Bert Stern: Original Madman


If all Bert Stern had done was direct “Jazz On A Summers Day”, the best Jazz film ever shot, he would have made his mark, but the private Mr. Stern, who’s had the camera turned on him for a change, also crafted some of the edgiest images of Mid-century fashion, fun and frolic.

He grew up in Brooklyn in a basement apartment. His green-eyed mother was beautiful.  She was the eternal optimist; his father was a failed suicide.

He dropped out of school and worked as a soda jerk during the depression, His dad sent him and his brother across the bridge to Manhattan and get a job in a bank, He started in the mailroom at Look magazine where palled around with photog Stanley Kubrick. (They ate in the village and talked about girls.) He got a crush on Kubrick’s model Eleanor Mostel.

He became the assistant of art director Hershal Bramson. When Bramson left Look to become the art director at the fledgling Flair Magazine, he took Stern as his assistant, and taught him about the triangle at the center of all art.

When Bramson had a heart attack, Stern became the de facto art director. A stint in japan, during the Korean War, where he shot film for the army, made him more camera literate. And he learned his way around women; Gorgeous war-weary Japanese women were plentiful and willing. After the War, he worked with Bramson at the small ad agency Lawrence C. Gumbinner. They had an account, Smirnoff Vodka, which was thinking of changing its campaign from cartoons to photo images.

Volunteering to shoot the then unknown Smirnoff Vodka account, he took off with the comely Eleanor Mostel, who he hoped to bed, as his assistant. They drove across the country in a new car and posed his male model and table and glass in front of perfect New Mexico desert sunsets.  The photo won an award and he was made.

The conceptual photographer shot his iconic upside down pyramid image, when he noticed that a full glass reversed an image like a camera lens. His jazzy break out concepts for the ads, which substituted fresh ideas for the female form (the were not allowed in ad’s for alcohol) put Stern in the Winner circle.

Eleanor fell in love and left her husband. Bramson urged him to marry her. “I didn’t want to marry her; I just wanted to make out with her.” It’s funny to hear the spoiled 87-year-old spoiled womanizer describe sex in such innocent ways.

Eleanor found him his first studio. Knowing nothing about lighting or light meters, he shot four years of images using natural daylight. He divorced Eleanor for the next girlfriend, the hire-wire, sexually aggressive Dorothy Tristan. At one point, fueled by injected methamphetamine, Stern and his studio turned out 9 shoots a day, conveyor belt style, and he was responsible for commercials and a foray into film.

His muse of the moment, Dorothy described him as the first photographer to play loud music.  “As he was shooting you he got right on top of you, it was very sexual…bad boy. He got into trouble a lot.”

He was probably the inspiration for David Hemmings’ photographer in “Blow Up.” Stern was the man of the moment, Glamorous, edgy, his powerful imagery pioneered the sea change in advertising.
Dorothy, who he felt outclassed him (“She was too beautiful. When she drank she was dangerous”) eventually pulled a knife on him. “Jazz On A Summers Day” started out as a narrative feature film to star Dorothy Tristan. Problems with the script led to the iconic films with its radically backlit performances.  ‘Where do you want the lights?” the crew asked. “I don’t know, put them on the stage. Point it all at the camera.” It was reversal of what people were used to seeing.

Stern spotted Allegra Kent, the love of his life, dancing in the show “Shinbone Alley.” Watching her hang upside down onstage, reading The New York Tribune he thought, ‘she would make a wonderful mother.” is it any wonder his family life tanked?

Stern became a born again balletomane to court Kent, then at the height of her career. A principle dancer at the New York City Ballet since she was fifteen, she became Balanchine’s favorite, performing numerous roles he created for her. Stern was obsessed with his wife. Home movies illustrate the good years. She was always moving, dancing, alive. Stern described being around her as energizing, sexual, a field of energy. Daughter Trista explains. “He just saw this shape. He saw a triangle and decided he was going to marry that triangle.”

Stern admitted to loving Allegra more than their children, In fact he was obsessed with her. A failure as a father, he cleaved to Trista, his attractive daughter and mother of his granddaughters, and spent little time with her plainer sister. Blithe Trista admits,”i was always a daddy’s girl” and her daughter chimes in ” I’m a grandaddy’s girl.” It’s as if they and homely Suzannah Stern came from two different families.

Methamphetamine psychosis eventually destroyed his marriage and he was institutionalized, Allegra left him.

“Women and photography were the two things I loved most in the world.” He joined Vogue in time to chronicle what Diane Vreeland called the “Youthquake.”  He enshrined decades of beauties Monroe, Loren, Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Suzy Parker Elizabeth Taylor, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Iman and Kate Moss. And bedded as many.

Nancy Pearl, his longtime stylist explained, “It was because he was attracted to them that he got such great pictures.”

“I loved it, I love the attention, and the availability of anything I want and anybody I wanted.” Stern remembers wistfully. Self-portraits, canoodling models on the set seem to bear this out. Like Aussie leading man Jack Thompson he’s had a long relationship with a set of twins.

Filmmaker and partner Shannon Laumeister met him when she was a 13-year old roller skater with braces. She bugged him to take her picture. They kept on doing sessions as she grew up. Eventually they became partners in work and life, though their sex seemed to only happen after their shoots. 

Doing what he called “Creating an image” came naturally to him, Stern’s ideas just kept popping. Laumeister’s dazzling photo-montages are peppered with rich imagery: Buster Keaton in a Smirnoff ad; Baby faced Shirley MacLaine, wearing nothing but diapers and a baby bonnet looking over her bare shoulder at the camera; Side and backlit Gary Cooper with
a gun (forming the magical triangle, the schema Stern adopted for all his images) The minimalist shoot, circa “High Noon” evoked the Westerns with a prop gun. Coop wore a contemporary grey flannel suit. Wild.

Stern was hired by Twentieth Century Fox to shoot on the set of Cleopatra, Hanging around with the new lovers Liz and Richard afforded him candid shots of the most famous couple in the world.

Later, Kubrick suggested he work on the ad campaign for Lolita. Fearing conservative backlash to the controversial film, Stern was told to stay away from anything that would accentuate 13-year-old Sue Lyon’s underage charms. But Stern couldn’t resist. On the shoot in Sag Harbour, he found the iconic heart shape sunglasses and lollipop and the rest was history.

When Stern went to work for Vogue he signed a contract that gave him a certain amount of pages where he could do whatever he wanted.
Stern proposed the Marilyn sitting, which would become her “Last Sitting:” when he realized she had never posed for Vogue. He showed up with a box of accessories, scarves, jewelry. “I didn’t want to shoot fashion.”

Shooting in a bungalow at the Bel Air Hotel, complicitous Stern and Marilyn created a froth of suggestive near nudes, Marilyn’s beauty, fragility and mischief shine through her unmade up looks (Eye Liner was all she used.)

Stern said he saw God in her. Over the moon, Vogue asked for another, clothed shoot. Eventually bored with the dresses, they created an even sexier private shoot. Stern wanted to “Make out with her” but meth left him without a sex drive.

“Course I was just a kid who wanted to make out with Marilyn Monroe.  But since I wasn’t going to get her, the next best thing was the picture. Maybe the best thing?”

The magazine went to press the day after she died.

Glamorous, edgy, Stern’s powerful imagery pioneered the sea change in advertising.  He lived high on the hog throughout the 60’s and 70’s. When drugs and his divorce from Kent ruined him financially, he conceived of the best selling “Pill Book” with pictures of every medicine then on the market. In its fifteenth edition, the perennial has sold over 17 million copies. It paid for his house and a fresh start. Stern jump-started another comeback by re-enacting the final Monroe session with scandal plagued Lindsey Lohan for New York Magazine, and regrets the act self-plagiarism. He described it as invading another person’s soul.”


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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