Monday, March 17, 2014

When Marilyn met Molly

Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off by heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid
(Molly Bloom)

The photograph above and the ones below came to me by way of How to Be a Retronaut, which published them – in typical fashion – without a shred of context, save for the name of the photographer (and the year, which is wrong). This is how we snack on history now, unremorsefully. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Did the famously uneducated Marilyn Monroe really read Ulysses? And if she did, or if she didn’t, what were those photographs of her reading Ulysses supposed to mean? Where they part of the careful (re)construction of her public image, or was the hardback copy of Joyce’s novel merely a random prop? Was it her idea? Was it a joke at her expense?

Decades later, the photographer explained the circumstances of that shoot, so there is an official version out there. But it’s fun to speculate, to pretend that there really was no context and that the famous pictures had really been found in a digital capsule, undated, belonging nowhere. In such circumstances, one would have to situate the pictures judging only by Monroe’s appearance, thus somewhere between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959), but likely closer to the former. This was the time between Monroe’s modelling career, including the famous naked spread for Playboy, and the burgeoning of her film career. A time when she made deliberate efforts to abandon her image of oversexed ingénue in favour of a more nuanced public persona. It’s not just that she wanted to be taken more seriously and land a greater range of roles. It’s also that, as she matured as an artist, she learned how to be in control of her extraordinary beauty and sex-appeal.

The images appear to belong to this period, and tempt us to read them as a simple, direct statement: ‘I’m not a dumb blonde’. Were this the case, however, it would be laboured in a way that belies the grace of the composition. The well-worn copy of the novel, signifying a book not only read, but intimately known and loved. The fact that Monroe is conspicuously reading from the very end of the book, indicating that she conquered the literary mountain. The detail is overbearing.

But then, it’s possible to read the pictures differently. Maybe Monroe really knew her Ulysses, and chose to read from the novel’s final chapter in order to signal an allegiance with Molly Bloom, to whom that chapter belongs. Molly, who worried that people may think her stupid; who was defined by her sexuality and by her fidelity (or lack thereof); who fantasised about a world run by women but only thought of men; who was, in the final instance, written by a man. And perhaps Monroe, reading Ulysses subversively (therefore how it’s meant to be read), further wanted to signal that she felt trapped in a character written by men. Like Molly. Like the Homeric Penelope. Perhaps even that she wanted her final word to be something other than the obsessively repeated, acquiescent ‘yes’ that Joyce picked for Molly.

It needn’t be far-fetched. And what a nice counterpoint it would be to the paternalistic praise from first-time directors of Monroe who claimed to be surprised by her intelligence. But then I’d be yet another guy writing this story. The authors of the shoot were two women, Monroe and Eve Arnold, and Arnold, who died in 2012, gave scholar Richard Brown her account of the events.
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet. As far as I remember (it was 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.
I like this version, even as it leaves open the possibility that Monroe might have been trying to impress Arnold, or that she was taking steps to craft her own image, or both. There is no definitive truth available to us. But I like this version. I like that she read from the book aloud, picking her favourite passages, and that she admitted to finding it hard-going. I like that she really opened the book at end, that she read from Molly’s chapter. Above all, I like that she co-wrote this little, perfect story about herself.

Speaking of photography, last week's post was picked up by Capture and features therefore some lovely reader contributions.