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James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando -- and Phil Stern

Lawrence Bush
September 2, 2017

Philip Stern, a photographer for Life, Look, Vanity Fair, and other pictorial magazines, who honed his skills as a combat photographer in Italy and North Africa during World War II, was born on this date in 1919. Stern became best known for his intimate portraits of iconic Hollywood stars, and album cover photos for jazz musicians, with subjects that included Louis Armstrong, Lauren Bacall, Count Basie, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Joan Crawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Dean, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, and Orson Welles.

Stern also photographed the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Stern described himself as “the plumber who comes to fix your toilet, then you don’t see him again ... I didn’t care to know them, usually — so many of them were frankly a pain.” With John Wayne, he said, “Several times, when we were both a little drunk, I would call him a ‘Neanderthal fascist.’ He would call me a ‘bomb-throwing Bolshevik.’ . . . We were, indeed, the odd couple.” Stern did a series of photographs of celebrities reading the Yiddish Forward, which you can see below. He lived to 95.

““My dad was a salesman, a la Willy Loman. I wanted to find the best way to avoid becoming my father.” --Phil Stern

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.