Conceived by Lawrence Schiller, a five-time collaborator with Norman Mailer, and first published as a TASCHEN limited collector’s edition, Norman Mailer/Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe combines Mailer’s 1973 biographical novel of Norma Jean Baker (or Mortenson) with Stern’s photographs from the Last Sitting sessions of 36-year-old Monroe for Vogue. While each are impressive works in their own right, together they create a compelling portrait about the woman and the icon.
Schiller had a portfolio of pictures from over 24 different photographers and wanted either Mailer or Gloria Steinem to write an Introduction to accompany them. Mailer got the job but was unable to constrain himself and wrote an essay so long it became the novel that is Marilyn: A Biography, his second best-selling book behind his first novel, The Naked and the Dead.
Making use of other biographies, Mailer creates what appears to be a very informative, well-detailed account, before and after Norma Jean became Marilyn. However, as the novel draws to a close, Mailer suggests possible involvement in her death by, but not limited to, the CIA, the FBI, and the Mafia for political reasons due to her affairs with the Kennedys. Although these salacious details, which he admits there being “next to nothing of such evidence,” makes for a fun read, it calls into question the accuracy of all that came before. Considering what a fascinating life she had, the need to augment it with such questionable theories is hard to understand and diminishes the novel. Also, his frequent references to Nixon early on dates the writing and seems a bit odd when read now.
Although “Richard Avedon had done a spread in Life using lush, expensive sets,” Bert Stern thought “the definitive picture has yet to be taken” of Monroe and “fantasized about making a photograph of her as memorable as Edward Steichen’s immortal black-and-white portrait of Greta Garbo.” Over two weekends in June 1962 at the Hotel Bel Air, Stern “shot over 2,500 images in over twenty different outfits – that is if you count a scarf as an outfit.” There’s no doubt why this great beauty became an international sex symbol, looking gorgeous throughout whether completely covered by dresses and furs or barely hiding behind sheer scarves that leave little about her breasts to the imagination.
She appears playful in a lot of shots, but other moods come through as well, and not all generate sexual responses. A few photos find her wearing a dark wig that makes her look like Jackie Kennedy, which seems an odd coincidence. In many of the close-ups, her eyes are half-open and a slightly bloodshot. An aura of sadness emanates from them for those that know she would tragically die of a pill overdose “alone in the bedroom of her home just a few miles from the Hotel Bel Air” five weeks after their sessions ended.
Norman Mailer/Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe is an essential document about one of the most famous women the world has ever known. Together, the artists bring her to life for the reader and demonstrate why she retains the power to captivate over 50 years after her death.