STELLLLLLA!! (The Backstory of My Stella Stevens Interview Appearing in Cinema Retro Issue #42)

stella stevens 3b

I probably first became aware of Stella Stevens in Playboy during my adolescence. In my circle of friends at the time was a fat boy I’ll call Larry. Although he was a classmate, because of his size and girth, Larry appeared older than the rest of us. I can’t recall if we elected him or if he boasted that he could do it, but just the same, he was put to the test and moseyed into his neighborhood corner store to buy a copy of Playboy using coins we’d all chipped in. While we anxiously waited outside, like some wheel men in a bank robbery, Larry emerged with a grin and a paper bag that signaled success. It worked! He got the goods!

This was our routine when a new issue hit the stands, and Larry always came through. Returning home with all of us in tow, and steering clear of his mother, our portly pal would smuggle the magazine, tucked under his shirt, into the house and promptly upstairs to his room. There in his lair, we would excitedly crowd around as Larry riffled through the pages—past the liquor ads, Jean Shepherd stories and Gahan Wilson cartoons–to the “Sex in the Cinema” section or the layouts that featured famous actresses au naturel. Then, with Larry authoritatively manning a razor blade, the glorious photos would be excised and divvied up amongst us. I nabbed the Stella Stevens ones. Which I still have.

Fast-forward to 1993. Having watched most of her films over the years and having seen or read interviews with her, I thought she’d be interesting and fun to talk to, so I queried the editor of Femme Fatales magazine to see if the idea of a Stella Stevens interview appealed to him. He liked my credits as a freelancer and immediately gave me the go-ahead. After putting in my request to Stevens’ publicist, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from Stella herself to personally schedule the interview. She was open, honest, earthy, quotable and as enjoyable as I’d imagined, and I ended up doing the interview right then and there, winging it as I hadn’t prepared any notes. She graciously agreed to talk again and address any additional or follow-up questions I might have. Soon afterward, she sent me a large envelope containing her latest 8×10 pin-up photos and a hand-written letter.

Unfortunately, the editor would never give me a straight answer as to how much I would be paid for the piece if accepted. I’ve dealt with many editors over the years, and they never mince words over payment (or, in some cases, non-payment), so that was a red flag. Byliner beware. When, after being asked for the umpteenth time, Mr. Vague finally gave me a figure, he quickly added, “But don’t hold me to that.” By that point, my patience had reached its limit, and I never finished or submitted the article. Curiously enough, he never asked for it either, and so I considered it a closed issue–in both senses of the word.

Last year, when I read the sad news that Stevens was in a care facility suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, not only did it literally hit home, as I lived through the nightmarish disease as a caregiver for my afflicted father, but it also triggered a fond memory of what a dream subject Stevens was when I conducted that never-published phone interview with her all those years ago. Rummaging through my archives, I unearthed the scribbled transcript of that ’93 conversation and crafted it into the Q&A that has just been published in Cinema Retro (Issue #42).

Among the topics covered are some of Stevens’ favorite roles, working with such directors as Sam Peckinpah and Jerry Lewis, the plight of aging actresses, her exit from and re-entry into Hollywood, her move into directing, and the charity work that gave her a sense of fulfillment.

It’s a good one because Stella was a good one.



Photo by Bert Stern/Illustration by Jim George

(In all my years of freelance writing, I only ever had one article rejected, and that was because it was deemed too “suggestive.” It was a review of a book entitled The Last Sitting by Bert Stern which featured some of the last photos taken of Marilyn Monroe and the photographer-author’s personal account of the experience. Having reviewed it for my hometown newspaper, The Reading Eagle, in late 1982, I was fortunate enough to have a very progressive editor in Al Walentis, but he still had to answer to the powers-that-were. One of those powers—let’s call him Donald Dim—vetoed the piece after reading only the first paragraph. He then took a Dim view of every word thereafter in which he could infer something salacious—even objecting to the innocent phrase “makes no bones about it.” While I’m no stranger to double entendre, in the context of the review, wouldn’t “makes no bones” mean the very opposite of what he was accusing the phrase of connoting? My illustration, a keyhole-view of Marilyn, was also nixed. Interestingly, during the same period, the paper was happily accepting X-rated movie ads ($$$$), one of which included a small drawing of a bare-breasted woman (UU). To his credit, Al offered me the chance to edit out the offensive bits and rewrite the piece, but since I felt I did a good job of accurately capturing the tone of the book and the author’s state of mind, I declined, and so it never ran. Until now. For the record, my original title was “New Books Feature the Flesh and Flash of Marilyn Monroe”–plural, because I reviewed two others at the same time. At long last, here is the one which ruffled the Eagle’s feathers.)

Pussyfooting was never Bert Stern’s style. In The Last Sitting (William Morrow and Co. 192 pages), the photographer makes no bones—or bons mots–about his intentions circa 1962: “To get Marilyn Monroe in a room, with no one else around, and take all her clothes off.”

Much of his near-obsessive desire certainly could be attributed to artistic lust. Stern was unquestionably lens-horny to shoot Marilyn. Besides craving to snap that one immortal portrait, a picture the equivalent of Edward Steichen’s famous black-and-white of Garbo, Stern was dreaming of a white chrysalis—a glowing, pale, blonde beauty whose metamorphosis into her ultimate and definitive stage of au naturelism he could orchestrate and forever capture with his camera.

Should, however, MM’s accessibility extend beyond the realm of photography, should layout evolve into laydown, Stern was ready and welling.

The aesthetic side of Stern’s steamy fantasy was realized. In vogue with Vogue, he managed to get himself commissioned to shoot a fashion spread of the world’s most famous blonde for the publication—a coup he felt would be the magazenith of his career.

Whether by the intervention of a helpful hand of fate, his own shrewd manipulation of circumstances, or the utilization of the persuasive powers of Dom Perignon, Stern did indeed get his subject alone in a room, with no one else around. And while he shed light, she shed clothes.

Three highly charged sessions in the summer of ’62, some six weeks before Marilyn’s death, yielded the Steichen-caliber smiling black-and-white Stern aspired to as well as fashion shots of MM wrapped in rich furs and slipped into elegant black gowns, along with dozens of exquisite nudes.

Tame by today’s standards and practices, the nudes, in both color and black-and-white, are of two main groupings. In one, a topless Marilyn, shot through sheer silken scarves, is wearing a year-old scar (from gall bladder surgery) like a gash on a fresh peach. In the other set, a completely naked Marilyn is lying under, over and around cloud-white sheets on a bed. With stitches and without a stitch.

She is suspended in whiteness. Horizon is non-existent, as ground and background melt together in what Stern calls “a clear nowhere,” much like the dream sequence from Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes.

Whether Marilyn is undressed or dressed to keel over observers, the photographs in The Last Sitting are superior. Made of Sterner stuff, as it were, the images spectacularly accomplish what their creator set out to do: “match his art of seeing to her mastery of the art of being seen.”

Stern’s desire to lay more than eyes on Marilyn, however, went unfulfilled. His knowledge of her was decidedly more corneal than carnal. But just barely, he claims. At the conclusion of the second marathon session, Marilyn was reportedly—cue up Glenn Miller–in the mood.

But Stern says something stopped him, and the seemingly imminent consummation was nipped in the bed. Stern backed off, Marilyn fell asleep. Gentlemen prefer blondes with all their faculties.

Some will undoubtedly find the very notion of such a prestigious artist as Stern deciding to nearly-kiss-and-tell tasteless. Granted, the luscious photos, not the reminiscences, are the essence of the book. But this is no mere tryst-and-shout exercise in sensationalism.

Stern rarely drools into these pages. His text has a distinct peeking-through-a-keyhole quality, but the voyeurism is more poetic than licentious. He always speaks of MM in exceedingly worshipful tones, even bucking those who chastised her notorious tardiness, stating, “I never understood that attitude. Goddesses don’t play by the rules.”

Since Annie Gottlieb is co-credited with the text, it is impossible to discern just how much of the straightforward yet lyrical tenor is her doing. Giving Stern the the benefit of the doting, however, there is in his strange brew of no-nonsense candidness and pulse-racing fantasizing an almost Tom Ewell-like (in The Seven-Year Itch) neurotic bent. More frank than funny, though, this stripe of insecurity humanizes what could have been, with clumsier treatment, general braggadocio.

The specifics of the experience cannot be substantiated, since only one of the victorious principals of the fateful, fruitful shooting is alive. But taken with a grain of salt—or saltpeter, as the case may be—Stern’s charged account is a fascinating adjunct to a portfolio of photographs every MM admirer will cherish.








Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim George and byjimgeorge with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.