Marilyn Monroe Reads Ulysses on Fire Island

Of course, any island with a history that began with attracting nude sunbathers when no development occurred from the company that bought the land was going to end up attracting her. The twentieth century Aphrodite that flouted moral outrage when she posed nude in the forties before becoming a star. Before nude photos were barely eye-raising and people instead had to turn to sex tapes for fame. Marilyn, in retrospectively demure contrast, turned to the scandal of oozing sensualness at a time when America was more simultaneously fascinated with and repelled by it than ever.

Alas, by the time she wanted to run screaming from the image that had launched her into the spotlight–the one Darryl Zanuck made her wear even when it fit too tightly and squeezed her in all the wrong places–she was already seemingly permanently forced into its stifling mold. The one she knew that only an intellectual hammer could break through. Which meant going as far away from Hollywood as one could get while still remaining in the U.S. It was in New York, amid the oppressive pseudointellectualism and looming buildings that Marilyn felt comfortable in her own skin, shedding the one that made her too much of a dumb blonde to ever read someone so “erudite” as James Joyce. But read him she did, dipping into Ulysses at different moments in time like her toe dipped in some Beverly Hills pool. Only she was a long way from that glistening sun, now, instead under the one in Fire Island, where Lee Strasberg had a summer residence. Next to Anne Bancroft’s, naturally.

Taken under another family’s wing (it was her inherent orphan need to adopt families), she became close with Susie Strasberg, Lee’s sixteen-year-old daughter, about to take the stage after the summer in the role of Anne Frank. Paula, her mother, said it was kismet (or rather, bashert) that Susie, Marilyn and Anne were all Geminis. Regardless of Paula’s conviction about life’s fatefulness, the only thing Marilyn could find meaning in during that summer of 1955 was retreating into her books, Ulysses at the forefront of her wagonful that she would cart along to the aptly named Ocean Beach. Susie, feeling inferior not only to Marilyn’s physical beauty, but now her brain, would pretend to read Remembrance of Things Past or War and Peace with an issue of Photoplay covertly stuck behind the covers. She wanted so badly to be like Marilyn, while Marilyn, in contrast was jealous of a gawky teen girl who had the cushy childhood she never did. Which was likely why she was always trying to re-create it in some fashion by attaching to a family unit.

Considering herself ultimately always alone as she traveled from family to family seeking to fill the void where affection was meant to be instilled from an early age, there was certainly a touch of Leopold Bloom in her narrative. Wandering the town and encountering the strange cast of characters in her life with little much in the way of a resolution. Then again, maybe she was more like Sylvia Beach, starting her own production company and enabling herself to put out whatever kind of project she wanted. But before all those worries, there was Fire Island and Ulysses in the summer of 1955.

Retreating into that somehow soothing novel was almost as calming as floating in the Atlantic, a vast entity she had never really experienced until now, more accustomed to the gentler nature of the Pacific, and those years spent on Catalina Island. There was something more rough-hewn about the Atlantic. Less forgiving. Perhaps like East Coastians themselves (at least in that era) when it came to excusing any flaw in sapience. Whether in literature or otherwise. Marilyn kept thinking about Molly Bloom, and naturally wanted to play her. Possibly more than Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov. She had even performed an excerpt of Molly’s lines for the Actors Studio that Lee and the others had praised her for. Maybe she could option the book somehow through Marilyn Monroe Productions. That is, if this damned lawsuit with Fox ever ended and she could focus some of her finances on more important matters.

Yes, the more she thought about it, the more she realized just how much of an affinity she had with Molly. She couldn’t help but cheat about getting to the end, like many of us, flipping to the last page to see the final sentence. The one that is famously called Molly’s Soliloquy and reads: “I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

To her, it harkened back to every man she had ever been with, especially her first marriage to Jim Dougherty. It all felt like love at the time but was, ultimately, a “fuck it” response to ephemeral passion. James Joyce was an unavoidable misogynist, so how could he help saying that the word “yes,” to him, summed up all of womankind? Their surrender to pleasure, reverie, compliance–in short, a deference to reckless abandon. As the summer months wore on and Marilyn continued to get drunk on champagne and oysters (in addition to other foods from Paula’s beloved “Jewish icebox”), the flames of her rage toward every cad that had ever underestimated her–whether they were in the film industry or not–were fanned by Joyce’s overt juxtaposition of Leopold and Stephen Dedalus’ “cerebralness” against Molly’s “physicality.” Still, she read on, diving deeper and deeper into the book than she ever had in L.A.

But summer was coming to an end, signaled by Labor Day, at which time she went up to Port Jefferson to flock to another surrogate family: Norman Rosten and his wife, Hedda (also, incidentally, friends of Arthur Miller’s, a man she was still in hot pursuit of). Photographer Eve Arnold was also a guest at the cottage, naturally inspired by the world’s most famous woman as a subject matter for her camera. So they took to Mount Sinai playground (since renamed to Heritage Park – Heritage Trust Inc. after the trust company of the same name got its claws into it) to take some semi-spontaneous shots. When Marilyn explained her patchwork reading method of Ulysses, stating that she always kept a copy of it in her car, Eve suggested she take it out for the photos.

To this day, people who see the photo still balk at the notion that Marilyn was actually reading it. That it was just a prop in an elaborate scheme to convince the public of a persona other than that of the ditz with the tits. Yet anyone who saw or knew her in that summer of 1955 was aware that her love of literature was no lie.

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