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John Bryson, 81; Photographer Earned the Confidence of Icons From Hepburn to Hammer

Times Staff Writer

John Bryson, a photojournalist for Life and other magazines who assembled books on actress Katharine Hepburn and industrialist Armand Hammer, died Wednesday. He was 81.

Bryson, who had lived in Malibu and East Hampton, N.Y., died in his sleep at a retirement home in Brookings, Ore., said his daughter, Mary Bryson Baechler.

A native of Brownwood, Texas, Bryson began his career as a photographer and picture editor at Life after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. After eight years at Life, he became a freelancer in 1955 for Life, Look and Holiday magazines and many other publications.

He was probably best known for earning the trust and affection of celebrities who allowed him to photograph them as they went about their daily lives. The pictures of Hepburn, who once described Bryson as “mean as a snake and dear as an angel,” became the 1992 book “The Private World of Katharine Hepburn.”

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For the book on Hammer, Bryson traveled with the oil magnate around the world, logging more than 175,000 miles on Hammer’s 727 jet as they flew to Moscow, Beijing and other far-off places. A Toronto Star reviewer said the resulting 1985 book, “The World of Armand Hammer,” revealed “the real sense of power in Hammer’s life.”

Bryson also took pictures of Ernest Hemingway kicking a beer can in the snow and Salvador Dali with a crown of sausages, and photographed Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, Jason Robards Jr., Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.

“I don’t think I’m a lapdog photographer, but I’ve orbited around them, and I’ve had a lot of har-dee-hars with them,” Bryson said of his celebrity subjects in a 1985 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

The 1959 book “Moscow Gatecrash: A Peer Behind the Curtain” includes this story: When Khrushchev admired Bryson’s camera at a party in Moscow, the photographer took the expensive Nikon off his neck and offered to trade it for a Soviet missile. Khrushchev laughed heartily.

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“And this was the height of the Cold War,” Bryson’s daughter said.

A big man with a substantial mustache and large horn-rimmed glasses, Bryson also acted in a few films. He told his friend Charles Champlin, the entertainment editor of The Times for many years, that director Sam Peckinpah had recruited him to appear as a villain in “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.

“I made a rude comment about his character and he made several about mine, and the next thing I knew I was in Texas with a script in my hand and cold sweat just pouring out of me,” Bryson told Champlin. Bryson added, “I even have a death scene, which is spectacular.” He proceeded to reenact the scene for Champlin.

He had other roles in Peckinpah’s “Convoy” and “The Osterman Weekend” and played himself in John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix.”

Besides his daughter, Bryson is survived by sons John Jr. and Arthur and many grandchildren. Flowers in his memory may be sent to Maclyn House Retirement Homes, 755 Elk Drive, Brookings, OR 97415-9069.


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