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Did You Once See Stella Plain?

March 2023
1min read

T HE STRIKING pictures of the San Francisco earthquake that appeared in our February/March 1983 issue bear ample witness to the dedication and grit of J. B. Monaco, the local photographer who took them. But this was not the only time in his career that Monaco recorded a San Francisco phenomenon: were it not for his enterprise, the sensation of the 1915 PanamaPacific Exposition would have been forever lost.

Nobody knows quite why Stella made such a hit. As Alfred Heller tells the story in World’s Fair , an attractive quarterly devoted to international expositions (P.O. Box 339, Corte Madera, CA 94925), the painting of the full-blown nude by an artist named Nani had been shown around the country to apathetic audiences for some time before the fair and had come to rest in a St. Louis garret. Her owner, Norman Vaughan, decided to give her one more chance and sent her west to the fair—where she caused an uproar. More than threequarters of a million people paid a dime to see her, and she became the most popular attraction in “the Zone,” the fair’s midway.

She was handsome, to be sure, but as Morton Todd points out in his five-volume history of the exposition, “there were a dozen nudes in the Palace of Fine Arts by some of the greatest modern painters, that could have been seen for nothing.” Whatever the reason—and there is continuing speculation that a bellows hidden behind the canvas was used to animate her generous bosom—Stella clearly had what it took.

Among those who visited her was J. B. Monaco, and he set about getting a picture with the same determination that had spurred him to record the catastrophe that befell his city nine years earlier. With the help of a friend who worked at the fair, he approached Stella’s pavilion under cover of darkness and stealthily drilled a hole through the wall opposite to the one on which she hung. Then, putting his lens to the opening, Monaco made a highly illegal time exposure. He took it home and developed it: no good. So he tried again the next night. This time everything worked perfectly, and Monaco made off with the handsome image shown here.

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