I first meet Ron Galella when I break into his home.
The notorious paparazzo and his wife, Betty, live in a neoclassical megamansion in rural New Jersey. There’s a white marble fountain out front; columns frame the front door. It’s no surprise that an HBO scout once showed up, interested in renting the place as Tony Soprano’s home. (They passed because there was no pool in the backyard, only a rabbit cemetery.)
At the base of the stairs is a slab of concrete imprinted, Hollywood Walk of Fame style, with Galella’s handprints and his looping signature. I walk up and ring the doorbell several times, but it seems to be broken, so I yell, “Hello?” and finally turn the knob and open the door one hesitant crack. The first thing I see are rows of bright blue eyes. Liz Taylor. Barbra Streisand. Robert Redford. There are ten or so black-and-white pictures, their irises tinted, propped carefully on large easels—a gallery of iconic celebrity leading my gaze toward Galella’s Pop Art showplace of a living room, a stark white two-story atrium rising above a massive, S-shaped tomato-red love seat. Then I turn to the left and am startled by the image of Jackie Onassis. I can only see her eyes, which look terrified. A suited shoulder blocks her lower face.
Suddenly, Galella appears, carrying a photo tripod that he uses as a crutch; he’s recently had knee surgery. “Hello, hello, come in!” he barks, friendly but gruff. Even at 77, Galella is a physically imposing man, with thick features, a boxer’s nose, and a staccato laugh. We walk past the Warhol-themed carpet; past the fireplace mantel featuring Galella’s ceramic sculpture of his hero, Cyrano de Bergerac; toward the dining-room table, which is covered, like so much of the house, in a shining mulch of books and prints. He pauses to hand me one of his favorite books: Disco Years, published in 2006.
“This book, the New York Times rated it best photo book of the year,” he says with pride. I flip through orgiastic images of Studio 54, catching glimpses of Ali MacGraw gyrating, her nipples visible through her tank top; a sleek Diane Von Furstenberg, legs scissored; Barbra Streisand slumped on a sofa with her 11-year-old son, Jason. Steve Rubell threw Galella out of Studio 54 not once but twice, he tells me. “We sued, and we won,” he says. “My pictures helped us win, because they showed him ordering the bodyguards. Heh heh heh!”
As we settle into the kitchen, with its massive white island, Galella’s wife, Betty, walks in, her arms wide in welcome. We’d spoken earlier, when I had to reschedule because of a child-care problem. “Oh, I totally understand,” she’d told me on the phone. “We have two children ourselves.” Really, I said, I didn’t realize she and Ron had any kids. “They’re both dead,” she replied. As I fumbled alarmed condolences, she merrily explained, in her warm southern lilt, that they were rabbits (Liz Smith and Walter Winchell, killed by raccoons only three weeks before).
As the three of us chat, I mention the photo I saw in the foyer, the one of Jackie O. pop-eyed in fright, her eyebrows to her hairline. The couple are completely appalled that I saw fear in her eyes. “What?” says Betty. “That is a beautiful shot!”
I make sure we’re talking about the same image: There’s a black man standing in front of Jackie, facing away—a bodyguard, maybe?
“That’s Muhammad Ali!” says Betty.
“He’s kissing her,” explains Galella.
Our culture has a wishful habit of turning every punk maniac who lives long enough into a wise old man, all the danger leached away by nostalgia: Norman Mailer, Iggy Pop, Roman Polanski. Ron Galella isn’t like that. He looks like an Italian grandpa, but his eyes are cagey. He’s prideful. He’s blunt. He’s a little bit frightening.
We sit in the kitchen, and he reminisces happily with me about the good old days, back when he turned his lens toward Hollywood. The son of Italian immigrants, Galella first got his hands on a camera when he was in the Air Force, during the Korean War; it was a Roloflex, and along with it he bought a book called How to Shoot Glamour. In art school under the G.I. Bill, he toyed with becoming a ceramicist (or a dance instructor: He went so far as to train with Arthur Murray). But Galella was eternally drawn toward the famous—he was curious, he says, to test the stars, to see if their glamour was real. The truth, he decided, was that anyone could become iconic; the camera itself was the true celebrity, a “magic medium” to which the famous owed their power. He even took acting classes at Pasadena Playhouse, not to become a star himself but to learn to act like one. “One of my instructors said I should go there to overcome shyness and fear, from dealing with these people. And it helped, it helped, it helped.”