Marilyn Monroe reading a book. When Harlow did it in Dinner at Eight Marie Dressler did a double take. Is it really so unusual for gorgeous blondes to read books?
Thursday, April 14, 2011


Marilyn Monroe reads Joyce’s Ulysses. Why is this remarkable? Lots of people, possibly millions of people have read Ulysses, most probably gave up well before the end, but that’s true of many great books. I gave up on the Koran midway through the 2nd Sura. I’ve gotten distracted from The City of God, and it took me over 30 years to get up the courage to tackle Middlemarch and make it all the way through. So why is it remarkable that a woman as beautiful as Marilyn should read a book like Ulysses, and evidently make it through to the end?

There used to be a saying that “Beauty times brains equals a constant.” Those who are numerate can skip the remainder of this paragraph. That means that a woman of great beauty, such as Marilyn, will be dumb, and that woman of great intellect, a Lise Meitner or a Vera Rubin, will be not as pretty.

The idea that a woman can be both beautiful and intelligent goes against certain ingrained ideas. Marilyn was an orphan, and a high school dropout. This goes to issues of class. There is a snobbism that is endemic among American elites. This snobbery equates intelligence with education, and views them as synonymous. In actuality they are quite separable, and the high school dropout can be as intellectually curious and perceptive as the Ivy League graduate. You can see this today in the treatment accorded some politicians. Their ideas and principles are not evaluated as ideas and principles but are dismissed out of hand because the politician is not one of the elite. It happened to Marilyn, and it happens today.

Fragments is a record of various notes that Marilyn wrote between the time she was 17 and the time of her death at 36. What is revealed is a girl who was sensitive, and who was interested in classical music, apparently marrying her first husband in part because of his musical knowledge, and who took classes at UCLA in an effort to improve herself. The first note also reveals that she was a poor speller. (She wrote “secual” when she meant “sexual.”)

The biggest thing that the notes reveal is that she was interested in psychoanalysis, and that she apparently started reading Freud at an early age. This translated into her work with a variety of psychiatrists and analysts. I can’t say that she gives a very favourable impression of any of these quacks. I think that overall she was mistreated and abused by these witch doctors with medical bags.

There’s also that pesky issue of class. Many American movies emphasize the person as opposed to the class, or to elements of identity that are socially constructed. Blossoms in the Dust, for example is a counterpoint to the idea of illegitimacy. A person’s status as legitimate or illegitimate tells us nothing meaningful about that person. Then there are movies that show an upperclass person temporarily displaced into a lower class position. A movie such as My Man Godfrey shows this. Some others do as well. Then there are movies in which the upper class character meddles in the affairs of middle or lower class characters. This is the case in the modern portion of Griffith’s Intolerance, or in a movie such as Wise Girl. In a movie such as Stella Dallas a woman starts out as a social climber, but rapidly fails, and remains a lower class woman, while her daughter moves into higher class society. A later movie, such as The Unsinkable Mollie Brown, shows the attempt of Mollie to attain an education and to move into the elite circle of Denver society. The NY Times, that bastion of East Coast elitism, condemned Molly Brown, for not satirizing Mollie’s attempts at social climbing. That attitude proclaimed, even back in the 1960s, that those damned Westerners were not good enough to even think of improving themselves and attaining some knowledge of high culture.

Towards the end of Fragments there are photographs of some of the books that were in Marilyn’s library:

Many of these were from the time when the Modern Library actually did publish “the best of the world’s best books,” instead of whatever it is they publish now.

Lets imitate Sherlock Holmes when confronted with Watson’s brother’s watch, and ask what we can learn about Marilyn from her books.

We know that she had a small library, about 400 books, when she died. Presumably Arthur Miller, the East Coast Marxist intellectual had more books, and took them with him when they divorced. So we know that her library was small. Given that she had a number of books from the Modern Library, which was relatively cheap back then, we know that she didn’t spend a lot of money on books. Given her attendance at UCLA we can probably say that she relied heavily on the college, and possibly public library. We can see in her choice of reading material that she has aspirations to move out of the crummy world of the orphanage and the public high school. So she selects books like Freud, referenced in her opening note, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to help her move among people that valued literature and talked about it.

She used her beauty, and she may have used her body, beyond posing for nude calendar shots, to get roles, and to gain the resources to move among the set that she aspired to join.

In the end she was betrayed by her husband, who had no regard for her, and her psychiatrists, and her friends among the very set that she aspired to ornament. The elites, the friends of the poor and downtrodden, destroyed her because of her poverty, her lack of formal education.

If Pygmalion tells the story of a flower-girl who becomes a lady, Marilyn’s story is that of a flower-girl who is crushed because of her attempt to become a lady.

Next up, a lighter note with suburban vampire fantasy in Fangs for the Mammaries.