His Platinum Blonde: An Interview With Lawrence Schiller
By Sophie Parkin.
‘I’m interviewing Lawrence Schiller.’
‘Who’s Lawrence Schiller?’
‘You know he took those photographs of Marilyn Monroe on her last film naked in the pool, just before she died.’
‘ Oh yeah, those ones. So did he fuck her?’
‘I don’t know, I’ll ask.’
‘So did you?’
‘With Marilyn? Did you go to bed with her?’
I’ve got to ask Lawrence Schiller because his famous photographs are looking down on us — Marilyn naked in the swimming pool one foot hooked on the side, with her maid, in her dressing gown, and they have the look not just of her usual teasing sensuality, or fragility but of someone’s who’s just been or is about to be fucked, and if there was only the two of them around…. I might have been jumping to conclusions.
‘What can I say Marilyn was very, loveable- huggable- fuckable.’ He says this like it’s one word.
‘So did you?’
‘She liked young men.’
‘So at 26 you were too old?’
He chuckles an old American roué laugh. ‘She liked a lot of men, Bert Stern (1), Milton Greene (2), though Milton was married. Marilyn was a lot of fun and you didn’t have to end up in bed, if you know what I’m saying’. I think I do.
We have deviated away from Larry’s (as he likes to be known) speech and I can tell he’s not comfortable getting away from what he likes to say, the way he likes to say it. He gets back to talking about Norman Mailer again. In another five minutes he makes his excuses and the interview is over.
Listening to him talk about his life from one decade to the next is like listening to the history of America in the 20th century. From the age of 15 he first started to use a camera in order to escape the classroom and his difficulty with reading and writing. This eventually led to him being given assignments by Paris Match; they didn’t know his age. By 20 he was photographing for Life Magazine, Saturday Evening Post. At 22 he was shooting girls for Playboy.
‘I was driving around in a Mercedes and I had an ego to match. I was always a good businessman — my father was a businessman. I always kept my copyright on every picture. I was married to my first wife — an incredibly patient woman — I had kids and I was flying off on assignments the whole time. I was running so fast I had no perception of the importance of what I was shooting: it was always just another assignment and I was too busy concentrating on the light and image.’
He was shooting Nixon crying after losing to Kennedy, Kennedy asleep on the floor of a plane, Kennedy’s assignation, Martin Luther King during the Watts riots in 1965, Lee Harvey Oswald moments before death, likewise later on with Gary Gilmore. Later still, he was the first man to photograph a Playboy bunny with hair — pubic — on show, the African American dancer Paula Kelly re-enacting Matisse’s dance. He was the stills director on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and, Lady Sings the Blues, making those images. He made a documentary on Dennis Hopper in 1971, when he went nowhere without a gun and thought he was Orson Welles. He lived on campus with Timothy Leary and wrote a book about LSD. He was at the trials of both Patty Hearst and OJ Simpson, has written four books with Norman Mailer and has directed and produced films — lots of films, even one about the unsolved murdered child Jon Benet Ramsey.
‘I gave up taking pictures in 1976. I wanted to write books, make movies. I was more interested by then by the hesitation and the pause. I was developing a new way of interviewing. I’d ask: what’s you’re earliest memory of death? And with that one question I would have the whole of their intimate thoughts, the story behind the story, and before you know it, it’s not an interview situation — you’re drinking coffee and buying groceries together.’ I don’t mention Truman Capote in Cold Blood being rather earlier than The Executioner’s Song that he wrote with Mailer: I can see he is a man who likes to make others listen. He might say he wasn’t impressed by any of the people he captured — ‘As the saying goes kings and queens, murderers and rapists’ he says — but he is a man impressed by himself. And why shouldn’t he be with what he’s achieved?
So was it chance — right time right place, good coincidence — that he found himself at all these pivotal points in history, even the Muhammad Ali Versus Fraser fight famously known as the Killer From Manila. With his camera, he has created a churchful of icons for these times of change. His pictures tell a story of vulnerability, regret, lives lived and lost.
Even his pictures of Hollywood stars capture a different side, James Stewart and Spencer Tracey at friend Clarke Gable’s funeral, Tippi Hedrin and Alfred Hitchcock during the shooting of The Birds; Bette Davis smoking a fag (rather than a cigarette), and the unforgettable Buster Keaton.
‘It was different in those days you went to stay with an assignment for two, three, four days — no P.R.s or assistants. I slept on Jack Lemmon’s couch, William Holden taught me how to chew octopus, I hung out with Deborah Kerr in the rain, Bette Davis asked me to be the photographer at her daughter’s wedding. Bette was a smart business woman, she gave me advice, but I told her I don’t do weddings, she said, ‘No, I need a photojournalist there. I think Gary (Merril) my husband’s going to serve me with divorce papers. I want you to be there to capture it.’ I stayed the whole day and he didn’t. She was a smart business woman.’
‘I matured out of the 60’s, I was never frightened to ask, I took chances. I was always willing to challenge and I gave up taking pictures in 1976 to do what I wanted to do.’ And if you can do that, unhindered by fear or self doubt, I guess you make your own luck. But there is something macabre about the choice of people he has aligned himself with in his projects. Somebody said to me that Larry Schiller was known as an Ambulance Chaser but on many occasions he was there before the ambulance was even called.
Should I be worried for my own mortality talking to him? ‘No I think you’ll be fine,’ he chuckled from out of his crooked teeth and bearded chin that rests on a rotund belly. He has a genially cartoon figure.
‘But haven’t you ever been troubled by being around so many troubled souls?’
‘No I was just interested, I didn’t understand the tragedy. Look, I was like a sponge soaking up their stories before moving on to the next. Or I was too busy with capturing the light and getting the composition right’
But even sponges keep a little residue of what they have soaked: had he never fallen into drink and drugs like so many of his subjects and friends? ‘No I didn’t need to. I never smoked or drank I had all the excitement I could handle… Maybe marriages. I’ve had three and my first wife was so good and patient’, he reiterates. ’And my third wife she runs all these charities for autistic children, she’s a wonderful woman who I’ve grown with.’
However, he saves most of his praise for the men in his life: screenwriter Robert Anderson when he was making a film about Patricia Neal, art director of the Sunday Times Magazine in the 1960s Michael Rand, Norman Mailer… I try to tell him my mother was fashion editor of the Sunday Times in the 60’s, went to art school with Michael Rand and that she’ll be coming to his opening later at the San Lorenzo celebrity haunt of Beauchamp place. But he’s not interested. As my mother says later, ‘why would a man in his 70’s, who’s best friends was Mailer, be interested in meeting a woman in her 70’s?’
Above all else, he prefers to talk about Norman Mailer, about how important Mailer was to him, and he to Mailer. ‘We were both trying to reinvent ourselves when we met. And we helped each other do that. He taught me to write. He told me I was dyslexic in my 50’s.’
And future projects? ‘I’m the executor to Mailer’s estate. You know, he won the Pulitzer Prize for our book The Executioner’s Song. He’s the greatest writer of his generation and we’re turning his home into a writers’ colony. We’re hooking up universities all over the world so that young writers will have a chance to experience something from older writers and editors.’
‘I collect contemporary Chinese art so I’m doing a book on that which will come out after the Olympics. I don’t want to do too much anymore, now I’m older [his cherubic features belie his true age of 71] but I’ve got a film planned of Norman’s book, The Castle in the Forest. But I’ll executive produce it. And then there’s this exhibition, travelling all over the world. They came to me with the idea of platinum prints. I’d never signed things before but I thought why not.’
He is nothing if not a businessman as his father taught him: the prints go for eight grand each and there’s an edition of fifteen. Capturing all of those pivotal events must have taught him something too. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to go on forever, I want to be alive when I die’.
As Mailer put it: “There are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will”. Then again, as Woody allen said in Sleeper, “This is Norman Mailer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School”. Larry Schiller seems an odd mix of these two quotes, a cypher to world changing events, whose images will always be more famous, I suspect, than his own name.
Lawrence Stern’s Platinum Blonde Photographs are at San Lorenzo’s until the end of June 2008. A hardback of 12 Marilyn pictures accompanies the exhibition as it tours the world.
(1) Bert Stern’s best known work is arguably The Last Sitting, a collection of 2,500 photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe over a three-day period, six weeks before her death, taken for Vogue. Stern published Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting in 1992. In it, he recounted being enchanted by her until a near-intimate encounter after the second day of shooting; he then realized that she was deeply troubled.
(2) Greene first encountered Monroe in September 1953 while on assignment for Look. They became friends and formed a film production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, in 1955. It produced Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl. Before marrying Arthur Miller, Monroe lived with Greene and his family in the Greenes’ farmhouse in Weston, Connecticut. During this period, Greene photographed Monroe in over fifty sessions, creating more than five thousand images. Greene collaborated with Norman Mailer on a fictional autobiography of Monroe, Of Women and Their Elegance.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 20th, 2008.