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Marilyn Monroe And Ulysses

Marilyn Monroe And Ulysses – For the week that’s in it, an interesting Blooms Day tie in!

Eve Arnold was a pioneering photographer who photographed Marilyn Monroe in1955. The photo she took showed Monroe with her feet up in a playground reading a copy of Irish writer James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses.

This photo might have struck some people as interesting; Monroe was often portrayed as a sex symbol in her time; she was a fashion icon, actress, model and singer; but one of her attributes which is less spoken of is that she was an avid reader.

In fact, when she died in 1962  she left behind a library of over four hundred books. It was carefully curated, featuring writing on poetry, psychology, literature and religion. She had works by DH Lawrence, Walt Whitman and more contemporary writers such as Truman Capote. She even had an interest in Anton Chekov, the Russian playwright, who is seen as one of the finest writers of the short story form. Eve Arnold recalled how Monroe brought Ulysses along with her that day:

‘We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet. As far as I remember (it is some thirty years ago) 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.’

As for Eve Arnold’s  photograph and the connection with Ulysses, I first learned about it at a poetry reading given by the late Irish poet Ulick O’Connor some time back in 2010. O’ Connor was a Joyce aficionado who expressed to the audience how Ulysses has a reputation as this difficult book that people only really study for English Degrees at college, but the Monroe picture was illustrative of the fact that Ulysses was written for everyone.

Looking at it simply as a text for academics, we can misunderstand how popular Joyce’s  book was at one time, sometimes for reasons that are easy to forget. In Marilyn Monroe’s catalogue of books, and the photograph by Eve Arnold, we see her display an interest in artists which even in the 1950s would be seen as infamous and provocative, Joyce being among them.

For instance, the US supreme court did not lift the ban on DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover until 1959, due to its explicit references to sex which led to its ban, where it was deemed pornographic and obscene.

Ulysses did not fair much better and it too was censored on publication. Serialising Joyce’s novel led to magazines in the US being sued, and although it was not banned in his native country of Ireland, it was also not for sale here either.

It was Supreme Justice Potter Stewart who described the test for obscenity in 1964 by saying “I know it when I see it”.

Ultimately, it was laws on free speech and freedom of expression that led to the rolling back of such bans, but that doesn’t mean the banned books did not receive a huge boost in readership as women across the country exchanged and lent them to see what all the fuss was about.

Today many of these works come across as pretty tame when you look at what people can find on Netflix and other streaming services, but that wasn’t the case in the 1950s.

That’s why Marilyn Monroe being photographed with a copy of Ulysses is pretty novel in itself.


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