In 1955, aged 26, Bert Stern first saw Marilyn Monroe at the Actors Studio in New York City. Like many men, he was immediately taken in by her beauty. Years later, when he became a photographer for Vogue, his contract enabled him to pitch ten pages of photospreads for the magazine, and he decided to take advantage of that by pitching a story about Marilyn Monroe.
On June 23, 1962, Stern set up a temporary studio in Suite 261 of the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles, and set out of photograph the actress in a session that would amount to nearly twelve hours. At his request, Marilyn appeared without make-up and with at most some eyeliner and lipsick, and draped herself in boa and transparent veils.
“You want me to do nudes?” she asked the photographer, who hestitantly replied, “Uh, well I – I guess so! It wouldn’t be exactly nude. You’d have the scarf.”
“Well, how much would you see through?”
“That depends on how I light it.”
Monroe was concerned that her scar would be visible. Stern did not understand what the actress was talking about, but she explained that she had a gall bladder operation a few weeks earlier. Monroe was nervous about the nudes — she had been photographed only once without clothes, and that was back in 1949. Whem Tom Kelley’s photograph of her appeared years later in a pin-up catalogue in March 1952, it had almost ruined her Hollywood career. (The photos appeared in the middle of her shooting “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and was later republished in the first issue of Playboy magazine in Dec 1953).
Vogue liked Stern’s photos when he showed them, but did not want to publish the nudes. It would prefer black-and-white photos of the actress doing a fashion shoot. In July, Stern was sent back to Bel Air with clothes, furs, and Vogue editor Babs Simpson for two more sessions. Althogether, 2571 photographs were taken during these three sessions.
Stern sent the actress a set of pictures, but he received two thirds of them back crossed out. He later recalled his anger at this:
“On the contact sheets she had made X’s in magic marker. That was all right. But she had X-ed out the color transparencies with a hairpin, right on the film. The ones she had X-ed out were mutilated. Destroyed. She hadn’t just scratched out my pictures, she’d scratched out herself.”
Vogue was supposed to feature her for their September 1962 issue — which was scheduled to be printed on Monday 6th August. Two days before, on the evening of 4th August 4, Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. The magazine stopped the presses to compose the new text for the photos:
The word of Marilyn Monroe’s death came just as this issue of Vogue went on the press. After the first shock of tragedy, we debated whether it was technically possible to remove the pages from the printing forms. And then while we waited for an answer from our printers, we decided to publish the photographs in any case. For these were perhaps the only pictures of a new Marilyn Monroe – a Marilyn who showed outwardly the elegance and taste which we learned that she had instinctively; an indication of her lovely maturity, an emerging from the hoyden’s shell into a profoundly beautiful, profoundly moving young woman. She has given a warm delight to millions of people, made them smile affectionately, laugh uproariously, love her to the point of caring deeply – often aggressively – about her personal unhappiness. That she withstood the incredible, unknowable pressures of her public legend as long as she did is evidence of the stamina of the human spirit. Too late one can only wish that somehow, somewhere that pressure might have been listed long enough to let her find the key to the self behind the public image. The waste seems almost unbearable if out of her death comes noting of insight into her special problems; no step towards a knowledge that might save, for the living, these beautiful and tormented.
The nude photos from the sessions appeared in Eros, a short-lived quarterly literary magazine that only ran four volumes in 1962. The third issue (Autumn, 1962) of the magazine featuring the photos sold nearly 150,000 copies and led to the publisher Ralph Ginzburg being convicted for disseminating pornography. He was sentenced to five years in prison and served eight months. Following that lawsuit, Eros shut down.
The Sunday Times used Stern’s photos for their October 1973 essay by Norman Mailer, which caused a sensation by speculating whether FBI or CIA agents had killed her owing to her rumoured affair with Robert Kennedy.
Vogue reran The Last Sitting on the 20th anniversary of both Monroe’s death and Stern’s original sessions in September 1982 issue.