Through the Lens Of Phil Stern

By Sue Pascoe

In trying to describe 95-year-old Phil Stern, the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” comes to mind. This might not only describe his feistiness today, as he points out the inadequacies of the California Veterans (CalVet) home kitchen and members of the staff who are at times condescending, but also as a youth, when he volunteered for Darby’s Rangers in World War II.

On Sept. 6, Stern, who served as a combat photographer, donated 95 of his prints to the California Veterans home, which is located on the Westside campus of the V.A, where he now lives.

Noted photographer Phil Stern in front of a print of his James Dean photo. Photo: Sue Pascoe
Noted photographer Phil Stern in front of a print of his James Dean photo.
Photo: Sue Pascoe

At that ceremony, Stern was also inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame “for his service as an original member of the 1st Ranger Battalion and for his lasting contribution to the photographic history of the Rangers in the European Theater during WWII.”

Additionally, as a Hollywood photographer, Stern captured stars such as John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn. One of his most famous photos shows a pregnant, glowing Marilyn Monroe, a print of which now hangs on the CalVet dining room wall.

“When I came to the CalVet, it had bar- ren walls, the décor was bland, and I figured my pictures would be an improvement,” Stern told the Palisades News. “I donated them, and the cost of hanging them came from a donation made by Steven Spielberg.”

Stern’s vivid black-and-white photographs of World War II are in stark con- trast to those taken after the war. The similarities are even more eerie, because the eyes of his subjects are timeless, connecting the past to the present.

A Berkeley collector described good art as follows: “It has a simple and rigorous beauty that commands your gaze and thoughts whenever you look at it. The best work will break your heart.” This is an apt description of Stern’s work.

In an earlier interview, Stern said he doesn’t think photographers are artists like Rembrandt or Matisse. “In my mind, a photographer is like a carpenter. He can make a beautiful cabinet and you can exclaim, ‘It’s a work of art,’ but it’s never going to be a Rembrandt.”

Stern received his first camera in 1932 because Eastman Kodak “had a brilliant ad campaign,” he said. “There were advertise- ments in every newspaper: ‘Do you have a child 12 years old?’” The ad promised that if you brought your 12-year-old to an Eastman Kodak company, he/she would be given a Box Brownie camera. “Of course Kodak was the only one who sold film,” Stern said. “I was amazed. You push a button, take it to a store, and get your photos. I was hooked.”

By 1937, he lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York and was working as an apprentice in a photo studio by day, and nights for the Police Gazette.

Two years later, he became a staff photographer on Friday magazine and by 1941, he was in Los Angeles working at the magazine’s West Coast bureau. The magazine went bankrupt, but by then Stern was freelancing for LIFE, Look and Collier’s magazines.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Stern was assigned to a U.S Army photographic unit in London, where he volunteered for Darby’s Rangers. The unit, patterned after British commandos, conducted deep-penetration raids behind enemy lines and amphibious raids on enemy-held coasts.

Stern was wounded during an assault in North Africa, but after recuperating, he covered the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Of the original 1,500 members of Darby’s Rangers, only 199 men survived the attack on Cisterna, and Stern is among the 10 who are still alive.

Darby’s Rangers. Photo: Phil Stern
Darby’s Rangers.
Photo: Phil Stern

After the Italian campaign, Stern worked for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and in 1944, he was assigned by LIFE to produce a photo essay on the homecoming of Darby’s Rangers.

This was the start of a long freelance career that enabled Stern to cover numerous jazz legends, movie stars and even President John Kennedy.

Frank Sinatra was responsible for Stern serving as an official photographer for Kennedy’s inaugural gala.

In a note to Sinatra, Stern wrote: “Frank: I want the job of being resident photographer when you prep and put on the JFK inaugural gala. For your convenience just check the appropriate box below: Yes. I’ll think about it, or f**k off.”

Stern was asked about the actual cause of Monroe’s death. “I was considered one of the people who theoretically could have known if it was more than what they were saying,” he said. “My own personal opinion, gut feeling, it was an overdose.”

He said his photos of her were never prearranged. “Mine were more like a paparazzi,” he said. Shooting from Sam Goldwyn’s office, he used an 800-millimeter lens to take the photo of a pregnant Monroe.

One of Stern’s shots of James Dean, who had his legs propped up on a stool, captured the Converse tennis shoes the star was wearing. The photo was snagged by the Converse Company. “That [photo] bought two houses for my family and paid for college. It was a bonanza for me,” he said.

Is there any star he wishes he had photographed, but didn’t? “Charlie Chaplin: he was one of the greatest artists of all time,” Stern said.

Another photo on a CalVet wall shows a German “mascot” dog behind wire, with a sign: “Prisoner of War.”

“They took it down [before the V.A. show opened on Sept. 6] and I asked where it was. Someone said there was a complaint about cruelty to animals,” Stern said. “In a war where so many kids were killed by rifle fire, machine guns, bombs, they took [a photo of a dog] down. It’s ludicrous.”

The photo is back on the wall.

Visit for more information. A documentary, Phil Stern: Eyewitness, is scheduled for release later this year.

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