The celebrated LIFE magazine photographer leaves behind iconic images of Marilyn, Elvis, JFK, and dozens of others who shaped the ‘50s and ‘60s. Our journalist knew him and has fond memories of him.
Bill Ray, one of the last great LIFE magazine photojournalists—widely celebrated for his pictures of the iconic personalities and era-defining events of the 1960s—died on January 9 at his home in New York City. He was 83.
I first met Ray a little more than a decade ago while I was serving as the editor-in-chief of LIFE.com, the online incarnation of what was once America’s premiere photo magazine. In the years that followed, whenever Ray would pop into the office, the staff would immediately gather round and he’d share his memories of a particular shoot . . . then a few of us would go to lunch and, over a glass or two of wine, he’d share saltier versions of the same event. He was treasured by the staff, a last link to the magazine that once took up five full floors in the Time-LIFE building and that brought the world to millions of Americans before TV news eventually nudged it to the side.
Ray was born in the tiny Nebraska town of Shelby (pop. 626) just months before LIFE launched as America’s photo magazine in 1936. He worked for a couple of Midwest newspapers—the first, just a day after graduating high school—but always dreamed of shooting for LIFE. He freelanced for the magazine for a few years, memorably shooting Private Elvis Presley as he departed the Brooklyn Army Terminal to be stationed at a base in Germany, and the Kennedys, both before and after JFK won the White House. In 1964, he joined the magazine’s staff.
Before the end of the decade, Ray would go on to photograph pop-culture giants like the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Sharon Tate; political leaders like Krushchev and Reagan; athletes like heavyweight champ Sonny Liston and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson (casually enjoying a smoke in the locker room before Super Bowl I); and countless other people, recognizable and unknown, all over the globe.
An extraordinarily versatile photographer, Ray covered the aftermath of the terrifying Watts Riots in Los Angeles, which, for five violent days in the summer of 1965, gripped the nation and lead to 34 deaths and more than 3,400 arrests. It was an uneasy time and place for a young white photographer, but Ray, who during the assignment gained the trust of a local gang leader and a handful of young men who took part in the uprising, brought back riveting color pictures that became a LIFE cover story (“Watts: Still Seething”). “I did not try to dress like [the young men I met], act like them or pretend to be tough. I showed great interest in them, and treated them with respect,” Ray told Time magazine’s Ben Cosgrove in 2014. “The main thing was to convince them that I had no connection with the police.”
In 2010, when I was the editor of LIFE.com, Ray visited our offices for the first time. He was well dressed and, despite his 74 years, had a bit of swagger. I remember that he casually asked if we had ever come across his Hells Angels photo story, which he’d shot for LIFE in 1965 but had never been published. A trip to the archives turned up hundreds of remarkable, intimate images from the weeks Ray had embedded with the San Bernadino, Calif., chapter of the notorious motorcycle club. Why hadn’t the photos seen the light of day? As Ray told us at the time, “When the editor saw my pictures, he said, ‘No one wants to see these dirty pigs on their kitchen table!’ And that was that.”
Ray shared story after story with us about his time with the Angels, the drinking and the pool-playing, the racing down the highway at 100 miles per hour, the hours in the emergency room while one Angel got his head stitched up. LIFE.com ran the pictures, alongside an interview with Ray, and the story went viral.
But Ray's most recognizable—and most frequently reproduced—photo is his unforgettable image of Marilyn Monroe purring “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at the President’s 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962. While all of the other photographers at the Garden that night crowded into the press pit, Ray—who was not yet on staff at LIFE—made his way to a catwalk, in the deep shadows high among the building's girders. “I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure,” Ray remembered in an interview six years ago. “It was a very long lens, and I had no tripod, so I had to rest the lens itself on the railing, and tried very, very hard not to breathe."
Just 26 years old at the time, Ray nailed the one picture that defined the night.
During Ray’s years at LIFE and in the years after—when the weekly magazine folded in 1972, he shot for Newsweek, where he racked-up an astonishing 46 covers—he traveled everywhere and met everyone. But of all the stories he shared with me about his incredible adventures, there was one he always came back to: The day he met a pretty girl on a park bench in Minneapolis. Her name was Marlys, and they remained deeply in love throughout their six decades of marriage.
Bill Ray was charming sharp-witted, opinionated, a little cocky, sometimes cantankerous, and unfailingly generous with a story and a laugh. Above all, he was deeply curious, and few who worked for LIFE over the years embodied Henry Luce's famed mission statement for the magazine—“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events. . . to see and be amazed”—with as much passion as the kid from Shelby, Nebraska.
By Bill Shapiro
—Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine and, later, of LIFE.com