June 26th, 2013

Obituary: Photographer Bert Stern, Creator of Marilyn Monroe’s “Last Sitting,” 83

© Schirmer-Mosel/photo by Bert Stern

© Schirmer-Mosel/photo by Bert Stern

Bert Stern, the celebrity and fashion photographer best known for the 1962 photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe known as “The Last Sitting,” died at home in New York City on June 25, The New York Times reports. He was 83.

Born in New York City in 1929, Stern went to work in 1946 at Look magazine as an assistant to art director Hershel Bramson. While at Look, he became friends with Stanley Kubrick, who was then a photographer at the magazine. From 1949 to 1951, Stern was the art director at Mayfair magazine, then he went to work at the ad agency LC Gumbiner. In an interview with  T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Stern explained that it was during his work art directing ad campaigns that he first began shooting his own photos. He opened his own studio in 1954.

His friend Kubrick hired him to take stills for his movie, Lolita, released in 1962. That same year, Stern spent three days on assignment for Vogue photographing actress Marilyn Monroe in a suite he rented at the Bel Air Hotel. During the sessions, Monroe wears little more than a scarf, a necklace and some bed sheets, burrowing in bed sheets. In an interview earlier this year, Stern recalled, “‘She picked up this scarf, looked through it, and it was transparent, she could see me. She understood right away, and said: ‘You want to do nudes.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s a good idea.’” Monroe died a few weeks after the session. Several of the images were published in Eros magazine.

In 1982, Stern published his photos, outtakes and contact sheets from the session as a book, Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting (published by Schirmer/Mosel).

His editorial and commercial clients included Vogue, Life, Glamour, IBM, Noxema and Revlon. His subjects included Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Iman and Drew Barrymore.

Stern was the subject of a documentary released this spring, Bert Stern: The Original Mad Man, in which he candidly discussed how his affairs with women he photographed contributed to the break up of his marriage to the ballerina Allegra Kent. The documentary was directed by Shannah Laumeister, who first posed for Stern when she was 13.

Stern’s photographs have been exhibited at Staley-Wise Gallery in New York and many galleries worldwide. Stern also co-directed the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In 2006, the Art Directors Club inducted Stern into its Hall of Fame.

September 6th, 2012

Owners of Marilyn Monroe Photos Win Big Legal Victory Over Actor’s Heirs

Owners of Marilyn Monroe photographs have won a decisive legal victory in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, which has affirmed that Marilyn Monroe heirs have inherited no rights of publicity to the actress’s likeness.

The decision means that Monroe’s heirs cannot control how images of the actress are used commercially, and cannot demand fees whenever those images are licensed for use on calendars, posters, memorabilia, or other products.

The ruling, issued last week in the case of Milton H. Greene Archives v. Marilyn Monroe LLC, turned on the question of where Monroe was domiciled at the time of her death in 1962: New York or California. California has a law that transfers rights of publicity posthumously to a decedent’s heirs; New York does not.

The appeals court affirmed a lower court decision that said Monroe was a New York resident because her heirs had insisted upon that for 40 years in order to avoid paying California taxes. The courts said the heirs cannot now claim Monroe was a California resident in order to take financial advantage of California’s posthumous right of publicity laws.

The case began in 2005. In 2007, a federal district court in California ruled that no right of publicity law existed in either New York or California at the time of Monroe’s death in 1962. Therefore, she couldn’t have transferred that right to her heirs through her will, regardless of what state she resided in at the time of her death. (The question of her residence wasn’t settled at the time.)

That 2007 decision freed the Milton H. Greene archives to license Monroe photographs without interference from Monroe’s heirs, who are represented by Monroe LLC.

Monroe LLC responded by prevailing upon the California state legislature to pass a posthumous right of publicity law. That law states explicitly that its intent was to abrogate (nullify) the district court’s decision.

With that posthumous right of publicity law in hand, Monroe’s heirs then went back to the district court for reconsideration of the 2007 decision. Upon review, the district court concluded that Marilyn Monroe was domiciled in New York at the time of her death, not California, so New York  law applied in the right of publicity question.

Because New York still has no posthumous right of publicity law on the books, the court ruled that Monroe’s heirs could claim no rights of publicity. (The heirs had tried to get a posthumous right of publicity law passed in New York, as they had done in California, but the New York effort failed.)

With a lot of money at stake–sales of Monroe memorabilia reportedly generated $27 million in 2011, according to the court papers–Monroe’s heirs  appealed the district court’s second ruling to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.

In a forceful decision, the appeals court upheld the district court’s finding on Monroe’s residence at the time of her death.

“Monroe LLC’s new litigation position that Monroe died domiciled in California, asserted to obtain the benefit of California’s posthumous right of publicity statute, is inconsistent with the preceding forty years of representations on behalf of the estate that Monroe died domiciled in New York,” the appeals court wrote in its decision.

The court continued, “The estate succeeded in persuading numerous judicial and quasi-judicial bodies to accept that Monroe died a domiciliary of New York.

“Judicial and quasi-judicial officers repeatedly accepted and relied upon the estate’s representations about Monroe’s New York domicile.

“The district court concluded that permitting Monroe LLC to assert that Monroe died a domiciliary of California in this litigation would unfairly allow it to obtain a ‘second advantage.’ We agree.”

A district court in New York reached a similar decision in favor of the Shaw Family Archives, which also licenses Monroe images. An appeal of that decision has been pending the outcome of the Ninth Circuit decision.