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Marilyn Monroe's Last Photoshoot

Marilyn Monroe was photographed by the prolific Bert Stern just weeks before her death.

By Filthy StaffPublished 8 years ago 8 min read

He was a self-made photography giant. She was the most famous woman in the world. Together, Bert Stern and Marilyn Monroe's collaboration resulted in the now-classic The Last Sitting, a series of photography sessions that produced over 2,500 images that are both haunting and poignant. The photographs give us a glimpse of the complex starlet's different sides, as well as what was to come: her tragic death a little over a month later.

By 1962, when Bert Stern was commissioned by Vogue magazine to take pictures of Marilyn Monroe, he was already one of America's foremost photographers. His first major commercial achievement had been in 1955, with his photo for Smirnoff Vodka, showing a martini glass glistening in front of a pyramid. Even apart from Stern's acclaimed Monroe photos, the photographer and advertising art director, known as the original Mad Man, had a prolific career working for such companies as Pepsi-Cola, Volkswagen, IBM, Revlon, as well as such magazines as Esquire and Glamour. He would also go on to direct a 1959 documentary, Jazz on a Summer's Day, which would be later selected for the US Library of Congress' National Film Registry. However, it is arguably the aptly-named The Last Sitting pictures of Marilyn Monroe for which Stern will be best remembered.

Monroe, for her part, was meeting Stern at the peak of her career. She had already starred in 23 films that had grossed over $200 million in their first runs, while her fame far surpassed that of any other entertainer of her time. However, she had also just been unceremoniously dumped from her latest film Something's Gotta Give, for what the studio cited publicly as Monroe's drug addiction and lack of professionalism, but what was later revealed by the film's producer Henry Weinstein to also be the studio's severe financial troubles. Whatever the reason, by the time late June 1962 rolled around, one thing was for certain: Marilyn Monroe was a movie star without a movie contract. This made posing for Vogue a smart career move.

The First Meeting

Stern’s first meeting with Marilyn was just as nerve-wracking and enchanting as would be expected from a woman who was famous for her seductive, yet capricious blonde persona on and off camera. On the late June afternoon the photoshoot was to take place, it looked like there wasn’t going to be one at all. Stern waited for hours in Bel-Air’s Suite 261 with Monroe’s hair dresser, George, but there was no sign of the actress. Hours later, however, at 7:00 PM, Monroe finally showed up, and even her unforgettable entrance proved to be well worth the wait. As Stern described in his introduction to “The Last Sitting,” “The sun was setting behind the Hollywood hills. And the girl-next-door every man dreams of was walking slowly toward me in the golden light.”

Things started out casually enough: “You’re beautiful,” Stern said.

“Really? What a nice thing to say,” Monroe replied, smiling. Once in the room, however, it was all business. Marilyn took off her sweater. Bert got behind the camera. And so it began. Marilyn struck the poses and Bert captured them. Picture after picture after picture. Marilyn romping about with scarves. Snap. Marilyn sipping her favorite champagne. Snap. Marilyn holding cloth roses over her breasts. Snap. This went on for over 11 hours, until 7:00 AM, when the two parted.

Although the tired but satisfied photographer flew back to New York expecting that his “love affair with Marilyn Monroe was over,” different news awaited him. There was to be a sequel; Vogue was so impressed with his photos that they wanted more—immediately.

The Second Session

The second shoot took place at the same hotel and included a Vogue editor named Babs, as well as wardrobe and makeup personnel. Again Marilyn drank and posed. Again the outfits—and her poses—varied: chinchilla, a black cocktail gown, a white veil, some suburbanite clothes—tipsy Marilyn, playful Marilyn, sexy Marilyn, elegant Marilyn. Except this time when Monroe grew irritable after a full day of shooting, Stern pressed on. Hepped up on a Dexedrine he had popped, he persuaded her to accompany him into a locked bedroom and take off her clothes. Next thing he knew she was playing amidst the bed’s white sheets while his camera was capturing it all.

The Last Sitting

The third and final session of “The Last Sitting” took place several days later, when Stern took black and white pictures of Marilyn’s face amongst jewels and glitter. However, the photographer did not achieve the Garbo-esque timeless shots he had been hoping for; Marilyn looked too tired and worn out. Little did Stern and his associates realize just how worn out the actress actually was.

Six Weeks Later...

Six weeks later, Marilyn Monroe was dead, apparently by suicide. “I heard it on the car radio in Sag Harbor driving to East Hampton to a breakfast,” Stern remembers. His greatest surprise, however, came later, when he was informed that Marilyn had tried to call him the night before she died. Despite the fact that he was happily married at the time, Stern admits “I probably would have flown out there to be with her if she wanted me to… I would have been the next sucker.”

In the aftermath of Monroe’s death, Vogue stopped the presses and considered not publishing the photos at all. That was, until editor Babs realized that the shots they were publishing were black and white, similar to obituary shots. The magazine published the pictures and the rest is history.

Significance of "The Last Sitting"

“The Last Sitting” has become legendary for several reasons. The most obvious is their retrospective significance as the last photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe before her untimely death. However, this collection’s fame is also due to how its photos show, in fascinating succession, the distinct and, at times, even conflicting sides of the star. In some shots, the actress is playful, others tender, others sad. Some show a Marilyn more beautiful than ever, while a few show her ragged and burned-out. Even in glancing at the photos from a single series, those of the first sitting’s chiffon scarves for instance, one can find sensual Marilyn, haughty Marilyn, luxurious Marilyn, jubilant Marilyn. The second sitting’s bedroom shots of the naked actress on a rumpled bed are similarly multifaceted. Despite the photos’ overtly sexual nature, they retain a devastating sort of innocence about them. All in all, this collection paints a portrait of a woman who was much more than the “dumb blonde” she was initially stereotyped to be.

The story of what went on behind the scenes of “The Last Sitting” is arguably just as fascinating as the photos themselves. The conversation was fairly unremarkable: ranging from Marilyn requesting a change of music to Frank Sinatra (Stern declined) and pressing Stern as to why he wasn’t directing movies, to Marilyn’s agent teasing her about her boyfriends, John F. Kennedy and an unknown Mexican man. The real interest lies in the complex dynamic between Stern and Monroe.

For his part, Stern accepted the job with more than just one goal in mind: he wanted to take unforgettable pictures of the star naked for Vogue—and make love to her. “Making love and making photographs were closely connected in my mind when it came to women,” he later recalled. His chance came after the second session of shooting, when Marilyn lay in the bed he’d photographed her in, drunk, exhausted, and eager for him to make love to her. But he didn’t. The real reason remained something of a mystery even years later, as Stern recounted: “Why not? I’ve asked myself that question many times, and I’ve come up with many answers: marriage… prudence… cowardice… destiny… Dexedrine. But at that moment I think the truest one was that I cared too much for her. My desire for Marilyn was pure, it bordered on awe. To make love to her would have been too much… and not enough.”

Everything about “The Last Sitting” is shrouded in eerie significance. There’s the dynamic between Stern and Monroe, both teetering on the brink of the madness of the 60s, one catastrophically. The shoot itself seemed to foreshadow what was to come. “What’s going to happen to that poor girl?” was what editor Babs whispered to Stern as he took pictures of Marilyn. Then there are the actress’ own marks on the contact sheets for approval, which provide a chillingly telling account of her self-image: magic marker Xs on the ones she disliked, and hairpin scratches on those she really disliked. Even by themselves the photographs stand alone. With their breathtaking breadth and depth, they don’t just capture the actress’ myriad of sides, they do so with an insightful penetration not easily managed by a silent and static medium such as photography. Yet the most darkly ironic twist of all is that the world received its clearest image of the troubled actress just as it lost her entirely.

Recommended Reading

While Bert Stern's "The Last Sitting" shows the many facets of Monroe in her final days, there are countless photographs that show her evolution as a star and a woman. For images of Monroe throughout her career, explore the photos of Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis.

Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis by David Wills is the most comprehensive collection of Marilyn Monroe photographs ever assembled. Over half of the photos in this volume have never been published elsewhere. Wills presents a photographic journey through Monroe's rise and downfall.

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About the Creator

Filthy Staff

A group of inappropriate, unconventional & disruptive professionals. Some are women, some are men, some are straight, some are gay. All are Filthy.

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