Features 7 January 2020

Marilyn Monroe: the last sitting

When Bert Stern needed to persuade Marilyn Monroe to sit for him, he wooed her with her favourite fizz. It worked, and the result was a photo shoot of almost unbearable poignancy

Words by Guy Woodward

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In 1962, Bert Stern, along with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, was among the world’s most celebrated photographers. His images of Hollywood titans Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Marlon Brando defined the glamour of the era. 

But the one star he had yet to shoot was arguably the biggest of them all – Marilyn Monroe. When he received the cherished assignment from Vogue, his plan was simple. He booked a suite at the Bel-Air Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he would woo the actress with 1953 Dom Pérignon and persuade her to take her clothes off. 

Stern had done his homework, and his choice of Champagne was no coincidence – the details of a receipt from June 1962 for a case of the prestige cuvée under her name and address (see below) suggests Monroe was a regular patron of the house.  

Sure enough, the plan worked. Stern arrived early, bonded with the star’s stylist, and when Monroe turned up alone, several hours later, the pair hit it off over several glasses of fizz before Stern persuaded her to pose – with the stylist’s approval – wearing only the flimsiest of silk scarves. The subsequent shots are disarming in their candour, intimacy and total ease.

Vogue liked them so much it asked Stern to return for a second shoot a fortnight later, for which he upped his game, turning up this time with some Château Lafite as well as the failsafe Dom Pérignon.

Six weeks later, as Vogue was preparing to send the photographs to press, the actress was found dead. The pictures appeared in the magazine’s September 1962 issue, under the heading ‘The Last Sitting’.

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