Bruno Bernard, best known as Bernard of Hollywood, lived a life right out of a Hollywood film. Born in 1912, Bernard grew up in poverty in Germany. When he was 11 years old, his parents were able to scrape together enough to give him a present: a Rolleiflex camera, a gift that would change his life and change the culture and art of photography forever. As a young man in the 1930s, he became general secretary of a Jewish youth organization that drew the attention of the Gestapo, so he fled for America and settled in California. After a period of studying film directing, Bernard transitioned to still photography.
Mostly self-taught, Bernard invented a new style of portraiture which he dubbed the “posed candid.” His glamour photography rose quickly in popularity and helped launch the pinup craze. The Hollywood studios started sending their biggest stars to Bernard, and along with shooting some of the most stunning photographs of the world’s most renowned beauties (including a number of centerfolds for Playboy), Bernard shot icons such as Elvis Presley, Clark Gable and John Wayne. He was also instrumental in discovering Marilyn Monroe.
Bernard’s daughter, Susan Bernard, is a model, actress and writer. She was Playboy’s Miss December 1966 and starred in the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! She’s also keeping her father’s legacy alive by releasing a number of books about his work. Her newest book, Marilyn: Intimate Exposures, focuses on Bernard’s work with Marilyn Monroe.
Playboy.com talks to Susan Bernard about her father and the legacy of his work, Marilyn Monroe and her own career as a Playmate and actress.
Playboy.com: How did your father meet Marilyn Monroe?
Susan Bernard: He was coming out of the dentist’s office and he spotted this girl and he was dumbstruck! He thought, “Oh my gosh, wow!” He thought he was going to go straight home; his mouth was all swollen, and he had his hand over it… And he was running after her, thinking what a great model this woman would make. He was always on the search for fresh young faces to model for him. He went up to her and gave her his card and said, “This is purely professional—I'm Bernard of Hollywood, and I'd like to take some test shots of you.”
She was just astonished. She said, "Really...really?" in her little regular Norma Jean voice. The next morning an old jalopy pulled up to the Bernard of Hollywood studio on Sunset Boulevard and Marilyn got out...and the rest is history. The photos from that session ended up in the hands of a 20th Century Fox talent scout and led to her first motion picture contract.
Playboy.com: We could go out to the street and ask anyone walking by “Who is Marilyn Monroe?” and everyone could tell us, be they young or old. Why do you think she’s still such a phenomenon even when her contemporaries—like Jane Russell or Jayne Mansfield—are not that well known? Why has her star stayed so bright when other starlets of the golden age have been forgotten?
Bernard: There have been more books written about Marilyn than any head of state, and look at all the films made of her life! The fashion industry has emulated and continued her style, her look, as have many celebrities. You'll be watching some awards show and while they’re going down the red carpet the commentators will be saying something like, "She has a very Marilyn Monroe look tonight." Like Lindsay Lohan, who wrote the intro to my book Marilyn: Intimate Exposures, she did a shoot emulating Marilyn.
You just have to say her first name and people know who you're talking about. There are very few stars of today or of the golden era where you just say their first name and people know who it is. And I think she has a lot of appeal because of her life, of who she was, with all the complexity and all of her contradictions.
She continues to fascinate people. People still want to know what she wore, what she liked, who her lovers were, who her husbands were. Everybody has a different story, they all have a different truth about Marilyn. When my father died I took on his legacy; what I didn't realize is I took on Marilyn’s, too, and Marilyn's legacy belongs to everybody.
Playboy.com: Your father was also involved with fighting for free speech in the 1950s; didn’t he come to the defense of the famous burlesque star Lili St. Cyr?
Bernard: Lili was a real beauty, an exotic dancer and truly a classic: Marilyn Monroe was really inspired by her, she copied Lili's style of dance, her speaking voice, her singing style and her presence. My father also shot many wonderful photos of Lili St. Cyr. Lili had an act on stage where she began in the bathtub and then got out and started dressing, a reverse striptease. It was very tasteful and stylish, but for some people it was too much. She was arrested and put in jail because some thought it was obscene.
At that time you had to prove that anything erotic had artistic merit. My dad and others knew her act had artistic merit and they helped fight for her release. At that time there were a lot of hypocrites, there was McCarthy and everyone going after each other. In the ’50s it could be very oppressive here, oppressive for artists—it wasn't as bad as the Nazis, they didn't put people in prison camps or kill them, but sometimes they did kill their souls. I think we've moved away from that and we’re more open now.
Playboy.com: Tell us how you ended up as Miss December 1966.
Bernard: I was on a business trip with my dad. I was young, I had never really traveled, and then next thing you know there I am at the PlayboyMansion. I knew about Playboy, people talked about it, the boys at school kept it under their desks. It was cool and very sexually revolutionary. It was the ’60s, Vietnam was tearing the country apart; it was a very amazing time in our history. I went to Playboy with my father and Hef was there and my father introduced me while I was just amazed at the whole environment. It's not that there were people running around naked, but there was a lot of glamour. There was Hugh Hefner surrounded by all of that, in his robe, when suddenly he said, "Bernard, have you ever considered that your daughter could be a Playmate?"
One thing led to another and I had to talk to my mother about it. It sounded wonderful but I didn't know, I was dumbfounded! When we got home I went to our local bookstore and I got a stack of old Playboys. I looked through all of the magazines and saw those girls and what they looked like and it was all so beautiful. "Gee," I remember thinking, "I can look like her?" I was amazed! So a lot of thought went into it and I went for it. There I was, the first Jewish centerfold. I was a virgin at that time, and this shoot was great for me. It was my way of being liberated. It was a great experience...it still is, every year I get the invite to go to the Playboy Halloween party and the New Year's party and every time I bring someone to the Mansion they're always amazed to walk into that world.
Playboy.com: What was it like to star in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and to work with Russ Meyer?
Bernard: I had been acting in a lot of theater, it was really my first film. It happened because I saw an ad in Variety that said "Seeking an all-American girl who looks good in a bikini" and I answered it and showed up for the audition. Russ knew who my father was and later put it together, but I wanted to go for it for myself and I got the part. To tell you the truth, I was frightened. When we were shooting it was 110 degrees. I never changed out of the same costume, which was just my bathing suit. Russ was very understanding but it was a new and strange environment for me.
The other women in the film were older and more experienced. I was afraid of Tura Satana, the one in the movie who is karate chopping everyone with her hands and slapping everybody around, I was afraid she was going to come into my hotel room and kill me! I was petrified of her! But I think that worked for Russ, I think maybe he encouraged it a little bit so that’s what came out on the screen, and it worked. At the time I didn't think it was going to be as big as it would become, it's really a classic.
When you look at that movie now, with its roles for women, it was way before its time. Lots of people come up to me now and say how empowering it was for women.
Playboy.com: I know it’s a big influence on a lot of contemporary filmmakers. I've heard Quentin Tarantino is a fan and has expressed interest in remaking Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Bernard: Many of the films today are influenced by it. I thought it would be forgotten after I did it, but years later, even after my other acting and writing, it's what's made an impact. I remember back when my son was in high school he told me, “Everyone went nuts when they found out you were in Faster, Pussycat!” It became a real cult movie!
When it was rediscovered and really got that cult following there was a special showing in Hollywood I was invited to. I wasn't sure if I was going to go, but when I got there everyone was screaming, and people had tattoos of my character on their arms. It was packed and standing room only. Russ Meyer was a very wonderful man and later on through the years I would invite him to our Christmas parties and everyone there would just want to talk to Russ. When my son was growing up here, he was growing up with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire and they all wanted to meet Russ Meyer.
Check out our gallery above with some of Bruno Bernard's photos of Marilyn Monroe and Lili St. Cyr, plus highlights from Susan Bernard's Playboy shoot. For more about the amazing career of Bruno Bernard, visit BernardofHollywood.com and to see more photos of Marilyn Monroe and learn about Susan Bernard’s new book on Marilyn visit MarilynIntimateExposures.com or Facebook.com/MarilynIntimateExposures.