His first big sell was a simple picture of a little girl, a bit of photojournalism—he’d tried to capture actress June Lockhart’s daughter at her preschool, but couldn’t get permission, so he shot a different child instead, earning $62. “But once I found celebrity journalism, I plied my know-how,” Galella says with satisfaction. “For a take of Elizabeth Taylor or the Lennon Sisters, you could get $1,000 from these magazines. Photoplay. Modern Screen. Silver Screen. And the National Enquirer, of course.” In those days, Hollywood photography was dominated by the glamour shot, that lacquered residue of American PR machinery. Galella embraced instead the piratical spirit of the Europeans, adding a certain entrepreneurial zeal all his own, blending high-art skills with a dedication that bordered on monomania.
By the time Betty met Ron, in 1978, he had already established himself as the dread paparazzo of his era—not the only one, but certainly the most famous, the most dogged. Richard Burton sent goons to steal his film; Brigitte Bardot had her boyfriend hose him down. Most notoriously, Jackie Onassis won a lawsuit against him in 1973, a court order for him to stay 25 feet away from her and her children. For years, he drove each day from the Bronx, where he had built a development lab in his father’s basement, to premieres, galleries, Park Avenue. “In 1967, I got Jackie at the Wildenstein Gallery. I followed her to her apartment, and once you know where they live, that’s where you have to be. They’re like a mouse coming out of a hole.”
Jackie, he claims, was the biggest hypocrite of them all: A snob with a secret scrapbook of press photos of herself.
Galella was 48, Betty 31. He’d never married because he was devoted entirely to his career, he tells me. He was also wary, emotionally insecure: His own parents’ marriage was combative, with the two retreating to live on separate floors. Galella’s father was “basic,” he says, an immigrant from the small Italian town of Potenza, who barely made a living building pianos and coffins. Ron favored his Americanized mother, who named him after the movie star Ronald Coleman.
Betty worked for a Sunday supplement, and she’d given him assignments by phone for two years. Ron proposed five minutes after they met in person. “I was a journalism major at the University of Kentucky, and I always had an interest in art and history,” she tells me. “But when I married him, I immersed myself in Hollywood. And I thought it was really vacuous. Which it is. I mean, c’mon—Lindsay, SamRo? But I got to go through his files, travel with him, and the lightbulb went off: This crazy guinea bastard has amassed a history! It’s sociological! He’s catalogued some of the most important moments in American history. Well, in celebrity—I’m not talking Roosevelt.”
Betty herself came from a family of Kentucky blue bloods; she is a member of the DAR. And in those days, Galella was regarded as a bug, a parasite: The word paparazzo is derived from an Italian word for mosquito. But from Galella’s perspective, he was always misunderstood. His art was a corrective to the artifice of the star system. It was a kind of forced Turing test of celebrity, determining whether the star is human. Only by seeing someone shocked and spontaneous can you tell if their charisma is genuine.
“I’m very quick, that was the technique: fast-shoot, fast-shoot! I don’t even look through the viewfinder. And you nail the picture like that, you get the surprise expression. Beauty that radiates from within.”
Galella talks to me about his favorite, most iconic photo, Windblown Jackie, an image of Jackie striding down the street, her hair blowing into her eyes as she turns her face, smiling, toward him—she didn’t realize Galella was there when she turned toward his cab’s honking horn. “I call it the Mona Lisa smile. It’s the beginning. The beginning of things are more interesting. Psychologically, it holds the future. Whereas the smile at the end is the big teeth. It’s good but not as good. Even in life.”
Galella is eager to distinguish himself from the more aggressive breed of paparazzo—both the old-style European photographers willing to break into a star’s bedroom and the new generation, assaulting stars to film their fear, zooming in on cellulite and bad plastic surgery. That wasn’t his style, he says. He’d hover, chatting up doormen, improvising with a combination of brass and discretion. Still, he found plenty of violence. In 1973, he followed Marlon Brando and Dick Cavett down to Chinatown, only to have Brando punch out five of his teeth (Brando had to go to the hospital with an infected hand). The two settled out of court, and later Galella returned to shoot the actor wearing a special football helmet, with ron printed on the front.