In the final weeks of Ritts' Los Angeles retrospective, his former assistant recalls life in the fabulous lane.
The first time Jennifer Dynof met her boss, photographer Herb Ritts, he couldn’t keep eye contact. “Herb was extremely shy,” she says. Despite his exceptional ability to connect with his photo subjects, he was noticeably uncomfortable with new people when away from the camera. Dynof came to Ritts in 1996 as a 21-year-old intern from American University in DC. She was unsure of him, but within a few days the two found a catalyst for their relationship: Courtney Love.
“Herb had shot a Courtney cover for Vanity Fair,” explains Dynof. “He told me that he wrestled with the decision to submit the images because she had snuck into the bathroom and used drugs during the shoot.” Standing together over the spread, Ritts pointed out the image in question. Love is disheveled and sucking her thumb. Makeup is running across her face, and she is being propped upright by an assistant. “At that moment, she was very deep in whatever she had taken and Herb just decided to go with it,” says Dynof. “He asked my opinion and I agreed with his decision to submit.” After that, their relationship took on a natural rhythm.
Jennifer has a certain resemblance to Ms. Love – straight blonde hair, fair skin, bright blue eyes and pouty lips. She’s the more attractive version of the singer and even shares her sultry speaking voice. We’re talking on the patio at Toast, a West Hollywood see-and-be-seen restaurant, and the conversation is easy. Jennifer is warm, stylish and engaging, qualities Herb Ritts undoubtedly recognized in his then-intern.
When asked what happened at the end of her three months at Ritts’ Hollywood studio, Jennifer laughs: “The studio manager asked Herb if he wanted to get a ‘going away’ gift for me and Herb says, ‘Where is she going?’” The two had spent so much time together over those three months that Ritts hadn’t realized she was only an intern. After appealing to her personally, he hired her.
Over the next six years, Dynof had an unorthodox work life. Raised in Millington, N.J., she was hardly prepared for this new career.
“When I turned 23, Herb had Tina Turner sing me happy birthday.” On a separate occasion, Madonna (‘M’ as Ritts called her) sent Jennifer flowers and offered her a job. While holding a six-pack, Matthew McConaughey asked her for a ride from a photo-shoot. And she danced tango with Robert Duvall in the studio’s hallway. And that was just a regular Tuesday. “In addition to assisting the talent, I was in charge of billing and budgets,” Dynof says. “But I handled everything for Herb personally.”
Tasks ranged from producing star-studded parties – his best friends were Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, Madonna, and k.d. lang to name a few – to picking up dry-cleaning to handling his love life. “I personally broke up with a few of his boyfriends,” laughs the 37-year-old. “One man was traveling with us across country. I said ‘I don’t know a gentle way to put this, but I need to send you home.’ And then I’d have to get the photos back.” Herb had a habit of gifting boyfriends his original photographs, which Jennifer was asked to retrieve when the romance ended. “I did everything for him,” she says. “He was gay, but we would joke that I was his wife.”
Herb was extremely generous with those he loved, which quickly came to include Dynof. He outfitted her in a Ralph Lauren suit for her 22nd birthday. He replaced her CD collection when it was stolen from her apartment. His mother, the other woman in his life, was given a $75,000 gift certificate to Barney’s for her 75th birthday. Ritts even facilitated a meeting with Dynof’s one celebrity crush. He was photographing Brad Pitt for Vanity Fair in Malibu when the actor was still married to Jennifer Aniston. Ritts asked his assistant to come out under the pretense of signing documents. “It was a lie. I knew he just wanted me to meet Brad.” And when she arrived, he escorted her to the actor and said, “Brad, I want you meet MY Jennifer.” “At that moment, I could have cared less about Brad Pitt,” says Dynof. “It’s my fondest memory of Herb and really summarizes what our relationship was like.”
Many nights, Dynof would sit alongside her boss at 3 a.m. editing film and discussing life at his Hollywood home. “It wasn’t a 9-to-5 job, but we were creating things we were really proud of and we all loved Herb,” says Dynof. “Herb wasn’t a screamer. He didn’t change his mind, and he had a really clear vision of what he wanted.” Granted, things he wanted were a bit unusual – an octopus to put atop then-model Djimon’s head which was found at a local aquarium, a metal spiked scalp wig that was made by a welder, licorice buttons (“not licorice sticks!”) for Lauren Bacall. Whatever it was, Dynof and the staff made it happen.
The photo studio was indistinguishable from the other commercial buildings on busy Santa Monica Boulevard. Tucked into a brick building on the rougher side of Highland Avenue in Hollywood, it was made up of less than nine people. The group was a tight-knit family and being the only woman on the studio side, she endured a constant barrage of practical jokes. No subject was safe among those in the studio save that of Herb Ritts’ health. “I believed he was HIV positive, but I was never told,” says Dynof. “And it didn’t matter because we never saw Herb sick, not even for one day, until he caught walking pneumonia in 2002.” After a taxing shoot with Ben Affleck riding his motorcycle around Ritts in the arid Mojave Desert, the photographer’s pneumonia worsened and he was hospitalized. “I got a phone call at 8:30 a.m. the day after Christmas saying Herb had passed. I rushed straight to work but didn’t really believe it.”
Jennifer’s future was now uncertain. She received job offers right away and eventually accepted a position with a businessman who launched a photo agency. “I hated it,” she says. “Unlike with Herb, I didn’t know what he wanted and it just didn’t work out.”
Disenchanted and unemployed, Jennifer attended Shirley Ritts’ 12-person dinner party to commemorate the year mark of Herb’s death. Hearing she was available, Cindy Crawford, a fellow guest, became Jennifer’s advocate, making calls and asking contacts if they had something available. “That’s how I ended up with Rob Lowe,” says Dynof. But even after eight years as president of Lowe Productions (Rob Lowe’s company), she has not experienced a relationship like she had with her Herb. “I adore Rob and we have a great relationship, but Herb had a huge piece of my heart.”
On Dec. 28, 2002, two days after Ritts’ death, Jennifer performed a final odd job for her boss – picking up his ashes and selecting an urn. The style options were sub-par and “we all know that Herb loved beautiful things,” she says. Unhappy with her choice, Dynof strapped it into the passenger seat and headed to the private 30-person funeral at Ritts’ Malibu beach house. Jennifer spent seven years of her life devoted to this man, years she cherished and reflected upon as she drove away. An overwhelm of emotion struck, she looked down at the urn and spoke aloud: “Don’t worry, Herb,” she whispered, “I won’t let them see you in that ugly thing.”
The Getty Exhibit of Herb Ritts: L.A. Style continues until September 2.
I personally broke up with a few of his boyfriends. One man was traveling with us. I said ‘I don’t know a gentle way to put this, but I need to send you home.’Jennifer Dynof
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
Become a member at DAME today to help us support our independent, fearless reporting so we can continue to shine a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps us continue to cover the policies, social issues, and cultural trends that matter, bringing the diversity of thought so needed in these times.