Norma Jean Dougherty, a 20-year-old brunette beauty, walked past Los Angeles photographer Bruno Bernard in July 1946 as he left a dentist’s office. He followed the young woman and gave her his business card: Bernard of Hollywood. The next day she showed up at his studio, and he shot her first professional portraits.
Soon after, the aspiring starlet bleached her hair, hired a talent agent and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Fifty years after her death at 36 from an overdose of barbiturates, the movie queen’s earliest portraits by Bernard — up to and including the iconic photos he took of Monroe’s skirt blowing over her head in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch — will be on display through November at the World Erotic Art Museum in South Beach.
“She was a sexual icon. She symbolizes sex. She was the epitome of an erotic turn on,” says Naomi Wilzig, owner and curator of the museum.
The South Beach exhibit will feature 27 Bernard photos on loan from his daughter, writer Susan Bernard, who compiled a book of his Monroe portraits, Marilyn: Intimate Exposures ($35).
“Since she passed, each decade, she becomes bigger than life,” Susan Bernard says.
Bruno Bernard died at 78 in 1987, three years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with a dinner and exhibit in Los Angeles. In 1999, New York’s Museum of Modern Art chose Bernard’s portrait of Monroe in Seven Year Itch — “Marilyn in White” — to represent its “Fame After Photography” exhibit.
Susan Bernard, a former actress and Playboy’s Miss December 1966, says she still can’t put her finger on what made Monroe so special.
“Certainly at that time, there were more beautiful women like Elizabeth Taylor,” Bernard says. “There were others who were better actresses, but she survived them all. It’s just astonishing, actually.”
Monroe and her father had a special bond: both had been raised in orphanages. Bruno Bernard fled Nazi Germany in the early 1930s with few possessions, just a box camera that had been given to him at age 11 by his mother, Susan Bernard says.
“He came to America alone and penniless,” she says.
In Los Angeles, Bernard opened a photo studio inside his apartment. He called himself Bernard of Hollywood.
“No one knew the name of Bernard, but everyone knows Hollywood,” Susan Bernard says. “He branded himself.” Bernard also photographed movie legends including Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck.
Bernard documented Monroe’s rise to fame, doing off-screen publicity shots for such films as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (all 1953).
Their final photo shoot together was Seven Year Itch. Hundreds of photographers, extras and gawkers watched as Monroe filmed the skirt-blowing scene on Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan. So many fans whistled and cheered, the footage was unusable and had to be reshot later on a quiet 20th Century-Fox back lot.
That night, Monroe fought with her humiliated husband, Yankees baseball great Joe DiMaggio.
Bruno Bernard once wrote that after the filming, he went to the DiMaggios’ hotel to take another photo for Redbook: “From the hall outside their suite at the St. Regis, I could hear a heated quarrel followed by her hysterical crying. I left, and never got my sitting.”
“The Magic of Marilyn” runs 7 p.m. Wednesday through Nov. 30 at the World Erotic Art Museum’s new contemporary space, 235 12 th St., Miami Beach. Tickets are $15; no one under 18 admitted.
“The Seven Year Itch” will be screened 8 p.m. Thursday at Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave. $10 adults; $9 students and seniors.