LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Ray’s most iconic pictures — and raunchy Steve McQueen confession
When Private Elvis Presley shipped out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard on his way to his military tour of duty in West Germany in September 1958, the US Army’s brass band played “Hound Dog” to honor the King of Rock and Roll.
“And the captains and the majors helped him with his bags!” said Bill Ray, the former LIFE Magazine photographer who captured the moment.
Ray, who died earlier this month at his home on the Upper West Side, shot some of the most iconic celebrity images of the 20th century.
There is his photograph of a sultry Marilyn Monroe in a shimmering, nude-colored dress, its plunging bare back accentuating her curves as she sang a breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in May 1962. Three months after Ray shot the picture on a ladder from behind the movie star, the troubled sex symbol would be dead of an overdose. Kennedy was assassinated a year after that, and the famous dress, designed by Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis, sold at auction a few years ago for nearly $5 million.
Ray, who worked for LIFE in New York, Paris and Beverly Hills, shot The Beatles when they first arrived in New York in 1964, partied with Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate before the pregnant actress was brutally murdered by Charles Manson in 1969. He was a regular presence on hundreds of Hollywood movie sets, photographing Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Natalie Wood, among others.
“Steve McQueen once told me that he had to have sex five times a day,” said Ray about the “Bullitt” star at a 2014 presentation of his greatest work at the Coffee House Club in midtown, where he had been a member for more than 50 years. “I was too stunned to ask Steve what happens if you don’t.”
William Ray was born in Shelby, Nebraska, a windswept village of 700 about two hours west of Omaha. Ray was the youngest of four children of a prosperous lumber merchant and his artist wife. He developed such a passion for photography that by the time he was 11, he was already a member of the Omaha Camera Club and had his own professional darkroom at home. He got his first staff job as a 17-year-old at the Lincoln Star Journal newspaper.
“The city editor had a smoke and hired me on the spot,” he said.
After a photographic workshop in Hannibal, Missouri, where he impressed the faculty with a series of photographs about the local barbershop, Ray was hired by LIFE magazine and sent to New York in 1957.
“I wanted to live in New York City since I saw Fred [Astaire] dance with Ginger [Rogers] in Central Park,” he said.
For years, Ray and Marlys Ray, his wife of nearly 62 years, lived in a sprawling apartment across from Central Park where he was a regular on the tennis courts and an avid bird watcher. On January 8, the couple took a long walk in the park, feeding a few cardinals along the way, “and, best of all, saw the rising nearly full moon with a kiss (one of our silly rituals),” said Marlos Ray, a partner in her husband’s photo business.
“It was his best day in a long time.”
Ray died hours later of a heart attack. He was 83.
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