The last sitting

Bert Stern was the last person to photograph Marilyn Monroe before she died, 39 years ago this month. An exclusive interview with Salon.

Published August 14, 2001 7:08PM (EDT)

Bert Stern was a 32-year-old, red-blooded Brooklyn-born boy and he was going to ball Marilyn Monroe. Yes, sir! It was 1962. Stern was cruising the streets of L.A. in a pink Thunderbird convertible, a case of '53 Dom Perignon in the trunk. Bubbly for Marilyn. Earlier, Stern had reserved them Suite 261 at the Bel-Air Hotel. He planned to get Marilyn drunk and coax her to drop her clothes and then ... He wanted to make love with her, but there was the job he'd come to L.A. to do -- to take Monroe's photograph for Vogue magazine. "Making love and making photographs were closely connected in my mind when it came to women," he would later write.

Stern had already seen Monroe once at a Manhattan cocktail party back in 1955. "I just glanced at her," he remembers. "She was under a light with a lot of guys around. I didn't have the courage to go and talk to her. I just noticed that she was startling." He was a nobody in those days, but now he'd become one of America's foremost commercial photographers. Several years earlier he'd taken the photograph that was considered his masterpiece -- he shot the tip of a pyramid in Egypt, reflected upside down in a cocktail glass filled with Smirnoff vodka. Of course liquor and women were different subjects.

Only days earlier, Stern had been in Rome photographing Elizabeth Taylor on the set of "Cleopatra." Today he was going to take the first nudes of Marilyn Monroe since her 1949 calendar shots.

As Stern cruised down Wilshire, he couldn't help fantasizing about what he really wanted to do with his subject. "What woman in the world would I like to sleep with?" Stern asks rhetorically 40 years later. "Of course there was my wife [New York ballerina Allegra Kent]. There was Jackie Kennedy. And there was Marilyn Monroe. But Jackie was married to the president and I was married to my wife. Marilyn was the only other woman who caught my interest."

Back up, Bert. There was something else about Jackie. Her hair. Brunettes have always scared you. Liz Taylor was an absolute freeze-out. You snapped the woman dressed in full Cleopatra regalia, but your mind was on a blond. Monroe. You were unaware of the curious synchronicity of photographing these two stars back-to-back. Both "Cleopatra" and Monroe's film "Something's Got to Give" were Twentieth Century Fox pictures. Liz's flick had gone way over budget and Fox couldn't afford the same deal with Monroe. So they shut down Marilyn's movie. Perhaps if "Cleopatra" had not been such a money hole, the suits would have shown Monroe grace and patience. As it was, her loss was photography's gain. Monroe was an aging beauty queen without a movie deal. Posing for Vogue magazine was a good career move.

Stern drove to the Bel-Air and cooled his heels in Suite 261. He was joined by a guy named George -- Monroe's hairdresser. They waited all afternoon. No Monroe. Stern was not upset. The unreality of his expectations was almost too much. He was going to strip Marilyn Monroe. Then he thought about how chubby she looked in her last flick, "The Misfits." Then, at 7 p.m. the front desk rang. "Miss Monroe is here." Stern went down to meet her.

"The sun was setting behind the Hollywood hills," he wrote in the introduction to "The Last Sitting." "And the girl-next-door every man dreams of was walking slowly toward me in the golden light." Forty years later, he remembers, "She came alone. She had a bandanna around her head. Some slacks and a sweater. No makeup. She was just gorgeous. I was shocked that she was so fit. She was wonderful for photography."

The first thing Stern said was, "You're beautiful."

She smiled and said, "Really? What a nice thing to say."

What did the movie star's voice sound like in person? "Her voice was more normal," Stern remembers. "I think 'Marilyn Monroe' is a character she created. That voice was exaggerated. She was a riot. I haven't seen anyone except people imitating her have that. And no one can imitate her properly."

Stern escorted Monroe up to the room. She saw the scarves, the white paper tacked on the walls. She knew what Bert wanted. She probably wasn't aware that Bert wanted to photograph her naked with pure light, thus the white backdrop  the antithesis of the red velvet of her calendar nudes. Monroe asked George what he thought about the setup. Bert knew George could queer the deal, but he just purred, "Oh ... what a divine idea."

She took her sweater off. "Women like to take their cloths off," Stern observes. "I noticed that. Especially in front of a camera. Or a mirror. Women are connected to their bodies and to the effect it has on other people."

He then looked at his subject and was surprised. Monroe had a scar. She'd had a gall bladder operation six weeks before. He remembered Liz Taylor had been marked as well  a long tracheotomy scar along her throat. He recalled Diana Vreeland telling him, "I think there's nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars." He didn't buy it when Vreeland said those words, but here he was with a half-naked Marilyn Monroe. How could argue with that opinion now?

Stern picked up his camera and photographed Monroe cavorting with the scarves. Drinking champagne. Holding cloth roses over each breast. Feeling herself up. Stern remembered being a kid in Brooklyn peeping on a neighbor named Mary playing with her own breasts beneath a pink sweater.

Stern had a little record player spinning the Everly Brothers. "Don't you have any Frank Sinatra?" Monroe pouted.

"Only Richard Avedon plays that stuff," Stern retorted. Hours went by. He coaxed her into taking her pants off  keep playing with the scarves. Finally, Stern realized it was 7 in morning. He let Monroe get dressed. She left. "I thought my love affair with Marilyn Monroe was over," Stern remembers. "I was very happy. The pictures were worth more to me than some kind of personal experience. I was already married. I never thought I'd meet her again."

Stern flew back to New York where he found out that Vogue loved his photos so much that they wanted more. There was to be a second act to this story. Only this time, a Vogue editor named Babs traveled to L.A. with Stern. At the Bel-Air shoot there were wardrobe and makeup people. And a case of Château Lafite-Rothschild along with bottles of Dom Perignon. Monroe arrived and drank and posed in a chinchilla. Posed again in an elegant black cocktail gown. A white veil. She posed in suburbanite clothes that 40 years later make her looked like a sophisticated Avon lady.

After a day of shooting fashion Monroe got cranky, but Stern had taken part of a "little heart-shaped pill" and was still going strong. "All the craziness of the '60s really began for me at that moment," he remembers. He'd popped a Dexedrine and its chemical enthusiasm allowed him to persuade Monroe to get naked before him in a locked bedroom. Soon she was cavorting under white sheets while he fired away with his camera. As he shot he pictured himself as a prowling Picasso Minotaur. Whether or not Stern was possessed by that old Spaniard  or just the upper  the photos he was taking were erotic masterpieces. Sure, they only showed a woman naked in bed, not such a radical place for a woman to be. But each shot would have a devastating innocence about it.

Forty years later, if you pop over to any 7-Eleven that stocks girlie magazines you'll find hundreds of similar photos, all taken by a photographer standing above the subject as if he is about to mount her himself. Stern's photos are different. "Monroe had the magic of the child," Stern says. He shot Monroe from a child's-eye view. It was as if a little boy had just wandered into a bedroom where this crazy blond was monkeying around on the bed.

There was a third act to Bert Stern's sessions with Monroe. Several days after the bed shots, he took a series of photos that he hoped would include his "one black and white [photo] that was going to last forever like Steichen's [photos of Greta] Garbo." He stood above Monroe and photographed her face lying among jewels and glitter. But these would not be Stern's Garbos. Monroe looked too ragged and burnt. No wonder Babs whispered to Stern, "What's going to happen to that poor girl?"

What happened, of course, is that six weeks later Marilyn Monroe was dead. "I heard it on the car radio in Sag Harbor driving to East Hampton to a breakfast," Stern remembers. "I didn't have a big reaction. I thought it was surprising, but I didn't cry or anything. I did hear from a writer that she had called me the night before she died because he has the phone records. I didn't get the call. We didn't have answering machines in those days. I certainly would have called her back. I probably would have flown out there to be with her if she wanted me to."

I ask him, "You mean you'd have left your wife for Monroe?"

"Maybe," he answers, after a pause. "My marriage would have been over, but I would have ran off with Marilyn Monroe. That's a story. I would have been the next sucker."

Vogue freaked about Monroe's death. They stopped the presses. Then Babs realized they were only printing black and white fashion shots of Monroe, the woman herself mostly dressed in black. These would be Monroe's obituary shots. The issue ran, as it had been planned.

We all know that many others besides Marilyn Monroe died or crashed to make the 1960s be the 1960s. Bert Stern, himself, just barely made it through that decade alive. He'd go on to become the 1960s fashion photographer of New York. His style of camera-as-phallus inspired the first photographer-standing-over-the-model scene in "Blow Up." Stern was responsible for Twiggy's brief reign as fashion's pop starvation princess. After Andy Warhol had lunch with Stern for the first time, the former returned to his office and was gunned down.

As for Stern's fate, "Speed was one of the major reasons my marriage ended. I got locked up for a while  trying to get me away from [a doctor who was giving him Dexadrine]. I had to leave the county and live with a friend in Spain. Then I came back to the U.S. and regrouped my life."

Today he sits, a regrouped grandfather, in a Manhattan office lined with photo boxes marked with the names of beautiful woman. Looking through them he remarks, "Bardot is another one I was interested in. She was beautiful. I had a problem with Julie Christie. She was little tough for me ... Barbra Streisand was tough, but I persevered with her. She refused to cover her shoulders ... Kate Moss  she's the hottest thing since Monroe ... Catherine Deneuve, when she first came to New York she was 18. She was a beautiful girl ... Madonna is gorgeous, the most beautiful eyes you ever saw. A little rough around the edges. She's a tough chick. She spits it out. She has her own agenda. It manifests in the pictures."

Forget those other femmes. The Monroe shots are what Stern will be remembered for, especially the ones Monroe mutilated with a hairpin. Just days before her death, Stern mailed color transparencies out to L.A. as a courtesy for Monroe. The woman went ahead and scratched up the ones she didn't like. Or else X-ed them with red magic marker. "Years later a wonderful art director from Harrod's [magazine] thought those particular photos were fabulous," Stern remembers. "He asked if they could publish them." Monroe's estate protested. Stern was unmoved. "Just because she scratched them out, doesn't mean she is the ultimate purveyor of my work. I hadn't signed any deal that she could destroy pictures she didn't like. They are my pictures."

Worse than Marilyn's hairpin commentary, other photos were stolen, then recovered. Recently, lost shots that Stern took of Marilyn in a black wig (à la Jackie Kennedy) were found in a flea market. Just last week, a dealer announced he was going to sell some "last sitting" photos that Stern had given as a gift to Joe DiMaggio. "I never met DiMaggio," Stern told the newspapers.

The story of Marilyn Monroe's last sitting needs a coda. After looking through the hundreds of photos, you realize how silent the images are. Did Monroe talk with Stern while he shot his Nikon? "Sure," he says. But then he can't remember what she said. Did they make small talk about Hollywood? "No." Talk about the weather? "No."

Then what? "I was trying to get one picture of her looking sexy," Stern recalls. "I had to get up high. We had to get her P.R. agent to taunt her a bit about her boyfriends to get her laughing. One was JFK and the other was some guy in Mexico. A Mexican person. I don't know his name. That was the only prompting that went on."

Then Stern finally remembers that "Marilyn was curious about why I was a photographer and why I wasn't directing movies. She had a sense of something about me. I was on my knees shooting up and she said, 'What's your premise?' I didn't know quite what she meant. 'All I want to do is take photographs of you.' I think she meant, 'Don't you want to be a director? Don't you have ambitions to do anything more?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to get you into the sack.'"

And Stern did. Almost. The night that Stern finished photographing Monroe in that bed, she lay drunk and exhausted and wanted him to make love with her. He didn't. "Why not? I've asked myself that question many times, and I've come up with many answers: marriage ... prudence ... cowardice ... destiny ... Dexedrine. But at that moment I think the truest one was that I cared too much for her. My desire for Marilyn was pure, it bordered on awe. To make love to her would have been too much ... and not enough."

It's a good thing that Stern did not become the date-rape Picassoesque Minotaur he had imagined himself to be. Instead he remained a great photographer. "There are no photographs of Cleopatra," he wrote (forgetting perhaps his photos of Liz Taylor). "No prints of what Paris saw and felt when he gazed at Helen of Troy. They're like dead stars; the light from them no longer reaches us. But there are photographs of Marilyn Monroe."

And in most of the photos inside "The Last Sitting," Monroe is the epitome of beauty  even in the silly self-portrait Stern took in a mirror of him sitting beside her in bed. On the floor are a couple of wine bottles, a half-empty glass, and a single, white, high-heeled pump. Stern sits beside Monroe, camera to his face, with his right hand forming a halo over Marilyn's head. They look like two naughty kids.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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