Last week Bert Stern died – the photographer who liked to shoot models best, but received his greatest piece of luck during three days spent in a hotel room with an intoxicated Marilyn Monroe.
It was 1962 and Vogue magazine – who had spurned her for years, considering her to be too low class for their esteemed publication – hired him for a photo session that would change his life.
What would you do if you were Bert? Feed the movie star champagne of course – and keep shooting – 2,500 times.
Six weeks later she was dead and Bert was on the way to making his name and his fortune. He would go on to shoot many wonderful models and actors but never surpass the success of this session – a testament to his art and Monroe’s ability to seduce the camera.
You’ve no doubt seen images from the shoot – named “The Last Sitting” and eventually producing two books worth – one image graced the cover of the book I received for my 15th birthday – Marilyn by Norman Mailer.
This book has been reprinted many times but my copy is still at home, rather scruffy after many, many happy readings and almost fifty house moves. Thank you Jean! Such a wonderful birthday present, well worth scouring all the second hand bookshops in Perth to find it at last at Serendipity Books.
Or maybe you’ve seen the image gracing the cover of “American Dior” – now duly added to my required reading list.
I know this session so well and have seen images pop up on flyers for vintage sales, cafe openings and blogs across the world. Bert did very well out of them, even selling the images that Monroe herself crossed out with a red texta, indicating that they had been rejected and were to be binned.
Even the rejects look fabulous. I want one.
Monroe had been so generous with herself: she leans towards the camera with a mix of yearning, love, confidence and vulnerability – “I’m yours!” she cries and whispers – “you won’t hurt me, will you?” MM had been hurt and the next six weeks promised more betrayal but she was still hopeful, still professional (even at her drunkest) and still incredibly photogenic.
There are those who will tell you that Marilyn was a mess at this point in her life – she had been fired from her film “Something’s Got to Give” and spurned by her lover, President John F. Kennedy. He had passed her onto his little brother Robert, who was also seeking to extricate himself from her bed. She was allegedly mostly drunk or out of it on drugs – and in many of these images you can see that she’s had too much but still. Still. Fabulous.
There are those who will tell you that she was fat – the poster child for overweight beauty but these images show the truth: at 36 years old her face reveals lines, her body is wounded but she makes no attempt to hide her scars. Still fabulous.
Monroe was a woman who was comfortable in her own skin, indeed felt at her best when naked and it was an open secret in Hollywood that she preferred not to wear knickers, would never wear girdles and only wore bras to bed (to preserve the perkiness of her famous breasts). Her maid complained that she would greet visitors in the nude.
She shocked Clark Gable when she eschewed clothes for a scene in “The Misfits” where he kisses her in bed – and let slip the sheet so that his hand touched her breast. Her last (unfinished) film included a nude swimming scene – the first time a major star appeared nude in a film. Not surprisingly, she’s sans clothes in a large number of the Last Sitting images. Utterly fabulous.
Thank you Bert and thank you Marilyn – these images form a bridge between 1950s glamour and the realism of the 1960s. They reveal why Marilyn, in the 21st century continues to speak to us.