Marilyn Monroe’s Last Months

April 22, 2011

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.”

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The Death of Marilyn Monroe

March 29, 2011

The original coroner’s report ruled that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, but there is enough mystery still surrounding her death that it could have been suicide, accidental overdose, or perhaps even murder. In Altar of Bones, KGB general Nikolai Popov and Mike O’Malley (Ry’s father) orchestrate Marilyn Monroe’s murder. That, of course, is fictional, but I tried to match the circumstances of the murder to what is known about Marilyn’s death. For instance when her body was discovered she was completely nude, yet she was known to always sleep in a brassiere for fear her breasts would sag. So in Altar of Bones, Popov takes off Marilyn’s bra to see her breasts.

This much is known to be fact. Sometime after 10 p.m. on the night of August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe slipped into a coma caused by an overdose of chloral hydrate in the bedroom of her home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood. She never regained consciousness.

Marilyn had moved into the house on Helena Drive not too long before. The furniture she’d ordered from Mexico hadn’t arrived yet so, as is described in Altar of Bones, the house had an unfinished look, with piles of records in a corner, magazines strewn about, cartons of books stacked on the floor.

Marilyn had had a love affair with John F. Kennedy (also a major plot point in Altar of Bones). She also had a relationship of some sort, very likely a love affair, with Robert F. Kennedy, which ended just before she died. In the year and a half before her death, she was in and out of psychiatric clinics seeking treatment for her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She had become addicted to the barbiturate Nembutal in an effort to combat her crippling insomnia. Her psychiatrist, Dr, Greenson, whom she was seeing almost daily, and her personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, both liberally prescribed barbiturates for her.

Her addiction had begun to interfere with her work. She was fired from the set of Something’s Got to Give shortly before her death because she either wouldn’t show up at all or would show up so looped up on pills that she couldn’t remember her lines. Also, as she says in her own words in the book, she suffered from a chronic respiratory infection during this time, causing her to miss even more time on the set. However, as is mentioned in Altar of Bones, on August 1st she had struck new deal with 20th Century Fox.

Eunice Murray, who was Marilyn’s housekeeper but was employed by Dr. Greenson, reported that at 7:30 on the night of August 4th she heard Marilyn on the phone sounding happier. Marilyn then came to the door and said good night. By 8:20 Mrs. Murray turned in herself. Marilyn’s friend, model and actress Jeanne Carmen, said that Marilyn called her later that night and asked for more sleeping pills. But Carmen had had a few drinks and didn’t feel comfortable driving, so she told Marilyn she wasn’t able to bring her the pills.

Mrs. Murray said that she went into Marilyn’s room at 3:30 a.m. and found her unconscious with the telephone clutched in her hand. The police were never able to discover whom Marilyn was talking to, and the phone call records from the night of her death were erased, so it’s impossible to verify if she did in fact speak with any of the people who claimed to have talked to her that night or whom else she might have talked to. In Altar of Bones, the phone is on the bed, and Marilyn tries to grab it when Popov and O’Malley attack her, so she is found with the phone off the hook, under her body, as she was in fact found.

After finding Marilyn, Mrs. Murray called Dr. Greenson and Dr. Engelberg who both came to the house. The doctors determined she was dead, but waited half an hour before calling the police. They said they were stunned and were talking over what had happened.

When the police arrived, Greenson and Engelberg told them Marilyn had committed suicide. They led the police into the bedroom where her nude body lay covered by a sheet and pointed out bottles of sedatives. She didn’t appear to have suffered convulsions and vomiting as people often do when they die of an over overdose. No drinking glass was found in the bedroom, but Marilyn was known to open up capsules to speed the effect of the drug. Despite Marilyn’s reported call asking Jeanne Carmen to bring her more pills, the police found a number of pills by her bedside. Engelberg had prescribed the Nembutal that was found (in fact he had refilled a Nembutal prescription just the previous day) but not the other pills.

Apparently actor Peter Lawford, who was married to Patricia Kennedy (sister of JFK and Robert) was called too after Marilyn’s body was discovered. Eventually he told the police he got a call from Marilyn around 7:30 or so the night of her death and that she was groggy and depressed and said to say goodbye to Jack. Lawford admitted he made an early morning sweep through house looking for Marilyn’s diary and that he tidied up and did what he could before reporters got wind of what had happened. Rumors persisted that Marilyn called Robert Kennedy the night of her death. He was in northern California on the 4th, but there were suspicions that he’d gone to L.A. in the afternoon and then quickly returned to northern part of the state.

Mrs. Murray went on a six-month vacation to Mexico right after Marilyn’s death.

The coroner’s report found Nembutal in Marilyn’s liver but not in her intestines or blood stream, indicating she took the pills so much earlier in the evening that they could not have been what killed her. Instead, she died from chloral hydrate, which was found in her blood stream. Dr. Engelberg had been trying to wean Marilyn off Nembutal and replace it with chloral hydrate as a sleep aid. Physical evidence showed that Marilyn died of a rectally administered overdose of chloral hydrate. Which is how she is killed in Altar of Bones.

Marilyn had overdosed in the past because she’d lose track of how much medication, she’d taken. It’s possible that’s what happened the night of her death.

The coroner ruled that Marilyn died of a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs. The coroner’s report, including tissue samples taken during the autopsy, and the police records of her death have gone missing.

Marilyn’s death has been a subject of constant speculation through the years. In 1982 the L.A. District Attorney’s office reexamined Marilyn’s death because there had been so much outcry and so many allegations of conspiracy and cover up. They didn’t find any specific evidence of foul play, but they did conclude that the original investigation wasn’t conducted properly.

Check back next week next week for details about Marilyn’s life in her last years, when the flashback scenes in Altar of Bones are set.