* Prices may differ from that shown
Having been a fan of Marilyn Monroe since 1987, I have collected many books on her over the years and one of my favourites is The Last Sitting by Bert Stern. This was published back in 1982 and can be hard to find for a good price, but all Marilyn collectors would be thrilled to have this on their shelves.
Bert Stern is an American photographer now aged 82. In 1962, Vogue magazine hired him to do a photo shoot with the legendary Marilyn, who was then thirty-six. This series of photos ended up being the final sitting she did, as she was found dead just six weeks later. This already makes Stern's photos of an historic significance, but on top of that, they are amongst my favourites ever taken of her and the book is worth getting for the amazing images alone.
It is a large format coffee table hardback book of around 190 pages. If you open it up, the front and back cover produce a stunning photo of the naked Marilyn sprawled across a bed, her white-blonde locks tumbling across her left eye. This is not just a photo book though. The text explains Bert Stern's experiences meeting the famous film star and finally getting to photograph her. He first saw her at a party in New York in 1955, where her beauty entranced and attracted him, but he didn't dare speak to her. He then goes on to explain how his own career flourished over the intervening years until he was asked to photograph Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Cleopatra. At this time, he asked Vogue if they would like him to photograph Marilyn and soon the deal was organised.
His dream was to take the archetypal photo of Marilyn, the one definitive image that would show her personality and her beauty. He also felt he wanted to shoot her naked, although she hadn't done any nude images since the ones taken by Tom Kelley for a calendar back in 1949 when she was in her early twenties.
Stern hired a suite at the Hotel Bel-Air and amassed various accessories, including see-through scarves in a variety of patterns, beads and gloves. The text goes into great detail about the preparations and what he was thinking of, as he planned the setting for the shoot. She arrived late, as expected, wearing no make up and with a scarf round her head. Stern says "and she was gorgeous. I had expected - feared - an elaborate imitation. No. She was the real thing."
He recounts conversations he had with her and how the shoot went with her reaction to the suggestion of being nude, even voicing concerns about the scar she had from a recent operation to remove her gallbladder. Some of it seems to be Stern's "masculinity" talking and some of it is rather cringe-worthy - "We weren't just making love, we were making pictures. There's no greater sensation than making love with a camera." Ugh.
The twelve hour photo shoot over, Stern thought this would be all, but Vogue asked him to take more black and white photos of her and commissioned a further session. This time, she had professionals with her to do her hair and make up and Vogue had requested more of a fashion shoot, less arty than the scarves and the accessories. Again, we learn how it went, the conversations they had and how the outfits were eventually discarded, so she was nude on the bed with just Stern in the room with her. At this point, it sounds a bit sordid - the two of them alone with a bed, Marilyn completely nude and being given copious amounts of champagne. Bert describes her as "vulnerable and drunk and tender and inviting and exciting."
He says he tried to kiss her, but she stopped him. However, instead of taking this as a sign she wasn't interested, he interprets it as "maybe she wanted to make love." He then goes on to suggest she did want to, but Stern "was the one who stopped." Now, I find this offensive and rather sick, almost like watching a rape scene in a movie. Admittedly, he doesn't say they actually had sex and the language used is not at all explicit, but it doesn't make comfortable reading. He describes how she then wakes up slightly, before going back to sleep, only for Stern to then photograph her asleep without her knowing. The words coming into my head at this point are exploitation and violation.
Throughout her life, Marilyn came across people who wanted to use and abuse her - for their own aspirations of fame, for money or to try to possess that beautiful body. Bert Stern comes across as yet another name to add to the list.
However, this book is still worth buying for the photos as they are amongst some of the most stunning ever taken of her. The naked images are all tasteful and artistic and the unusual placements of the props mean we are presented with a collection of images which are different from the usual 'blonde bombshell' publicity photos. We see the ageing Marilyn with her imperfect body and it showcases her vulnerability and insecurity juxtaposed with her confident sexuality - something which charmed men and women alike during her lifetime and continues to enchant almost fifty years after her death.
I love how much fun she seems to be having with some of the props and accessories. Her smile shines and her eyes glitter, as she pouts and flirts to the camera. She has incredible style and is a natural model, knowing just how to look down the lens and what she is giving back. The one prop I don't like in the Stern sessions is the nets which she wears over her face and I'm not so keen on the latter ones on the bed, where she looks really drunk. But overall, Bert Stern's photographs are amongst my favourites anyone has ever taken of her.
The photos are displayed in a fairly chronological order and many are given a full page, so are shown off beautifully. Others are shown as a reel, so you can see the progression of twenty-odd clicks of the camera in the photographer's quest for the perfect image. Towards the end of The Last Sitting, there are eight pages featuring almost thirty photos which have been crossed through in an orange pen. These were the ones Marilyn did not feel were good enough to be published, so they are interesting to see and to wonder what she disliked about them. Some were crossed out in magic marker, others scratched with a hairpin, all were seriously damaged, which angered Stern who felt many could have been retouched to improve them. This was just two weeks before her death.
Stern comments on Marilyn's demise, saying how "There was some way in which I was not surprised. Not that she'd seemed depressed or suicidal to me." His photographs were published in Vogue as planned, becoming "a memorial - Vogue's salute to Marilyn, ending with the portrait of her laughing - the picture that goes back to the beginning, the one I set out to get."
The Last Sitting is also a beautiful enduring memorial to the woman who fascinates, intrigues and brings out the caring side of fans who wish they had been able to try to save and protect her.
The Last Sitting is hard to buy these days for a reasonable price, so it is best to look in second-hand shops or on eBay or Amazon Marketplace. The 2000 version of the hardback is listed on Amazon UK for £90, but currently is unavailable. The Marketplace has copies from just under £4 to £48, though with varying conditions.