The Duke's Private World
A new exhibit reveals celebrated photographer Phil Stern's intimate relationship with John Wayne, who, like many of the day's biggest stars, gave the lensman unprecedented access to home, family and feelings.
Phil Stern first photographed John Wayne just before World War II, beginning a lifelong friendship. Stern, a native New Yorker, had come to Hollywood in the late 1930s to pursue photography, and except for his years in the Army in the '40s -- during which he became a war hero -- he continued to shoot stars for top magazines of the era, including Life, Look and Photoplay. He captured such legends as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe at the height of their stardom. "I decided at an early age I wanted to get into the media," Stern, now 93, told The Hollywood Reporter during a visit to his home. "It was an exciting concept." His photographs are avidly exhibited and collected, and his work is on display at the new Phil Stern Gallery, which his son Peter opened in January at 601 S. Los Angeles St. in downtown L.A. On Oct. 5, the gallery is presenting a new show, John Wayne: Between Scenes, and Stern is planning on attending the opening reception. David Fahey of L.A.'s Fahey/Klein Gallery puts Stern in a class by himself: "He really photographed behind the scenes. People like Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, James Dean, Marlon Brando -- stars who typically were very closely guarded and not forthcoming with the press -- trusted Phil. He was one of the few allowed to photograph their children. Phil is a real, authentic individual, and they picked up on that." Stern continued to shoot pictures of Wayne through the '70s, up to the actor's illness and death in 1979. His photographs of Wayne, the Duke's pals and family attest to the trust between photographer and his subject.