Remember that old joke: What’s black and white and red (read) all over? Rather than a newspaper, last night it was the theme for an opening of “The Red Party,” an exhibition of Bert Stern’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe: The Last Sitting® at midtown’s HGU Hotel. Documentary filmmaker, actress, and “secret” second wife (they wed in 2009) Shannah Laumeister Stern curated the show in collaboration with Julie Keyes of Keyes Art Gallery and The Bert Stern Trust.
“The (18) photos I chose show the playful side of Marilyn Monroe. They’re not the ones you’re used to seeing,” said not-even-born-yet-in 1962 widow of the late photographer. The famed Bel Air Hotel photos were taken that year for Vogue Magazine becoming known as The Last Sitting as they were taken just six weeks before Monroe’s death.
The use of red tones in the photos is meant as a tribute to the red lipstick which Monroe reportedly used to cross out the photos she didn’t like, although here the mark looks more like a grease pencil than lipstick. Several attendees (me included) wore red to incorporate the theme – Shannah wore red earrings and carried a red clutch. I wish she had included the photo Stern had taken of her as Marilyn on a rock in Central Park but she didn’t.
“Bert captured Marilyn in a series of images so comprehensively. He went beyond her external and ethereal beauty to her essence. Marilyn seemed to trust Bert and let go in ways she had never before. She was free and playful and Bert captured the total of her with the reverence and passion he felt. They had a relationship through what they both related to most, the lens of the camera,” she wrote in a press release.
The negatives which are archived in New Jersey and Sag Harbor were used to make a limited edition of eight of each of these oversized images. Laumeister Stern was only recently allowed to use these images pending a court ruling — a “beautifully written summary judgment” in her favor over the objections of the Lavender Twins, who used to sell Stern’s prints when he was still alive. The couple met when she was a 13-year-old skate enthusiast – he took photos of her and they kept in touch through the years. When she was 40 the relationship became romantic. Why was their marriage a secret? “There were those who didn’t want us to be together,” she answered cryptically.
Last night brought together many of those who witnessed the golden age of advertising/photography/modeling/fashion magazines — former models and stylists who worked with the likes of Richard Avedon as well as a few fashion designers and their newbie muse models. Mariana Verkerk was the coach for Scandinavia’s Holland’s, Benelux and Norways’sTopModel and now is the Founder Partner of The Model Convention spoke of her stint on Survivor (“It was really hard. I lost 20 pounds eating little fish that we had to catch and cook”).
Verkerk and Debbie Dickinson briefly demonstrated their catwalk skills mid-party. Dickinson said she’s ready for the upcoming Brooklyn Museum retrospective of Studio 54 as she referred to an iconic 1977 photo of her and Steve Rubell on the dance floor taken by Robin Platzer. She was never photographed by Stern but her sister Janice was.
Jerry Della Femina calls Bert Stern “the original Mad-Man,” — see Laumeister Stern’s 2011 documentary. Bert was famous for the 1955 Smirnoff vodka ad campaign, “Driest of the Dry” shot in the Egyptian pyramids through the prism of a martini glass. A follow- up ad featured a camel on Fifth Avenue — almost getting the photographer arrested, but vodka sales skyrocketed.
Later, Stern became known for his celebrity portraiture including Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando, and many others. In the documentary, Art Director George Lois called Stern “one of the first really important pioneers and cultural provocateurs.”
On film Stern confesses to being obsessed with only two women in his life: his first wife Ballerina Allegra Kent; the other — Marilyn Monroe. He famously suffered a breakdown when Kent left him — hospitalizations and drug addiction ensued. At a time when many were experimenting with psychoactive drugs, Stern produced 1973’s The Pill Book which seemed to pop up on everyone’s coffee table back in the day.
Stern was celebrated posthumously for his photos of Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1961) – an exhibition of those photos that occurred in 2017 in Sag Harbor where they were originally taken. Dickinson said she spent Thanksgiving at Stern’s Sag Harbor estate with about 20 others. At one point the door to a room slammed shut on its own. “It was the door to Bert’s photo archives,” she said spookily referring to Bert’s ongoing presence in his former residence.