The current “summer reading” issue of Poets & Writers magazine has this photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses on its cover. It’s a complicated image: Hollywood ’s iconic “sex kitten” dressed to show her legs on a piece of playground equipment while reading a book famously prosecuted as pornography & equally notorious as a difficult high-art masterpiece. Monroe’s not just reading any old part of it, either – she’s deep into the last chapter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Yes.
The photo was taken in 1955 by Eve Arnold (still around & active today at the age of 96), who, like Monroe, was a largely self-taught trailblazer, taking up the camera with little formal training at 36 & becoming, just three years later, the first female member of Magnum, the international photographic cooperative. While Arnold certainly is using the cognitive dissonance of these juxtapositions – ingénue / “difficult modernism” & pornography / playground – I don’t think she’s making fun of Monroe in the slightest. Indeed, Arnold, who has photographed pretty much everybody in her career, is most famous for her work with Monroe, with whom she worked repeatedly during the last 11 years of the actress’ life.
In 1955, Monroe had just blown through her 274-day marriage to Joe DiMaggio and was seeing playwright Arthur Miller, for whom she would convert to Judaism (again echoing her friend Arnold) before their decidedly secular wedding the following year in the law office of a
friend. My guess is that this is Miller’s copy of Ulysses. Monroe is working to fit into Miller’s world.
Some of the occurrences of this image on the web suggest that Monroe may just be “pretending” to read the book, but the second photo at the bottom of this note from that same shoot shows Monroe still turned to the same chapter, something I doubt you’d see if she were just opening the book for effect. No, I think the real story is that Monroe’s just about done with the book & Arnold understood just what an opportunity this was.