Fashion: Late developer
He was an ambulance driver who couldn't drive, a bookkeeper at an army brothel, and a salesman who refused to part with his wares. As this extract from his autobiography shows, the top fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld took an unlikely path to success
Sunday 09 May 1999
Without my consent they named me after a friend of the family, a manufacturer of mourning hats. That pushy smoothy Erwin Muhlberg had, as I was forever being told, been top of every class at school. Because of that model pupil, I have been condemned for life to the embarrassing name of Erwin. The fact that, in honour of grandfather Blumenfeld, I was also baptised Moses was kept secret from me and the world.
My birth had taken place according to plan under a favourable horoscope (Aquarius, the Water Bearer) on the eve of the Kaiser's birthday. I can thank my lucky stars I wasn't called Wilhelm. Wilhelm II, by the grace of God Emperor in Germany and King of Prussia, ruled absolutely everything, including my youth. A moustachioed Majesty with the permanent expression of a child in a huff. In those days the whole world was in a permanent huff. A ham with a passion for dressing up, a partial cripple with the historic mission of brandishing his gilded field marshal's baton and leading the world towards the glorious days of Herr Hitler; mission accomplished!
They had great plans for me. Papa had set his mind on his son-and-heir becoming a journalist so that he could impress the world with an editorial every morning. That one day thousands of Blumenfeld photos would be published was beyond the scope of his imagination. It was my duty to live up to parental dreams, to be exceptionally intelligent, articulate, well-read, knowledgeable about literature, of excellent caste, highly musical, tactful, highly educated, not conceited, famous, not infamous, neither arrogant nor obsequious, a likeable noble spotlessly clean affable athletic model modest modern Jew, a worthy descendant of Heinrich Heine, no starry-eyed visionary, but a highly interesting slightly dreamy inwardly agonising philanthropist, an idealist not a nihilist, a deep thinker (Rodin), an optimist not a pessimist, no yes-man, a winner not a loser, a lover of the arts but not an artist (they live from hand to mouth, a painter is a pain), not messy, not grubby, no sleepyhead, no slowpoke, no namby-pamby nincompoop, neither superhuman nor subhuman, and above all nor common-or-garden variety run-of-the-mill, but my own man, a man of the world, sans peur et sans reproche, neat and tidy, never slovenly, a sharp-witted man of honour with his heart in the right place, an apostle of truth, ready to be willing to die a martyr's death for his deeply held convictions (without ever letting it come to that), a liberal free-thinker of the golden mean, a thorough sceptic through and through who knows what to say and what not to say without always having to have the last word, a personality, incorruptible, his salary as high as his principles, a man of outstanding integrity, a self-made man, every last penny earned, by marrying money if necessary, by the sweat of his brow like Papa, a financial genius, director of gigantic concerns, a pillar of society, of high society, the highest even, Grand Master of countless lodges, Nobel etc prizewinner with an honorary doctorate from every university, highly respected by contemporaries and future generations, for he who is accounted by the beasts of his day the best, his fame will live forever in the human breast! But above all it was my duty to be an eternally grateful son of my dearly beloved parents whose sole desire was respectfully to be permitted to gild their twilight years. In other words, a cretin.
In return, Papa promised me the 24-volume, gilt-edged, half-leather luxury edition of Brehm's Encyclopaedia of Natural History. A promise often given and never kept, no more than the one to have me do a PhD in economics and business administration at the Geneva Business School, for which I am eternally grateful, just as I am that he never made me become a lawyer or an archdeacon, or an inspector of mines and foundries.
I remember clearly the night when the 20th century was born. On 22 December 1899 I had been presented with a little brother, whose circumcision took place, as did Christ's, on the afternoon of New Year's Eve.
Scarcely was I back in my beloved cot than I fell asleep, to be picked up at midnight by my favourite aunt, Bronja, to look out of the window. To celebrate the turn of the century she was wearing a particularly low- cut dress and as the rockets fizzed and popped in the snow-covered street I stared down into the unfathomable depths of my young aunt's decolletage. All the bells started ringing and I burst into tears. As always, I understood everything and nothing. And that's the way it has stayed my whole life through: nothing and everything. All the best for 1900.
My brand-new baby brother was made of pink marzipan. It was not yet the age when penis envy and Oedipus complexes were on everyone's lips, and I enjoyed Heinz until, in August 1918, during the last weeks of the First World War, he was killed in action at Jaulgonne on the Marne, sacrificing his 18-year-old life for the German Fatherland, Jewish family life and a world gone mad. The most grievous loss of my life. Whom the gods love die young. Nowadays they seem to love mankind rather less, since, despite hydrogen bombs and a multiplicity of cancers, they let them live longer and longer.
My late sister Annie started out as a sweet little girl, sometimes cute, sometimes cheeky, the apple of Papa's eye. Unfortunately her sweetness diminished daily until by the age of 13 she had turned into an unbearably sharp-tongued sourpuss, a bossy old bitch with buck-teeth and freckles, a green-eyed crosspatch I had come to hate.
When I was four she steadfastly refused to get off the chamber pot to let me have my turn. She just stayed sitting on it: passive resistance. So, after warning her twice, I was quite within my rights when I peed on her head. Foaming with rage, she hissed, "You'll pay for that!" Our parents were both out. By the time they came back her hair had long since dried out but, in typical female fashion, the poisonous little snitch quickly dunked her head in the still full chamber pot, as evidence of my heinous crime. Our parents believed her howls of accusation and I was severely punished; no whipped cream on my apple cake for two whole weeks.
Annie was working as a police auxiliary in Hamburg when she died on 24 June 1925, not yet 30 years old, hopelessly consumptive and still more or less demivirgo intacta. May her ashes rest in peace. They may even still be lying in the Left Luggage office at Zoo station in Berlin. In one of her many last-wills-and-testaments Annie had asked me, since I lived by the North Sea, to scatter her ashes in the sea with my own fair hand. It was during the inflation, and after the funeral I bought a tin containing my sister's ashes under the counter for 10bn marks from the crematorium (were they really her ashes?). Before taking the train back to Holland I decided to wet my whistle and deposited the package in Left Luggage. When I went to collect it it was nowhere to be found. I had to get my train. To this day Annie's ashes are still waiting for me, or rather for the North Sea.
Jadis et daguerre
When I was 10 and had once again not done my Latin prep, I pretended, so as to skip school, to have awful belly pains. There was nothing wrong with me, but without further ado the Nice Doctor diagnosed a potentially fatal, and very fashionable, appendicitis. Less than three hours later my appendix vermiformis had been removed. It was rumoured that the operation had cost 300 marks. It taught me the value of a diagnosis, and I resolved to stay healthy for the rest of my life, something which, for fear of doctors, I have managed to do.
When I came round from the anaesthetic a medieval nun, dressed in black and white, bent down and kissed me on the forehead. In all the excitement they had packed one of my sister's lacy nightdresses in my overnight case. When the nun leant over me lovingly and put her hand under my nightgown to see if I really was a girl, a black-and-white lesbian thrill ran through me. This passion was soon replaced and repressed, sublimely sublimated by a folding camera, to reemerge later on as an element in my photo-eroticism. That nine-by-12 camera was a present from Uncle Carl as a reward for my heroic suffering without complaint. Since time immemorial I had been fascinated by photographic paraphernalia. The nine-by-12 format got into my blood to such an extent that it was as if I was wedded to it. Thirty years later in America I had to start thinking in four-by-five and I suffered more from that change than from the summer heat in New York.
My real life started with the discovery of chemical magic, the play of light and shade, the two-edged problem of negative and positive. I had a good photographer's eye right from the start. In order to rest out the little device straight away, to see if it really was capable of capturing everything that was placed in front of the lens, I composed the most elaborate still life imaginable: Michelangelo's Moses with a half-peeled potato - into which I had stuck a toothbrush - in his lap. Moses was standing on our open deluxe edition of Dore's Bible. Above it was brother Heinz, resting his head on an upturned chamber pot, wearing Mama's pince-nez and Papa's moustache-trainer, and clutching Mama's rolled-up corset in his fist. It was only a short step from that experiment to advertising pictures, for which, 40 years later, American companies paid me $2,500 per photo.
What was it that drove me, an upper-juste-milieu-class boy, to that rive gauche from which all roads climb towards Montparnasse? It cannot have been the influence of my nurse's breasts alone which led to the development of this addiction to golden sections. ("Our first perception of the distance between nipples determines our sense of proportion for life.") There was the anxiety about whether I would ever develop a personal taste of my own. I imagined good taste to be a constant, a standard platinum bar in an underground vault in Paris, watched over by a secretive clique of intellectual snobs. The only means of penetrating this exclusive world was a letter of recommendation from a wealthy female patron.
I fell in love with Paris when I was a child, sight unseen, as is ever my way, and when I finally got there at the age of 40 I realised that taste is merely foretaste. Taste comes from tasting. Americans have none; as babies they are fattened up on tasteless "formulas", which turn them into babies without taste. Taste cannot be learnt from books, not even from cookbooks. I was talented, but not in any specific direction. I wavered between fireman, philosopher, dustman, doctor, rabbi and actor. I knew, although I was not 100 per cent sure about it, that I was not a genius, and I agreed with Papa that genius was reserved for men. Men invent, fight, earn, worry; women, on the other hand, give birth, cook, keep house and do needlework without knowing what they do - like Mama, for example. Learning to speak, sing, rhyme, think is child's play; you gather impressions and imitate before you venture to produce something original. Style comes later - or never.
The Joys of Discovery
One night, it must have been around 1915, I went in mellow mood to the urinal on Potsdamerplatz. A young dandy came in by the opposite entrance, stood beside me, fixed his monocle in his eye and in one fell swoop pissed my profile on the wall so masterfully that I could not but cry out in admiration. We became friends. He was the most brilliant man I ever met in all my lift, a great raconteur and an immensely powerful draughtsman. It was George Grosz.
My fate was sealed on 26 June 1915, on the dullest, the warmest and also the 20th birthday of my favourite sister, Annie. It was on that despairing afternoon that the idea, which hadn't been too far from my mind, came to me to write a clever letter to the three little cousins that my friend Ravel had described so enticingly from Amsterdam. Ravel belonged to that special breed of people who always meet special people, especially special female cousins. He was a cousin-fetishist. Strict wartime censorship permitted only a one-page letter per envelope and cut mercilessly anything that didn't suit it.
After countless closely-scribbled registered special deliveries, it was now the turn of the cousins. With black humour I requested that kindred spirits might give me solace in solitude. In those days a one-page letter flowed as easily from my pen as a many-sided page of writing is arduous for me now. I considered myself the Don Juan of letter-writing. The younger sisters answered in a would-be witty way. The Dutch have a sense of humour that, to the uninitiated, is difficult to appreciate. Lena, the oldest of the cousins, with the melodious nickname Leentje, took me in the tragi-serious way I had dreamt of so longingly for my entire life. Nearly 19, and therefore two months more experienced than I was (something I have never been able to catch up with), she accepted me, the nail-biter, as man, hero, immortal lover. After three months of superheated correspondence, that was it for us. We signed off every letter with "together for all eternity!" Suddenly her father died of septicaemia, and this reminded us of our own brief mortality. We drew the logical conclusions, and decided on marriage, without ever having met face-to-face. In our 19-year-old omniscience we decided, we ignorant romantics, to go through life hand-in-hand and soul-to-soul, unto the very end of the world, a point which now, half a century later, we have nearly reached as incorrigibly smart-ass grandparents.
Since future defenders of the Fatherland were no longer allowed to leave the country, she came to Berlin in May 1916, against the will of her family. I went to meet her in Hanover. After a microsecond of strangeness, the scrawny Napoleon of crepe-de-Chine embraced, there in the express train, his little, cuddly, bright-blue-eyed, owlish, golden-curled St Helena. After two blissful weeks she had to return to Holland: visa expired. My jealous mother gave her this as a parting gift: "I hope that Erwin never ever gives you any reason to be jealous. Guard a fellow zealously or he'll make your life hell with jealousy." The curse struck home: I ended up with a jealous wife.
A hero's life
Soon I was to breathe my last as a civilian. On 13 October 1916 the latest conscription board pronounced me fit for active service, and since I knew nothing about cars, I was assigned to be a truck driver. And so, in bitchy- cold November weather, I swapped the embattled gloom of home for the gloomy battlefield by way of the battledress-coloured gloom of a basic training hell in Saxony. In those days, parade-ground sadism gorged itself on us, the recruits. It is firmly rooted in the essence of human kindness to enjoy torturing the new boys.
In March 1917 I was sent to the front as an ambulance driver, with a Red Cross armband, something which had the distinct drawback that if you were taken prisoner you were immediately exchanged again. Before we left we were fitted up in Berlin with splendid black leather uniforms and glorious long leather coats. We were taken in spanking-new Mercedes ambulances which were loaded with us on to a goods train at the Anhalt Station. My brother Heinz saw me off; I never saw him again. I soon noticed that we were on our way to the western front. Four days later we arrived in Montcornet, 20 miles north of Laon, and before we left the station we had to pack our beautiful uniforms into the Mercedes ambulances, which rolled homewards so that they could inspire a fresh lot of troops to leave for the front with fresh courage. For us, a new life in lice-ridden, tattered battledress had begun.
Jadis et la guerre
We were loaded like human cattle in to a lorry and taken to ambulance Depot 7, just outside Notre Dame de Liesse. The first days at the front were as bad as the first days as recruits in Zwickau. However, by now we had learned to get used to the worst. Double rations of schnapps, and also of the notorious make- it-droop soup (laced with bromide!), helped us get over our initial homesickness. Roll-calls had lost their terrors. We soldiers had but one enemy alone: Officers! You only saluted your immediate superior. No more responsibility - you were free, and quite justifiably shit-scared of the very peace we all desired so much. Everyone's favourite fantasy was home leave. I wept hot tears over the first louse that I wormed out of my armpit. But it wasn't long before we were laughing in the Lice-eum, the delousing unit, where you went to get rid of the dear little pets. Even the lice had their own little Iron Crosses, black on a white background. The ordinary lice looked down with disdain on the crab-lice. The first Frenchwoman I saw squatting down without embarrassment in my presence in a public urinal to have a pee made my flesh creep. C'est la guerre. The first child's corpse I had to pull out of a bombed building (in Chivy-les-Etouvelles) made me throw up. C'est la guerre. Soon, fears of having to die a hero's death were supplanted by fears of life after the war, of the wretched existence of the middle classes. Looking back, nobody has ever had it as good as when they were on active duty, and that's why there will always be wars. C'est la guerre.
Our field ambulances were equipped with four narrow stretchers. When business was booming, at least two seriously wounded men were tied on to each one (and they were too narrow even for one man). Going like the wind (at a maximum speed of 12mph) we hurried our whimpering cargo back to our hospital at Ardon for unloading, sorting and labelling. Usually four of the eight were dead on arrival. I became a Corpse-Carrier. On one of the first nights, driving with neither lights nor experience, I turned the old bus full of wounded over when I was taking a sharp bend. The dying soldiers yelled out in the overturned ambulance. Only one person came out of it alive - me!
Peace without honour
The night before peace broke out we parked in the market square in La Louviere. The field-kitchen cooked up pea soup with smoked bacon, while patrols stood guard to make sure that none of the stuff we had stolen got stolen. All the truck drivers had provided well for themselves, tomorrow's black-marketeers.
Germany had suffered a glorious defeat in the First World War. There will now be a short interval; the second act of our farce will follow directly! They kept news of the armistice from us until midday, when every bell in every church-tower rang it out joyfully. The most unbelievable rumours circulated. Our own Kaiser had supposedly fled to Holland, Germany was supposed to have capitulated, whining for peace, and at home in our country they said there was a revolution going on, a white army fighting against a red one. The following noon we saw in Dusseldorf a promising banner stretched across the beflagged Rhine bridge with the words: "Welcome home, our invincible heroes!" My truck limped along wretchedly on two cylinders through the icy streets of the German countryside until the petrol gave out and I flogged it to a farmer just outside Kassel for 150 marks. My heart sinking by the minute, I jumped on to an overloaded goods- train heading for Berlin. With 60 other men in an open cattle-transport wagon I reached my native city 14 hours later, freezing to death. It was 17 November, my fiancee's birthday. Almost two years before, and dressed in a new and splendid leather uniform, I had said goodbye to my little brother Heinz at this same place, Anhalt Station. He was dead. Choked by this thought, I dragged myself and my kitbag through the dark city. A curse on this peace!
There was nobody at home. I no longer had a key and sat in the snow until daybreak, when the janitor let me into our deserted flat. Mama was in a TB clinic near Hanover, Annie working in Hamburg.
I remembered the legendary wine from my parents' wedding, which had been in the cellar at Luitpoldstrasse for the past 25 years, under lock and key, just waiting to be drunk. Assisted by George Grosz, I pushed about 60 bottles of it, hidden in sacks, on a handcart round to his studio. There we roasted a potato, ate it together with a yellow beeswax candle, and sampled a couple of bottles of the noble fluid, just as if it was a time of peace and plenty. Grosz painted a placard that said: "Well-stacked young society ladies with potential film-star qualities are invited to a party at the studio of G Grosz, Artist, 8pm, dress formal. 8 Olivaerplatz." With this placard nailed to a broom handle we paraded like sandwich-board men up and down the Kurfurstendamm. Eleven men came to the party, plus me. When more than 50 ladies turned up we had to declare a full house and close the doors. To get the party going we suggested that everyone should take their clothes off. We men withdrew to the kitchen and decided to keep our clothes on. When we came back into the studio the ladies were stripped for action and the orgy began. Everyone got drunk and the empty bottles went flying through the glass of the studio windows and landed in the street. Splintering glass, screams, noise. With everyone standing round, cheering and clapping, Grosz got a dose of the clap from Mascha Beethoven on a chaise-longue in the middle of the studio.
Two days later I woke up, freezing, in Grosz's bathtub, and my blue suit had been stolen. Next day, off to Holland via Hanover. Hail and farewell to my coughing mother, who wanted to go with me to Holland this time. To the border with two cardboard boxes, a border rigorously patrolled by Dutch soldiers who were not allowed to let any Germans in. First of all I tried to get over alone and at night, got caught, begged, wept, knelt and grovelled to my captors, who took me straight back to the German border checkpoint, where there wasn't a single living soul to take charge of me. A second attempt that same night was successful with the help of some smugglers, who took my last penny and my boxes off me. I've had plenty of cases taken off me in my life. I'll set off on my final journey as voyageur sans bagages. At night, in fog, ice and snow, through a swamp - and with dogs at my heels, I at last reached soaked to the skin just like in my worst nightmares - the promised land of my fiancee, a land flowing with milk and honey. I had brought nothing with me from Germany except my Berlin youth, and I neither would nor could abandon that.
My best friend, Ravel, whom I hadn't seen for three years, fetched me from the frontier hotel in Enschede. In spite of all the good-to-see-you- again bonhomie, I realised in the first second that our eternal friendship was over. Ravel wisely advised me to keep my mouth shut on the way to Amsterdam; I'd have been deported immediately as a Mof (a German). The very same evening I was able to throw my arms around my weeping fiancee in her mother's house. In those days, I used to think biologically rather than logically. I wanted to establish a livelihood as soon as possible, make money, get married, build a nest. I didn't even know where to start looking - no passport, no work permit, no ration books, no knowledge of the language and no desire to acquire one.
Ravel and I tried to set up an art business together. Using the French I had learnt in the war I wrote to Famous Artists (unknown at the time) whose work we had heard of - Leger, Braque, Juan Gris, Gleizes, Metzinger, Severini and Carlo Carra - and asked permission to act as their sole agents in Holland. They all sent us drawings on commission, for which we were unable to find customers. It was far too early.
And so it happened. On my 25th birthday I got married. I thought it was pretty late to have achieved my main aim in life. My wife had inherited 32,500 guilders from her father, which ought to have eased, at least temporarily, my fears of starvation. Not a chance. That fear has never left me for a second in my whole life. The 32,500 guilders did manage to leave me, however - a mere 14 years later they had vanished without leaving a trace, or strictly speaking, without leaving any change.
Our next aims: (a) children, begetting of; (b) commercial independence. Both of these aims were realised sooner than we expected. Much moved, I soon heard a new heart beating in my wife's belly. In May 1922, instead of the much-feared deformed monster (for which I had a padded suitcase ready to suffocate it in), the sweetest daughter, Lisette, came into the world. I was ready to do anything in the whole wide world for her!
With the financial support of the excessively crafty, leather-selling spivs, I set up on my own. I opened a handbag shop in Amsterdam called the Fox Leather Company. This semi-stillborn child, begotten half by German credit and half by my wife's own money, was eaten up by expenses from the day of its birth and never learnt to stand on its own two feet. Turned on by the smell of leather, especially Russian calf, I was so deeply in love with my wonderful ladies' handbags that I couldn't bring myself to sell them to the haggling hyenas of Amsterdam. The stock grew, the stock got to be enormous. I reckoned that I was hardworking enough to swim against any tide, worked like a lunatic at shopkeeping, changed the whole window display twice a week on my own, during the night, so as not to interfere with the daytime trade.
After Hitler took over Germany I got no more supplies. The stock I had decreased, the debts increased. I persuaded some of the ladies who wanted to buy handbags and couldn't to let me photograph them instead. My little private office became my first studio. And so I became, when there was really nothing left for me to do, a photographer. Everyone told me not to do it. Failed painters became window-dressers, failed window-dressers became photographers. And apart from that, there were (not unfounded) doubts about my talent. In 1932, I was allowed to spread my best photographic work before those infallible photo-mandarins Korf and Kroner. Unanimous judgment: no talent, waste of material, no hope, no use, no point! This death sentence left me unmoved; I knew I was a photographer. I have encountered a similarly understanding attitude from plenty of editors and their like, even those who didn't have to worry about Hitler. The fact that in spite of everything thousands of pages of mine have appeared can be put down to universal uncertainty of judgment.
But more than to anyone else, I owe a debt of gratitude to Schicklgruber, the Fuhrer. Without him I would have slumped down into the Dutch swamps, and without him I would never have had the courage to become a photographer. As a gesture of thanks, on the night when he seized power, I did a photomontage superimposing his ghastly features on to a skull and ran with it through the night, drunk, for nearly 16 miles. In 1942 a million copies were dropped over Germany as American aerial propaganda leaflets. Heil Hitler!
The friends who had stood as guarantors for an overdraft of 15,000 guilders had to cough up, and then they fell like scales from my eyes. Lost, not only my friends' money (which I paid back later), but also my friends (who wanted to come back later). My wife, my children and my worries all remained faithful to me. Shame, blame and threats to distraction were heaped on to my already ill-famed name, and I was starting to look down-at-heel and threadbare. Abandoned by all guiding spirits, good or bad, I flogged off the whole disaster for 6,000 guilders.
When my creditors began to assail me, so did violent stomach pains, which were immediately dismissed as a neurosis (this being the latest society fad). Consultant Charlatans and Know-Alls diagnosed a double-infected, down-the-diaphragm- to-the-duodenum tumour with diversely diverticular diverticulitis, accompanied by severe financial impotence ("chronic dough deficiency"). Because of the last-named condition, they were unable to operate, and instead condemned me to water enemas - 70 pints of water a day - for a month. I fled without a passport, without money and without my family, to Paris, so that I could become a photographer at last.
In the spring of 1935 fate had sent a blonde and bright-eyed Parisienne on her honeymoon into my moribund leather shop. She wanted to be photographed in high key, like the photos in the window. Genevieve was the daughter of the painter Georges Ronault; she herself was a dentist, and she promised to exhibit my photographs in her waiting room in the Avenue de l'Opera. Much taken with the idea, I had a vision of paradise waiting for me in the future, and named this particular St Genevieve to be my Parisian envoy. I imagined that, given my inclination towards alchemy, black-and-white magic, potassium cyanide and metaphysical nonsense, I would be able to conquer the ville de lumiere as a fashion photographer. Before 1920 all you ever saw in the fashion magazines were stiff and stylised drawings. Suddenly, a Viennese Jew and fashion designer, Baron de Meyer, started taking fashion photos in a studio. A new art form. Right away this important new business was seized upon by the American sensationalist press and by the international homosexual community. In the beginning the fashion photographer was a genius, and he was paid and treated accordingly. It was expected that he would be arrogant, repulsively gifted, would behave in an extravagantly camp manner and would provide new material for the gossip columns on a daily basis. I very quickly grasped the artistic possibilities - and very slowly the difficulties - of this exclusive new enterprise.
What I really wanted to be was a photographer pure and simple, dedicated to his art for art's sake alone, a denizen of the new world which the American Jew, Man Ray, had triumphantly discovered. Whether this would feed and clothe a family was another matter.
Late one morning at the beginning of my Paris years, I was woken from a deep sleep by the maid at the Hotel Celtique, knocking on my door to say there was a telephone call for me. An Anglo-Saxon siren started to sing my praises. Cecil Beaton, the Lord Byron of the camera, crown prince of Brilliantia, court photographer and enfant gate et terrible de Vogue, poured balm on my wounded spirits. He said he thought my portraits of the daughters of the Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles were divine! Could I perhaps join him for afternoon tea at the Ritz that day? The doors to the drawing room - of the world hitherto-barred - seemed to be bursting open. In spite of first-class references and introductory visiting cards endorsed by the great and good I had never managed to get through to the editor-in-chief of Vogue.
I knocked on Beaton's door at the Ritz, went in, and saw a lady in a lace negligee sitting in front of the mirror trying on a hat with a large ostrich feather, assumed that this was Cecil's famous sister, Baba, and made my apologies. It was Cecil, who was in the process of selecting some clothes for a fashion photo. Laughing, he called out, "Erwaine!" In spite of our differences we quickly became good friends, and have stayed that way - avec un certain sourire - for a lifetime.
Under Cecil's wing I soon got into the Vogue establishment, and quickly learned to despise that philistine Vanity Fair, in which small-ad profiteers pretend to be arbiters of elegance. Illusions are there to be shattered.
After a year I had had enough of Vogue and decided to go to New York and try my luck with Harper's Bazaar. The best decision of my life. The fastest and ugliest of the ocean-giants, the Normandie, got me from Le Havre to the steambath of New York in five days, where I disembarked on a hellishly hot morning in July. The 1939 World's Fair had just opened. At that time the New World was still genuinely new.
I packed my hundred best photos into a briefcase, something which would brand me a German travelling salesman. I wanted to see Henry Luce, the publisher of Life magazine, to whom Lucien Vogel had given me a flattering letter of introduction when I left Paris. In the Rockefeller Centre, faced with all those cathedral-like highrise buildings, I had a positively mystical feeling of awe for this world of tomorrow, just as the haunted stones of Chartres had on one occasion transported me mystically back into the world of yesterday. An express lift carried me to the 35th floor in 12 seconds. For the first time in my life I looked from an air-conditioned room on top of the world down on to Babel in the burning July sunshine. The most genuinely lapidary expression of modern madness, a breathtaking heap of stones.
Luckily, Luce had left for Europe a day or so earlier. His secretary, visibly impressed by Vogel's recommendation, passed me - after a telephone call - on to an androgynous creature of my own age, with a pink tie, reddish hair and a wolfish grin, who hurried along to take care of me. This was Alex King, who was an ideas man at Life and who spoke, without a trace of accent or indeed a pause for breath, German, American, Yiddish and Mishmash. Although we had never seen each other in our lives he fell upon me as if I was an old friend. "Of course we know each other, Irving, we met in Paris," he said, going straight on to first-name terms. Within 10 minutes he had promoted me to being his cousin. The way he spoke reminded me so strongly of George Grosz that I asked whether he knew him. "Do I know him?! George is my best friend, I let him work on my magazine Americana with me, fantastic graphic artist, too much of a genius for the Americans." King wasn't only a somewhat suspect Grosz-imitator, he was a genuine one: everything he did was an imitation. In the chaos of his tiny office he explained his position. "To become an editor for Life you have to be a chronic alcoholic. At the crucial moment, when a war breaks out or a president gets assassinated, they are all drunk. And so they need at least one Jew like me who's sober and can make the decisions." While he was talking he looked at my photos with an interest, an understanding and an enthusiasm that I have never found in the world of journalism before or since. He was possessed of a pathological urge to express himself. Shadowy faceless figures in shirtsleeves and with their ties loosened kept coming into his office with photos or copy for him to look at. King dealt with everything with a virtuoso display of clowning, laughed at all of them and introduced me to every one of these nonentities as "the greatest living photographer," to which every one of them replied, "Hello, Irving!" With the door wide open Alex took out a hypodermic, filled it with a milky fluid and quite unself-consciously stuck the needle into his arm. "Vitamin E!" This didn't arouse even the slightest suspicion in me. Only when King promised to give me a big feature in the next issue of Life as top photographer did it dawn on me that he was crazy.
"Irving, you're made! What else can I do for you?" I asked him to show me the quintessence of New York (I actually said "the New Yorkest"). King looked at his watch with a diabolical grin. "In exactly 25 minutes, at 12.15, your wish shall be granted! In the meantime, if you like, you can earn a quick $500 by picking 10 of your photos that I can publish with an article about you in a little photographic magazine called Minicam!"
So at last I had reached that blessed land which floweth with milk and dollars.
These are edited extracts from 'Eye to I: the Autobiography of a Photographer', by Erwin Blumenfeld, to be published by Thames & Hudson on 24 May, priced pounds 19.95 Main picture: Maillot's 'The Three Graces' photographed by Blumenfeld for 'Verve', Paris, 1937.
Above: Mannequin, Amsterdam, c1937.
Right: first self-portrait as Pierrot, 1911.
Below: 'In hoc signo vinces', New York, 1967 From left: Cadillac for 'Vogue', New York, 1956; Dayton fashion photo, New York, 1955; and untitled fashion photograph, New York, 1945
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