Photographic Memories: The Unseen World of Irving Penn

WSJ Magazine

Penn cards

In the summer of 1950, in Paris, the most unlikely party in town was happening in a walk-up on the rue de Vaugirard. After lumbering up six flights of stairs, one might be astonished to find that the destination was a former photography school, sans water and electricity, but no matter. Everyone in town made that trek, and there stood the world’s great models, artists, and intellectuals alongside mailmen, pastry chefs, and vegetable sellers. The host was photographer Irving Penn, then in Paris to document the full spectrum of the “human comedy,” as one of his mentors, creative director Alexander Liberman, put it.

Penn was an intense and quiet man, but had a voracious appetite for character. Everyone and everything intrigued him.  Yet he was intensely private, and rarely turned the camera back on himself.   On the eve of a major new Penn retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lesley Blume spoke with Penn’s family, collaborators, and collectors to create an intimate portrait of a man dedicated to shining the spotlight on others.  She delves into his process and inspirations, documents his sleepless nights and curious portable studio, which he brought even to the wilds of Africa.  The story is a glimpse into the life someone considered by the Met to be “one of the most celebrated American artists of the 20th century.”

Photo: ‘After-Dinner Games’ by Irving Penn, 1947, © Conde Nast.

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A Rare Glimpse into the Libraries of Grey Gardens

The Paris Review Daily

A few years ago, when I heard through the grapevine that Grey Gardens was up for rent, I thought it had to be a bizarre joke: What kind of a sick twist would pay to spend time in the notorious cat-and-rot-scented squalor so memorably depicted in the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens?

It turned out Grey Gardens had long since been renovated back into a glistening private playground for the intelligentsia A-list. (My ignorance of this fact confirmed me as an intelligentsia C-lister, at best.) In 1979, the Washington journalist and social doyenne Sally Quinn bought the house with her husband, Ben Bradlee, the Watergate-era executive editor at the Washington Post; they lovingly restored the estate to its 1930s glory; there, amid the rose bushes and chintz chaise lounges, they entertained the gods and goddesses of the film and political worlds. More recently, they offered to share Grey Gardens by renting it to those willing to pay $150,000 a month for the privilege. (It’s now on the market for nearly $20 million.) 

Sensing a now-or-never opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse of the place, I pitched a story on Grey Gardens and assailed Sally Quinn with a request to stay there. She kindly granted me a couple of days at the house.  I fell in love with everything: the clawfoot bathtubs, the armada of wicker furniture, the elaborate butler’s pantry – but above all, the Beales’ incredible book collection.  More than anything else in that storied house, the library gave me an intimate, voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of the people who’d lived there over the past century.  Here is my story on those literary artifacts, now on sale with the rest of the estate.

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From Amman, An Unfinished Roll of Film.

Los Angeles Review of Books

When I was a 23-year-old grad student, more than anything, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. More specifically, I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour or Martha Gellhorn, or basically a female Edward Murrow, and — in my mind — the more alien the backdrop for my training, the better.

I chose Amman as my destination to learn the trade. This might not seem daring to some, but back then, the idea of an American girl setting up shop in the Arab world felt ballsy to me. To be fair, it was admittedly a relatively calm time in the Middle East. This was 1999, before the world had been rocked by 9/11, the 2003 Iraq invasion, the rise of ISIS, the devastating Syrian Civil War, and Trump’s proposed so-called Muslim bans. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote about attending a bullfight, it might be like “having a ringside seat at [a] war, with nothing going to happen to you.”

But when I got to Jordan, something did happen to me — or someone, rather. And with this person, I did something that seemed little and strangely sensible at the time, but suddenly, given recent events, seems extraordinary now, and also reminds me how far I was willing to go to become the reporter I wanted to be. I came away unscathed, but probably only because a tragedy abruptly cut short my Amman adventure before I could take things too far.   This is the story of that summer, and the Arab man who taught me much of what I know about being a journalist today.

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200 Movies, One Iconic Character, and Zero Oscar Nominations

The Hollywood Reporter

Anita Loos – one of early Hollywood’s greatest writers – helped invent the industry.  Hell, she even helped to invent its inventors. She would pen some 200 screenplays and help turn Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow and Audrey Hepburn into stars. During the Depression, she earned the then-astronomical sum of $1,000 a week at MGM. She also found time to write the best-seller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and to conjure up showstoppers for Broadway. For more than 60 years, Loos was revered, widely imitated, called a genius by geniuses — and yet never was nominated for an Oscar.  Why?

In this story, featured in the Hollywood Reporter‘s Oscars-and-the-gender-divide issue, Ms. Blume speaks with experts about the life and legacy of Ms. Loos, and why female screenwriters still have a near-impossible time getting high-level recognition today.

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Gillian Jacobs: The Smart Aleck’s Smart Aleck

Vanity Fair

Some women appear to have it all: brains, looks, talent, and wit. Actress Gillian Jacobs, 34, is among these rarefied creatures, but she is not above envy. She watched the launch of the HBO series Girls with mixed feelings.

“At the time, I was on Community, and we were always fighting to stay on the air,” she recalls. “I was excited for Lena, but there’s also a natural jealousy.”

Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, which is just what Jacobs did: in Season Four, she joined the cast of Girls as the cult-favorite character Mimi-Rose Howard, arguably the most defiant and least needy female on the show. She now stars in her own Judd Apatow-created Netflix rom-com series, Love (which returns for a second season on March 10), as well as a slate of upcoming films (Dean and Magic Camp). Jacobs is quickly emerging as a patron saint of smart alecks and independent souls—even if her knees still sometimes knock and her teeth chatter during auditions.

In this story, she talks with Lesley Blume about the advantages of having been an oddball child, her unlikely penchant for Hannibal Lecter, and marriage in the realm of millennials.

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The Woman Who Said No

The New York Times

Part of the Times’s “Committed” series: 165 Years of Love (and War) in The New York Times Wedding Announcements.

“Shyness” was the diagnosis: After all, what else could possibly have caused Mary Landon Baker — heiress and socialite — to have left her fiancé, Allister McCormick, a fellow Chicagoan, at the altar so often in the early 1920s?

Newspapers around the world — including The New York Times, which referred to the would-be groom as “thrice jilted Allister McCormick” — delighted in covering the drama that unfolded between the two. In the end, nothing could compel Miss Baker to become Mrs. McCormick: not the Cartier sapphire engagement ring, nor the mountain of wedding gifts (valued at a reported $100,000), nor the thousand of well-heeled guests who showed up for the first wedding ceremony.

Called the “shy bride” by reporters, Miss Baker appears to have been anything but: Throughout the 1920s, she went through lovers like General Sherman blazing a path to the sea and provided excellent copy while doing so.  Read Ms. Blume’s account of Ms. Baker’s anything-but-shy adventures here.

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All You Need to Know About Raucous Restaurant Impresario Stephen Starr

Vanity Fair

By his own admission, Stephen Starr has an aversion to fun. This may seem odd for a restaurateur who oversees more than 30 exuberant restaurants. But he’s quick to clarify: He wants you to have fun. He wants you to sip champagne and devour caviar and whoop it up. He just doesn’t want any of that stuff himself. “I’m the guy producing the show, watching it offstage with his arms folded,” he says.

The 59-year-old Philadelphia native is a maestro at creating sensory pleasures for others. Over the years, he has masterminded restaurants for all tastes, starting with a diner/comedy club in Philly and making his way into the foodie stratosphere; his best-known creations include New York’s Buddakan, Morimoto, Upland, and Le Coucou (which was recently awarded three stars by The New York Times). He has four new projects in the works, from Paris to South Beach. Yet, despite Starr’s success—which he craved early, unrepentantly—he was an accidental restaurateur.

In this story, he talks with Ms. Blume about who he would really be if only fate had made some different choices on his behalf, how divine intervention is required to make a restaurant click, and his obsession with canned tuna.

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Searching the Ruins of Aleppo for My Friends at the Baron Hotel

Town & Country

Like everyone else in the world, these past few weeks, I have been aghast at the real-time horror-show unfolding in Aleppo. Last night, I watched a handful of videos taken by a man who was scaling what had once been the city’s streets: devastated is too light a word for the destruction there. Pulverized—that’s more like it.

Years ago, I spent some time in Aleppo, and as I watched the videos, I desperately scanned the landscape for surviving landmarks. And I found that I was irrationally searching, above all, for staff members of the Baron Hotel, which had been my home during my time there, and for the hotel itself.

This is the story of my own poignant encounter with the Baron, and the cosmopolitan international world it once embodied.

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Tom Ford Brings His Singular Aesthetic to Film

WSJ Magazine

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s feature films depict catastrophic loss of control and the sheer misery that ensues. In Ford’s debut feature, A Single Man (2009), an English professor grapples with the sudden death of his lover. In his latest film, Nocturnal Animals, out this month, a young man endures the kidnapping and murder of his wife and daughter. Why does Ford keep returning to this theme of ultimate loss?

“It sort of preys on my mind all the time,” he says. “Because in the end, there is no control. You think there is. We try for it; we struggle for it. But I’m going to pull out of that driveway and get hit by a truck on my way home. That’s just life.”

Read Ms. Blume’s profile on Mr. Ford, published on the eve of Nocturnal Animal‘s release.  Designated WSJ Magazine’s film innovator of the year, Mr. Ford muses on what drives him (“Money and success buy you the freedom to do what you feel is right. I push boundaries because I can.”), how he envisions his legacy, his experience as a new father, and much more.

Photo by Terry Richardson.

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Does Ali MacGraw really think love means never having to say you’re sorry?

Town & Country

It may be easy to poke fun at Love Story, the 1970 film starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal as star-crossed lovers from different social stratas. But it’s harder not to cry during the movie’s tragic final scenes—just try. We challenge you.

The movie may be a tearjerker with some endearingly dated dialogue, but it also remains beguiling—and very stylish. Upon its 1970 premiere, Love Story became a runaway international hit; audiences around the globe sobbed in darkened theaters. The Academy bestowed its approval: seven nominations, including best actor and actress noms for MacGraw and O’Neal. MacGraw, until then a virtual unknown with one starter film under her belt, became an icon of her generation.

Most starlets endure trials-by-fire in Hollywood, but with Love Story as a vehicle, MacGraw had a gilded ascent, protected and championed by Paramount chief Robert Evans and director Arthur Hiller, to whom MacGraw remained close until his death two weeks ago. In this story, she shares her recollections of the film’s director, its producer and stars, and how it changed all of their lives forever.

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The Whimsical and Old-Guard Los Angeles World of the Rodarte Sisters

Bergdorf Goodman Magazine

At first glance, Rodarte’s designs – created by sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy – might not summon images of Los Angeles, where the fashion scene has long been synonymous with yoga pants and denim cutoffs. But Rodarte’s rapid, almost astonishing ascent seems like a tale that only Hollywood could have conjured.

Since its 2005 debut, Rodarte has been worn by superstars like Michelle Obama, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. The Mulleavy sisters have also collaborated with members of the creative intelligentsia (Benjamin Millepied, Frank Gehry and Gustavo Dudamel among them) on films, ballets and operas, and they are directing their first feature film, starring Kirsten Dunst. Yet despite their status as serious American fashion auteurs, they’ve long resisted the almost gravitational pull to New York City, the industry’s center, and remain fiercely loyal to the City of Angels.

“California is just so ingrained in us,” Laura says. “In an hour, you can be in the desert, or on the beach, or in the mountains. It’s always been the thing we go back to. Nine times out of ten, in our collections, there’s an influence that came from being here.”  In this story, the Rodarte sisters give Ms. Blume a tour of their private and beloved home city.

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Anjelica Huston Is A National Treasure

Town & Country

It is lunchtime in Los Angeles, and I am waiting for Anjelica Huston in the back of Musso & Frank Grill, reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. This is a treat for me: after all, Huston is one of this town’s most rewarding conversationalists: wise, blunt, whip-smart — and she has decades of Tinseltown gossip to impart. She first moved here in 1973, and by the 1980s had reached the Oscars strata, like her father and grandfather before her. She has since worked with Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen. Huston’s advantages and successes should inspire legions of envious detractors, but somehow she seems universally adored and admired. (“Oh, that’s not true,” she says later. “I’m sure bitchy things have been said.”) When she arrives at the restaurant, everyone gawks as she strides down the aisle. In the subsequent interview, the Transparent star talked about her longtime connection to the LGBTQ community, the Hollywood icon she would have loved to seduce, and her unlikely talisman.

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True Brit: The Genius and Generosity of Joanna Lumley

Vanity Fair

Over the years, television has brought us Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, Mary and Rhoda. But in 1992 it spawned Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy and Eddy, arguably the most hilariously despicable comedienne duo of all time. Relentlessly drunk, self-obsessed fashion slaves, Joanna Lumley’s magazine editor, Patsy Stone, and Jennifer Saunders’s publicist, Edina “Eddy” Monsoon, took madcap satire to giddy heights and sleazy lows.

The series ran sporadically through the 90s and into the 21st century, and this month Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (written by Saunders) is being unleashed upon us all. (Cameos include everyone from Stella McCartney to Joan Collins to Jerry Hall.)

Yet if Patsy is sublimely soul-less, Lumley is her antithesis: a beloved activist (principally on behalf of retired Gurkha soldiers seeking the right to settle in Great Britain), a global traveler, and a wise soul; at 70, she is considered a national treasure in at least two countries. That said, she isn’t exactly vice-free, as she explains in her interview with Ms. Blume.

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A Secret Life With the Misfit Toys

The New York Times

During my sophomore year of high school, my parents gave me a choice: Play an after-school sport or get a job. In the end, it came down to vanity. After six long, terrible, socially exiled years of wearing braces on my teeth, the idea of dodging lacrosse, field hockey or tennis balls did not appeal to me. Employment seemed a reasonable act of self-preservation.

 I can’t remember how I landed at Toys in the Attic, a now defunct toy store. I didn’t like children, and I detest dolls — I mean, I really hate them, especially the ones whose eyes roll shut when you tilt them backward. But the store’s owner gave me an after-school-and-Saturdays gig. I might have seemed an incongruous hire, but she had a gift for hiring employees with no affinity for the under-10 crowd. This is what I learned from my unlikely comrades there.
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The Four Seasons’ Last Nights Are the Ultimate New York Party

Town & Country

My friends and I decided to meet there at six o’clock. Under other circumstances, this hour might have seemed unchic, even geriatric, but these were unusual circumstances indeed. You see, this is the last week in which NYC’s Four Seasons restaurant shall remain among us—soon it will be stripped down, emptied. It will simply cease until it is chiseled into something else.

We had been hearing rumors that a great party had been going on there at the bar and restaurant, a days-long fête that was only getting crazier each successive evening, that half of New York was showing up, that it wasn’t to be missed. Like many great parties, this one had been entirely unplanned. It had simply started the way wild fires sometimes start: no one knows how.  This is what went down that night.
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It Was Bill Cunningham’s New York—We Were Just Living In It

Town & Country

Legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, who for decades covered events and street fashion, has died at 87. For many of his lucky subjects, getting photographed by him was like getting approval from New York itself—an earlier incarnation of the city that shimmered with eccentric glamour and a particular sort of individualistic ambition.

Mr. Cunningham himself did not, at first glance, seem to exude glamour or ambition. Yes, he was spectacularly eccentric, but even the uninitiated could immediately deduce that Mr. Cunningham’s peculiarities were unaffected.

The more you knew about him—and everyone was always curious about this sweet, skinny man who darted around the corners of 57th St and Fifth Avenue and the ballrooms of the elite hotels with his 35 mm camera—you saw that he had an awful lot a lot in common with the city he documented. He was the city’s chief anthropologist and its mirror.

Read Ms. Blume’s love letter to Mr. Cunningham – and the NYC that is vanishing along with him.

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Lost Generation Boites: The Parisian cafes Hemingway’s generation made famous

WSJ Magazine

By the mid-1920s, thousands of Americans were sending themselves over to Paris to take part in la vie boheme. The often-debauched cafes and bars of Montparnasse served as the heart and soul of the famous expat colony that grew there. Upon arrival, each expat picked his or her café affiliation carefully and was judged accordingly: each café was its own nation with its own rules – and once you became a citizen of one, you were expected to despise patrons of the others.  The rivalries of expat patrons often paled in comparison to the black-hearted practices of the cafes’ owners, who regularly tried to sabotage one another. What follows: a brief guide – adapted from my new Hemingway biography, Everybody Behaves Badly – to the Lost Generation’s most notorious cafes and the low-grade war that raged among them.

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The Vindication of Pauline Hemingway, Ernest’s Second (and Most Vilified) Wife


Not all publicity is good publicity, after all: Consider the case of Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway. Married to writer Ernest Hemingway from 1927 to 1940, she may best be remembered as one of modern literary history’s most controversial home-wreckers.

Hemingway himself had a hand in ensuring that this would be her legacy. In his beloved Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, written after their divorce, he vilified Pauline and claimed that she had “murdered” his first marriage to the gentle, matronly Hadley Richardson through the “oldest trick”—namely by befriending Hadley to get access to him and then promptly seducing him. Pauline is remembered for other things as well, such as her wealth, which was reportedly a powerful lure for Hemingway when he first met her in 1925.

What gets overlooked, however, are Pauline’s own hard-earned accomplishments. At that time, she was a successful fashion journalist for Vogue, and few biographers have ever bothered to highlight exactly how good she actually was at her job. Nor have they considered how this professional savvy may have played a role in bringing about the eventual Pauline-Hemingway union in the first place.

As I was researching my upcoming book, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, in which Pauline played an important role, I wanted to learn more about Pauline’s life as a reporter—but I found scant material in mainstream Hemingway bios. So my research assistants and I dug into the Vogue archives to learn more about her—and there she was, hiding in plain sight.

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Falling for Fitzgerald: A hopeless affair with America’s greatest man of letters.

The Paris Review Daily

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 2.59.21 PMLast year, I confessed to my best friend that I had fallen in love with another man. When she heard this man’s identity, she knew I was in trouble.

“First of all,” she told me, “you’re married. And so is he.”

“I know,” I said miserably.

“Plus, he has a mistress,” she pointed out.

“Yes,” I conceded.

“And, you know,” she went on, “he also happens to be dead.”

I had to admit that it was all rather inconvenient, but I was smitten and there was nothing I could do about it. My new boyfriend: F. Scott Fitzgerald, oracle of the Jazz Age, author of the great American novel.  This is how it went down.

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The Final Days – and Last Photo – of Hemingway’s Great Muse

Town & Country

Lady Duff - Last Photo

Several years ago, I came across a photograph of young Ernest Hemingway sitting at a cafe table with a group of people, including one beguiling, fashionable lady. There was something about the way she gazed at the camera; she managed to be both demure and coquettish.

I soon learned that her name was Lady Duff Twysden, and that she had been the prototype for Lady Brett Ashley, Hemingway’s iconic femme fatale in his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises.  The image inspired me to write my upcoming biography, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises (June 7, HMH).

Some time later, in the course of my research, I came across another powerful photograph, unearthed in the detritus of a long-forgotten estate.  The image is undated, but it may be the last surviving photograph of Lady Duff Twysden, and this is the first time it has been published.

Here is the story behind it, and of the final days of the woman who inspired one of the most glamorous female characters in modern literature.


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