A BIOGRAPHY OF TOM KELLEY

BY NORMAN MAILER

Two Photographs, one depicting war, the other depicting beauty, stand unchallenged today as the most widely viewed still pictures in the annals of photography. One, by former Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, is the moving and memorable picture of five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman implanting "old glory" at Iwo Jima during that battle's frantic opening moments. The other, by Tom Kelley, is the breathtakingly beautiful nude of the late motion picture sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe. Rosenthal's picture ended up atop a U.S. postage stamp and was seen by millions. Kelley's picture ended up atop a 1952 calendar in barber shops, gasoline stations, ships' galleys and soldiers' barracks wherever men mark time around the world. And it, too, was seen by millions. Sadly the protagonists in both pictures, save one Marine and the Navy corpsman, met untimely deaths. However, the legacy left by the two uncommonly beautiful photographs will cause their subjects, as well as Kelley and Rosenthal, to be remembered as long as man retains the sense of sight.

Tom Kelley was born December 12, 1914, in Philadelphia, Penn. of William and Cecelia Selby Kelley. His father was a printer by trade. Tom attended elementary and junior high school in Philadelphia and graduated from the city's Nathan Hale High School. Tom's interesting career spans more than four decades: first started as an apprentice in a New York photo studio that catered to the city's upper 400, i.e. photographing the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Harrimans, the Morgans, etc. The owner of the studio was also chief photography instructor at the prestigious New York School of Photography. Working under him for the next four years gave Tom an excellent background for the art. His expertise in picture taking came to the attention of the New York bureau chief of Associated Press Wire Photos, who hired Tom to cover all aspects of news assignments. One of his biggest spotnews assignments was covering the Lindbergh kidnapping case in Hopewell, New Jersey. Following two and a half years with the A.P., Tom joined a society magazine, Town & Country, as its roving photographer, traveling from coast to coast.

Coming to California in 1935, Kelley was retained to photograph the stars created by David 0. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. His very first assignment was an unknown who was not to remain so for long, lovely Ingrid Bergman. Following a long and profitable career helping to publicize motion picture personalities, he drifted the commercial advertising/photography field where he has remained as one of the leading exponents in the business.

Reflecting on the Marilyn Monroe nudes, Kelley remembers that he posed the out-of-work actress on a bolt of bright red velvet cloth. She was paid $50.00 for her modeling, telling Kelley that she would use the money to make an installment on her car. In retrospect, Kelley is proud of the fact that no matter how one turned the photograph, its composition was impeccably symmetrical. The Photograph, turned calendar, brought him $900.00 from a printer who sold it in quantity for millions. It also brought Kelley untold fame.Strangely, in a sense, Kelley nudes of Marilyn were to prove to be the catalyst in the sexual revolution occurring some five years after he made the photographs. Up until that time, the nude female form was relegated to a few sleezy pre-Playboy-type girlie books if not out- and-out hardcore pornography. To be sure, one distinguished publication did print nudes; however, the National Geographic's genre of undraped, unsightly epidermis and/or dangling mammary glands could hardly be classified with a contemporary Playboy centerfold. But Kelley and Marilyn made the naked body a thing beautiful to behold. No longer was a nude picture of a beautiful woman an object to be viewed from the rear of the barn or the secrecy of one's bedroom. Marilyn readily admitted that it was she who had posed for Kelley's camera when confronted by United Press Hollywood correspondent Aleene Mosby. And for years thereafter, she would autograph copies of the calendar for servicemen with consummate pride.

Kelley remembers Marilyn as a hard worker devoid of the nonsense that was to plague photographers who in later years had to wait hour and hour for her to prepare her makeup. Says Kelley, "I found Marilyn an extremely warm person with a strong desire to do good work and make a career for herself in the entertainment industry. I considered her a friend. Tom recalls that the first money he earned from photography was an exclusive shot he got of the infamous truck murderess Winnie Ruth Judd which brought him $1,000 -- an enormous amount of money in the early 30's. A few of his most famous subjects have been Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, James Cagney, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt and, of course, Marilyn Monroe, with and without clothes. His easiest photo subject? Clark Gable. His toughest? Joan Bennett.

If he could do it all over again, he confides that he would do it just the same, allowing possibly more time for the study of nature, the study of humanity and the study of the histories of the generations.

His closest personal friend was the celebrated motion picture director John Huston.

He is a distant relative of Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, but can't imagine where she lost the other "E" in her name (typical male chauvinism makes no allowance for pondering the question of where he may have acquired an extra "E".)

 

Tom Kelley | Gallery | History | Links | E-mail

copyrightę 1997 Tom Kelley Studios, Inc. all rights reserved