Yesterday at the indie bookstore I saw a picture of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses thumb-tacked on the side of the fiction shelves. I couldn’t resist as I was completely riveted at her, at her pose, and the serene composition.
During the 1950s, the pioneering photo-journalist Eve Arnold took a series of portraits of Marilyn Monroe. The now iconic photos generally present Monroe as a larger-than-life celebrity and sex symbol. The picture I saw belongs to a series taken in 1955, in which Arnold photographed Monroe reading a worn copy of James Joyce’s modernist classic, Ulysses. It’s still debated whether this was simply an attempt to recast her image or whether she actually had a pensive side. (Her personal library, cataloged at the time of her death, suggests the latter.) But, either way, Arnold explained years later how this memorable photo came about:
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet…. I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it—but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned—but almost more her input.
I like to believe that she read it. I read it in college in a haste for a class but I never got to enjoy it as it is. Ulysses is happening for me this year. I think it’s a book that have to be read in episodes, not sequentially or from end to end on one sitting.