The tones of Frank Sinatra rasp from the gramophone that photographer Bert Stern and his Swedish assistant Leif-Erik Nygårds have brought with them from New York. In the suite of the Hotel Bel-Air sit half-drunk bottles of Dom Pérignon. Los Angeles is offering record temperatures of over forty degrees. It’s the third and last evening of photography for Vogue. In the bed, wrapped in white sheets, lies Marilyn Monroe, who takes care never to reveal too much flesh to Bert Stern’s lens.
Two years earlier, in 1960, the 22 year-old photographer Leif-Erik Nygårds arrives in New York. While working at photo agency Tio Fotografer in Stockholm, he’s seen portrait photographs taken by Irving Penn and Bert Stern. He wants to learn to take pictures like them.
“I only knew the names of these two photographers. I looked up their studio addresses and went there and asked about a job. It was all or nothing,” says Leif-Erik Nygårds.
Irving Penn says no; Leif-Erik can come back when his English improves. But Bert Stern gives him a job as a photographer’s assistant.
In 1962, American Vogue commissions a big fashion piece from Bert Stern with Hollywood’s darling: the film star Marilyn Monroe. Vogue arranges a photo session for Los Angeles in March.
“The studio was so small that we could only take half-figure pictures. Stern took lots of half-naked pictures of Marilyn where she’s holding a see-through scarf in front of her,” says Leif-Erik.
The pictures aren’t well received. Marilyn Monroe shows her dissatisfaction by crossing them out with red lipstick and tears some with a hairpin. Alexander Liberman, Vogues’s picture editor, doesn’t think the pictures suit the magazine either. He arranges a new session, four days at the end of June, at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
On Saturday afternoon, three o’clock on the first day of photography, Leif-Erik sits in the garden outside the hotel and waits. Marilyn is late.
“She finally turned up at seven in the evening, four hours late. Although that was actually a good thing because the days were so hot. We were working in the evenings and at night.”
The second evening, Leif-Erik gets sick. He thinks it was due to the lunchtime seafood salad. Marilyn is concerned about Leif-Erik and finally rings her own doctor, Dr. Ralph Greenson, who comes over and examines him.
“Marilyn was so kind to me. We connected during the photo session. She was going to film Something’s Got to Give, where she’d have a Swedish accent. We talked a lot about Sweden and Norway between shots, and she said she wanted to visit Sweden as a tourist.
On the third evening, the Vogue pictures are finished, one day early, and Bert Stern is satisfied. Now he wants to photograph Marilyn naked.
“I wondered how far he’d dare to push her. The atmosphere between Stern and Marilyn got worse and worse. She said no and he kept going. At last he gave up and took the night-flight to New York,” relates Leif-Erik.
Bert Stern tells Leif-Erik to pack up the equipment, tidy the studio and take the first flight the following morning. Sinatra is singing on the gramophone. Marilyn is still sitting on the edge of bed, wrapped in the sheet.
“I knew that none of my friends in Sweden would ever believe that I’d met her without proof, so I carefully asked if I could take a picture of her. ‘Of course,’ she said.”
Leif-Erik goes out to fetch his camera. When he comes back, Marilyn has taken off the sheet and lies on her stomach in the bed. Leif-Erik tries to act unconcerned. He adjusts the camera, snaps a picture and tears out the film.
“Then she lifted her head and smiled at me. Not a Hollywood smile, but a human one. I wish I’d photographed that smile, but it’s going to be in my head as long as I live. Bert Stern photographed Marilyn Monroe. I took a picture of Norma Jeane Baker.”
Six weeks late, on 5th August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home.