On October 7, 1971, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was walking along 90th Street on New York's Upper East Side when a taxi driver who recognized her honked his horn. She turned and gave a faint smile. And that was when paparazzo Ron Galella, hiding in the backseat of that same cab, snapped what would become one of the most iconic portraits of the former First Lady: Windblown Jackie.
Galella’s relationship with Onassis—to use that term generously—extended from the 1960s to the 1980s. It encompassed thousands of photos taken, but few words exchanged. Onassis sued Galella twice, and her second attempt, after Galella violated an injunction to stay at least 25 feet away from her, effectively ended her time as his favorite subject.
The judge threatened the photographer with seven years in jail and a $125,000 fine. “So I said I was going to give them up,” Galella says. “I gave up Jackie, John Jr., and Caroline forever.”
But even encounters that didn’t involve Onassis somehow involved Onassis. Marlon Brando, walking with talk show host Dick Cavett, once punched Galella in the mouth, shattering five teeth. Galella believes the assault had less to do with him asking Brando for a picture and more to do with Brando’s protectiveness of Onassis.
Galella’s second self-published book (following 2009’s Viva l’Italia!), Jackie: My Obsession, is a visual journey of Galella’s tenure as Onassis’s nemesis and unofficial photographer. In December, he’ll release his third self-published book: a three-volume set called Pop, Rock & Dance.
PowerHouse published your first few books. Why are you self-publishing now?
PowerHouse did Disco Years, which is a beautiful book, which sold out. Nine thousand copies. They did No Pictures also. I did Viva l'Italia! a couple of years ago, when I had a big exhibit in south Italy. I did the book for that opening. It’s a great book, but I self-published because [it's] hands-on and if you make a mistake, it’s your own fault. And you have full control. As an artist, I like that. From then on I did my own books.
When did you first fixate on Jackie Kennedy Onassis?
My first take of her was at the Wildenstein Gallery in May 1967. It was a small gallery and impossible to get great shots. I waited outside and [Jackie] was escorted by the financier Andre Meyer, who I believe got her the coop apartment on 1040 5th Avenue. I followed her to her apartment. That’s how I found out where she lived. But I didn’t really photograph her because I didn’t realize she was that important at the time.
When did you realize she was important?
It was the same year, December 10, 1967. There was a big $500 plate benefit for the Democratic Party at the Plaza Hotel. I covered that event and there she was. I got a beautiful picture published in Newsweek, and that’s when I realized she was important, when I got that picture published. That was my first picture published of Jackie at this event.
Despite the lawsuits that followed, you believe she loved your work. Why is that?
She may not have loved me, but I think she loved my work because after the trial I did my first book, Jacqueline, and I gave her a copy through the doorman. I wrote something like “Many thanks for making me famous.” Before she died, someone delivered a painting [and] saw my book on her library shelf, so she didn’t throw it out. And the pictures [submitted by Galella’s attorneys to Onassis’ attorneys]. They’re in the JFK library in Boston.
John Jr. allowed you to photograph him when he launched his magazine George, and you photographed him in public places for the last three years of his life. Why did he give you access?
I think he’s more of a normal person. He’s down to earth. For instance, my wife and I were waiting, staking out Jackie at 1040 5th Ave. and John came out of the park. He says: “Are you waiting for my mother?” I said: “Yeah.” He said: “She’s gone, she’s out of town.”
Caroline is very aloof like the mother and they don’t communicate easily. They think they’re very private with their nose in the air sort of. One time, I went to the tennis court and got Caroline playing tennis. And Secret Service agents were blocking me and Jackie was leaning against the tree. And finally I said, “She don’t mind me photographing.” And Caroline yelled out: “I do mind!” That’s the only time she spoke to me.
How did you manage to find Jackie so consistently?
I didn’t get tips. Nobody called me up to tell me Jackie was here or there. I went to her apartment and staked her out during convenient times of the day or evening. The doorman next door would sometimes give me information. I’d give him a tip, $10 or $15, and he’d say they’re playing tennis.
Didn’t you also seduce her maid?
Oh, I never seduced her. It looked like I did, but I didn’t. She was very pretty. I had another photographer with me. There were two other girls working for Jackie and we took them for coffee, treated them nice, took pictures of them, mainly for information: Jackie is going to the hair salon or a few other places. But one day, Jackie caught us talking and she fired the maid a few days after. I felt bad about that.
If you weren’t prohibited from doing so, would you have continued shooting Jackie throughout her life?
I think, yes, I would have continued. But in a way it’s best that I didn’t because she deteriorated because of her illness with cancer, and she looked bad when other photographers photographed her. That’s the thing about my books: most of my celebrities are young. My books bring back nostalgia. I’m a fool for beauty. That’s what we have in common. Jackie loved beauty and I loved beauty.
Was there ever a subject who enamored you in a similar way?
Elizabeth Taylor. I have more Elizabeth Taylor than Jackie in my files. She was always nice and easy to get. Even after I sued her.
I photographed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for one week on the set of Hammersmith is Out in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The proprietor of the hotel was cooperating with me because he wanted publicity. He asked, "Where do you want to hide today?" because at 5 o’clock they’d start filming. I picked this cave where there was this pump for the pool, so you couldn’t hear the Nikon shutter. After filming a few minutes, one of the crew stopped the pump and I was caught.
I’m guessing that didn’t end well.
It was the worst day of my life. They held me captive, went to my hotel room and took 15 rolls of my week’s shooting, which was over 500 pictures. They pulled out the cartridges and destroyed the film, exposed it all. Then three crewmen beat me up and threw me jail. It was a nightmare. I made the front page of the newspaper down there: Life Photographer Sues Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Burton agreed to pay $1,500 if I signed a general release saying he was not responsible. I didn’t sign it. But I lost the trial because the proprietor didn’t want to tell the truth.
The funny part at the end of that story is that Richard Burton divorced Liz and married a new bride, Sally, and his chauffeur called and said he wants wedding pictures. So he invited me down to photograph him at the Lombardy Hotel. He felt guilty about what happened.
What’s the allure of taking photos of people who aren’t expecting it?
I like to get celebrities being themselves. Those natural expressions when they relate to each other. I love that. Rather than getting the posed picture most photographers get. Sometimes I shoot that too because that sells, but I don’t look for that. I don’t like to yell the celebrities’ names because I don’t like them looking at the camera in that way. They’ll pose. When they see me, I shoot their reaction. You have to get the expression. That’s the great thing about cameras. Get the expression with that shutter speed. That’s the art of photography.
I like the surprise picture and you do it fast in case they say “No pictures,” you’re one ahead of them. I always honor their wishes to not take any more.
Would you have stopped if Jackie asked you not to take pictures?
Oh yes! I would have stopped. But she never really said “No pictures.” No Pictures is celebrity reactions. Most of them put up their hands and pretend they don’t want pictures.
But not all celebrities want their picture taken.
Some are sincere, like Sean Penn who spit at me and my nephew when we were photographing him with Madonna at their building. We stepped on their so-called private property in their courtyard. That’s when he started spitting and fighting with my nephew. But it was just a boxing match. Nobody got hurt. Madonna was yelling “Oh, stop, stop!” at the door. Finally he stopped. Then he turned around and hit one of the photographers in the nose. He’s a bad boy.
You think your nephew would’ve won?
Oh yeah, yeah he was bigger and stronger. Sean Penn is sort of puny and small. But they were just boxing. They wrestled around.
Penn and the paparazzi have a notoriously bad relationship.
Paparazzi today have a bad name because most just do it for the money. It’s not like me. I’m an artist. I studied art. Most of them have no education in that respect. They just do it for money. And there’s too many of them. Gangbanging I call them, where they swarm around celebrities looking for negative things. The whole tabloid viewpoint changed negatively because they look for warts and all. Cellulose on their legs, their fat. It’s ugly. I look for beauty, and it’s terrible that the paparazzi and market has turned to negative ugliness and vulgarity.
If you were going to re-do your career knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Well, I think I did the right thing for the most part. The only thing I’d do, and this is hard for me to say, but I combined my life with meeting a lot of beautiful girls, but I never pursued them. I never had time to take them out. I was too involved with shooting. I was always geared to shooting and I wish I was more intimate with some of them.
I didn’t have the time to do it. It was crazy! I could have banged many beautiful girls. But as far as photographing, I was a workaholic, I was a marathon man. I have tremendous files right now. I’m 82 years old and I’m still mining gold in the files.
You wouldn’t have ducked when Marlon Brando took that swing at you?
Oh, I would duck. Ooooh. I didn’t see it coming. I was looking at [Dick] Cavett. The punch came when I was looking at Cavett. I thought Cavett would say yes [you can take a photo], because he knew me.
So it was a sucker punch?
Yeah it was a sucker punch, you’re right.
Too bad your assistant missed that picture.
Yeah, he was too stupid to shoot. He didn’t get it. But he got the picture of me [later shooting Brando] wearing the football helmet.