The Search for Love and Lolita in Sag Harbor

"Head Back, Lolita '61 (Sag Harbor)" by Bert Stern featuring actress Sue Lyons.
“Lolita Motel (Barons Cove) ’61.” Bert Stern photo.

By Annette Hinkle

In the summer of 1961, photographer Bert Stern traveled from New York City to Sag Harbor with a 15-year old actress and her mother.

The trio stayed at the home of stylist Nancy Pearl and her husband, Arnold, and for the next seven days, Stern shot countless roles of film of the young actress in various Sag Harbor locations — on the porch of The American Hotel, in front of Barons Cove Inn, and through the mullioned-windowed door of the long-gone Bayview Hotel (now the site of People’s United bank).

Finally, he took the young actress to Pierson High School where he photographed her in a car after outfitting her with a series of all-American props he had picked up at the Sag Harbor Variety store, including lollipops, American flags, and a 39-cent pair of red heart shaped glasses.

The actress was Sue Lyon, and the character she was portraying in the images was, of course, Lolita, from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged college professor and his obsession (and subsequent love affair) with a young girl.

Lyon had recently completed filming “Lolita,” Stanley Kubrick’s movie based on the novel, when Kubrick asked Stern to photograph her for the publicity stills that would be used in promotion of the film. The two had met in the late 1940s when they both worked for Look magazine (Kubrick was a photographer, and Stern started in the mailroom before becoming an assistant art director), and both had since gone on to their own successful careers.

This weekend, Julie Keyes Gallery located in the Christy’s Art Building opens “Bert Stern’s Creation of Lolita in Sag Harbor,” a photography exhibition featuring nearly two dozen of Bert Stern’s images of Sue Lyon from that 1961 photo shoot.

“Lolita Criss-Cross,” Bert Stern, ed. 32, 36 x 36, c-print.

Shannah Laumeister Stern is Bert Stern’s widow, and during a recent visit to the historic Main Street home Stern purchased in 1992, which is now part of the Bert Stern Trust, she sat on the floor surrounded by boxes of his Lolita photography work — contact sheets, slides, prints and writings all related to the 1961 shoot.

It turns out that when Kubrick asked Stern to photograph Lyon, he did so at a most opportune time. Stern had recently read Nabokov’s novel, and the words were still fresh in his mind.

When asked why Stern had chosen Sag Harbor as the location for the shoot, Laumeister Stern responds, “He thought Sag Harbor was an American town and Lolita was a very American story, even though Nabokov was Russian. In the book they’re going from hotel to hotel across the country.”

Stern died in 2013, but he left behind meticulous notes about his thoughts and motives during the Lolita shoot. Though the final image used on the poster featured Lyon looking seductively over the top of her heart shaped sunglasses with a red lollipop in her mouth, there are countless other images from the shoot. Laumeister Stern explains that many of Stern’s images were very conscious explorations of Nabokov’s own words and imagery.

“What’s great about the story, Bert is friends with Stanley Kubrick who realized there were no pictures of Sue Lyon,” explains Laumeister Stern. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want. I need a picture.’ Bert had just read the book which has a lot of metaphors and visual images and he went and created those.”

By way of example, Laumeister-Stern points to page 21 of the novel where Nabokov writes, “In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?”

She then turns to Stern’s shot of Lyon taken through the mullioned door of the Bayview Hotel as a photographic realization of that passage. She adds that while the book says nothing about heart-shaped sunglasses, Lolita is described as wearing sunglasses — the heart shape, she notes, is Humbert Humbert’s projection.

Laumeister Stern also shares Stern’s own thoughts about the novel, which he details in his writings. It turns out he had some very strong ideas about the author’s motivations, as well as his own. His thought process explains why so many of his photographs of Lyon are taken through windows, or as reflections in other objects.

“I thought the best solution was … to capture that spontaneous feeling one gets, sometimes while driving a car,” Stern writes. “You glance sideways and much like a dream, soft and romantic, there’s this girl. Just a quick glance, and she’s gone … a sensuous light feeling, more felt than seen, much like a memory snapshot of your first kiss.”

“A Day In The Life,” Bert Stern, ed. 32, 32 x 20, photograph on paper.

The impact Lolita had upon Stern obviously stayed with him. In a curious case of life imitating art, Laumeister Stern’s own relationship with the photographer mirrors that of Nabokov’s Lolita and Humbert Humbert.

She explains that she first met Stern in the early 1980s. At the time, she was just 13 years old and an avid Central Park roller skater who frequented the slalom course near Tavern on the Green. Barbara Slate, the cartoonist and a friend of Stern, took notice and pointed her out, telling Stern that he needed to photograph the girl. Stern, who was 53 at the time, saw her on her skates and invited her to come to his studio for a photo shoot. The results were less than stellar, given Laumeister Stern’s mouthful of braces and her self-conscious manner.

But the two stayed in touch periodically, and when she was 17, Laumeister Stern says she asked the photographer to shoot her again, this time like Marilyn Monroe (in 1962, Stern had photographed “The Last Sitting,” the famous images of Monroe taken just weeks before her death).

“He took me to Central Park, laid me on a rock and took a picture of me,” she said. “That picture got me cast in a movie.”

Their relationship continued through the years, and eventually, it turned romantic and Stern brought her to Sag Harbor where he recreated many of the Lolita pictures using her as his model. Then in 2009, when Laumeister Stern was 40, the couple married. Her 2011 documentary “Bert Stern: Original Mad Man” is a love-letter to the photographer.

Meanwhile, throughout his life, Stern was not shy about sharing his obsession for Laumeister Stern, and in his writings makes his feelings known.

“Head Back, Lolita ’61 (Sag Harbor)” by Bert Stern featuring actress Sue Lyons.

“Photographers are in essence voyeurs, I suppose novelists are too in their own way, but we express it through the second eye of a lens, instead of a pen,” Stern writes. “We are obsessed with possession. We want to OWN the thing, or the person we photograph. It’s not as aggressive as rape and there is a style to it that no lowlife punk can appreciate but still, we are in the inner sanctum of our devious, perverted, refracted minds, Humbert Humberts.”

“For me, there will always be two Lolitas. The first Lolita — ‘The Lolita’ from the movie, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s best selling novel Lolita,” he continues. “The second is inequivocally ‘My Lolita’ (I told you I was possessive!) who literally skated into my life one bright summer’s day, in Central Park … a fey-like blond child-girl ‘pubescent nymphet’ as Nabokov would have called her … barely thirteen, echoing this purity, innocence and clumsy vulnerability …the kind that makes you wonder how old is too old.”

“After all there is a Bert in Humbert”

“Bert Stern’s Creation of Lolita in Sag Harbor” opens on Friday, July 21 at 6 p.m. at the Julie Keyes Gallery located in the Christy’s Art Center, 3 Madison Street. For more information, call (917) 509-1379.