Charm and Disaster
Following the fiasco of the “crystal palace,” I decided to take sterner measures with Lorant. I called him up and told him that unless we could resolve the problem of the purloined photographs, it was unlikely the fifth edition of the Pittsburgh book would ever see the light of day. I also told him I knew perfectly well he had the Pittsburgh photos at his home in Lenox, Massachusetts, because people had seen them there.
Previously in this series: Stefan Lorant Part V, Of Crypts and Art Thieves
After a lot of shilly shallying, Stefan admitted that he might in fact have “custody” of the photos, although he still denied taking them. A bit mollified by Stefan’s partial confession, I suggested I come to see him, check out the Pittsburgh photos and the German photos, and we could go from there.
“Excellent, my friend!” he said. “I would love to see you!”
Which led to the episode I’ll call:
Trouble in Lenox
Back in 1940, when Lorant had gotten mad at the Brits, he moved to the U.S. and bought a home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Although he knew almost no one in the States, he quickly befriended the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, served as an advisor to Henry Luce, whose Life magazine had been modeled after Lorant’s Picture Post, and, among other projects, produced Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City.
As the date of the trip to Lenox grew closer I realized that, once I got there, I would have no idea what I was looking at. I wasn’t an expert on the photos used in the Pittsburgh book and I wouldn’t know an old German photo from a toothbrush.
I called a friend of mine I’ll call Betty, who was knowledgeable about photography, and asked if she would mind going to Lenox with me. She knew Lorant, found him immensely charming, and said she’d be happy to go along.
Unfortunately, Betty wasn’t an expert on old German photography. However, she knew a woman – I’ll call her Susan – who knew German photos and who could authenticate the photos in Stefan’s collection.
“But there’s a problem,” Betty said. “Susan’s a staunch feminist.”
“Well,” she said, “you know what Stefan’s like. He’s…, he’s…, well, he’s a ‘gentleman of the old school.’”
“You mean he’s a male chauvinist pig.”
“But this is important,” I said, “so let’s get Susan to go along with us. I’ll ride herd on Stefan and you ride herd on her. I mean, Lorant’s in his mid-nineties, we need to cut the guy a break!”
The three of us flew to Boston, rented a car, and drove out to Lenox. The drive from Logan Airport out to Lenox took two hours, and during that time the two women talked excitedly and knowledgeably about the photos they were about to see. I spent my time worrying about how Lorant and Susan were going to get along.
When we arrived at Lorant’s large farmhouse, which was heated like a hothouse, Stefan greeted me with a bear hug. Then, seeing Betty, whom he’d met before, he clicked his heels together like a Prussian officer and bent forward, kissing Betty’s hand and telling her how lovely she looked and what a pleasure it was to see her again. Betty beamed.
Turning to Susan, Lorant said to me, “And whom have I the pleasure of meeting today?”
“Oh,” I said, “Stefan, Susan. Susan, Stefan.”
“Two lovely ladies in one day!” Stefan boomed. “Each lovelier than the next!” He clicked his heels together, bowed to Susan and reached for her hand.
But Susan was having none of it. Instead, she held out her hand to shake Stefan’s, leaving him bent over awkwardly with his hand held out, palm up, ready to kiss her hand. After a longish moment holding this pose, Stefan turned his head toward me, still bent over, and gave me an outraged look.
Let’s just say that matters went from bad to worse from that point. I won’t go into excruciating detail because I’ve described the incident elsewhere. (See Michael Hallett, Stefan Lorant: Godfather of Photojournalism, pp. 150-151.) I will merely say that it was very chilly around the Lorant home, even though the thermostat was set at 80.
But later, Lorant seemed to calm down, so I said to him, “How about if we get down to business, my friend? Let’s take a look at those wonderful photo collections of yours!”
“Of course!” Stefan said, clapping his hands together but shooting me a look full of too-much-innocence.
We followed Stefan into a room that contained a lovely, almost Scandinavian-looking bureau. The bureau featured wide drawers each only a few inches deep. Stefan took a bunch of keys out of his pocket and opened the drawer on the top left. It contained some of the photos used in the Pittsburgh book, but before we could get a good look at them Stefan closed the drawer and locked it, saying, “But you are really here for the German stuff!”
He smiled at Betty and Susan and unlocked the top drawer on the right, containing the old German photographs. I could hear the quick intake of breath Susan made. She reached into her briefcase, withdrew a pair of white cotton gloves, and began to reach into the drawer.
At which point Stefan closed the drawer decisively and locked it, saying, “That’s enough of that, I think!”
Susan stood rigid, shocked by Stefan’s behavior, and Betty’s hand went to her mouth as her eyes grew wide. Seeing disaster in the offing, I grabbed Stefan around the shoulders and said, “You know, Stefan, you promised to give me a tour of the house and grounds. Let’s go take a look!”
Stefan allowed himself to be more-or-less dragged out of the room, and we passed through the house and out through the kitchen. Disaster had been averted, but only briefly, as we’ll see next week.
Next up: Stefan Lorant, Part 7