First signs and first visits

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Rain clouds in Washington, CT. Photo: JH.

Thursday, September 1, 2022. Nice sunny day, yesterday in New York with temps in the mid- to low-80s but none of that humidity. 

The first sign of Autumn for me is the rust-colored falling leaves from the trees in Carl Schurz Park. There’s a line that towers above the park side sidewalk of Gracie Square. They began to accumulate about a week ago — a few remnants here and there. Far more yesterday when I walked the dogs along the pavement. In another month, they’ll cover it so you won’t be able to see the sidewalk.

Getting in another catnap before the season arrives. Photo: JH.

Meanwhile, the crowds of part time city-dwellers will begin to accumulate along the city’s streets and sidewalks, and we will have begun the New Year — at least for the kids in school and all related to them. And the restaurants and retail businesses along the streets and avenues will be busy. It occurred to me only as I was writing the above that the “old” year would be 9 months. The New Year is its child.

However, this weekend out East, in East Hampton, the crowds continue to congregate. Last week I got this invitation from Gigi Benson about a booksigning by Harry Benson who has just published a masterful collection of his images of Paul McCartney simply entitled “Paul”. It’s a beautiful book and a tribute to Paul and his confreres and what they created for all of us.

Harry, as many know, first came to America on assignment for the London Daily Express to cover The Beatles’ first visit to America. There are many of us still old enough to remember the enormous popularity of their first visit — which included their appearance on the Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show  which the whole country watched automatically each week. Thousands turned out (mainly teenage girls) just to witness their presence wherever they might be present.

The photos of Paul McCartney on this invitation are very familiar to fans of the new young star. Most noticeable to all Americans at that time was the Beatles’ haircuts. Their long hair covered the ears and often the back of the neck and touching the shoulders. This was a brand new style harkening back to the early 19th century. It was revolutionary. Six decades later that style of coif is ordinary and seen anywhere and everywhere by all ages.

Paul and Harry photographed by Linda McCartney in Los Angeles, 1976. LINDA MCCARTNEY/COURTESY OF TASCHEN

At the time of their arrival, however, it was considered far out. During an early press conference with the Beatles one journalist called out asking them: “What do you call that haircut?” Then so unusual, to which Ringo Starr retorted directly and seriously (and hilariously) “Arthur!”

So memorable was his response that a couple years later after Richard Burton divorced his first wife Sybil Christopher, she opened a discotecque on East 54th Street in the old El Morocco location and called it “Arthur.” The whole world if fane and fortune, good and bad, flocked to it every night for the next few years. 

The effect and influence that the group had on not only their record, concert and film grosses but the influence of their work and their presence on the entire culture, was seminal. And Harry Benson, as Fate would have it, came into it all forever and ever, with them. 

What amazes me about Harry’s enormous career is that with that camera he possibly more than any other single photographer, had recorded the visual history of our society as creatures in the world, including many of its more memorable individuals and incidents.

I’m always reminded of his photo of Ethel Kennedy’s bloodsmeared palm splayed before Harry’s camera the moment after Robert Kennedy lying bloodied on the floor having been murdered in Los Angeles. It is a classic image of our society to this day. It is also a visual record of this time of ours.


Anyway, Harry, oddly is not big on publicity. He’s sort of retired now and living here with his wife and partner Gigi, and in Palm Beach. Here they live in the same penthouse on the Upper East Side that they’ve occupied for decades, bringing up their two daughters as well as companions for the dachshunds who have occupied their prime place on the sofa when Harry’s frequently relaxes and even snoozys every now and then. That’s his pleasure now, and gladly.

Harry at home on the Upper East Side.

He doesn’t take photos (much) anymore, and certainly not assignments. Although he’s been fondling the camera since adolescence (Glasgow, Scottland) as his best and most familiar friend (the shot). However, this man who’s taken the brilliant portfolio of the world of the past six decades of modern civilization, is not impressed when he gets publicity. 

S.H. Benson, MBE, holding two baby tigers when he was curator of Calder Park Zoo in Glasgow, which he also founded. Photographed by his 10-year-old son, Harry.

Just the other night night I was having dinner at Sette Mezzo outside and unbeknownst to me Harry and Gigi were dining inside. 

They finished their meal first, and so when they exited and Harry saw me, so furious that I had  written something (publicity about him) that he came up from behind and put his hands around my neck and started to choke me. Fortunately, I was having dinner with my friend Ellen Sweeney who had her phone handy and photographed the incident as proof. 

Harry left his ninth decade a couple of years ago but, I must say, he still has very strong fingers from the decades of pressing the right button. It didn’t work for me as you can see but the result was at least useable as evidence (of how silly we can be!)

Thank God.

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