Photographer to the stars Marilyn Stafford: ‘Einstein asked how my camera worked’

Marilyn Stafford, 96, is an American-born British photographer who found fame as a freelance photojournalist from the mid-1960s to 1980, when she retired. Covering both fashion and documenting turbulent events, her photographs have appeared in international newspapers and magazines. The famous people she has ­photographed include Edith Piaf, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, David Frost, Richard Attenborough and Twiggy. Today, she lives in Sussex with her cat, Minou.

How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?

I took money for granted, coming from a middle-class family in Cleveland, Ohio – although I grew up during the Depression and men would come to the door selling Brillo pads, while Jewish refugees came with embroidered ­tablecloths, because there were no jobs or money.

I had a younger sister. My father was a pharmacist who’d owned two drugstores (he lost one during the Depression). My mother was a housewife who in later years bought antiques she’d sell from our basement.

What were your first jobs?

As a teenager, I worked at Woolworths. While girls at the time became sales assistants or secretaries, becoming the next Shirley Temple was the great American dream of mothers. Our live-in maid would sit me on shop counters and make me go through my singing act. But if you didn’t have that curly hair, you didn’t make it.

My mother would put me to bed with my black, straight hair divided into patches and rolled up in rags to make it curly. When I was 10 the Cleveland Play House called for schools to select a child as a potential apprentice. I was selected.

To pay my tuition at an out-of-state university, my father helped me get a job with the telephone company. All calls were put on to a ticket and I had to sort out all these piles into the numbers they came from. After the first day I went bonkers, so my father got me a job in a war factory. I couldn’t get into university because I needed ­geometry, which I couldn’t pass. So I went to night school, where all these lovely men pushed me through, then to university where I majored in drama and English.

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