Ramon Novarro, The New Orpheus

By the way, in 1980, a 9” x 12” version of this same photo, printed in 1930 from a copy negative that Hurrell had made from Ramon Novarro’s vintage 1929 print, came up for auction at Christie’s East, and its sale at $9,000 established the highest price achieved at auction for a portrait by a living photographer. That print is now at the Metropolitan Museum in NY.

At the time this photo was taken in 1929, Ramon Novarro was the biggest movie star at MGM, and also the most famous silent movie star in the world. Novarro, who was of Mexican heritage, was worried that he might not make the transition to sound film because of his slight accent. However, he had a wonderful operatic voice, and so – to hedge his bets- he decided that he could always reinvent himself as an opera star in Europe. But he needed some publicity photos to accomplish this. The danger was that if word leaked back to MGM that he was nervous about his career, his new salary negotiations could be jeopardized. So, he could not use any of the usual Hollywood photographers in town – or anywhere else for that matter.

His closest friend and confidant at the time, Pancho Barnes, had an idea. “Why not use my friend, George Hurrell, to take the photos!” Besides, Pancho loved the glamorous photos that Hurrell had taken of her and her favorite horse, and secretly believed that Hurrell’s destiny was in photography. And so, at Pancho’s urging, Ramon Novarro had a series of photographs taken by George Hurrell.