan was to resume filming in September after Dean Martin’s nightclub tour ended.
During the summer months she was seeing her psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson, daily and sometimes more than once a day. He and her physician, Dr. Engelberg, were trying to wean her off her dependency on prescription drugs. The part in Altar of Bones about her being unable to fall asleep except in absolute darkness is true. She would staple the drapes to the window frames to shut out even the barest hint of light.
In 2005 some transcripts of one of Marilyn’s last sessions with Dr. Greenson were released. Many of the things she says in Altar of Bones come directly from these transcripts. For instance, her revelation that she’d never had an orgasm until her psychiatrist told her about masturbation. “I never cried so hard as I did after my first orgasm,” she said. “It was because of the years I had never had orgasms. What wasted years. How can I describe to you, a man, what an orgasm feels like to a woman.” She went on to say, “Speaking of Oscars, I would win overwhelmingly if the Academy gave an Oscar for faking orgasm. I have done some of my best acting convincing my partners I was in the throws of ecstasy.”
She also talked in the session about wanting to do Shakespeare. She planned to take a year to study Shakespeare with Lee Strasberg. “I’ll pay him to work only with me,” she said. “He said I could do Shakespeare. I’ll make him prove it.” Her line in Altar of Bones (in the Brown Derby scene) about wanting to do a Marilyn Monroe Shakespeare Festival is something she really said. She planned to play Juliet first. She said she’d create a Juliet who was an innocent virgin but whose budding womanhood was fantastically sexy.
She also confided in Dr. Greenson that she wanted him to get rid of her housekeeper Eunice Murray (whom Greenson employed). Marilyn said they didn’t like each other, and she couldn’t put up with Mrs. Murray’s insolence and disregard for anything Marilyn asked her to do.
Marilyn said that the day before she had stood naked in front a full length mirror and liked what she saw. She decided wanted to be the highest paid actress in Hollywood—double what Taylor got and a piece of the gross. She added that she’d thrown all her pills in the toilet, and he’d see how serious she was.
Not long after this session, Marilyn was dead, at the age of thirty-six. Lee Strasberg gave the eulogy at her funeral. “Others were as physically beautiful as she was,” he said, “but there was obviously something more in her. Something that people saw and recognized in her performances and with which they identified. She had a luminous quality—a combination of wistfulness, radiance, yearning—that set her apart and yet made everyone wish to be a part of it, to share in the childish naiveté that was at once so shy and yet so vibrant.”