Ron Galella, rock star of photographers
A rock star of photographers
Ron Galella shot many photographs of famous celebrities. But he, himself is a celebrity i.e. paparazzo superstar, and rock star of photographers.
Galella, now at 90, is still doing what he loves most, photography. "I'm a workaholic, my 22nd book is coming out, '100 Iconic Photographs.'" "Next year I'm doing the decade of the eighties."
This is an account of my time with Ron Galella at his suburban mansion in Montville, New Jersey. A mansion so amazing it could double as a museum to Galellas' lifelong work as a paparazzi photographer whose collection contains more then a million photographs of famous celebrities he has taken.
Noon, Monday October 11, 2021
Our fifty-five minute drive comes to an end. One which starts at the Gramercy district in Manhattan and finishes in the town of Montville, New Jersey. Hau, our Uber driver pulls up to a white neo-classical mansion which, looks something out of a Godfather movie. It is no surprise that once an HBO scout showed up interested in renting the house as Tony Sopranos' home. One thing that didn't agree with HBO's decision makers' was the pool in the backyard had been filled in and replaced with a rabbit cemetery. The rabbits have been Ron and Betty (Ron's wife) Galellas' pet of choice for many years.
With a camera bag thrown over each shoulder, Cheri (my assistant) and I slowly walk along the sidewalk and turn up the driveway towards the front entrance. We pass by a mailbox in the shape of a rabbit. A white marble fountain lead our eyes to columns framing the front door. Many small rabbit statues are scattered about the property. At the base of the stairs, a concrete slab appears with a pair of handprints, a sweeping signature and the date, July 26, 2008. The slab is in the style similar to something you would find in front od Grauman's Chineese Theater in Los Angeles.
My photograph of the slab outside the front door
We walk up the stairs and at 11:59am, I push the doorbell. I suddenly realize my lifelong journey has taken me here, to New Jersey. In front of the home of the man who has given me a lifetime of inspiration.
I'm standing in front of the magazine rack at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore in the small city of Winston Salem, NC., my hometown. Leafing through a New York Magazine which caught my eye. The September 22, 2008 issue. On the cover, "Jackie and Me," "Paparazzo Ron Galella and the birth of modern celebrity," by Emily Nussbaum.
New York Magazine, September 22, 2008
The article had me hooked. Talking about the antics of this celebrity photographer. His prints have found their way to The MOMA and Staley-Wise Galleries in New York while his books are praised in The New York Times. But, along the way there were some interesting hurdles and bumps in the road. In 1973, Marlon Brando punched out five of Galellas' teeth in an incident which settled out of court. Brando himself needed healthcare as his hand became infected from the punch. During the disco years Steve Rubell twice threw Galella out of Studio 54. Richard Burton once sent his goons to steal film out of Galellas' camera. Bridget Bardot had her boyfriend hose him down. Frank Sinatra once yelled, "You wop, you get permission." And, Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis told her secret service to, 'smash his camera.' This happening along with three law suits but, resulted in one of Galellas' most famous photographs, Windblown Jackie.
Ron's' Windblown Jackie
In his younger days, Ron took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse, not to become an actor but, to act like one. "I went to overcome my shyness and fear with dealing with people, and it helped." He prided himself on his cleverness of breaking into environments. He wore wigs, glasses, hats and even faked credentials.
When Ron started he found out he could get $1000 for photos of Elizabeth Taylor or the Lemon Sisters, from magazines such as, Modern screen, Photoplay and The national Inquirer. Galella claims, Those who would judge a paparazzi are the same ones to gobble up their images."
He met and married his wife Betty in 1978 when Ron was 48 and Betty 31. Galella claims he never married before because he was dedicated to his work. Betty unfortunately passed away January 9, 2017 after a long illness. Reading the article on Galella I, specifically remember these events happening as they made the news during the 60's and 70's. As a young inspiring photographer I was mesmerized.
Noon, Monday, October 11, 2021
Cheri and I are standing at the front door when it opens. Two ladies greet us. "Hi Charlie, I'm Kathy and this is Grace, won't you come in?" Grace smiles and says hello. She is of Asian descent and I have the impression she is Ron's' health care assistant. Kathy is a slender attractive lady who has been Ron's' assistant for over 30 years.
As we enter the foyer, I can't help but notice the large black and white portraits on stands lining the room. Another stand has Ron's self-made paparazzo jacket. The 35mm Nikon camera he used and the famous football helmet he made as a joke to follow Marlon Brando around after the famous 'punch to the mouth.' Kathy turns out to be a wonderful hostess as she guides us through the mansion. "You wanna put your equipment down there on the love seat and I'll show you around." As I put my camera bags on the large red "S" shaped love seat we couldn't help but notice the enormous living room. Every wall is covered with large portraits of famous celebrities such as John Lennon, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra and Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis. This impressive room is topped off with a very tall cathedral ceiling and many windows allowing tons of natural light to enter.
We enter the Andy Warhol room, and another room Kathy introduces as Ron's office. Kathy explains, "This is Ron's office and was a dining room at one time. All of the things here are fairly new. Ron wanted to report his life in pictures." The walls are covered with famous magazine covers with Ron's' photographs. Another wall dedicated to his wife Betty, "Who passed away a few years ago." There is a portrait of Ron holding his famous photograph of Windblown Jackie, by Tim Mantoani. Other photographs include, Ron standing behind Jackie Kennedy Onasis holding a tape measure and one of Ron standing behind Marlon Brando with his football helmet on.
We start up a winding staircase, passing by statues of rabbits. Kathy mentions, "Ron no longer has rabbits but, we do have a couple of cats, they are bothers." As we get to the top of the stairs Kathy says, "Ron decided a few years ago in case he passed away he wanted to have a whole library of photographs that were signed by him." When asked how many photos are signed up stairs, she answered, "Thousands of photographs are signed."
Back downstairs and into the basement which seconds as a large office area where the business is run. We meet a young man sitting in front of a computer. "This is Nick my co-worker," Kathy says. Nick greats us warmly and we exchange pleasantries. Downstairs there are thousands of stored unsigned photographs, slides and negatives all carefully labeled and filed away in boxes, envelopes and cabinets. We walk through a small room where an old film enlarger sits on a counter top. Kathy describes this as Ron's old darkroom which he doesn't really use anymore due to the advancement of the digital world.
We walk up to the main floor, turn the corner to enter the living room and Ron is there waiting for us. At 90 years old Ron Galella is looking very well. A fine gentleman and a mind as sharp as a tack, showing a wonderful personality and sense of humor. "I'm alright, for 90 I'm pretty good. Galella continues, "I'm a workaholic." "My 22nd book is coming out, 100 Iconic Photographs. "Next year I'm gonna do the decade of the 80's." "I go through my files. What I'm doing right now is going through my color slides and picking more pictures that were overlooked." "I'm giving them to my agency, Getty." "I'm making money each month with them with old stuff. I'm giving them more good stuff that was overlooked." So I'm keeping busy doing that." "You gotta keep busy, you live longer. Especially if you do something you love."
Ron looks at the wall in front of him. "That's my wife, see?" "She was a big asset. When I married her she expanded my agency. Hired other photographers, Before it was just me, and she became a photographer too." "In fact, there's one of John Junior." Ron points to a photo shot by his wife Betty of, John Kennedy Junior. "You see those are her pictures of John Junior. She out did me." Ron smiles and we chuckle at his comment. "I was lucky to marry her, cuz she was a country girl." "You see country girls get gobbled up." "Here in a big city, they get taken." "Country girls they're like preserved. Preserved for me." Ron giggles and we laugh at his comment.
Ron hasn't always lived in Montville. "We've lived here since 1992, She (Kathy) found this house. She saw an ad in the paper and that's how we found it." "We lived in Yonkers. It was a two family house and we moved. We had too many pictures. You would pull up and the car was left outside." I asked Kathy if she was with Ron in Yonkers during those times. "She's (Kathy) been with me for 30 years." Ron stated. "I was at their wedding , My Daughter was their flower girl. A lot of good memories," Kathy answered.
Before the internet and modern amenities
Before digital photography and the existence of the internet there was a lot of running around and footwork in getting the product to their customers. When asked how things were done in the past Kathy says, "I can tell you that, because I was there when it happened. So, what would happen was, today is Monday. I would come to work, I would get all the newspapers and I would look for events. We also got what was called The Celebrity Bulletin. So, I would gather all the same that day for events happening and I would print all out for Ron. If there was something he needed to be invited to, I would call the people to try to get him invited. But mostly, he would just go. So we'd say, oh we read Mick Jagger is going to be performing at Madison Square Garden and staying at the Carlyle Hotel. So we would write that down. There were no cell phones then so, he would take that note with him and go through the process of knowing like, where to go first from that list. If he could he (Ron) would go the whole day and night. He would come back. He would develop the film. He would print his contact sheets and photographs. Sometimes we had printers that would help. Like he'd say, 'here print these.' Otherwise he would print them himself. He would print the film, they would have to go through the chemicals, da da da. Then they would have to go through the dryer. Then once everything was dry then they would have to be stamped on the back with his name. They would have to be captioned, he would have to caption them. You know if we were using word, or whatever it was. Then we would tape the captions on the back. Then, so you would have a pile of maybe ten of Jagger, ten of Cher and ten of who ever it was. So, he had clients he would send to everyday, Time, Newsweek, The New York Post, The daily News, umm, and there were European publications."
"There were usually about ten envelopes that had everybody's name on it. Then he would sort them out like this (Kathy makes a motion with both hands as if she were dealing cards out). Get 'em all in the envelopes and then we had a girl, Kelly, and sometimes there were other people. She would come to the office. She would take all the envelopes. I would drive her to the subway and she would hand deliver them. That was when I was there."
"Before I was there and he (Ron) was fairly new, he used to take them himself. There were fan magazines like Modern Screen, something like that. He would print the contact sheets from the negatives. He would then bring it, cuz he was new. He would bring it to the fan magazines and say, 'pick the pictures you want.' There were several he would go to, and once they picked it he would go back and he would print those. Then he would deliver them back. And, the whole cycle would start over again. You know the next day you would read all the newspapers. And then some people would call us and say something was happening. You know, you should be at this event. But, yeah those days were a lot of fun because I used to go into Manhattan with him and shoot with him because I was a Mick Jagger fan. If he was gonna be down there and he's (Jagger) still going."
Were there any celebrities who wanted to be known by getting Ron's attention? "Not so much contact Ron but, they knew after a while Ron became really well known they knew that if Ron shot them that their picture was going to be in the paper the next day. So yeah, they might spend a little extra time. There were a lot of celebrities who would call out like, Dustin Hoffman loved Ron and he would see Ron and pose and he would always do funny things for Ron. There were quite a few celebrities who knew. Suzanne Summers loved Ron. As a matter of fact I think her house burned down and they called to get pictures cuz a lot of her stuff was destroyed and want to get photos for memory sake."
My sitting with Ron
"I see you brought some equipment, would you like to take some pictures?" Kathy asked. As it was, I brought with us my digital Nikon, and a couple of film cameras as, I love to shoot medium format film. A Mamiya RB67 and my Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera. Not knowing how much time I would have, I wanted to make sure I had enough film with me. Ron was very generous with his time and told us many stories of his experiences as he posed for my camera.
Cheri shot this photo of me photographing Ron
"Ron, was there anyone particularly difficult to photograph?" "Yes, once I was with my Nephew and we were shooting photos of Madonna (August 29, 1986) and at the time her husband Sean Penn," Ron said. Kathy added, "They ate in a restaurant, then you guys followed them (to where Madonna was living at the time on W. 64th Street) into Madonna's courtyard." "Once they got into the courtyard with a couple of photographers stepping into it, Sean Penn said, 'you stepped on private property and you can't do that,'" Ron said. "And he attacked my Nephew. I got a couple of pictures of them In the pictures you can't see his face but, you can see the attack." "That's unbelievable," Cheri said. "That's definitely someone who could use anger management." "He (Penn) was really the only one that was a pain in the ass," Ron said. "Oh and Marlon Brando", added Kathy.
Ron's photo of Penn punching his Nephew, Anthony Savignano
As I was shooting photos, I stepped closer to Ron. "I never got too close." Ron says light heartedly. "To me when you get to close you get distortion. Unless you want to exaggerate like, Jimmy Durante has a big nose, you can come close to make it bigger." We laughed.
My photographs of Ron on a filmstrip
Cheri looks up and points, "Wow and here is Bruce Springsteen and there is Elvis." Kathy says, "The John Travolta one was taken right in Yonkers, NY., right on the cusp, before he was famous. He was known for Welcome Back Cotter. Then he was in Bus Stop in a touring group with Brian Denehy and Anita Gillette in Yonkers at a small theater. Within a year he shot up to stardom in Saturday Night Fever."
"What about the Princess Diana picture?" Cheri asked. "How was she to photograph?" "Well, I only got her a few times, she was hardly here." "She was easy", Kathy says. "She was used to it right?" "Yeah, yeah." Ron said.
Kathy shot this photo of Ron and I
"Were there harder places than others to get into to shoot," I asked Ron. "Oh yeah." Ron said. "I used to sneak through the kitchen." "Like the AFI (American Film Institute), an annual event with big stars. I'd get in through the kitchen and get pictures, where Betty Davis was honored. The biggest event was James Cagney, (March 13, 1974, Second Annual American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Awards Honoring james Cagney at the Century Plaza Hotel), the biggest stars were there." "A jealous photographer, Scott Downie reported me to security. He said, Galella sneaked in here. The security said, no he's alright because, George Stevens Jr. (founder of The American Film Institute) allowed me to sneak in. Because I got published. I published the pictures. So he always allowed me to sneak in." Ron said.
"James Cagney was my biggest event. That's where I got my great picture of John Lennon and David Bowie." "This one right here." Ron points to a photo on the wall in the living room. "It's in my new book 100 Iconic Photographs." "This one here," Ron points to a photo of John Lennon and Mick Jagger, "That's the cover of my new book." "That's my second best seller. My best seller is Windblown Jackie (taken October 7, 1971 on Madison Avenue) which is up there." Ron points up to the photograph. "The John Lennon and Mick Jagger picture, That's May Pang (Lennon's girlfriend at the time), the back of her head. That was available light at the James Cagney honors."
Ron's photo of John Lennon and Mick Jagger
"May Pang came here because someone is doing a documentary about her called, The Lost Weekend," Kathy states. "That's what, at some point John Lennon referred to it. I think they spent maybe about a year together." "They came to interview Ron because of that picture. I guess there were very few photos of John with May. John and Mick really didn't know Ron was photographing them." Ron says to Kathy, "When do we see the documentary?" "I know well, it's not out yet." Kathy says. "I don't know where it is but, I'm gonna contact him once again I talked to him a couple of months ago, Richard Kaufman, and he said the documentary was done and they were shopping it around. So we're waiting to see it on Netflix or somewhere. But, so far, nothing." "She (May) was very sweet and posed with Ron."
"Yoko told John like, I'm giving you a hall pass and, he took advantage of it. He met up with May and, according to May it was a loving relationship. Because it lasted for some time that Yoko said, (Kathy laughs) the hall pass has expired."
I walked over to my tripod and adjusted the Mamiya RB that was waiting for me. Kathy said, "Another great camera, you have great cameras." "I just love to play around a little bit, love shooting black and white," I said. "Yep, that's our favorite." Kathy said.
One of many I have shot of Ron
Cheri asks Ron, "What was your favorite event?" "Well the James Cagney event was probably the best and it drew the most stars. But, also the Met Gala. Every year that was good and I did a book on that." Ron answered. "It's somewhere around here." Ron looks around the love seat where his books are spread out like a display. "Cheri says, " I would love seeing photos of The Met Gala. I mean that was just so over the top." "Well, we'll give you one of these books. You'll have every year," Kathy said. "Sadly this is the first year in fifty years that Ron did not shoot it." "In years past I was allowed to stand behind Ron to make sure he was okay. This year they said no one else could stand with him and, this was like five hours more and with a mask." Ron says, "Yeah I didn't feel like doing it. I was afraid of getting the virus."
Ron and Kathy
I walked up to the balcony and shot photos looking down into the living room. At this time Ron, with his digital SLR was shooting photos of me shooting photographs of him. "Kathy, would you like to get in one?" "Uh," Kathy makes a face. "I'm not like you." she says to Ron. I'm not a ham like you." Ron laughs. I came downstairs from the balcony starting to pack up my equipment. Kathy holds up Ron's Nikon 35mm camera and says, "Oops, it looks like this fell off." She holds the film rewind knob. "Can you fix this Charlie?" "Sure let me take a look." It screws back on to top of the camera. "There it just unscrewed itself." "Okay, thanks so much."
My shot of Ron from the balcony
I pack up my equipment while we chit chat before our ride back to the hotel. Hau, our Uber driver agreed to wait for us. I bend down to shake Ron's hand, "Thank you so much Ron, you're a good man Ron." Ron smiles and says, "Please send us the shots you got today." "I surely will," I respond. Cheri offers her hand to Ron. Ron smiles and says, "Goodbye my Cheri ami amour", and giggles as we leave.
Great read Charles. So much cool information and memories packed in that story of your visit with Ron Galella and his assistant Kathy. Enjoyed it very much.
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