Phil Stern

REPENTOn Saturday, I lost one of my best friends, my teacher, my mentor, my photoshop tutor, my jokester, my favorite noodle eating partner, author of terrible, nasty, foul-mouthed letters and diatribes … and my inspiration. We spent nearly a year together as I archived his collection, which was strewn all over in his unique filing system, ranging from a shed to kitchen shelves (I once climbed up to retrieve a box of “In Cold Blood” photos next to a box of Cheerios.) Phil’s achievements are beyond impressive and yes, he did have the ego that goes with guts. Guts that didn’t end with a Purple Heart: he exercised at the VA three days weekly; opened his own gallery at 91 and, after not shooting for years due to his eyesight (feeling it would compromise his work), he started earlier this year after getting a digital camera at the VA, spending hours learning Picasa and demanding I learn.

He taught me Photoshop and I taught him selfies, which he delighted in, whether at his desktop or on my phone in restaurants with various apps, which he wanted to know all about. He’d preface my morning arrival with emailed articles from The Daily Beast or a new outlet to pitch his work. We’d spend hours talking about everything from Sam Goldwyn’s croquet games, The Police Gazette, Burt Lancaster, Darby’s Rangers, and jazz, which he called “the purest American form of music,” although he played classical music nonstop as I dug through boxes and files.  (My favorite file folder was labeled “Noisy Neighbors,” –  all typewritten copies sent to unlucky recipients. Being a nice guy didn’t appeal to him – he preferred words like “legend,” and kept every article and fan mail, which ranging from aspiring photographers to teenaged James Dean fangirls.) Whether through a loupe, pointing out a photograph’s composition or at his beloved AstroBurger, he painstakingly shared ways of viewing the world around us. A proud atheist (we once watched Ricky Gervais for hours on youtube) we’d say “I bless you,” to each other on sneezing, with him something switching it up to “Dog bless you.” He was thrilled that we shared a dislike of Christmas (on finding an especially hideous Santa-praying-at-Jesus’-manger ornament, I emailed with the caption “How did HE get there?!” and his reply was classic Phil: “God brought him!”)  This was the Christmas card that he worked on every year, and we sat for days as he tinkered with numerous versions (the photo is one of his war shots).

He enjoyed tormenting John Wayne with postcards from Russia (their strong friendship, marked by mutual respect went both ways: only Phil could poke fun at The Duke, and Wayne gave him access that resulting in those unique, unexpected images.) From “Phil Stern: A Life’s Work”:  “We were like the odd couple,” Phil says. I was a lefty and he was a right-wing. Whenever we got loaded we’d have terrible political arguments.” It was this photo of Wayne that I’d been obsessed with after seeing it in Spy Magazine, which had regularly featured his photos (some are now available online.) On learning that Phil was my neighbor, I ignored locals’ warnings and ran to his door. “Come in!” he shouted, and that was the beginning of our friendship. When I wasn’t at his house, he’d email me timely articles and jokes, or call asking when I was arriving (I could see his house from my porch.)  He adored my ninety-pound pit bull, Chester, who’d lay under my chair as I worked, until Phil finally got tired of him peeing on the dying, neglected courtyard plants  (although I suspect it was my attention being diverted, not the destruction of untended weeds.)

He delighted when our local tagger (who he nicknamed “José Picasso”)  sprayed his large front wall, wanting to plexiglass-mount the graffiti.  Shortly after, a neighborhood do-gooder decided to repaint it and was puzzled as I ran out, ordering her to stop. “No! It’s a blight on our neighborhood!” she argued as I warned her,  “If the owner of this house saw you, he’d kill you – leave now!” (He smilingly nicknamed me “baby killer” after I squished a tiny black widow that jumped out of a box of photos.)

Phil valued his independence – practical, gruff, unsentimental, never using words like “happy,” or “love.” Compliments were not in his vocabulary, but the odd phrase would slip out. Death was something he had been on close terms with, and we spoke of it freely – his wish was to die on a cross-Russian train. Deciding to move into the VA earlier this year, I knew he was preparing. Not completely, though – the hall outside of his room had large cardboard cutouts of himself and his subjects, just in case you didn’t didn’t pay homage or heaven help you – were ignorant of his achievements.

There, I’d join him for Sunday dinner with his tablemates, introducing me as his “mistress” or “common law wife,” growing jealous and refusing to eat after a diabetic nonagenarian gave me his dessert. “Don’t talk to him!” he’d order me. A few months ago, he told me to stop visiting and I knew why. I left Los Angeles with a heavy heart. I will miss you forever, Phil.


There are many good obits, notably at the NYT,  LA Times and The Guardian. Card photo courtesy Phil Stern Archives.

Donna Lethal

About Donna Lethal

Donna Lethal is the author of "Milk of Amnesia" and writes for her own blog (Lethal Dose), Hair Hall of Fame, Dowager Quarterly, Find A Death, & the Valhalla Cemetery chapter in "Weird Hollywood." A native of Lowell, Mass., she's lived in Boston, NY and London before settling here. When not writing, she's hiking, soaking in a Korean salt room or in the high desert with her pit bull.
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