Marilyn was the best read “dumb blonde” in movie history. Acutely conscious of her lack of official education, in adult life Marilyn was eager to read as much as widely as she could. As a starlet she was seen touting major classics onto the set, and she continued to take reading matter - “heavy books, not light and flight books,” as her stand-in Evelyn Moriarty once said - with her when shooting her last films.
Marilyn was eclectic in her literary tastes. When Marilyn first met Arthur Miller in 1951, they went together to a bookshop where she bought poetry by Frost, Whitman, and e.e. cummings. In his autobiography Timebends,Miller observes, “With no cultural pretensions to maintain, she felt no need to bother with anything that did not sweep her way. She could not suspend her disbelief toward fiction, wanting only the literal truth as though from a document.” He also notes, “With the possible exception of Colette’s Cheri and a few short stories, however, I had not known her to read any thing all the way through. There was no need to: she thought she could get the idea of a book - and often did - in a few pages.”
On her first publicity tour in 1949 for Love Happy Marilyn retired to her hotel room to read novels by Proust and Thomas Wolfe, as well as Freud’s writings on dreams. For entertainment she dipped into Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. During shooting she had often been seen intently studying a cop of De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, a sixteenth-century treatise on human anatomy.
Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who worked with Marilyn on All About Eve, noticed her carrying around a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on the set. Marilyn told him, “Every now and then I go into the Pickwick [a Beverly Hills bookshop] and just look around. I leaf through some books, and when I read something that interests me, I buy the book. So last night I bought this one.” After the director agreed that this was the best way to buy books, she sent him a copy the very next day. A shocked Mankiewicz said he would have been “less taken aback to come upon Herr Rilke studying a Marilyn Monroe nude calendar.” There was more to come. Another book she was reading, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (1866 - 1936), earned her a word of friendly advice from Mr. Mankiewicz, that she would get into trouble if people saw her reading such radical material. Soon after, when asked by the studio publicity department to give a list of her ten greatest men in the world, she put Steffens at the top of the list, only for him to be omitted as too politically dangerous.
Marilyn was particularly enamored of Russian literature, an interest she developed during her early years in the film business, partly through her early professional exposure to the Actors Lab, partly as a reflection of the interests of her drama coach Natasha Lytess. She read Tolstoy and Chekhov short stories, Dostoevsky and Turgenev novels, and poetry by Pushkin and Andreyev.
In 1952 photographer Philippe Halsman went to Marilyn’s modest L.A. apartment on an assignment for Marilyn’s first Life cover. He was struck by “the obvious striving for self-improvement,” and a stack of books that included the history of Fabian socialism, as well as works by Dostoevsky and Freud, Shaw, Steinbeck, Ibsen, Wilde, Zola and her collection of Russian novels. He also found a number of books of art criticism, dealing with Goya, Botticelly, and Leonardo da Vinci.
During shooting of Niagara, Marilyn told photographer Jock Carroll what she had been reading recently: The Thinking Body by Mabel Ellsworth Todd (recommended to her by drama coach Michael Chekhov), Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She also told him that she was a great fan of Whitman and Thomas Wolfe. On the set between takes she was seen scribbling down notes of passages she felt were particularly salient.
Marilyn treasured Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. When married to Joe DiMaggio, she gave him a gold medal with a maxim from this book engraved on it: “True love is visible not to the eyes, but to the heart, for eyes may be deceived.” DiMaggio’s reported response was “What the hell does that mean?”
In the course of her studies with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio Marilyn read widely, from Shakespeare sonnets to Colette. After one shopping trip in March 1955 she returned home with half a library, including Ulysses by James Joyce, Fallen Angels by Noel Coward, Shaw’s Letters to Ellen Terry and Letters to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Richard Aldrich’s biography of his wife Gertrude Lawrence.
With British poet Edith Sitwell, Marilyn discussed the book she was reading at the time they first met, Rudolph Steiner’s Course of My Life, and then, when Marilyn went to visit Dame Edith in England, they talked of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet whose work Marilyn knew well enough to recite some lines.
Perhaps one of the most original excuses Marilyn ever came up with for her lateness was during shooting of Some Like It Hot, when she was so engrossed reading Paine’s The Rights of Man that she reputedly told the assistant director, who had come to pick her up, to “fuck off.”
In 1961 Marilyn was still avidly reading up on psychiatry and psychoanalysis. During her three-week stay in the hospital that February, she spent sleepless nights reading the letters of Sigmund Freud. She also read Sean O’Casey’s autobiography.
To help Marilyn through her extreme nerves at having to sing to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, Joan Greenson, daughter of her psychiatrist, gave her the children’s book The Little Engine That Could to take along.