Book Review: Three Legends: Monroe by Mailer and Stern: Norman Mailer and Bert Stern


For a set of images which were never meant to be seen, Bert Stern’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe, captured over a three-day sitting in 1962, have become some of the most viewed, recognised, promoted, packaged and repackaged of the fragile, sexual, movie actress ever taken. Stern was an advertising, portrait, fashion and publicity photographer at the top of his game when he was granted a sitting with Monroe, just six weeks before her tragic death. The shoot had been arranged by American Vogue, and took place at the Los Angeles Hotel Bel-Air.

The sitting resulted in nearly 2,600 frames, of which Vogue chose only 20 for publication. Those are the basic facts, but the real story behind the shoot reads more like an episode of Mad Men, crossed with the film Blow-Up; and it is a story which, unsurprisingly perhaps, Stern has been happy to tell. He had realised his boyhood dream and become a Vogue photographer. Women and photography were the two things in the world he loved the most and now he could combine both.

Monroe was his personal incarnation of love and he wanted to photograph her, so he got his agent to start the pursuit with the offer of a shoot with Vogue. Monroe said yes and Stern headed to LA from his New York studio with the idea of doing a black-and-white head shot; to create an iconic image. But his real desire was to be in a room with Monroe on his own, to get her to take her clothes off and do a nude shoot. What he wanted was a pure Marilyn. A study wouldn’t be the right environment in which to achieve this, so he decided on a hotel room at the Bel-Air. His plan was to use scarves as veils and jewellery instead of clothes, and the living room of the hotel suite as his studio, which he did by covering all of the walls with white paper.

The mood was set by Stern flooding the space with light and sound, thanks to the hi-fi he always used on shoots, and a case of 1953 Dom Pérignon, specifically requested by Monroe. With the scene set, he sat and awaited her arrival. She was due to arrive at two o’clock, but actually arrived five hours late at 7pm. The rest, as they say, is history; and clear to see from the images Stern created over the following three days. He got his wish. He photographed her naked. They drank champagne. They worked through the night. He fell in love. When she was shown the resulting images for approval (much to Stern’s consternation), she crossed out more than half the frames with a magic marker and returned them to Vogue. Monroe had destroyed them and yet, in doing so, had created a graphic mark that lived on long after her death, just two weeks later, aged 36. Stern went on to publish the pictures that Monroe had never wanted to be seen and Three Legends is the latest repackaging of that final shoot.

This book, conceived by Lawrence Schiller – Norman Mailer’s collaborator on five previous books – combines Mailer’s text from his seminal 1973 biography on Monroe with Stern’s images. Norman Mailer was one of the 20th century’s greatest and most influential writers, as well as one of America’s most renowned and controversial literary figures. The best-selling author of a dozen novels and 20 works of non-fiction, he also wrote stage plays, screenplays, hundreds of essays, two books of poetry and a collection of short stories. He was also a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. There is no doubt that this is a heavyweight read; both in physical mass and subject matter. It also comes with a heavyweight price tag.

The even more expensive limited editions sold out before the book was published, which shows the continued interest, passion and impact Monroe’s story and Stern’s images have, even today. If you can afford it, we recommend investing in Three Legends. If not, search out one of the other books out there that feature these images. Either way, it’s a story worth hearing and seeing.

MB Three Legends: Monroe by Mailer and Stern Norman Mailer and Bert Stern
Taschen. £650.
ISBN-13: 978-3-8365-1185-8 

© Grant Scott 2012

%d bloggers like this: