Ron Galella, ‘paparazzo extraordinaire’ who stalked Jacqueline Onassis and lost five teeth to Marlon Brando – obituary

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Ron Galella trailing Jackie Kennedy: eventually she took him to court and he was ordered to keep at least 25ft away - Magnolia Pictures/Avalon
Ron Galella trailing Jackie Kennedy: eventually she took him to court and he was ordered to keep at least 25ft away - Magnolia Pictures/Avalon

Ron Galella, the photographer who has died aged 91, was beaten by Richard Burton’s bodyguards, had his tyres slashed by Elvis Presley’s minders, and lost five teeth to Marlon Brando’s fist, all in pursuit of his art; Sean Penn spat at him, the restaurateur Elaine Kaufman threw a dustbin lid in his direction and Brigitte Bardot’s security staff doused him with a hose pipe.

His chief obsession was with Jacqueline Onassis. He claimed to have snapped her so often because he “had no girlfriend. I wasn’t tied down, married … She was my girlfriend, in a way.”

She did not see things that way and in 1969 he was arrested for harassment after taking pictures of the former first lady and her son, John F Kennedy Jr, on a bicycle in Central Park, New York. Her cry of “smash his camera” became the title of Leon Gast’s 2010 film about his work.

“Windblown Jackie”, Galella’s best-known picture, depicts her striding down the street, hair blowing in her eyes as she turns, smiling, towards him after his taxi driver sounded his horn. “I call it the Mona Lisa smile,” Galella said. Her smile vanished when she recognised her pursuer: “Are you pleased with yourself?” she sneered.

Elvis Presley, girlfriend Diane Goodman and Elvis's road manager Joe Esposito leaving the Hilton Garden Inn at JFK Airport for a concert in Uniondale on July 19 1975 - Ron Galella/WireImage
Elvis Presley, girlfriend Diane Goodman and Elvis's road manager Joe Esposito leaving the Hilton Garden Inn at JFK Airport for a concert in Uniondale on July 19 1975 - Ron Galella/WireImage

Galella photographed her at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, picnicking with her children in New Jersey, and buying magazines at a newsstand, “paying for them with money, just like an ordinary American woman”.

He dated her maid, who revealed where she was having her hair and facials done, and even followed her to Mykonos, hiring a boat and disguising himself as a Greek sailor in a wig and fake moustache to get bikini shots. He drew the line at topless images, however, adding: “I like to have taste that’s good.”

Twice she took him to court. After the first case, a 26-day trial that made him almost as famous as her, he was ordered to keep 150 ft away, reduced to 25 ft on appeal.

Thereafter he flamboyantly unspooled a measuring tape marked with the distance. After the second case he gave up shooting her altogether, though by then he had published Jacqueline (1974), describing their encounters.

Galella knew all the tricks of his trade. “You have to be sneaky, you gotta hide,” he told The Daily Telegraph in his tough Bronx accent. “As soon as you see the celeb, you jump, try to beat the cops and, soon as they pull you away, it’s too late, you’ve got the picture already.”

Galella with Marlon Brando, above, who punched out his teeth, after which he took to wearing an American football helmet when they met - Magnolia Pictures/Avalon
Galella with Marlon Brando, above, who punched out his teeth, after which he took to wearing an American football helmet when they met - Magnolia Pictures/Avalon

He cut a hole in a hedge to get a shot of Doris Day sunbathing, and when he confronted Greta Garbo she pulled out an umbrella crying: “Why do you bother me? I have done nothing wrong.” It was one of the few occasions when he felt remorseful, but her photograph still appeared in his 2008 book No Pictures, in which, for all the crude opportunism involved, his images often possess a haunting beauty.

And although Galella distanced himself from the more aggressive breed of paparazzi, he encountered plenty of violence. In 1973 he followed Brando to Chinatown where the actor punched out his shameless stalker’s teeth, in the process acquiring an infection in his hand that needed hospital treatment, something Galella attributed to his “paparazzi germs”.

He sued Brando for $40,000 to cover his dental treatment and for their next encounter wore an American football helmet.

Boy George, Grace Jones, and Marilyn at a screening party for A View to a Kill in New York, May 1985 - Ron Galella/WireImage.com
Boy George, Grace Jones, and Marilyn at a screening party for A View to a Kill in New York, May 1985 - Ron Galella/WireImage.com

He was less successful in suing Burton, whose security guards removed another of Galella’s teeth after finding him in the pump house of the actor’s swimming pool. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Taylor was heard to mutter: “I’m going to kill Ron Galella,” even though she used his pictures in her own book.

Elaine Kaufman, proprietor of Elaine’s, the Manhattan celebrity hangout, hurled two dustbin lids at him, saying: “Beat it, creep. You’re bothering my customers.”

Andy Warhol, who shared Galella’s obsession with fame, was one of the celebrities to come to his defence, declaring Galella to be his favourite photographer and name-checking him in his diaries. “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something infamous,” Warhol said of Galella’s work. “It’s being in the right place at the wrong time.”

Sometimes it seemed that the only sentient beings Galella did not shoot were rabbits, which he kept as pets “because they’re soft”. The swimming pool at his Italianate mansion in New Jersey was adapted as a rabbit play area, while the garden was awash with memorial stones, erected whenever a beloved bunny died.

Donald Trump takes a Polaroid of Playmate Lisa - Ron Galella/WireImage
Donald Trump takes a Polaroid of Playmate Lisa - Ron Galella/WireImage

Ronald Edward Galella was born in the Bronx on January 10 1931, the son of Italian immigrants whose marriage was often combative. His father, Vincenzo, scraped a living building coffins and pianos, while his seamstress mother, Michelina (née Marinaccio), was obsessed with Hollywood and named her son after the film star Ronald Coleman.

While serving in the US Air Force during the Korean War he was appointed base photographer, equipping himself with a book called How to Shoot Glamour. Under the GI Bill he was then able to attend the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

He toyed with the idea of becoming a ceramicist or a dance instructor, but was drawn towards photographing the famous and, as he put it, testing if their glamour was real. He started to gatecrash premieres, parties and film sets, and even took classes at Pasadena Playhouse to learn how to act like a star.

Liza Minnelli, Steve Rubell and Bianca Jagger at Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54 in New York, 1977 - Ron Galella Collection via Getty Image
Liza Minnelli, Steve Rubell and Bianca Jagger at Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54 in New York, 1977 - Ron Galella Collection via Getty Image

By 1962 he had returned to the East Coast and was advertising children’s portrait sessions in stores around New Jersey and New York, “no appointments necessary; child must be with parent”.

By night he was roaming the city, cameras in hand – he always had two – seeking out fame and fashion. “I’d go to premieres and events, and shoot those, and then I’d cover Studio 54 around midnight,” he told Harper’s Bazaar, though he was eventually banned from the nightclub for starting a fight that landed its owner in jail.

The following morning would he return to the city to sell photos of celebrities such as John Lennon, Liza Minnelli, David Bowie and Jerry Hall to publications including Photoplay and Screened. “Magazines were crying for pictures,” he said. “Sometimes they would pay a thousand dollars for a take.”

Ron Galella, the subject of the documentary Smash His Camera, posing for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, January 2010 - AP Photo/Carlo Allegri
Ron Galella, the subject of the documentary Smash His Camera, posing for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, January 2010 - AP Photo/Carlo Allegri

Although contemptuous of modern-day paparazzi he maintained that the drunk chauffeur, not the photographers, was responsible for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. He added: “I think that Diana should have come out [of the hotel] with Dodi Fayed and said, ‘Take your pictures’, and then, even if they had followed them, it would have been slower, they wouldn’t have had to race.”

In later life Galella could feel vindicated as an artist, with his prints appearing in the Museum of Modern Art. Manhattan remained his stomping ground, though he never actually lived on the island.

“To me, New York City was like a girlfriend,” he said. “I loved to visit, but I never actually moved in. So it’s like we dated, but I never married her.”

He came across Betty Lou Burke, a picture editor, in 1976 when she bought his images. “I fell in love with her warm, soft, loving voice,” he said. They met in person two years later for the premiere of Superman. “With one look at that beautiful girl, I said, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ And five months later, we were.” She died in 2017; they had no children.

Ron Galella, born January 10 1931, died April 30 2022

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