Most people are surprised to know that Marilyn Monroe went to university to take night courses while she was a young starlet. Not surprisingly it was Arthur Miller who encouraged her to go to night school. She’d expressed an interest in literature and had admitted how neglected her education was in her youth. As a result, Miller encouraged Marilyn to attend the University of California and study English literature. Marilyn completed two courses but she didn’t complete a degree. She proba
bly didn’t have the time since she was making movies while going to school. Marilyn had a split life in so many ways: the lonely Norma Jeane and the beloved Marilyn Monroe; the sparkling starlet and the literature student. There were many complexities to this woman.
Eve Arnold , Marilyn`s long-time photographic partner, took a famous series of photographs of Marilyn at a children’s park. Marilyn wore a striped tank top, shorts, no shoes and sat on a carousel reading James Joyce’s epic Ulysses. Have you ever read Ulysses? I know I did when I was in school but it was one of those insanely literary, complex texts that you forget almost as soon as you have read it. In Marilyn’s case, she borrowed it from a friend and was reading it, trying to understand Joyce’s meaning but admitted “it was hard going.” I’m not surprised. Anyone who has read the text would say the same thing. The text parallels Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses being the Latin name for Odyssey. Homer`s Odyssey you may recall featured the song of the sirens, so powerful that it drove men mad and caused them to throw themselves onto rocks below their ships. In Odyssey, Homer has his men tie him to a mast so he can listen to the siren song without being able to kill himself; really a wonderful parallel of Marilyn`s ability to drive men mad.
For her part, Arnold wrote to Dr. Richard Brown, a university professor at the University of Leeds, about the photographic session: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.
Brown wanted to know if Marilyn was really reading the book or merely posing, as part of his research on Joyce. For his part, Brown stated in an interview: I wrote Eve some years ago when I was thinking about that photograph — trying to interpret the photograph– to ask her about Marilyn’s reading of Ulysses. She’s posed, as you know, on a playground roundabout conspicuously reading the book, reading the final chapter of the book, perhaps reading the Penelope episode where Molly Bloom talks about her experiences of the day, reminisces about her life. I wrote to Eve wondering really how posed this photograph was, whether Marilyn herself was a serious reader of Ulysses…Eve responded very interestingly that it wasn’t by any means just a prop that was put there for the photograph. It was a copy of a book that Marilyn had borrowed from a friend and was in the process of reading…She read it in episodes. She dipped into places from time to time where fancy took her to different moments in the book. It occurred to me, thinking about that, that is the way we should all read Ulysses. That is certainly something I tell my students when we begin to read Ulysses in class…You can pick it up and put it down, of course, as Joyce himself picked it up and put it down as he was writing the book over a period of fifteen to sixteen years…I suggest to them that perhaps if Marilyn, with her busy schedule, could manage to read Ulysses, then there’s no excuse for them not to read and enjoy it, too.
Marilyn as a model for university students. Her lack of formal education and the lack of opportunity for her to finish a university degree at U-Cal made her very insecure. Surely this would have made a remarkable feather in her literature cap. Marilyn and Arnold`s friendship and professional relationship began when Marilyn found a photographic spread of Arnold`s of Marlene Dietrich. She contacted Arnold and said, ``If you can make Marlene Dietrich look like that, imagine what you could do with me.“ Arnold found Marilyn focused and certain about her goals. But when she actually reached the goal of becoming a movie star, “it became too much for her to bear.“ Arnold revealed that Marilyn had soft down beneath her chin that she didn`t remove, since she felt it made her look softer and more luminescent on film. Oddly, Marilyn photographed 10 lbs lighter, rather than heavier.
Arnold never felt that Marilyn was suicidal even though she knew that Marilyn had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets on the set of The Misfits. Arnold`s perspective was that Marilyn took pills to go to sleep, would awaken forgetting she`d taken the pills, then took more, accidentally overdosing. She felt Marilyn`;s death was a mishap.If so, it was a mishap with an eternity of consequences.