Babs Simpson 1913-2019

Babs Simpson in 1939

Legendary fashion editor Babs Simpson has died aged 105, the New York Times reports. Born Beatrice Crosby de Menocal in 1913, she was raised in an upper-class New York family. She married William Simpson of Chicago in 1935, but returned alone to the Big Apple seven years later. She first worked as a photographer’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, and in 1947, began her 25-year tenure at Vogue magazine.  Diana Vreeland, her boss from 1962, described Babs as ‘the most marvellous editor.” In 1972, she moved to House & Garden, where she would stay until her retirement in 1993.

Babs Simpson seated at right, 1967

One of Babs Simpson’s most famous Vogue assignments was with Marilyn and photographer Bert Stern at LA’s Bel Air Hotel in 1962. Stern had already spent a day alone with Marilyn on June 23, working on the iconic semi-nude images where she wears a gauzy scarf, some jewellery and little else.  But this wasn’t the high-fashion shoot Diana Vreeland had in mind, and another sitting was arranged for July 10-12.

“She was absolutely perfect,” Simpson said of Marilyn. Stern wrote about the fashion shoot in his book, The Last Sitting.

“The fact that Vogue were sending an editor on the shoot was a sign that they were getting serious. The first time they’d let me go off and do whatever I wanted, but now they had realised that I was on to something, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted. Babs Simpson and I had worked together many times, and she understood me. I was sure they’d chosen her as the editor who could let me be the most creative and at the same time keep the most control. ‘Keep her clothes on,’ they’d probably told Babs. They saw where I was heading.

An editor has the difficult job of picking out all the fashions for a sitting, dressing the girl so that she looks just right, and helping the photographer in the best way possible. Babs Simpson was great because she knew when to step in and help, but she also knew how to leave the photographer alone with the model. I thought of her as ‘the needlepoint editor,’ because at every sitting, while the girl was doing her makeup or the photographer was shooting, Babs would sit on the side and work on needlepoint. Her whole house is decorated with pillows, rugs, the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen, which she made just sitting around studios over the years while the lights flashed.

Babs was bringing all the clothes, so I flew out to California with my assistant, Peter Deal, and we started setting up in the bungalow of the Bel Air … Babs arrived from the airport in a limousine. When I saw the heaps of designer dresses and fur coats being carried into the bungalow, I had to laugh.

Later that morning Kenneth [Battelle] arrived. Babs had all the clothes organised and ready and she worked seriously on her needlepoint while we sat in the garden waiting for Marilyn … But when four o’clock came, Babs folded up her needlepoint, put it in her bag, and said, ‘If she isn’t here in an hour, I’m leaving’ … I said, ‘Look, just give her until five. We’re all staying here in the hotel anyway, so what’s the difference?’

Babs agreed to wait. That crisis had been averted, at least for the moment. But not half an hour later my assistant, Peter, came over to me, looking pale. In his polite way, he said, ‘Bert, I really regret having to tell you this…’

At that moment Marilyn walked in.

If I had come with an entourage this time, so had she. She was flanked by Pat Newcomb … And then suddenly Peter was well … And now that Marilyn was here, Babs cheered up, too, and went right to work. The whole crew was there, and we were in business.

I looked around at all these people, busy getting Marilyn dressed, applying her makeup, doing her hair, pouring champagne, adjusting the lights – all the process and anxiety that accompanies high fashion  …This time I was going to do exactly what I’d been sent to do: take fashion pictures for Vogue. And I needed all these people, because this was going to be one tough assignment.

There was always a little disagreement about the accessories Babs had brought. I didn’t see the point to most of them. The white veil was almost strange enough to be interesting but the black wig … what was that all about? The last way I would have imagined Marilyn was as a raven-haired brunette … On the other hand, Babs didn’t want me to take pictures with the hat, and I thought the hat looked beautiful on her.

Babs had brought a lot of black dresses – the hardest thing in the world to shoot … Marilyn put on the simplest black dress. Kenneth combed her hair back. She was beautiful. All I had to do now was backlight it. That image was the essence of black and white … and blonde.

She was beginning to lose patience. I could see it on her face. She had been a good sport, but it was well after midnight, and the fashion was wearing thin … Babs had dug up another black dress, and I was ready for anything. But Marilyn had had it.

She looked around and then she walked off the white no-seam and grabbed a flimsy bed jacket that was lying casually on a chair near the strobe. I had tossed it there as a ‘no’ when we were going through the clothes earlier, because Babs said it was bad fashion, and I didn’t think much of it either. But Marilyn looked right in it.

I turned to Babs. ‘Why doesn’t everybody just leave the room and let me shoot her alone?’

Babs said, ‘I think that’s a good idea, Bert.’ Everyone got up and began to file out of the room. As they were leaving Babs said, ‘We’ll be right out here if you need us.’

‘Great,’ I said and I closed the door and locked it.

The next day she didn’t show up. Late in the morning, Babs told me that Pat Newcomb had called and Marilyn wasn’t going to work today … Then the phone rang again. It was Pat Newcomb asking whether Babs and Kenneth would come over to Marilyn’s house at one o’clock. I wasn’t invited. So Babs and Kenneth went off leaving me sitting there in the Bel Air Hotel. I didn’t feel great that day … And then Babs came back and said, ‘She’ll be here tomorrow’.

When she came in for the third shooting, everything was very different. Especially Marilyn and me. Sober, subdued, not very talkative. There was nothing to say. And then there were all these people around us again: Kenneth, Babs, Pat Newcomb, Peter Deal.

‘I want to do one more picture,’ I said. ‘A beautiful head shot.’  Babs said, ‘Oh, wonderful! We could use a great beauty shot. Kenneth will do the hair.’ Everybody was very excited.

Everybody was working. Kenneth combing Marilyn’s hair. Babs arranging a string of pearls around her neck. I was way up there in the dark, looking down on her lying there with her hair spread out.

‘Okay, I got it,’ I said, and I climbed down. It was all over. Marilyn left with Pat Newcomb, and we all packed up and got ready to leave.

As we were leaving, Babs Simpson said, ‘What’s going to happen to that poor girl?’

Poor girl?

I didn’t quite see what Babs meant. I didn’t feel sorry for Marilyn. I just figured I had done the best I could. And now I was going home.”

Stern Heirs Fight for Marilyn Photos in Court Case

Marilyn’s image is caught up in yet another legal dispute after Bert Stern’s widow sued his heirs (with whom he had worked for many years and was also romantically involved, according to the New York Post) for the right to his work, reports ABC News. And as Courthouse News Service reports, the heirs’ online sales of ‘bedazzled’ versions of Stern’s photos have also raised questions of authorship.

“A federal judge (Paul Engelmayer) in New York ruled Friday that Stern’s heirs are the rightful owners of the copyright interests in the ‘Last Sitting’ photographs.

The issue arose in a lawsuit Stern’s widow, Shannah Laumeister Stern, filed against Lisa and Lynette Lavender, twin sisters who were Stern’s assistants. The lawsuit claimed copyright infringement involving the reproduction and online sale of modified versions of certain Monroe images.

The Lavenders counter-sued, claiming Stern never owned the rights to the photographs.

Instead the sisters said the copyright belonged to Conde Nast, which hired Stern to photograph Monroe for Vogue. The Lavenders also claimed Stern authorized them to make, modify and sell copies of Monroe photographs following his death.

The judge found that Stern was, and his heirs are, the rightful owners of the copyright to the photographs. Whether the Lavender sisters infringed the judge said will have to be decided at trial.”

Marilyn’s Still in Vogue With Madonna

While promoting her MDNA Skin range at Barney’s in Los Angeles yesterday, pop superstar Madonna revealed (to fellow celeb Kim Kardashian, no less) that Marilyn is still one of her ultimate beauty icons, as Lindzi Scharf reports for the LA Times.

“While Kardashian West, 37, shared that her beauty inspiration is her mother and grandmother, Madonna said that hers have long been Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth. ‘Obviously, I said all of their names in my song Vogue,’ she said, ‘but they were the personification of beauty to me.'”

Dior Moments: Marilyn’s Black Dress

Marilyn’s 1962 photo-shoot with Bert Stern for Vogue, in which she wore a black Christian Dior dress, is listed among the legendary fashion house’s top five ‘life-changing moments’ by Justin Gray on Yohomo.

“Can you think of a better combo? Marilyn Monroe … wearing this backless black Dior dress designed by Marc Bohan. The haunting photos, shot by Bert Stern for Vogue, just show the beauty of the fabric clinging to her back allowing the light to dance off her shoulder blades and pull the viewers eye up to her face.  The tailoring and the fit of the piece appear as effortless as Marilyn’s beauty, but hide so much complexity in the seaming and the construction. This is one of those perfect moments when an artist and a muse find each other.”

Unveiling Marilyn’s Beautiful Scars

Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.

Now you see her, now you don’t: Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’

“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.

The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’

Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?

Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’

Guess what? Everyone has scars too—even Marilyn.”

Summer In the City With Marilyn

Marilyn by George Miller, 1955

Among the recent tributes to Marilyn, many have focused on emulating her style (Vogue) and beauty (including Alyssa Morin at Hello Giggles.) Novelist Heather O’Neil went step further, living all week as Marilyn for The Kit. What better way to start your summer in the city?

“There’s always something attractive about looking as though you’re not trying. Marilyn understood that. She knew that a black dress never goes out of style, that it’s beyond style. It’s the ideal time-travel outfit: You could turn up in the 17th century looking more or less okay; you could travel anywhere in the future and women will still be wearing black dresses, especially when the world is overpopulated and we all live in small pods and keep our few clothes in a paper lunch bag.”

Marilyn: Still Hollywood’s Favourite Blonde

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

In an article for The Australian, Philippa Hawker charts the history of blondes in cinema -arguing that Marilyn continues to leave her mark on the evocation of blondeness.

“In cinema — not to mention fairytale, myth, art, literature, politics and the realm of popular culture in general — the image of the blonde or the fair-haired woman has carried a strong symbolic charge. It can be identified with innocence and purity but also with artifice and duplicity. It can suggest bounty, dazzle and allure, the implication that all that glisters is not necessarily gold. It can convey a heightened sense of spectacle. It is almost always associated with a notion of the feminine. The figure of the blonde is one of Hollywood’s most potent emblems and exports, and it has had an influence on other movie cultures over the years.

In cinema, the figure of the blonde often appears alongside the contrasting figure of the brunette; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, is probably the most engaging example…

And, of course, there is Monroe, defining Hollywood blondeness, and to some degree transcending it by sheer effort of will. Her body of studio work is surprisingly confined: only once, in Clash by Night (1952), in which she portrays a cannery worker, did she play a character with an ordinary job. In her major roles she was always a variation on a gold-digger or a stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ — yet she managed to subvert the stereotyping or deepen its implications, no matter what the challenge was off-screen. In The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), on what was reportedly a chaotic and troubled set, she gives an effortlessly appealing performance in an unlikely period piece: it is her co-star, Laurence Olivier (also her director), who appears awkward and uncomfortable.

Monroe, one way or another, continues to leave her mark on the evocation of blondeness. In the 80s, Madonna did her best to own it, restaging Monroe’s ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number, rifling through the Hollywood cultural dress-up box for a variety of shades and identities. Her video clip for ‘Vogue’, directed by David Fincher, explicitly raids both classic Hollywood portraiture and the vogueing phenomenon of the gay club.”

Marilyn’s Vanity Fair Special, And More

Vanity Fair has released a one-off tribute magazine dedicated to Marilyn on the eve of her 90th birthday, as part of their ‘Icons’ series. It is currently available from newsstands in the US only, but can also be ordered from their website.

The cover image, by Bert Stern, has been used twice before by the magazine. It also appears excessively airbrushed, and is a disappointing choice overall. However, there are many more photos inside, as well as some of the better articles about Marilyn published in recent years.

Unfortunately, the special issue also includes more dubious pieces about Marilyn and the Kennedys, citing widely disputed sources like Robert Slatzer and Jeanne Carmen; and Tony Curtis’s questionable claims about his relationship with Marilyn.

Interestingly, the current issue of Vanity Fair‘s regular edition also includes a tribute to MM, with comedienne Amy Schumer recreating her ‘Golden Dreams’ calendar pose on the cover. And in France, Marilyn’s life is chronicled in L’Humanite,  among twenty famous names from the 20th century – more details here.

UPDATE: Amy Schumer has been featured in another seemingly Marilyn-inspired cover shot, for American Vogue‘s July issue. (Marilyn wore a very similar red off-the-shoulder dress while promoting Monkey Business in 1952.)

Marilyn by Franck Livia, 1952

Marilyn’s Bombshell Beauty Guide

A well-researched article about Marilyn’s beauty routine, including direct quotes from MM herself, is published today by Vogue.

“Despite its great vogue in California, I don’t think suntanned skin is any more attractive . . . or any healthier, for that matter. I’m personally opposed to a deep tan because I like to feel blond all over.”

Marilyn and the Art of the Pin-Up

Marilyn on Tobey Beach, NY, 1949. Photo by Andre de Dienes

Legendary fashion writer Suzy Menkes reports on Christie’s current online sale, ‘The Art of the Pin-Up‘ (including images of Marilyn by Andre de Dienes and Bruno Bernard) for Vogue, noting that the perky innocence of that era is now a thing of the past…

“I can imagine that in the wartime period of hard times, advertising posters with sex appeal brightened the dim streets … Marilyn Monroe in her early days was a curvy young thing on the beach, using her parasol as a support for her pose – bottoms up!

But suddenly, my smile was wiped out by this thought: the cheeky and cheerful images, from an era of playful innocence, looked alarmingly like Miley Cyrus doing her twerking, Beyoncé performing in barely-there outfits of sexual titillation, Kim Kardashian revealing her ever-famous posterior, and Britney Spears sexing up her once teen-girl appearance.

Would I ever buy a pin-up picture? Marilyn in 1949, snapped by Andre de Dienes, might be a cute purchase to enliven my study wall. Although bids can start at £300, Christie’s is putting a starting bid of £1,400 on Marilyn Monroe.

But there is something dispiriting about the idea of Miley and co continuing to distort their bodies as sexual titillation 80 years after Marilyn stepped out on that sandy beach. A century, a millennium and a feminist revolution have happened since then.”