The Last Sitting
“Sometimes you know somebody better when you don’t know them. As you get to know them, it wrecks things… until you… part. I think when you take pictures and you don’t know someone, but you like them, then you know each other very well. And if you get that feeling into the pictures, then they stay there. And I think that’s what’s in the pictures, is a feeling of knowing somebody right away. Love at first sight.”
Bert Stern sat on an airplane in 1962, surveying the world from above like a newly crowned king, and decided he was entitled to something from Marilyn Monroe.
When Stern photographed Monroe for what is now called “The Last Sitting,” a series of fashion and jewelry portraits that evolved into the infamous nudes with the colorful scarves, he had never met her. He casually says in a later interview that he “liked her” and thought she felt the same about him. He said, "I prepared for Marilyn's arrival like a lover, and yet I was here to take photographs. Not to take her into my arms, but to turn her into an image for the printed page." An art website featuring his work praises him for appearing to do both.
Marilyn died six weeks later from a drug overdose and Vogue published the photos the day after, elevating Stern’s status from buzzy fashion photographer to manifestation of Charon, the mythical ferryman, carrying a goddess to the Underworld.
Looking at the photos in this moment in time, in the midst of a feminist movement to hold men accountable for rampant abuses of power reaching back generations, begs an inquiry into the man behind the camera. He was at the peak of his fashion career, had the power to access any celebrity he wanted, and he chose her. A brilliant star that had begun to very publicly fade. She’d been under a catastrophic amount of stress, fired from her studio deal, from films, hospitalized repeatedly, picked apart in the press for her failings, her divorces and suspected affairs. She was a woman deeply in need of help and healing but continuously dragged by a tide of greedy hands grasping for a piece of her back into the raging sea.
Like everyone else in this world, I am interested in Marilyn Monroe. Her image has been seared into all of our psyches as the ideal feminine creation with her overflowing hourglass figure, kittenish voice and open, teetering sexuality. She’s the star of a titilating tragedy. A woman so deeply traumatized that she enslaved herself to the fickle machine of male desire and was shredded in its metal teeth.
Marilyn didn’t give the world what she gave for her own pleasure, she gave it because she was asked, it was expected, and she was hoping to be loved in return. It’s the fantasy of the men around her and the world at large that she gave it freely. That narrative feeds the ego of those on the receiving end. It lets them believe that they are special, that there was mutuality in a transaction that was merely consumption.
Bert Stern was no different. In a video recorded interview, long after Marilyn’s death, he walks slowly around a gallery full of enlarged prints from his defining photoshoot. He references a nude photo of her in bed, backlit and laughing. “This is where we chased everybody out”, he says. “We got a lot of champagne and we were… goofy.”
He comes to the last photo. A portrait of the two of them sitting on the bed through the mirror. “We were finished with all the fashion and Marilyn was very tired of wearing clothes. She wanted to go back to having less clothes on. We went back to the room and shut the door and chased everybody out. And I said… uh… we sat on the bed and l looked over and saw the mirror and said, this is a good time to do a self portrait. There’s only one chance for this picture. So that’s what this is, it’s a self portrait. And as you can see we have… wine, and… that was probably one of the last pictures we did.”
It’s difficult to watch as he strolls languidly down memory lane, the way his ego has rewritten the narrative into one where she invited him to bed rather than the grotesque truth, which is that he used his power to target a vulnerable and mentally ill woman and liquored her up until she was compliant. That he couldn’t help but take a self portrait of that moment, perched on the bed, unsupervised, his hand claw-like and poised to touch the gauzy, heavy lidded object splayed on a platter before him. One of Marilyn’s final ritual self sacrifices spun into a playful romance by this stranger, repeated and repeated as his triumphant claim to virility for decades after she is no longer here to object.
The older I get, the more deeply I understand Marilyn and her sadness. As a young actress, I’ve often called upon her, the patron saint of availability, to teach me how to offer up my own sexuality to an audience. I've tried to emulate the invitation of her body but instead found myself shaking with fear, hearing the distant galloping of annihilation approaching. I have found no way to lay my body down on the tracks like that without disconnecting from it completely. That is often my experience of being a woman, to be valued for my delicateness, my softness and easy permeability, only to be run through, consumed, torn apart petal by velvet petal, just so someone can feel the novelty of flesh tearing between their fingers. There is a stark line between pleasure and pain but no one asks me where it is. “Do you like that” is a rhetorical question that I don’t know the answer to anyway.
Stern acknowledges that there is something “tragic” about some of the photos. The lead photo where she looks off, her hand to her face, especially. He remembers the art department calling the spread somehow “nostalgic”. As he speaks I imagine a room full of Vogue editors tilting their heads to the side, wondering what strange thing they’re seeing in this crumbling woman’s face, shrugging, and then calling Bert Stern to congratulate him for it.
I think, when you take pictures of someone and you don’t know them, but you like them, you don’t know them at all. There is no such thing as love at first sight. You are in love with a projection, a fantasy, an idea. As you get to know someone, as they have longings, fears, anxieties, and needs, the fantasy shatters. You are faced with a human being.
Stern never met Norma Jean. Her eyes sleepy with alcohol and tranquilizers, her smile painted on like always, her body an offering to an insatiable void. He was not interested in the truth of her.
Every woman is familiar with that void, whether she has named it or not. I find it at audition after audition for over sexualized and under developed characters that sometimes have me trembling in the bathrooms of casting offices, wondering where the dream went and if it ever existed in the first place. In roles requiring my bare body but dismissing what is under the skin, in directors and producers who have manipulated and shamed me in order to tell stories that dishonor us all as a collective and in the hovering fear that if I change, if I say No, if I demand something different and better, I will just be a crossed out name on a list, the next girl giggling and gracious right behind me. It's all just part of the struggle to get a foot into an industry where every foothold becomes a hand sliding up your leg.
There are days when I feel I have shattered, gone off the deep end, slipped through the cracks the way so many others have. The difference is that I’m going to live through this journey. I’m going to come out the other side. I don’t know what I’ll be when I get there, but I know I do not choose to disappear.
I wish we could have seen what Marilyn transformed into were she able to make her own journey and become a triumphant queen of her own darkness. I would have reveled in reading her open letter to the New York Times, dethroning every parasite that fed off of her light.
I took these photos with photographer Corey Hayes in New York, after not having worked with him in nearly a decade. Rather than revisit our old fashion and headshot repertoire, he was open to shooting whatever felt most relevant and honest for me at this time in my life. I decided to do an interpretation of Marilyn’s last sitting because I felt those photos represented a tipping point, the moment in her life when she could no longer uphold her “sex kitten” identity, the moment the mask cracked open and the truth of her inner life started involuntarily leaking out. It’s a threshold I find myself on as well. An identity shift that I can’t control, that I’m attempting to travel through with all the grace that rage will allow and observe with as much loving curiosity as possible. I wanted to shoot a version of those photos with no mask at all, the way she would have looked if she had been able to be fully honest. I also want to challenge what we find “sexy” and appealing in women. Is it still hot if you are face to face with the emotional consequences in the object of your desire? Does it still turn you on if the wound is visible? What is left of a woman if she is in too much pain to be available? Is she a living ghost?
Bert Stern quotes pulled from this interview:
All photos of Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern
All photos of Christine Donlon by Corey Hayes