(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.
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