Fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s life was far from glamorous
It was easy to envy — even hate — Richard Avedon.
The legendary photographer, who died in 2004, traveled around the world shooting the most fabulous fashions, the most magnificent models, the most scintillating stars. He hobnobbed with Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Hutton. His artistic peers — shutterbugs like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander — as well as critics scoffed or seethed at his lavishness, his four-story townhouse, fancy museum shows and commercial ad work. It didn’t help that he could be self-aggrandizing, with his expensive, overstuffed coffee table books and blown-up, larger-than-life prints.
Yet, underneath all that glitter and gloss, Avedon’s personal life was much messier, and more human.
“He suffered,” said Philip Gefter, who has written the new biography of Avedon, “What Becomes a Legend Most” (HarperCollins).
According to Gefter’s book, Avedon was constantly struggling. He agonized over his Jewishness, the collapse of his two marriages and his confused sexuality, including a young romance with a cousin.
“He spent his adult lifetime in therapy and psychoanalysis — not for no reason,” Gefter told The Post. “Growing up, he endured the prejudice of anti-Semitism. He endured a kind of homophobia; even though he had homosexual feelings, they were unwanted.” Plus, many of the women around him — his aunt, his sister, his second wife, Evelyn, and his dear friend, fellow photographer Diane Arbus, all suffered from some kind of mental illness.
“One of his qualities was that he was able to not only endure [all] that but prevail in terms of living a very constructive life anyway,” said Gefter. That quality also allowed him to create psychologically astute, clear-eyed and radical portraits of nearly every type of person in America in the second half of the 20th century, not just celebs but war mongers, civil rights leaders, ranchers and beekeepers.
“I felt like Avedon didn’t get his due in his lifetime. He was often dismissed as a fashion photographer, and then as a celebrity photographer, and I have always thought that he was more consequential than that,” Gefter said. “And I wanted to make that case.”
Richard Avedon was born in 1923 in Manhattan, the oldest of two children. His father, Jacob (Jack) Israel Avedon, was an immigrant from present-day Belarus who ran a successful dress shop. His mother, Anna, was a free spirit from a wealthy family who encouraged Dick’s love of the arts.
Yet Avedon’s childhood was hardly idyllic. Jack lost his business in the Great Depression, and was unduly harsh on young Dick (as everyone would call Avedon), who was sensitive and, alarmingly to Jack, uninterested in sports. Dick’s beloved younger sister, the beautiful, enigmatic, strangely silent Louise, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen. Dick was bullied as a kid for being a “sissy,” and got a nose job when he was 17 to look less Jewish. Jack, who wanted his son to fit in and assimilate any way he could, paid for it.
Dick took solace in his first cousin, Margie, a fellow misfit whose mother (Anna’s sister) was in and out of psychiatric institutions. Fun, brash and impulsive, Margie would coax Dick out of his shell — getting him to sneak into Broadway shows with her, for instance. The two, according to several family members, also had a romantic relationship.
“I was deeply in love with Margie from the age of 4 until I was 18,” Avedon would tell one of his collaborators, editor Nicole Wisniak, when he was in his 60s. “Our feelings for each other were so intense, so forbidden, so conspiratorial.”
Avedon got his first camera, a Box Brownie, at age 9 and then worked at a photo studio in high school. His first pictures were of Louise and Margie, who would arrange elaborate schemes for Dick to photograph, involving crashing funerals and surprising strangers on the street.
When he failed his senior year at DeWitt Clinton HS in The Bronx, Avedon signed up for the Merchant Marine, where he lucked into a position as a photographer at the maritime service training station at Sheepshead Bay. Not only did he take the ID photos of every new arrival, he also supplied photojournalism for the organization’s two magazines.
Avedon still felt like an outsider — and not just because he was likely the only seaman scouring Harper’s Bazaar instead of cheesecake pin-ups in his bunk. He somehow always got stuck with the worst chores: scrubbing toilets and swabbing floors. One day someone drew a swastika on the wall of his bed in black crayon.
“From then on, throughout his tour of duty, he proceeded with a persistent undercurrent of dread,” writes Gefter.
But one good thing came out of it: Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, thought Avedon’s Merchant Marine photos showed promise. In 1947, the largely unknown Avedon was selected to shoot Christian Dior’s groundbreaking New Look collection in Paris.
It was unbelievably glamorous: Avedon arrived in Paris with his model-muse-wife Doe, and the two popped a bottle of champagne in the taxi, watching the City of Lights flash by them. By day, Avedon would photograph Doe and the more-seasoned Renée Breton in Dior’s sumptuous furs and hourglass-shaped gowns in the streets. By night, the pair would sip bubbly in nightclubs and cabarets.
He spent his adult life in therapy and psychoanalysis — not for no reason.
– Author Philip Gefter on Richard Avedon
It was dazzling, he said: “the convergence of the happiness of being , being in love with the most beautiful girl, being sent to Paris, buying a bottle of champagne at the airport, driving in Paris in a cab whose roof was open.”
The pictures caused a sensation. Instead of the staid studio photographs of models posing like mannequins, Avedon shot his muses in motion — leaping, twirling, preening in the streets of Paris. Soon, Avedon was not only the most sought-after fashion photographer in the world, but a successful portrait and commercial photographer as well.
His subjects included stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, who had stayed up past midnight partying with Tony Bennett the night before her shoot, for Blackglama Furs, and then proceeded to spend $500 on Carven perfume at the hotel drugstore, which the fur company had to pay for. He shot writers including Truman Capote and pop sensations such as Ringo Starr, who challenged Avedon to a whiskey-drinking contest; after passing out, the Beatle had to be smuggled through the roof and out a secret door in an adjoining building to avoid the paparazzi waiting outside.
Yet privately, Avedon’s life was constantly unraveling. Doe — whom he had tried hard to turn into a supermodel — wanted to be an actress and ran off with a fellow thespian she met in a summer stock production. Avedon remarried, but his second wife, Evelyn Franklin, suffered from depression and erratic behavior, accusing the photographer of sleeping with Lee Radziwill and putting out cigarettes in the palm of her hand when she didn’t get the constant attention she craved. Once, Franklin greeted Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, who had come over for dinner, in her nightgown, with her hair uncombed and her face undone.
“It weighed on [Avedon] heavily,” Gefter said of Franklin’s mental illness. Though the couple — who had one son, John — separated in 1972, they never divorced and Avedon would support her throughout the rest of her life.
In 1968, Avedon’s adored sister Louise died at age 42, a couple weeks after he had visited her in the psychiatric hospital where she had lived for more than 15 years. By the end, she had to be spoon-fed and spoke in nothing but “a string of random obscenities.” Avedon felt racked with guilt. “I don’t think I ever really wanted to help her,” he would say in a later interview. “I had my hands full trying to help myself.”
Then there was Avedon’s sexuality. He had been discharged from the Merchant Marine to seek “psychiatric help” and, as Gefter writes, “broach the inconvenient matter of his homosexuality.” In the 1950s, he began seeing a new analyst, Edmund Bergler, who was known in the 1950s as an “expert” on homosexuality and who claimed that it was a “condition” that could be cured.
Even as his friends like Leonard Bernstein began to publicly go out with men in the 1970s and ’80s, Avedon kept any affairs secret, though his business partner, in an explosive tell-all published in 2017, alleged he had numerous clandestine encounters and even a dalliance with film director Mike Nichols.
“He made a choice to marry and live a more conventional life, so in effect, so he could have his career,” said Gefter. The one steady same-sex relationship he had — with a lawyer in the 1980s — was never publicly acknowledged. “I don’t even know if Avedon’s son knew [about it],” Gefter said.
Despite his pain, Avedon soldiered on. Part of it, Gefter admitted, was a response to his judgemental, exacting father. “I think his ambition and his sense of competition drove him to prove to his father that not only could he survive in the world, but he could become fabulously successful and enormously rich,” he said.
His struggles allowed him the empathy to help teenage ingenues, jaded celebrities and normal everyday people let down their guard in posing for photographs.
“I think he saw things very directly, very clearly,” said Gefter, referring to Avedon’s preferred portraiture style: just the subject against a white background. “You’re not getting lost in all the other things surrounding the person, but just seeing that person.”