Celebrity photographer Ron Galella’s quest for the million-dollar picture was so relentless, and crossed so many lines that he became known as “the Godfather of Paparazzi Culture.” Along the way, Marlon Brando busted his jaw for him, Sean Penn also took a swing, and his obsession with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis dates back as many decades as her legal battles to keep him away from her. But, to hear Galella tell it, his relationship with the boldfaced names was always a two-way street—especially in the case of Jackie O.
In the season finale of The Originals podcast, the 90-year-old shutterbug tells host Andrew Goldman why he feels the American icon was an equal partner in his endless pursuit, who even sent him signals only he could read—while someone who was there for many of the charges and restraining orders brought against Galella on Jackie’s behalf vehemently begs to differ.
Despite Onassis’s exhaustive efforts to remove Galella from her life, he insists that “she liked being pursued” and offers as evidence his story that someone who had been inside her Fifth Avenue apartment told him that she kept a copy of his 1974 book Jacqueline, which Galella had left with a doorman, inscribed, “Thank you for making me a celebrity.”
“What a crock of shit,” James Kalafatis, one of the last surviving Secret Service agents on Onassis’s Manhattan detail, counters in an email to Goldman. “I would say this was a manifestation of his paranoid delusion in which he felt she was his girlfriend. I will only say that in the many conversations I had with Mrs. Onassis (and Mr. Onassis) she detested him and found him repugnant.”
Hearing Kalafatis’s recollection of events, Galella says that he knows Jackie O. was fond of him because the expression on her face told him so.
“No, not true,” he says. “I don’t think so. Her actions didn’t show that. Smiling into my camera is positive. And that’s what she did most of the time.”
To Kalafatis, this only demonstrates the photographer’s distorted view of reality. “This ridiculous claim was made by Galella and addressed at the trial,” he explains. “Mrs. Onassis responded that she always had a pleasant expression when Galella was there, because she knew he was trying to provoke her knowing very well that he wanted to get that shot of her looking terrified, angry, or covering her face. The truth of the matter is that when the opportunity arose, he would often jostle her in an effort to provoke her[…] At the trial he said he intentionally hid and jumped out at Mrs. Onassis because he wanted to ‘get emotion and expression’ in his pictures. He was very proud of shots he took of Mrs. Onassis running away.”
When pressed, even Galella—who has managed to become esteemed enough that Tom Ford produced his 2003 art book, The Photographs of Ron Galella (with a foreword by Diane Keaton), and Michael Kors named his 2004 line, “Galella Glamour”—admits that at times he just might have terrified Onassis.
Asked if Jackie could have associated him with guns and death, Galella can almost see things her way. Almost.
“Well, I cannot answer that fully,” he says. “Psychologically, she could say I’m like an assassin, like Oswald. She could, but I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know her mind […] It’s a psychological thing. That’s a mystery. We don’t know. We don’t know what she’s thinking or seeing. I don’t think so, because the photographs show she’s smiling, pleasant, positive.”
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