It all started as a gag. In the early 1950s, a Hollywood publicist named Dave Golding hired photographer Phil Stern to take still photos on the movie set of “Guys and Dolls.” Knowing that Stern read the Forverts, Golding asked him to take a picture of Marlon Brando, one of the film’s stars, for his father, Max Golding, a big movie fan who worked as the foreman of the Yiddish newspaper’s composing room. Stern took it one step further and asked the actor to pose “reading” the Forverts.
Thus began a project that would continue over the course of much of Stern’s long career in Tinseltown. The photographer captured images of many different stars holding the Forverts. Only one of Stern’s subjects was Jewish, and none could read Yiddish. But since they were all actors, they could make it look as though they could.
Unlike Stern’s many other Hollywood portraits, these black-and-white photographs have rarely been exhibited. Initially they were just sent to Max Golding, who tacked them up on the wall of the Forverts’s composing room. In 1983 the Forverts published the photos. That same year, they appeared in a show organized by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and held at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, in Philadelphia. Now, at the Katz Snyder Gallery at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, they are being exhibited for the first time in almost 30 years.
“In my mind, it would be an excellent little body of work… to have the most unlikely group of people reading the Jewish Forward,” said Stern, now 93.
In an interview with the photographer, conducted with the help of his granddaughter Ashley Stern, curator of the Phil Stern Gallery, he recalled how he would always keep a copy of the newspaper in his camera bag. “I would take it out whenever I had a likely prospect, whether it was Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy or whoever,” he said. “They all seemed sympathetic to the idea.”
Born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family in Philadelphia in 1919 and raised in the Bronx, Stern found his professional calling when he was given a promotional Kodak Brownie camera at age 12. As a young man he apprenticed at a New York City photo studio lab, and soon magazines were hiring him to cover news features. He moved on to Hollywood, where he worked as a freelancer for such magazines such as Life, Look and Collier’s.
During World War II, Stern was a combat photographer. After recovering from wounds sustained at the Battle of El Guettar (for which he received a Purple Heart), he became a staff photographer for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
Following the war, documenting Hollywood became Stern’s passion. In addition to working on assignments for various publications, he was hired as the still cameraman on the sets of numerous feature films.
Stern became an industry insider during Hollywood’s Golden Age, allowing him intimate access to a very long list of icons, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. His body of work, which spanned more than six decades, was collected into two books, “Phil Stern’s Hollywood” (1993) and “Phil Stern: A Life’s Work” (2003). Although his Forverts photos have been shown online, they have never been published in book form.
The fact that people still want to look at these photos decades after they were taken, and in an era when most American Jews no longer read Yiddish, does not surprise Stern. “There’s been a lot of interest in those pictures — because of the star value and the improbability of that kind of photograph,” he said.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Forward.