On a December day, 55 years ago, two of America’s emblematic figures met for a friendly afternoon together. She was Marilyn Monroe. He was Carl Sandburg, the poet and writer and three-time Pulitzer prize winner (twice for poetry, once for his biography of Abraham Lincoln). They happened to meet in the New York apartment of photographer Len Steckler, a friend of Sandburg’s. The result? Simply, an afternoon between friends, that just happened to be captured on film – some of the most beautiful, natural, relaxed photos of Marilyn Monroe ever taken, just nine months before her untimely death.
This collection of photos of Marilyn and Carl was named “The Visit”, and Steckler only made them public in 2010. There is one photograph that stands out for me, especially this time of year. It’s the one pictured above, of Marilyn, radiant, happy, holding Carl’s hands with great affection. In one shot, Len Steckler, who passed away earlier this year, captured all the warmth, candour, friendship spirit, and sparkle that December brings. It is such a beautiful visual story. I talked to Pierre Vudrag, the president and founder of Limited Runs, the company that manages these previously unreleased photographs by Len Steckler alongside part of his fashion photography, to find out the real story behind the lens, too.
What is the story behind “Marilyn Monroe: The Visit”? Who came up with the idea of Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg meeting?
Marilyn & Carl Sandburg were very good friends and Marilyn would often visit with Carl when she was in NYC. Carl invited Marilyn to Len’s apartment (but failed to mention to Len that he had done so). According to Len, he and Carl were hanging out when the door bell rang. Probably knowing that Len would be surprised when he opened the door, Carl looked at Len and said “it’s the girl, please let her in”. Len recalled that “when I opened the door, not knowing who ‘the girl’ was, I almost fell to the floor, there was Marilyn Monroe… I was in awe!” Marilyn, who was three hours late, had an excuse. She had been at the hairdresser, trying to get her hair colour to match Carl’s pure white.
Steckler’s photographs depict a natural, relaxed, completely off-guard Marilyn Monroe, some of the most beautiful shots of the actress ever taken. Her power of attraction is there all right, because it is inescapable, but there is also an ease about her that seems to evoke the other side of Marilyn, too, the Marilyn Monroe who preferred casual evenings and devoted them to UCLA classes and reading. What was Len Steckler’s secret?
Len had many photographic styles that he would employ depending on what he needed at the particular moment. During the afternoon he spent with Marilyn and Carl, he didn’t want to interfere with the moment, because this wasn’t a publicity event, but rather good friends casually and privately enjoying each other’s company. Len felt privileged to be part of the moment and didn’t want to, so to speak, intrude. Len explained that he casually and inconspicuously picked up his camera and just aimed it at the two. At some point later in the afternoon Marilyn and Carl did pose for Len, but, again, very casually, no different as friends pose for photographs.
The photos were released after 45 years, after having been kept in Steckler’s private archive. Why so late? What prompted him to do it?
Len, like most professional photographers, was constantly working, from fashion to commercial shoots and amassed a larger catalog of photographs, a collection which Limited Runs has been going through and organizing. The photos taken the afternoon he spent with Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg were taken for himself and weren’t taken with the idea that they were to be published. So, as time went by, the photos remained in Len’s growing catalog and archive. It wasn’t until sometime in 2009 when Len’s son, while going through the vast archive, discovered the photos. Len’s family was unaware of the event and were surprised to find the photos. The following year Len made some of the photos available as fine art prints. Limited Runs recently released some additional photos that had not been released in 2010.
How did Len Steckler describe that December afternoon photographing Marilyn? What was it like?
I will quote from our press release as Len described the event: “It was a remarkable meeting of two genuine American icons that I admired very much. One, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet, Carl Sandburg, and the other later named “the sexiest woman of the 20th Century” by Playboy magazine and worldwide film star Marilyn Monroe. Carl Sandburg, who was 83 at the time, and Marilyn Monroe, who was 35, were so in tune with each other that there was no generation gap but sincere admiration and respect between the two. That afternoon, as the hours passed (and the alcohol flowed), the bonds of this unique friendship were continued to solidified, a bond that would last until Marilyn’s untimely death about 9 months later, on August 5, 1962.
photos: Len Steckler, 1961, New York, published with the permission of Limited Runs