Ron Galella (1931 – 2022)

Ron Galella, patron saint of peeping toms, is dead, age 91.

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“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella,” Andy Warhol once said.

Ron Galella’s career was defined by taking pictures of the famous doing the routine – and his passing earlier this year recalled an earlier era where even the most public of celebrities attempted to achieve some  level of privacy. That era was over – replaced by social media and celebrities who have privatized fame, creating their own brands and personas, and wrestling back control from paparazzi such as Ron Galella.  

Times were once different. In his day, he was the tormenter of actors and actresses, singers and socialites: Elvis Prestley, Sophia Loren, Bruce Springsteen, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Robert Redford, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, Sean Penn and a perennial favorite of his, Jackie Kennedy, the former first lady.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ran close second. The pair’s relationship – from its inception on set of Cleopatra in 1962 to the infamous kiss on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast that led to a condemnation by the Vatican and eventually to their marriage – was a fodder for tabloid presses, and Galella hounded them relentlessly.

In 1966, Taylor and Burton starred together in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of an Edward Albee play, for which Burton was nominated and Taylor won an Oscar. Their marriage was also said to mirror that of the main characters in the movie – highly strung, uneven, teetering on brink of disaster – and they followed up that performance with another adaptation, this time, that of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Taylor in a role written for a much older woman plays an aging, serial-marrying millionaire, and Burton a younger man who turns up on the Mediterranean island to which she has retired.

The film was a dramatic flop. Time magazine called it, “self-indulgent fecklessness of a couple of rich amateurs hamming it up at the country-club”. The next year, 1969, found them in London – Elizabeth Taylor was filming The Only Game in Town with Warren Beatty and Burton Anne of the Thousand Days. Ron Galella remembered:

“They had a yacht in London called the Kalizma named after their three daughters: Kate, Liza, and Maria, moored on the Thames. They went to the yacht on weekends only because they were filming. They stayed at the Dorchester Hotel; I staked them out there as well. Richard was drunk and attempted to sock me but Liz held him back. I became friends with a Portuguese sailor. He told me about a party [on the yacht]. I went to the top floor, shielded the window so they couldn’t see me, and waited. I got great pictures of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their yacht. One of my favorite shots shows Elizabeth Taylor and Ramone, the yacht steward putting up gauze curtains. The tourist boat never saw them, but I did.”

All along the Thames, tour guides sold tickets to tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the couple. Due to the curtains she put up to block the view, “the tourist boat never saw them, but I did,” Galella proudly recalled. A double spread of the photo above later ran in The National Enquirer.

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Windblown Jackie

Ron Galella was the first American paparazzo, and probably the most infamous paparazzo of his day. He captured Elvis Prestley, Sophia Loren, Bruce Springsteen, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Robert Redford and Frank Sinatra on his camera, although none of them have posed for him. Brigitte Bardot hosed him down. Sean Penn spat at him. Richard Burton’s thugs beat him up. But Ron Galella remained unfazed. After Marlon Brando broke his jaw, he returned to take photos of Brandon wearing a football helmet.

Galella’s favorite and long suffering target was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. In the late 60s, when Jackie O. was living in New York, Galella bribed many doormen and chauffeurs to follow the former First Lady. Taken on October 7, 1971 as Jackie turned towards a taxi horn with a smile on Madison Avenue, the above photo was considered as Galella’s masterpiece. Jackie’s two high profile courtcases with Galella not only gave Galella notoriety, but also kept Jackie alive in the public eye. A retrospective film on Galella’s life was titled “Smash His Camera,” so-named for an utterance Onassis once made to a member of her Secret Service detail.

Jackie Kennedy would get into more trouble only a few months later when the pictures of her sunbathing nude and practising yoga on Onassis’s private island Skorpios. Hearing a rumour that Mrs Onassis sunbathed nude on one of the beaches, Italian paparazzo Settimio Garritano sneaked onto the beach and took the pictures. Many editors refused to publish them, but they eventually appeared in the Italian magazine Playmen in 1972. Reaction in the United States was critical, but when the pictures were eventually published in the Hustler, it became the best ever selling edition of magazine. So much for morality.

In the end it seems every one was fine with it. In his book Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt referred to the snapshots as “the smartest investment of my life.” Aristotle Onassis was unperturbed: “Sometimes I take my clothes off to put on a bathing suit. So does my wife,” leading to accusations (by the AP no less) that he himself got a paparazzi to take pictures of his wife skinny-dipping. Jackie herself probably enjoyed this sort of exposure. Otherwise it was baffling as to why she would go and sunbathe nude on a beach where she had been stalked by paparazzi before. Believe it or not, her autographed nude photo was found in the archives of Andy Warhol, of all places!

I don’t want to link to the photos, but if you really must they are somewhere around here.