She was his ideal subject, his obsession, the “perfect model of wife, mother, woman.” For years he hid in bushes and behind coat racks in pursuit of unposed and unstaged shots of her.
But 38 years ago, it all descended into a morass of lawsuits and countersuits as notorious paparazzo Ron Galella and Jackie Kennedy Onassis faced off in federal court. The New York Times reported that spectators lined up every morning for seats at the five-week trial that ended March 23, 1972. The Times declared it “the best off-Broadway show in town.” Saying that he was a photojournalist with a First Amendment right to photograph any public figure, Galella complained that she was interfering with his livelihood. Although Onassis denied it in court, Galella testified that she told her Secret Service detail to “smash his camera.”
She said he terrorized her and her children, relentlessly invading their privacy. But she always kept a “Galella smile” on her face.
“I try to keep smiling, to keep my head up, to be as normal as possible,” she explained, “Because I believe he wants to provoke me into an unusual position.”
After the judge ordered Galella to stay 50 yards away from Onassis and 75 yards from her children, he appealed, ending up with a 25-foot rule, one he admits he violated “a hundred times.” Another decade of legal wrangling would ensue before—facing jail and a $120,000 fine—he agreed never to photograph them again.
“I admit that I was obsessed with her because I loved photography and she was a great subject,” Galella says. The iconic “Windblown Jackie,” shot from a taxi in the fall of 1971, is his favorite.
“I call that shot my Mona Lisa shot, where it has all the qualities of the paparazzi approach, which is the off-guard, spontaneous picture,” Galella says.
Now the camera lens has been turned back on Galella, 79, in the documentary Smash His Camera, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
His reaction? “I love it, I love it, I love it,” he says. “I like being photographed.”
Leon Gast, the film’s director, recalls growing up in New York and thinking of Galella as a “villain.”
“Ron Galella, stalking our beloved first lady. That was my impression. That was everybody’s impression of Ron,” says Gast. “And like every story there are two sides of the story.”
The son of a cabinetmaker and dressmaker, Galella grew up in the Bronx, a child of the Depression who dreamed of being an artist. But being poor was good, he says. It gave him a passion to succeed.
“I was always looking to advance myself. Better, better, better,” he explains.
The new breed of paparazzi?
“A sad situation,” says Galella, who calls the current crop “gangbangers.”
“The most I ever shot Jackie was in 1970. I got pictures of her 20 times in a whole year. Nowadays, look at what I call the featherweights like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears. They’re photographed day and night, hundreds of times a year, but they love it.”
They’re not Elizabeth Taylor, Galella says. The only stars who come close are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. And he predicts a bright future for singer Taylor Swift, with her “beautiful face, like a young flower blooming.”
He went digital in the mid 1990s to stay competitive, but prefers film and the satisfaction of holding pictures he’s printed himself in his hands.
He still hits the red carpet for the occasional movie premier, but his paparazzi days are over. Now he focuses on marketing his work through his books and in galleries, where an 8-by-10 “Windblown Jackie,” his biggest seller, goes for $1,400.
Still in good health except for a bit of arthritis, he lives in Montville, N.J., in a “big, beautiful Sopranos” house filled with his pictures, including an entire room of Andy Warhol shots. He first fell in love with his wife of 30 years, Betty, when he heard her voice on the phone—“like Jackie, whispery, very nice.” He proposed five minutes after he met her.
Childless, Galella calls his nine books his children. The newest, Boxing with the Stars, is due this spring.
“I’m more happy now than I ever was,” Galella says.
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.