The novelist James Joyce, who died in 1941, never knew Marilyn Monroe. But she is indelibly associated with his masterpiece, Ulysses, after Eve Arnold photographed her reading it in 1955. Today is Bloomsday, the day in which Ulysses is set, named for its hero, Leopold Bloom.
Many have raised doubts about whether Marilyn was really reading Ulysses. But at the time, she was rehearsing its final monologue – in the voice of Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom – for her acting class with Lee Strasberg.
I suspect both MM and Joyce would find the enduring power of these image curious, yet delightful. Writing for Time magazine, Richard Conway pays tribute to the most famous picture, and the anniversary it marks, in today’s ‘Backstory’ blog.
“The 1955 shoot was reportedly done off-the-cuff: The two had traveled to the area because Monroe was visiting poet Norman Rosten, and she had brought along a copy of the book. When they stopped at a beach, Monroe whipped out the novel as Arnold was loading film into her camera. Arnold started taking pictures. During the shoot, Monroe read the book aloud and revealed that she liked to dip into it, rather than read it chapter by chapter. (The same reading method, incidentally, favored by many Joycean scholars and passionate ‘amateur’ literature fans, alike.)
That’s according to the research of Doctor Richard Brown, author of the essay Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Post-Cultural Cyborg? and several books on Joyce. Brown discovered this when, in 1993, he received a letter from Arnold after he had contacted her asking about the photograph. Brown tells TIME that he sees the image as part of a sub-genre of Marilyn photos, quite different from the puckered, glamorous shots we are used to — namely, pictures of her reading books.
In light of this, and perhaps unfairly, many who see the Ulysses picture seem to ask — was she actually reading it? The answer is likely straightforward: of course she was.
‘We know much more about her as a reader after the  Christie’s auction of her books,’ Brown says. ‘And I mean, why shouldn’t she have read it? On one level there’s a documentary fact with this image. If you see someone in a picture reading a book, then they are reading that book.’
Others have questioned if the shoot was staged — perhaps Arnold had asked her to take out the novel — but given the photographer’s professional reputation, this seems very unlikely. Arnold and Monroe had a long-standing relationship, having both collaborated from the early 1950s right up until Monroe’s last completed movie, The Misfits, before her death in 1962. Arnold is said to have been the only photographer Monroe trusted.
‘Eve wouldn’t have set this up,’ asserts Brigitte Lardinois, former Cultural Director at Magnum Photos London and author of several books on Arnold. ‘Maybe if she had been sitting in a demure dress on an antique chair, it would have had a different effect.’
‘But she’s reading in her bathing suit here,’ Lardinois says. ‘It’s all pretty natural.'”