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The Man in the Bushes

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When Betty leaves for a moment, Galella and I stand on his back porch, looking out at the elegant grounds, with its statues of the Four Seasons and the fountains he’s built by hand. We talk about the dead rabbits: He doesn’t think they’ll get any more, he says, because Betty “gets hurt when they die, she loves being a mother.” He points below us, to the elaborate playground they constructed for the rabbits, fully landscaped, with an air-conditioned area, a garden, and a sandbox. Upstairs in the house is the pink “rabbit room,” filled with Betty’s immense collection of rabbit memorabilia. HBO considered using it as Meadow’s room, and it does look like it’s for a little girl.

Galella tells me he’s glad they never had children of their own: It allowed the pair to devote their lives to the shared project of his art. As we reenter the house, I ask if there were any pictures he took that bothered him. He describes a photo of Jackie, taken at a restaurant.

“She was really angry, her Adam’s apple popping.” His face is dark, remembering. “I never released that picture. It was a negative thing that I don’t like to see. I like to see the positive—like Windblown Jackie. The cabdriver blew his horn, and she turned, and I got the picture!”

Two days later, I meet Galella in the city. He doesn’t like to come to Manhattan—it’s too long a trip, and he prefers to putter in New Jersey. But he’s been filming a documentary, revisiting his old haunts uptown, and now I’ve wangled us reservations at the Waverly Inn, that up-to-date variant on Studio 54.

The visit to the Waverly is a little strange. When we entered, Galella was wearing two enormous cameras dangling from his neck on thick black straps. No one asked him to check them, but I suspect we’re seated where we are, in the noisy Siberia of the front bar, because we looked so very wrong.

When I say hello to an old colleague, Galella yells a question to her over the din: “So, seen any celebrities?”

“Just Billy Joel’s wife,” she answers, glancing at us nervously.

While we wait for our salmon, we talk politics. Galella supports McCain, in part because of concerns about terrorism. I ask him where he was on 9/11. “I was in bed with Jackie,” he says, then laughs at his mistake: Heh heh heh! “I was in bed with Betty! Betty in a way is like Jackie, she has a soft voice. I’m louder. Although she got louder now, like me.”

When we leave the restaurant, Galella sets up shop on the corner of Bank and Jane and begins to snap away, gathering shots of the restaurant itself, with its clump of nobodies eating in the front garden. “There’s a market for these,” he says. No one stops him, no one even looks up.

Russell Simmons steps out, baseball cap askew. “Hey, Russell!” Galella shouts, and Simmons scurries by, looking annoyed.

We sit on a stoop to wait for the car. The day’s heat has broken, and gorgeous young people are strolling together in the cool air. We talk about tattoos, which he hates for the way they turn women into “walking billboards.” “That’s why I didn’t like what’s-her-name, the Cyrus girl, being so provocative. It makes other teen girls want to emulate her. It’s not good.”

I ask him if he thinks Annie Leibovitz’s taking those shots was wrong. “Hey, I would photograph her, don’t get me wrong,” he says, holding his hands up. “I would photograph her, and it would sell. Because I’m a voyeur, I shoot sexy stuff! You know, the sexiest is usually coming out of the limo—you get the legs.”

I ask him where he thinks voyeurism comes from.

“For me, it’s the mystery. What’s behind her clothes? What excites me is panty lines—and yet the women, they don’t want no panty lines. To me, it’s the sexiest thing: You say, Oh boy, look at that. I don’t think the little skimpy thing”—thongs—“I don’t think that’s too sexy, I don’t like that.”

I point out that his are old-fashioned fetishes. He’s living in an age where even the thong has become modest: Witness the parade of starlets flashing their panty-free undercarriages.

“The worst!” Galella moans. “I have a fixation for panties.”

Galella is a bit of a perv, I point out—“Not in a bad way, but you know what I mean.”

“I’m being honest with you! Most men are. I have a fixation toward—well, more than most men, really. I often wondered why I got it. I think it goes back to when I reached puberty, and out the window, I saw panties hanging. And I got excited. And I masturbated. And that’s how I got my release. That’s my analysis.”

While we sat in the Waverly, Galella had handed me a copy of Jacqueline. In it, he had put yellow stickies and underlined certain passages in red, most defending the free-speech ethics of photojournalists. These passages feel strangely dated, each element of his argument so altered—from the definition of privacy to the nature of fame—that it’s hard to reinhabit his lost world. And yet Galella’s fight against the phonies still has a perverse vigor, a way of making you root (against your will, perhaps) for voyeurism’s ability to get what it wants in the end. His books may be his children, but he has many other offspring, too: a darker cultural legacy he’d like to deny, though it’s got his eyes.

“Even though some snob journalists don’t want to admit that I am one of them, how many of them have had their work in Life, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times?” he writes in Jacqueline. “It’s going to be a tough fight, but we’re going to win in the end.”

Selected photos on these pages from No Pictures, by Ron Galella, to be published November 1 by PowerHouse Books.


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