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Joseph Jasgur dies at 89; photographer took pictures of Marilyn Monroe as a teenager

March 26, 2009|Rene Stutzman

Joseph Jasgur, the photographer who shot pictures of Marilyn Monroe when she was just a 19-year-old brunet hoping to break into modeling, has died in an Orlando, Fla.-area nursing home.

Jasgur had been ill for months. He died of natural causes Saturday, two days before his 90th birthday.

He spent the last years of his life trying to win back the legal rights to those photos, as well as hundreds of others that he shot in golden-era Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s.

Back then, he cruised night spots, such as the Trocadero on Sunset Strip and the legendary Brown Derby, looking for and photographing celebrities: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Betty Grable, Ronald Reagan and Jane Russell.

He also staked out crime scenes, turning up at the scene of homicides in his tricked-out Lincoln Zephyr, which had running water, a cot in the back and a radio-telephone, a rarity in the 1940s, said Marty Stanonik, his legal guardian.

But it was the Monroe photos that earned him the most acclaim.

Jasgur was just 26 when Monroe, then known as Norma Jean Dougherty, walked into his Los Angeles photo studio in 1946.

She had no money but wanted to become a model. Jasgur led her into the alley and snapped several shots.

"She was a plain, ordinary girl with two sets of clothes -- one she had on, one in the laundry," Jasgur said in an interview three years ago.

During the next three weeks, Jasgur shot dozens more: Norma Jean in the Hollywood Hills, Norma Jean at the beach.

The glamour shots worked. They were part of the portfolio that Monroe showed to 20th Century Fox, Stanonik said.

She became rich and famous. Jasgur did not.

After she became a star, "She shunned him," said Stanonik, of Beach Park, Ill.

Still, Jasgur owned those photos, and he spent much of his later years trying to capitalize on them.

The beach photos, in particular, would years later create a sensation: They appeared to show a sixth toe on Monroe's left foot, something many Hollywood historians have dismissed as an optical illusion.

In 1991, the photos appeared in a coffee-table book, "The Birth of Marilyn: The Lost Photos of Norma Jean."

In the late 1990s, Jasgur moved to Florida, and, in 2000, he signed away control of the photos to an Orlando drywall contractor.

That deal quickly soured. Jasgur accused the buyer of cheating him. The buyer said the same thing about Jasgur. The dispute wound up in Bankruptcy Court, and there it remains after more than eight years.

In the end, Jasgur died penniless and bedridden at the Palm Garden of Orlando nursing home, his mind clouded by dementia.

"He was a good man, basically a good man and a talented professional," said longtime friend Tom Endre. "He was not a very good businessman."

Liz Green, an Orlando bankruptcy attorney, is one of the lawyers who tried to get the photos back.

"He really did love what he did," she said. "He would just light up when he talked about it."

Jasgur is survived by a daughter, Cindy Ferrier of East Windsor, N.J.

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rstutzman @orlandosentinel.com

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