Commenting on our article “Is Ivy Cool?” reader “Camford” asked, “Are cigarettes and jazz cool?” I cannot say whether they are cool. Well, I could, but I won’t, as my physician, insurance agent and childhood music teacher might be reading this article. But I believe they are both addictive and potentially lethal.
When I was young and impressionable, I saw a jazz documentary on my local PBS station and have never been the same since. Years later I learned it was Bert Stern’s smoked-infused 1958 bacchanalia “Jazz On A Summer’s Day.” It should have come with a warning label. To this day I struggle with the compulsion to drink Rheingold beer and dance on rooftops, an endeavor I know is as foolhardy as a Lucky Strike habit.
Bert Stern died on June 26 of 2013 at the age of 83. In addition to “Jazz On A Summer’s Day,” Stern is also known for “The Last Sitting,” a collection of haunting photographs of Marilyn Monroe shot six weeks before her death. One of the shots is a self-portrait of himself with Monroe, and it’s a droll coincidence that Stern died in the same annum that the Oxford Dictionary chose “selfie” as its word of the year. Always the pioneer, Stern may have had the best selfie 51 years before the recognition of the Internet phenomenon.
Bert Stern was born in Brooklyn on October 3, 1929, the son of a child portrait photographer. He later described his family finances as “medium poor.” A high school dropout, he served as a cameraman during the Korean War. His first industry job was in the mailroom of Look magazine, where he made two important friends: Stanley Kubric, who would later ask him to do the still photography for his 1962 film “Lolita,” and art director Hershel Bramson, who would get Stern his first commercial assignment for Smirnoff Vodka.
The title of Stern’s movie biography, “Bert Stern: Original Madman,” gives you the sense of the milieu in which he operated. For the Smirnoff commercial he travelled to Egypt and photographed a martini glass that captured the reflected image of the Great Pyramid, an image considered groundbreaking at the time. Robert Sobieszek, the curator of the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House, called it “the most influential break with traditional advertising photography,” while Chris Wiegand of the Guardian said upon Stern’s death that never in his career did he better the Smirnoff campaign.
If we accept that assessment, we can better appreciate the time when Stern turned his iconoclastic talents toward promoting a traditional and campus-accepted brand of shoes.
A.E. Nettleton Company of Syracuse, NY, was formed in 1879 by Albert E. Nettleton. Its shoes were worn by students, soldiers and statesmen, and records show that Black Jack Pershing, Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers were customers. At least three presidents wore Nettletons, including Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman. On the campus front, Nettletons were sold at the Brown University outfitter Hillhouse.
Nettleton was also an early adopter of the loafer style, trademarking the term “loafer” in 1937. Over its first seven decades in business, Nettleton used line drawings, simple photographs and beautiful paintings to present its brand image. But by the 1950s it was ready to get hip. Bert Stern, the man who was asked to make Spam romantic, got the gig. The result was the Mr. Nett campaign that combined traditional photography with abstract images.
Stern once wrote, “I took audacious pictures that got people to want things.” If on New Year’s Eve you find me drinking a dry martini while listening to Dinah Washington and craving Nettleton shoes, you know who to blame. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP