1 June 2014

Was Marilyn actually reading "Ulysses"?

Photographer Eve Arnold is perhaps best known for the photos she took of Marilyn Monroe. From 1951 onwards, Arnold photographed Marilyn many times, and amongst those photos are the famous images of Marilyn reading James Joyce's Ulysses, a novel that has often been labelled unreadable. 

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Eve Arden, Long Island, New York, 1955

Richard Brown, a Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Leeds with a special interest in James Joyce, was intrigued by Eve Arnold's photos of Marilyn. Curious to know if Marilyn was indeed reading Joyce's novel or if she was merely posing for the photo, Brown wrote Arnold a letter, which she replied on 20 July 1993. Unfortunately, I don't have Arnold's complete letter to show you, just a fragment (and it's not an original image either). In any case, the excerpt from Arnold's letter is interesting as she was telling Brown exactly what he wanted to know.

Via: zuihitsu
Excerpt taken from Richard Brown's essay "Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Postcultural Cyborg?".

Left photo: Eve Arnold; right: Richard Brown


  1. Some people seem eager to dismiss Marilyn Monroe's intellect. They apparently equate the actress with the parts she inhabited; if she was that good at playing the ditsy blonde on film she must actually BE a ditsy blonde. However, Ms. Monroe was frequently photographed with her head in a book, and photographs made inside her home almost invariably include shelf after shelf of books. I suspect that a quiet conversation with her, away from the demands of "being a star," could have been a joy.

  2. I have no issue with Ms Monroe's intellect and intellectual interests, which are well documented. My issue with the famous ULYSSES photo is that, although one can't be certain, she appears to be gazing at the (blank) free end-page (opposite the paste-down page) in the back of the book. That in itself is more intriguing than it might at first appear. Yes, the picture was "posed" so I "get" that the photographer did not just happen by and find Monroe ensconced with Joyce. Photographer and subject agreed on the use of the book as a prop. But was Ms Monroe inserting a bit of subtle humor to the photo session? Perhaps self-referencing her "ditsy blonde" image to lampoon it? Was she simply presenting the appearance that the photograph was capturing her in the moment of final consummation between her and ULYSSES? What are others' thoughts about this?

    1. Pem is a Marilyn Fan17 June 2022 at 12:24

      Well since determining the page she is reading is open to interpretation, I’m going to say she’s just finishing up this great work and is ensconced in “…yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Just goes to show, never underestimate a ditsy blonde.