Thoughts on Marilyn, Ulysses, and Poetry

Vintage website Flashbak has compiled transcripts of Marilyn’s poetry, as well as a list of the 430 books she owned (first posted here on ES Updates, of course!) They have also included a quote from the English novelist Jeannette Winterson about Eve Arnold’s famous photos of Marilyn reading Ulysses.

“This is so sexy, precisely because it’s Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration. There she is, the goddess, not needing to please her audience or her man, just living inside the book. The vulnerability is there, but also something we don’t often see in the blonde bombshell; a sense of belonging to herself. It’s not some Playboy combination of brains and boobs that is so perfect about this picture; it is that reading is always a private act, is intimate, is lover’s talk, is a place of whispers and sighs, unregulated and usually unobserved. We are the voyeurs, it’s true, but what we’re spying on is not a moment of body, but a moment of mind. For once, we’re not being asked to look at Marilyn, we’re being given a chance to look inside her.”

Reading Marilyn: A Cultural Fetish

In her review of Reading Women, a new exhibit by multi-media artist Carrie Schneider at the Haggerty Museum in Marquette University, the Milwaukee Record‘s Marielle Allschwang references Eve Arnold’s endlessly analysed portrait of Marilyn reading Ulysses.  (Incidentally, Stefan Bollman’s 2009 book, Women Who Read Are Dangerous – which explores the same subject in art history – will be reissued in April.)

“Last week, I was shown a photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She is near the end, seemingly lost in Molly Bloom’s punctuation-less, sensual reverie, immersed in the flows and throes of memory and pleasure that finally submit to sleep. This is the famous soliloquy that transforms ‘no’ into ‘yes.’ It is the chapter of the ‘mountain flower,’ the ‘sea crimson,’ of ‘breasts all perfume yes and his heart going like mad.’ Those familiar with the passage may imagine it as a sort of mirror to Marilyn and the inscrutable world within her mythologized body. Others may find a mesmerizing dissonance. But there are more—many more—photographs of Marilyn Monroe reading. A Google search yields 1,490,000 results. She reads American classics, scripts, plays, magazines, newspapers, and a self-help book called How To Improve Your Thinking Ability.

There is a general thirst to know what and whether Marilyn Monroe read. Articles include, ‘The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?’; ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Books: 13 Titles That Were On Her Shelf’; ‘What Was On Marilyn Monroe’s Reading List?’ They are littered with doubt and objectification: ‘Did she read them all? I don’t know. Have you read every single title on your shelves?’ ‘Nerds everywhere have drooled over photos of her thumbing through books…’

Does Schneider give us the opportunity to witness women creating, like [Susan] Sontag, the texts before them? Are we creating the women as we witness them? And if so, are we not left where we began, projecting what Marilyn is thinking?”

Unlikely Bedfellows? Marilyn and ‘Ulysses’

Photo by Fraser Penney

Why does Eve Arnold’s photo of Marilyn reading Ulysses hold such perennial fascination? In an article for literary journal Kill Your Darlings, Siobhan Lyons explores this image’s iconic power. (There is one minor error in this insightful piece: Lyons claims that Marilyn was married to Arthur Miller at the time, but she wasn’t. Their romance had just begun when this photo was taken…)

“These images fascinate us because they are so out of alignment with the pervasive understanding of celebrity culture as a vapid, visually-oriented industry, working against the ‘highbrow’ terrain of capital-L Literature. But if the iconic image of Monroe reading Ulysses tells us anything, it is more about challenging our own assumptions regarding literature, and who we believe to be the ‘right’ kind of reader.

The famous Monroe photograph was featured on the cover of a 2008 issue of Poets and Writers magazine, as well as the front cover of Declan Kiberd’s 2009 Ulysses And Us: The Art of Everyday Living. In his 2008 book Women Who Read are Dangerous, Stefan Bollman notes: ‘The question, Did she or didn’t she? is almost unavoidable. Did Marilyn Monroe, the blonde sex symbol of the twentieth century, read James Joyce’s Ulysses, a twentieth-century icon of highbrow culture and the book many consider to be the greatest modern novel – or was she only pretending?’

Monroe’s love of reading is well-known – the 1999 Christie’s auction of her personal belongings included almost 400 books, and she was regularly photographed reading. Despite this, Monroe is evidently not the first person one would consider the typical ‘Ulysses reader’. And this, perhaps, is part of the problem.

The photograph, then, allows us to re-imagine the Ulysses reader – author Julie Sloan Brannon argues that the image subverts the ‘dumb-blonde’ stereotype with which Monroe is almost always associated. The image therefore works on two fronts: it forces us to abandon elitist assumptions about what kind of people read ‘difficult’ literature, while bringing Monroe to the attention of a more literary crowd.

‘Her image remains,’ [Anthony] Burgess concludes, ‘and no amount of analysis can properly explain [its] continued potency’. The continued analysis of the image, however, shows how keenly these assumptions, about who should read what kind of book, are held. While the image helps to challenge overtly sexualised readings of Monroe, it more importantly debunks myths about literature that have been based on difficulty, exclusion, and elitism.”

Happy Bloomsday, Marilyn

Photo by Fraser Penney

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 JoyceBrown 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 [1999] 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.'”

Birthday Tributes in the Blogosphere

Marilyn by Cecil Beaton, 1956

Over the next few posts I’m going to focus on the best fan tributes for Marilyn’s birthday. But firstly, here are a few selections from the blogosphere.

We’re all used to reading Marilyn’s own words online – though sadly, some of them are internet fakes – but Flavorwire has compiled a rather good list, 30 of Marilyn Monroe’s Smartest and Most Insightful Quotes.

Nearly all of these are genuine, in my opinion – meaning, they can be traced back to reputable biographies and interviews with MM herself. The only one I’m not sure about is the second one, regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses, which comes from the disputed Miner transcripts. (However, we do at least have Eve Arnold’s 1955 photo as evidence that Marilyn read the book – and, indeed, she later performed Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy as an exercise for her dramatic coach, Lee Strasberg.) 

“Here is [James] Joyce writing what a woman thinks to herself. Can he, does he really know her innermost thoughts? But after I read the whole book, I could better understand that Joyce is an artist who could penetrate the souls of people, male or female. It really doesn’t matter that Joyce doesn’t have… or never felt a menstrual cramp. To me Leopold Bloom is a central character. He is the despised Irish Jew, married to an Irish Catholic woman. It is through them Joyce develops much of what he wants to say.”

Geeks of Doom posted this thoughtful tribute:

“While she didn’t have the cocksure winking swagger of a Mae West, or the sharp natural beauty of an Ava Gardner, she somehow fell somewhere in the middle of both of those ladies…In a strange way, she is old Hollywood and still remains fresh in new Hollywood.”

And finally, Kim Morgan reposts her wonderful Playboy tribute from last year over at her Sunset Gun blog.

“Because through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And great artist that she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her. Her beauty was transcendent. For that, we should do as Dylan instructs: ‘Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes.'”