THE CELEBRITY CULTURE in which we now swim, some would say drown, has accelerated far beyond what anyone awake in the 1950s would ever have imagined. Before the 24/7 global voyeurism of the Web, before E! and Barbara Walters and Annie Liebovitz, before the invading phalanxes of paparazzi on red carpets from Hollywood to Cannes, were the select flashbulb photographers who were allowed further access into the lives of stars than anyone else. One of the anointed was Murray Garrett. Now 88, he’s got a lifetime of stories about the icons of that more innocent era whose off moments he was often privileged to capture: Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Liberace… More fly-on-the-wall than commanding set-piece director, Garrett let his big-game hunting happen according to their creative rhythms, not his. A master of the stealthily revealed persona, he became a sought-after chronicler of a golden era in Hollywood.
“My dance was simply don’t get in their way,” says Garrett, “and don’t make your appearance there bigger than theirs — which would be absolutely stupid. My job was not to annoy them or interfere with them, and that’s why I get so many people who come up to me — and I’m very proud of it — saying, My God these pictures really are candid!”
As a kid, Garrett devoured photography books. While in high school he landed a part-time job with renowned New York stage photographer Eileen Darby. The studio owner kept him stuck in weddings-and-bar mitzvahs Siberia until one day, at age 17, he was thrown into his first celebrity assignment: Eleanor Roosevelt. When asked for his ID by her security team, he presented his high-school library card. “There was no television in those days, and to suddenly see her, I was numb.” Five years later, he was asked to open the agency’s West Coast office. He parlayed that into a long career of entertainment photo-journalism that reached every major star-hungry publication around the world.
“True these are special people, but they go to the bathroom the same way you do, they put their pants on the same way you do… but you’re not the same, because there’s only a very few who make it in their business and there are millions of us who never make it; we just work and make a living.” His secret weapon? New York-bred civility. He was always polite, and the marquee names rewarded him with their time. “You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to hate them, but you have to respect them.” Bob Hope was so impressed with Garrett’s discretion, his nimbleness and his sharp eye, he hired him on a regular basis to cover his shows — a gig that lasted 25 years.
“It wasn’t until long after I got out of the business that I was able to understand that it was okay to have whatever ego I have about my work. I knew I was good. That’s it.”
Murray Garrett’s photographs can be viewed at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica until October 5, and in two books — Hollywood Candid: A Photographer Remembers and Hollywood Moments (both Harry N. Abrams).
More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: