The Sculptor of Images

Originally published on February 11, 2013

 
 

Self-Portrait. Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

 
 

“On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1925, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. After a voyage of twenty-nine days, her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke little French, and less English. I was that boy.

My first glimpse of the New World on a steely cold, sunny winter day was the Halifax wharf, covered with snow. I could not yet begin to imagine the infinite promise of this new land. For the moment, it was enough to find myself safe, the massacres, torture, and heartbreak of Armenia behind me. I had no money and little schooling, but I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was waiting for me and recognized me from a crude family snapshot as I stepped from the gangplank. George Nakash, whom I had not seen before, sponsored me as an immigrant, guaranteed that I would not be a “public charge,” and traveled all the way from his home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for our meeting — the first of his many great kindnesses.

We went up from the dock to the station in a taxi, the likes of which I had never seen — a sleigh-taxi drawn by horses. The bells on their harnesses never stopped jingling; the bells of the city rang joyously to mark a new year. The sparkling decorations on the windows of shops and houses, the laughing crowds — for me it was an unbelievable fantasy come true. On the two-day journey to my uncle’s home, I marveled at the vast distances. The train stalled in a deep snowdrift; we ran out of food; this situation, at least, was no novelty for me.

I was born in Mardin, Armenia, on December 23, 1908, of Armenian parents. My father could neither read nor write, but had exquisite taste. He traveled to distant lands to buy and sell rare and beautiful things — furniture, rugs, spices. My mother was an educated woman, a rarity in those days, and was extremely well read, particularly in her beloved Bible. Of their three living children, I was the eldest. My brothers Malak and Jamil, today in Canada and the United States, were born in Armenia. My youngest brother, Salim, born later in Aleppo, Syria, alone escaped the persecution soon to reach its climax in our birthplace.

It was the bitterest of ironies that Mardin, whose tiers of rising buildings were said to resemble the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and whose succulent fruits convinced its inhabitants it was the original Garden of Eden, should have been the scene of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915. Cruelty and torture were everywhere; nevertheless, life had to go on — albeit fearfully — all the while. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, in spite of my mother’s gentle nursing. My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace.

I remember finding brief solace in my young cousin relating her Thousand and One Nights tales of fantastic ships and voyages and faraway people, and always, solace in the example of my mother, who taught me not to hate, even as the oppression continued.

One day, I returned from school, my forehead bleeding. I had been stoned by Turkish boys who tried to take away my only playthings, a few marbles. “Wait,” I told my mother defiantly, “from now on I am the one who will carry stones.” My mother took me in her arms and said, “My son, they do not know what they are doing. However, if you must retaliate — be sure you miss!”

My mother’s generosity, strength, and hope sustained our family. She took into our home a young Armenian girl, shared our few morsels of food with her, and encouraged her to use her hands instead of her eyes, which had been cruelly mutilated. My mother herself seemed tireless. She had to go every day to the distant mountain spring which was the one source of water for the whole community. Allowed only one small pail, she would wait patiently in line for hours to get enough water for her children. Running water, to me, is still a great blessing.

In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave our doors open — with us we took no baggage, only our lives. And we had to flee on foot. During our month-long journey with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan, which would have taken only two days by the forbidden train, my parents lost every valuable they had managed to save. My father’s last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of piled-up human bones and skulls, the last bitter landmark of my country.

In the safety of Aleppo, Syria, my father painstakingly tried to rebuild our lives. Only those who have seen their savings and possessions of a lifetime destroyed can understand how great were the spiritual resources upon which my father must have drawn. Despite the continual struggle, day after day, he somehow found the means to send me to my Uncle Nakash, and to a continent then to me no more than a vague space on a schoolboy’s map.

Uncle Nakash was a photographer of established reputation, still a bachelor when I went to live with him, and a man of generous heart. If my first day at Sherbrooke High School proved a dilemma for the teachers—in what grade did one place a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke no English, who wanted to be a doctor, and who came armed only with good manners? — the school was for me a haven where I found my first friends. They not only played with me instead of stoning me, but allowed me to keep the marbles I had won. My formal education was over almost before it began, but the warmth of my reception made me love my adopted land.

I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

It was with this camera that I scored my first photographic success. I photographed a landscape with children playing and gave it to a classmate as a Christmas gift. Secretly, he entered it in a contest. To my amazement, it won first prize, the then munificent sum of fifty dollars. I gave ten dollars to my friend and happily sent the rest to my parents in Aleppo, the first money I could send to them.

Shortly afterward my uncle arranged my apprenticeship with his friend John H. Garo of Boston, a fellow Armenian, who was recognized as the outstanding portraitist in the eastern states. Garo was a wise counselor; he encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. Although I never learned to paint, or to make even a fair drawing, I learned about lighting, design, and composition. At the Public Library, which was my other home in Boston, I became a voracious reader in the humanities and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography.

My interest lay in the personalities that influenced all our lives, rather than merely in portraiture. Fostered by Garo’s teachings, I was yearning for adventure, to express myself, to experiment in photography. With all my possessions packed in two suitcases, I moved to Ottawa. In the capital of Canada, a crossroads of world travel, I hoped I would have the opportunity to photograph its leading figures and many foreign international visitors.

My life had been enriched by meeting many remarkable personalities on this photographic odyssey, the first of many, to record those men and women who leave their mark on our era. It would set a pattern of working away from my studio. Any room in the world where I could set up my portable lights and camera—from Buckingham Palace to a Zulu kraal, from miniature Zen Buddhist temples in Japan to the splendid Renaissance chambers of the Vatican — would become my studio.”

 
 

Tennessee Williams

 
 

Wystan Hugh Auden

 
 

Albert Camus

 
 

Sir George Bernard Shaw

 
 

Ernest Hemingway

 
 

Vladimir Nabokov

 
 

Sir John Buchan, Governor of Canada

 
 

Jacques Cousteau

 
 

Martin Luther King Jr.

 
 

Muhammad Ali

 
 

Nelson Mandela

 
 

Albert Einstein

 
 

Jackie & John Fitzgerald Kennedy

 
 

Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

 
 

Rainier III Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco & Princess Grace Kelly

 
 

Audrey Hepburn & Mel Ferrer

 
 

Humphrey Bogart

 
 

Lauren Bacall

 
 

Audrey Hepburn

 
 

Grace Kelly

 
 

Anita Ekberg

 
 

Ana Magnani

 
 

Brigitte Bardot

 
 

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier

 
 

Elizabeth Taylor

 
 

Joan Crawford

 
 

Sophia Loren with her son Edoardo

 
 

Martha Graham

 
 

Alberto Giacometti

 
 

Max Ernst

 
 

Alexander Calder

 
 

Isamu Noguchi

 
 

Josef Albers

 
 

Henry Moore

 
 

Man Ray

 
 

Joan Miró

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Georgia O´Keeffe

 
 

Pablo Picasso

 
 

Norman Rockwell

 
 

Walt Disney

 
 

Frank Lloyd Wright

 
 

Mies van der Rohe

 
 

Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier)

 
 

Alfred Hitchcock

 
 

Christian Dior

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The Blonde and the Brunette

Marilyn Monroe in Jackie wig. Photos: Bern Stern, 1962

 
 

MARILYN AND JACKIE’S 11-YEAR ITCH

Text by Wendy Leigh

The Observer,  Sunday 22 June 2003

 
 

At first glance they couldn’t have been more different. Jackie, the pristine American princess born into East Coast high society, who glided effortlessly into marriage with multi-millionaire’s son Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and then into the White House as First Lady. And Marilyn, the bleached blonde bombshell from the wrong side of the tracks, illegitimate daughter of a mother who went insane and a father she never knew, with a sexual radiance so white hot that it catapulted her from pleasuring ageing Hollywood tycoons, on to the silver screen and into immortality.

Yet while researching my novel, The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, I discovered that, like many wives and mistresses who share the same man, in reality Marilyn and Jackie were sisters under the sheets. It became clear to me that Marilyn was Jackie’s equal and that her illicit affair with Kennedy was significant. For years, that affair has been was painted as brief, fumbling – a one-night stand which might, mainly because of Kennedy’s fascination with Marilyn’s dizzying status as America’s reigning sex goddess, have only temporarily transcended his usual hit-and-run amorous encounters.

But their liaison was far from brief. The future President met the actress in 1951, at the house of Marilyn’s agent and Jack’s friend, Charles K Feldman. Kennedy was an up-and-coming senator, a bachelor playboy whose political campaign was funded by his father’s vast fortune. Marilyn was on the brink of stardom. Their affair was to last 11 years, ending with one final meeting in Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel just hours after Marilyn had sung ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ in such an erotically charged way that the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen noted: ‘It seemed like Marilyn was making love to the President in front of 40 million Americans.’

If their affair lasted for 11 years, it was also far from superficial, as a cache of letters from Kennedy to Marilyn, now in the possession of Marilyn’s heirs, attests. Monroe was Kennedy’s long-term mistress, a serious rival to his wife.

Yet below the surface, Marilyn and Jackie shared many similarities. Growing up, they both adored Gone With the Wind, worshipped the Empress Josephine and idolized Clark Gable – Marilyn kissing his picture goodnight as a child, fantasizing that he was her father, and Jackie insisting that her own father, Jack Bouvier, was Gable’s double. Both women retained whispery, baby-doll voices as adults, often playing ‘Daddy’s girl’ with the men in their lives. Even when she was in her late fifties, Jackie simulated a little-girl quality around Maurice Templesman, the last man in her life. And Marilyn actually addressed her third husband, Arthur Miller, as ‘Daddy’. Both had difficulties conceiving a child.

They shared a love of salacious gossip. According to Truman Capote, Jackie was set on discovering what a mutual friend was like in bed. Capote was also Marilyn’s confidant of choice, revealing to him how she witnessed Errol Flynn playing ‘You Are my Sunshine‘ on the piano with his penis.

Naturally, their jetset lifestyles rocketed Marilyn and Jackie into the same orbit. When Jackie met Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gabor gave her skin-care advice. Marilyn met Zsa Zsa in less felicitous circumstances, on the set of All About Eve, in which she starred with George Sanders – with Gabor, his then wife, ever present. Zsa Zsa’s reasons were clear. She later recalls George telling her: ‘The doorbell rings and there stands Marilyn in a beautiful sable coat. I asked her what she wanted and she opened the coat. Marilyn was stark naked underneath. Who am I not to make love to a woman like that?’

Marilyn and Jackie each met and flirted with Krushchev and Sukarno; Aristotle Onassis acted as a go-between for Prince Rainier when Rainier wanted to marry Marilyn. And while Onassis never met Marilyn, he did, of course, meet Jackie, whereupon, according to Onassis’s biographer, Willi Frischauer, ‘he compared her to a diamond – cool, sharp at the edges, fiery and hot beneath the surface’.

Jackie and Marilyn both favoured Chanel; Jackie wore Chanel designs, Marilyn slept in Chanel No 5. Their hairdresser of choice was Kenneth, who created Jackie’s trademark bouffant, and advised Marilyn to dye her pubic hair blonde so that it didn’t show through her clinging clothes. Marilyn and Jackie shared a number of lovers and admirers. British actor Peter Lawford, Jack Kennedy’s friend and sometime pimp, was one of them.

Robert Mitchum also appealed to both women. Jackie enthused that he had always been her favourite movie star. Marilyn, who co-starred with Mitchum in River of No Return, said: ‘Mitchum is one of the most interesting, fascinating men I’ve ever known’, but drew the line at a threesome with Mitchum and his stand-in, Tim Wallace: ‘Ooh,’ said Marilyn, ‘that would kill me.’ ‘Well, nobody’s died from it yet,’ Wallace snickered. ‘Ooh, I bet they have!’ Marilyn told him, ‘but in the papers they just say the girl died of natural causes.’

After Kennedy’s death, rumours raged that Jackie and Frank Sinatra had an affair. Their relationship dated back to the Inauguration Ball, to which Frank escorted Jackie. Watching the footage of that night, the chemistry between them is palpable. Marilyn, in turn, had a sporadic affair with Sinatra. One night, according to her maid, Lena Pepitone: ‘She absent-mindedly wandered downstairs with nothing on to look for Frank. She said that she was lonely and just wanted to talk to him. After walking through one empty room after another, she finally opened the door to the smoking-room where the card game was in session. Frank was livid. “He yanked me to one side and ordered me to get my ‘fat ass’ back upstairs.” How dare she embarrass him in front of his friends.’

Marlon Brando dazzled Marilyn and Jackie. He met Marilyn in 1955; there was a strong attraction between them; she called him Carlo, reporting that he was sweet and tender. In the late Sixties, Jackie had dinner with Brando at a Washington club and danced with him afterwards. According to one of Brando’s friends: ‘Jackie pressed her thighs against his and did everything she could to arouse him. They talked about going away on a skiing vacation together, just the two of them. Brando could feel Jackie’s breath on his ear. He felt Jackie expected him to make a move, to try and take her to bed.’ However, having drunk too much, Brando was fearful he might be impotent, so made his apologies and left.

Apart from sharing President Kennedy’s bed, Marilyn and Jackie both had affairs with his brother, Bobby. Jackie’s affair with Bobby, in the years following Jack’s assassination, has only recently been revealed by C David Heymann in his biography RFK . ‘Socialite Mary Harrington was staying at a house next to the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach in 1964. “I was looking out a window on the third floor and there was Jackie, sunbathing in the grass wearing a black bikini bottom with no top. Then Bobby, wearing a white swimsuit, emerged from the house and knelt by her side. As they began to kiss, he placed one hand on her breast and the other between her legs. After a few minutes, she stood up and wrapped a towel around her. Together, Bobby and Jackie disappeared into the house.'”

Ultimately, it appears that the wife was as libidinous as the mistress. Yet neither of them was as highly sexed as the man in their lives. Jack Kennedy insisted that if he didn’t have sex on a daily basis he would get a headache, and claimed: ‘I’m not through with a woman until I’ve had her three ways’. But according to Jackie’s friend, Peter Duchin: ‘Jackie was very, very romantic, but not sexy’, while Peter Lawford alluded to Marilyn’s ‘romanticism’.

Perhaps it is natural that, from the start, Marilyn and Jackie were enthralled by one another. When she was working as a young reporter in Washington, Jackie invariably asked men: ‘If you had a date with Marilyn Monroe, what would you talk about?’ And Marilyn’s fascination with Jackie was such that she even dressed as her for a Life magazine shoot, donning a black wig and pearls for the occasion.

When Marilyn died at the age of 36 in 1962, Jackie, the wronged wife, declared sombrely: ‘She will go on eternally.’ Jackie herself died on 19 May 1994, the thirty-second anniversary of the night on which Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ to her lover, Jack Kennedy.