Marilyn as reader

What Was In Marilyn Monroe’s Personal Library?

by Jen Carlson, gothamist.com

There are plenty of photos showing Marilyn Monroe in her glamorous Hollywood attire, but there may even be more of the sex symbol… reading. Even a dip in the shallow end of Monroe’s candid video footage and photo archives will show you that side of her, and now you can see what books the former Mrs. Arthur Miller always had her nose in.

According to OpenCulture, when Monroe died in 1962 she left around 400 books behind, “many of which were later catalogued and auctioned off by Christie’s in New York City.” Now on LibraryThing you can get a look at 262 of those books—her collection included Ulysses by James Joyce, Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie, The Roots Of American Communism by Theodore Draper (a risky title to keep around given that whole FBI thing), The BibleHow To Travel Incognito by Ludwig Bemelmans, The Little Engine That Could, and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. She also had a number of books that spoke to a more domestic life, including The Joy of CookingBaby & Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock, and one guide to flower arranging.

Upon the release of Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters in 2010, Sam Kashner wrote in Vanity Fair:

“Several photographs taken of Marilyn earlier in her life—the ones she especially liked—show her reading. Eve Arnold photographed her for Esquire magazine in a playground in Amagansett reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her, for Life, at home, dressed in white slacks and a black top, curled up on her sofa, reading, in front of a shelf of books—her personal library, which would grow to 400 volumes. In another photograph, she’s on a pulled-out sofa bed reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

If some photographers thought it was funny to pose the world’s most famously voluptuous ‘dumb blonde’ with a book—James Joyce! Heinrich Heine!—it wasn’t a joke to her. In these newly discovered diary entries and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life. And books were a refuge and a companion for Marilyn during her bouts of insomnia.”

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Marilyn Monroe: Avid Reader, Writer & Book Collector

by Stephen J. Gertz, booktryst.com

She had a personal library of over 400 books. She loved  James Joyce, Walt Whitman, and poet  Heinrich Heine. Saul Bellow and Carl Sandburg were literary heroes. Truman Capote and Isak Dinesen were friends.

And she was married to playwright Arthur Miller.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe, edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, will be published October 12th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Within we learn of Marilyn’s intellectual quest.

As Sam Kashner, writing for Vanity Fair, relates:

“Several photographs taken of Marilyn earlier in her life—the ones she especially liked—show her reading. Eve Arnold photographed her for Esquire magazine in a playground in Amagansett reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her, for Life, at home, dressed in white slacks and a black top, curled up on her sofa, reading, in front of a shelf of books—her personal library, which would grow to 400 volumes. In another photograph, she’s on a pulled-out sofa bed reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

“If some photographers thought it was funny to pose the world’s most famously voluptuous ‘dumb blonde” with a book—James Joyce! Heinrich Heine!—it wasn’t a joke to her. In these newly discovered diary entries and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life. And books were a refuge and a companion for Marilyn during her bouts of insomnia.”

Her marriage to Arthur Miller, the era’s shining intellect (she idolized men with brains), began happily enough and its first few years were amongst Marilyn’s most rewarding. She fit in well with Miller’s intellectual circle.

Indeed, Kashner notes that “attending a luncheon given by the novelist Carson McCullers for the writer Isak Dinesen. Marilyn was gay and witty in this company, easily holding her own – her vitality and innocence reminded Dinesen of a wild lion cub. She became friends with writer Truman Capote and met some of her literary heroes, such as poet Carl Sandburg and novelist Saul Bellow, with whom she dined at the Ambassador Hotel on the occasion of the Chicago premiere of Some Like It Hot. Bellow was bowled over by her.”

Yet Miller perceived things quite differently; he was embarrassed by her when with his friends. She discovered this in a diary entry of his; he was “disappointed” by her. She never overcame her sense of betrayal by Miller; she only felt more unworthy, a theme that ran as a poisoned thread through her life. 

Her love of books was genuine, and if it seems that she lost no opportunity to be photographed while reading it was only a desperate need to be taken seriously as a human being and as a thinking, intellectually curious, down-to-earth  woman with something extra beyond her obvious physical charms that motivated her; she should be forgiven. The magic castle of Hollywood and her image had become a prison and she did what many of the incarcerated do to keep from going insane. She retreated into the private world of books  and explored her thoughts and feelings as a diarist and journal-keeper.

An emotionally fragile woman, it is in photographs like the above that Monroe’s intelligence shines through her eyes. And as we readers know, the world is never better than when sitting down, comfortably in a robe, lost in a good book. Cares melt away. I suspect that she was never more content than when in the company of books. They don’t betray. They won’t wound you.

A list of books owned by Marilyn Monroe, auctioned at Christies, New York

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