Lights, Camera, Adoration
If the camera loves you, if you are loved by the camera, you are a star. –Marlene Dietrich
Richard Avedon (1923–2004), after completing a series of shots of Marilyn Monroe for the Christmas 1958 issue of Life magazine commented, “She understood photography, and she also understood what makes a great photograph – not the technique but the content. She was more comfortable in front of the camera than away from it. She was completely creative. She was very involved with the meaning of what she was doing in an effort to make it more, to get the most out of it.”
In Avedon’s “Fabled Enchantress” series, Marilyn assumed the moods and guises of past sex sirens. Playing the voyeur, Arthur Miller observed his wife’s sensitive, sometimes funny, impersonations of former stars, beginning with Gay Nineties Lillian Russell. Marilyn also posed as Clara Bow, the “It” girl, Jean Harlow, the ultimate platinum blonde, and the blatantly bisexual Marlene Dietrich. It was a tour de force, and should you get hold of that 1958 issue of Life, you will likely find “Fabled Enchantress” torn out. However, the shoot was trumped by one other we know of. Nearly one hundred years before Marilyn posed for Avedon, the original superstar Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-68) climbed the stairs to Napoleon Sarony’s Manhattan photo studio, a loft at 630 Broadway. By 1866, the year of the shoot, Menken’s name resonated in New York, California, London, and Paris. Both photographers, a century apart, captured their subject’s sexy playfulness plus their “It,” that je ne sais quoi the French marvel at rather than define.
Masters on the level of Sarony (1821 – 1896) soar beyond technical skill into the realm of magic. Their vision transforms an earthly woman into a goddess elevated above the public who adore her. The play of light and shadow casts its spell on this platonic love affair between artist and subject. Aside from Avedon, a few top glamour photographers developed the Svengali touch, discovering hidden aspects in their subjects’ personality: George Hurrell (1904-92) with Jean Harlow, Irving Penn (born 1917) with the first supermodel, his wife , and Horst (1906–99) with Coco Chanel. Or, one partner in the relationship can be antagonistic. Jackie Kennedy treated the paparazzi who hounded her like potential assassins. Although she sued Ron Galella, the most persistent of this celebrity-addicted pack, others lined up to snap away at the unusually photogenic First Lady. After Princess Diana’s death in an auto crash, the tabloid press fanned the public’s fury: Had photographers who chased Di’s car caused her death? Or were they merely feeding the public’s lust to stargaze? We can reprove stargazing as trivial and voyeuristic, but ogling stars is a modern pastime taken to extreme lengths by our tabloid media.
Adah Menken’s knack for publicity rivaled that of her contemporary, the showman P.T. Barnum. Early on, she handed out cartes-de-visite, 4 by 2 ½ inch portrait photos of herself in various poses mounted on cardboard. Menken rode to fame on the back of a wild horse in Mazeppa, a popular melodrama based on Lord Bryon’s poem. Ascending a four-story stage mountain, she became known as the “Naked Lady” because, to the audience, she appeared nude. Actually, she wore a sheer body stocking and a small garment at her groin that cub reporter Mark Twain compared to a child’s diaper. In fact Twain, reporting on Adah’s San Francisco triumph, swore he could see only the diaper.
Walt Whitman, Bret Harte, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, Sir Richard Burton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Sand, and Alexandre Dumas numbered among Menken’s admirers. Skeptical after many photographers had failed her, Adah hoped that Sarony, the father of artistic photography in America, would live up to his promises. Sarony took more than one hundred negatives on glass plates of the volatile superstar, given to temper tantrums. When the smiling, dapper photographer produced his results, she threw her arms around him, exclaiming, “Oh, you dear delightful little man. I am going to kiss you for that.” She did.
Sarony trained as a lithographer before he opened his Manhattan business. He polished his drawing skills in poster art, an opportunity to render performers and scenes from plays. By 1866 New York enjoyed a post-Civil War economic boom, which meant fans had discretionary income to spend on souvenirs of their favorite stars. Most middle-class families kept a scrapbook of photos, usually of the carte-de-visite size. Sarony pleased them by introducing painted backgrounds and interesting accessories into his photos. While others in the trade settled for stiff, lifeless portraits, Sarony placed his models in an exciting variety of poses to create a dramatic effect. His intuition cut to the quintessential features of his subject. The photographer and his models achieved a synergy evident in photos that still sparkle. Theatrical portraits became Sarony’s specialty, though he also did justice to opera stars, circus performers, society women, figures in the military, business, and government – including President Grover Cleveland. When Sarony died, 40,000 negatives were found in his studio. He photographed everybody who was anybody and thousands of aspirers to greatness. Menken was aided by Ed James of the New York Clipper, the Variety of its day, in puffing herself by both photos and select interviews.
However, a scandal broke in 1860 after her second husband, supposedly divorced, publicly branded her a bigamist. John Heenan, her third husband (out of five), a champion bare knuckle boxer, then denied their marriage ever took place. Adah, devastated, became a pariah, denied work in New York theaters. Menken’s friend Walt Whitman, whose poetry she defended, stood by her. A miscarriage of Heenan’s child and subsequent depression drove her to attempt suicide. Menken went to the brink but her death did not occur until 1868 in Paris at the height of her fame. In 1861 she made the wild horseback ride in Albany, New York, which made theater managers compete to book her at any price.
A New Orleanian, born in 1835, Adah had a multicultural pedigree before the fashion: part Jewish, Irish, and black. Short haired, she refused to adhere to the code of behavior Victorians expected of women. In public, she cross-dressed and smoked cigars. Her poetry and essays were outspoken on issues of the day, including women’s liberation. Menken badly needed sensational photos, but other, more reluctant subjects did not escape Sarony’s lens. His reputation, a bankroll, and the ingenuity of a second-story man assured Sarony he would land the celebrities he wanted. He paid Sarah Bernhardt 1,500 dollars and Lily Langtry (the “Jersey Lily”) extorted 5,000 dollars. To photograph the “world’s most beautiful woman,” Sarony chiseled his way through Langtry’s dressing room wall to ask: “Excuse me, Madam, I am not a burglar; here’s my card. Have any one of ‘em been here before me?” Sarony gave his clients samples of a shoot, but he kept the copyright and sold thousands of copies. Sarony turned each session into a theatrical event in which he functioned alternately as producer, director, and stage manager. Although little more than five feet, his appearance was imposing. Sarony’s strong upper body and quick intellect made him in charge of the situation. During the last third of the nineteenth century he succeeded Matthew Brady (1822–96) as America’s best known portrait photographer – “The Napoleon of Photography.” Sarony paraded along Broadway in an astrakhan cap (sometimes a tasseled fez), a hairy calfskin waistcoat, sealskin cuffs, and polished cavalry boots. Charlotte Cushman, the early dramatic actress, called him “that interesting crazy little man.” Conversely, Menken’s notoriety stemmed from her lack of costume. The journalist Horace Greeley had ranted against the “hussy” for daring to expose her nude body to decent people. Greeley ignored Menken’s sheer tights, which at least nodded to modesty. Sarony played no part in supposedly nude shots of Menken passed around without her permission.
Shots of Adah’s head transposed onto a naked female body are not necessarily Adah. Fakes appeared regularly, especially pornographic cartes-de-visite of her with the elderly Alexandre Dumas: the original French postcards! Yet Menken’s vivacity comes through in one shot where she stands in front of a hanging drape; another small drape hides the lower part of her mid-section. A hint of buttocks peeps out. Vampish, she gazes over her shoulder as though she were the femme fatale Theda Bara about to whisper, “Kiss me, my fool.” Exposed breasts do not tarnish the aura of innocence this love goddess radiated. In 1952 a similar situation nearly ruined Marilyn Monroe’s career. Just as Monroe had stardom in her grasp, a blackmailer demanded she pay him to keep mum about her posing nude for a calendar shot: “Golden Dreams.” Marilyn called his bluff. Her admission that she needed the fifty-dollar payment for rent generated widespread sympathy.
Marilyn insisted the photo belonged to the realm of art not pornography. The calendar was featured in the first issue of Playboy, which presented the nude Marilyn with a halo of innocence around her.
The parallels between Menken and Monroe are intriguing: both married consecutively the leading sports figures of their day followed by an intellectual, reinvented themselves to suit whatever image they desired to purvey, were geniuses at PR, had serious artistic aspirations, great wit, voluptuous figures, sympathized with the underdog, lived in the fast lane, were addicted to adulation, and died under mysterious circumstances at the pinnacle of their careers.
A comment by Joe Procter, a public relations man, about Monroe holds equally true for Menken: “Marilyn is not just a star, she is an institution and must constantly be in the center of excitement and activity.” Neither perfectionist found the love they sought in their chosen partners. Providentially, each found her ideal photographer able to transform her radiant energy into visual gold.
One last note: In early 2008 New York Magazine ran a story with photos in which Lindsay Lohan, directed by photographer Bert Stern, imitated Stern’s famous “Last Sitting,” a shoot with Marilyn Monroe shortly before she died. At the time Marilyn was sickly, half-soused, and taking pills. Since many of the shots were in the nude, every imperfection showed as Marilyn supposedly romped on a bed of white linens. She was sufficiently together to indicate which shots she did not want printed or shown. Then she OD’d and, post-mortem, Stern published a book containing all the photos. His shoot with Lohan, an equally prone-to-addiction Marilyn-imitator, attempts to recreate Marilyn’s swan song for the camera. Lindsay gets just as naked as Marilyn, more naked than Adah ever got, Stern shoots and the result is . . . flat. It’s not even decadent. Either a lady has “It,” or not. Nudity can empower, as Adah used it, or nudity can lead to stardom as in Marilyn’s case, or it can be a bore. Thanks for trying, Lindsay.