Hot, Hot, Hot, and Harry

Featured image
As good a time as any for some Häagen-Dazs. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024. If you live around these parts you experienced a very warm weekend which seemed to get hotter and hotter as it ended. It was real heat, and people stayed in. The benches on the riverside were empty in the Sun. Yesterday the forecast that I look at every morning repeated the same warning. Hot Hot Hot. It was so hot and heavy that people stayed in (or left town). And it was in the mid-90s, and heavy. And headed toward 100.

I went out to dinner, as a guest of Gigi and Harry Benson, along with a longtime friend Eileen Judell and their son-in-law Michael Landes at Sette Mezzo.

Harry’s first camera casually sits on the windowsill off the living room.

The conversation at the Bensons’ dinner table is always interesting and often even amusing. Because of Harry’s long and distinguished career, they’ve traveled all over the world frequently in a wide variety of settings.

Harry came to New York sixty years ago, as everyone now knows, with the Beatles. They were making their first US trip, having been booked to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show (Sunday nights at 8 pm on NBC-TV) with all America watching — as we did every Sunday night.

As history recalls, they were a huge hit and it brought all kinds of attention to all involved. And Harry Benson who was assigned his role covering them for the London Daily Mail found he liked it, too. It’s been his country ever since (of course for a Scottish lad who never forgets).

Harry taking his first “shot” as a young boy in Glasgow.

This was in 1964 when the world was changing faster what with all the liberation movements, male/female/race and politics,  assassinations and war protests. But America with all its recent tragedy was still the land of dreams. Harry had started carrying a camera around when he was seven years old growing up in Glasgow, Scotland. By the time he was thirty and working for the London papers, he got the assignment of his lifetime with it.

I like thinking about him and his career because he met and photographed the world in those six decades. That meant everybody and the world. Harry was always interested in the story of whomever, whatever, wherever.  A natural curiosity, extended from childhood if you’re lucky.

I’d always known of him since the Beatles, but only got to know him and Gigi in the last couple of decades here in New York. His collection is a powerful aspect of our 20th century American history, full of images that are so familiar to our eyes that his work has entered.

He’s always liked New York as a home base. He liked the people and all the print media. Before he knew it he was given assignments on many papers and magazines. And all over the globe. When PEOPLE magazine was first published he was signed on to photograph the cover. And that soon included a lot of the stories.  In total he photographed 110 covers for PEOPLE as well as dozens of stories over the years.

Gigi and Harry at home at Sette.

I never gave much thought about his technique with the camera and getting those compelling shots he’s done. I just knew they were good, taken by a good photographer obviously. I’ve told this story before so forgive the repeating:

A number of years ago, I got a call from Hilary Geary Ross telling me of a book she was working on with Harry, of New York characters. And would I be willing to be in it? Well, wuddaya think? Of course.

But I didn’t want to be in the picture alone; I didn’t want it to be boring.  So, at the time I’d giving a lot of space in the Diary to telling the reader about City Harvest, NYC’s first and largest food rescue organization, and three women whom I knew were very involved, all good looking and looking great. How about if we include them in the photo? I asked Hilary. Okay.

This was ego business; a lifelong habit: I look better to myself if I’m standing with a good looking or sharp looking woman. They agreed to it, and it was shot in Michael’s restaurant at lunchtime. The three women were Emilia Saint-Amand, Joy Ingham and Topsy Taylor.

We were seated at a table set for four but with all four faces were equally visual. Harry sat on a chair in a suit jacket, ready for lunch (he often lunches there) about ten or twelve feet away from us. And he happened to have a camera in his lap. Or so it seemed.

So I and the three women were at the table chatting among ourselves self-consciously knowing we were going to be photographed. So we kept our moods up, not bad; and finally after a few minutes, I turned to Harry and said: “Harry whenner you gonna take the picture??” And he said, matter-of-factly, “I already did.”

Harry’s photo of us at Michael’s — Topsy Taylor, DPC, Emilia Saint-Amand, and Joy Ingham.

And so he did. I have to say I’ve never liked having my picture taken. I’m sure it’s a common sensibility. But in the last couple decades and being around cameras daily, it doesn’t matter; I remain unimpressed with my image. It’s ultimately irrelevant. After all these years of the NYSD and the Quest magazine, I have been in that “photo” space at a thousand parties where everyone’s taking pictures of each other and now, even, of themselves. “Hi! How are ya?”

These days, Harry’s camera isn’t nearby. I see him in his apartment stretched out head to foot on the sofa and accommodated by his favorite dachsie. I think he takes a photograph here and there, but rarely. The man has taken MILLIONS of photo images. Literally; of a time and a place, and an atmosphere of this century of ours. For him it’s an achievement of the child’s interest. A great achievement among us. And a blessing. For us all.

Recent Posts