(About a 6-minute read)
I've wanted to write this article for nearly a month now and I thought it would take no time at all to gather the details of those infamous few days in 1962 when Bert Stern and Marilyn Monroe spent intimate hours at the Bel-Air Hotel. But oh, was I wrong. I had been digging for insider information, watching every documentary and reading every article, when my mother-in-law found me a copy of The Last Sitting, written by Bert Stern himself. Only in reading that book did I find out all the juicy details.
So, who is Bert Stern and what is The Last Sitting?
Bert Stern was one of “the” photographers of the 1950’s and 60’s. When I say “the” I mean he was in the company of a generation of the greatest photographers of all time. Think Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. His take on fashion photography was quite different from Dick and Irving, however, leaning more towards a direct, confrontational style that captured a sense of the subjects' thoughts and emotions. The photos became the message. He didn't photograph the person. He photographed the emotion.
“What makes a great model is her need, her desire; and it’s exciting to photograph desire.”
With a line like that, there is no wonder he was able to pull the desire right out of Marilyn and onto the lens of his camera.
Ah, yes. Marilyn. Why is Bert's name synonymous with hers?
Other starlets like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor had the pleasure of gracing his lens as well. The question is, why Marilyn?
Three words. The. Last. Sitting. Not Supper. Sitting. Bert, not Leonardo.
Bert Stern had taken the LAST photos of Marilyn Monroe only 6 weeks before her tragic death. This group of 2,571 captures was so special and emotionally unrestrained, that they have now become an almost eerie harbinger of her demise.
You want to know more now, don't you?
Yes! What was this shoot for?
The photo shoot was commissioned by Vogue magazine. Surprisingly, Marilyn had never appeared in Vogue, and at that time Bert had a contract with the magazine that gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted with 8 pages. He wanted Marilyn.
He felt that there had not yet been one immortal black and white photograph of Marilyn, and it was his destiny to make that happen.
When did this all take place?
1926: Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean, on June 1 in Los Angeles, California. She had just turned 36 at the time of the photo shoot.
1929: Bert Stern was born on October 3 in Brooklyn, NY. He was a whopping age of 33 when he got this break-of-a-lifetime.
1953: Marilyn had become a Hollywood sex symbol by this time, known for playing the “blonde bombshell." She was the object of every man's desire.
1955: Bert met Marilyn. I guess “met” is an exaggeration. Stern had seen her once at a Manhattan cocktail party. He recalls, "I just glanced at her. 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.”
1962: The year all of Bert’s dreams came true. He proposed shooting Marilyn for Vogue, and Vogue said yes.
March, 1962: Vogue arranges a shoot in Los Angeles and Bert does presumably what any man would do had they been allowed an intimate day and night with Marilyn Monroe. He had reserved them a suite at the Bel-Air Hotel; for the art of photography, of course. Although Bert later writes, "making love and making photographs were closely connected in my mind when it came to women,” which makes me question how appropriate this "professional" day actually was. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
Early June, 1962: The first shoot, aka, the scarf shoot. Suite Number 261. More about these racy photos later.Late June, 1962: The second shoot was requested by Vogue. Alexander Liberman, Vogue's picture editor, loved the scarf photos, but requested Bert do more black and whites to better suit the magazine. He arranges a new session...3 full days...again at the Bel-Air, this time at the larger Bungalow Number 96.
August 5, 1962: Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an “apparent barbiturate overdose." I put that in quotes because there is plenty of controversy about how she died. Was it a suicide? Was it murder? What exactly happened?
August 6, 1962: Vogue September issue was on press about to be printed when news broke of Monroe's death.
September, 1962: Vogue published the eight-page spread of Marilyn. The photos selected were all black and whites of her, fully clothed. I know what you are thinking. Did they mention her death? Did the same story that was planned before her death run without any changes? More on that in a minute…1982: Stern later compiled his images into a photo book including a very detailed account of the shoot, and called it, The Last Sitting.
What in God's name happened on that warm summer day that Marilyn felt comfortable enough to strip down for a complete stranger?
Well, for starters, a case of 1953 Dom Perignon. Stern said in his book, “I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover, and yet I was here to take photographs. Not to take her in my arms, but to turn her into tones, and planes and shapes and ultimately into an image for the printed page.”
He writes very candidly in this book about his great desire to have Marilyn if he could.
How did this go from a Vogue fashion shoot to a nude shoot?
Bert had brought a bunch of see-through scarves and beads from the Vogue accessories closet. He suggested she pose with just the scarves and nothing else. He knew this was risky. Marilyn asked her stylist what his thoughts were on this idea, and Bert recalls, “I knew my life was in his hands at that very moment. That if he said don’t you dare, we never would have taken the pictures.”
Lucky for Bert, the stylist said it was a “divine and wonderful” idea.
The photos exude a sultry, almost love-at-first-sight feeling. They didn’t know each other at this point, yet I feel like the photos embody a familiarity Marilyn might have felt with Bert. And the intimacy doesn’t end there.
They had been shooting well into the early morning hours on day two, when Marilyn tore her clothes off and threw on a lace bed jacket that hadn't even been selected for the shoot. At this point, everyone on the set was getting irritable and feisty. Bert suggested they all leave the room so he could shoot Marilyn alone. The rest of the crew was so exhausted, they happily obliged. This is how the next hour went...
These, to me, are the most stunning, because it is clear Marilyn is at her most comfortable and uninhibited.
What about the photos of Marilyn with the orange X over her face? What is that about?
After the shoot Bert had sent contact sheets and negatives to Vogue and to Marilyn. Vogue made their selections and Marilyn sent them back with orange x's and scratches made with a hairpin over the images she did not want published. He says in his book. "She hadn't just scratched out my pictures, she scratched out herself."
It's interesting to see such a beautiful photo with this X over it. To me, these are the most spectacular. It begs you to consider that even the most gorgeous people have insecurities many would never classify as a flaw. She had no idea how stunning she was. I see a woman who was everything to everyone, but nothing to herself.
What did the Vogue article look like? Did they mention her death?
Vogue ultimately decided to run the article using all of the same selections they had originally planned to use, with the addition of text explaining to readers their position.
The opening copy in the editorial read like this:
"The word of Marilyn Monroe's death came just as this issue of Vogue went on the press. After the first shock of tragedy, we debated whether it was technically possible to remove the pages from the printing forms. And then while we waited for an answer from our printers, we decided to publish the photographs in any case. For these were perhaps the only pictures of a new Marilyn Monroe - a Marilyn who showed outwardly the elegance and taste which we learned that she had instinctively; an indication of her lovely maturity, an emerging from the hoyden's shell into a profoundly beautiful, profoundly moving young woman."
If only I could get a copy of that issue.
The story of Marilyn continues to haunt me. I want to know why a beautiful life was cut short. I want to know what she was like while she was alive. I want to know why her presence still stands the test of time. For now, what I do have are these small snapshots of who she was, preserved and eternally youthful, uninhibited and completely raw, thanks to a young Brooklyn photographer who never could have imagined the ever-lasting allure his work would one day evoke. Then, now, and for many years to come.