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JAMES ABBE Autobiography: WONDERFUL YEARS Pt 1    Feb 2, '10 9:17 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #218

In summer 1961, James Abbe, then the TV critic of the Oakland Tribune published in serial form an autobiography of his life as a performing arts photographer in New York, Hollywood, Italy, and Paris, and his work as a photojournalist in Berlin and Moscow. The pieces were never collected in book form, though numbers of persons who have commented on Abbe's work have mined it for quotations. The memoir is brief, charming, and informative. To supplement the excellent series of Abbe photographs being put up on the site, I thought members might like to read the original. I've added some of my favorite Abbe items in my collection as illustrations.

An Autobiography by James Abbe published serially in the Oakland Tribune 1961

Ah, the Sweet Taste of Success!

I decided to burn my Virginia bridges and establish a photographic beachhead in the big city. The year was 1917. I was 34. I rented a studio at 15 West 67th Street and began looking for business. There were 400 photographers listed in the phone book, so the outlook wasn’t promising. I had arrived in New York with a portfolio bulging with pictures but had been unable to peddle them. The local magazine editors were still of a Victorian frame of mind, and the pictures were startling for those days: college girls with bare knees, the photographs I had taken of the ballet girls at Randolph Macon Women’s College. Even fashionable Vogue magazine had turned me down. Its editor Edna Chase had received me cordially enough, but had not seen in me the makings of a fashion photographer. Much later I learned to appreciated Edna Chase, even shot some fashion photos for her in New York and Paris. It was Edna’s head man in Parais, Lucien Vogel, who once remarked that my photos of mannequins always suggested to him that had just arranged a rendezvous with the girl. He said I impressed him as one who felt more at home derriere la coulise (behind the scenes) at the Folies Bergeres than I did chez Lanvin or any of the ateliers of the Paris haute couture.

Finally my New York luck changed. I arranged to sell 30 less revealing photos of college girls for five dollars each to be used for illustrating fiction stories. All of them were later published, and as a result of them I began to get a name around New York. Down in Philadelphia the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal got wind of my success and perhaps remembering the brief contact I had with them that day I stopped en route to New York, asked me to submit some of my photographs to them I did. One of those I submitted was of actress Jeanne Eagels, and became a Post cover. For that picture I received $75. It was the first time the Post used a photograph on its cover. Months afterward, a poet called upon me in my New York studio with some of the prints I had sold the Post and the Journal. He had been assigned to write verses around them. I had never heard of him previously, but got to know him as a successful author later. His name was Christopher Morley.

I Photograph the Great

Many famous persons sat for me in my 6th Street studio during the years I lived and worked there. David Belasco was one of the earlier subjects. My pictures of Frances Starr, Lenore Ulric and Ina Claire, taken for Belasco, then at his peak as a producer, had been published in big-time slick magazines, and in the N.Y. Times rotogravure section which had more or less adopted me as its stage photographer. In my studio I worked only with daylight, a traditional artist’s north skylight.

Party Guests.
Many of my younger subjects became my Sunday afternoon party guests. They sometimes became noisy, but I kept out of trouble with my neighbors by including them in the parties—nearly all painters and illustrators like Howard Chander Christie and James Montgomery Flagg, or party-givers like Jimmy Breeze. One of my afternoon parties lasted until early morning. We had all gone to Jensen’s restaurant at 57th and Columbus, where we wined as well as dined. Returning to 15 West, Dick Barthelmess led a contingent up the fire escape to my fifth floor, dropping the tenants’ milk bottles crashing to the paved courtyard.

Critics on Stage.
This was the year the New York drama critics staged their own show on Broadway on a challenge from the producers. The critics had been panning one show after another and the producers finally said, all right, see if you can do better. Among the critics of that day were Heywood Broun, Burns Mantle, Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woolcott, and Robert Benchley. Only hit of the show was Benchley, whose uproarious portrayal of a crooked corporation treasurer launched him as actor and comedian. In the chorus line of this not-so-memorably show were Tallulah Bankhead, June Walker and Lenore Ulric, among others.

All that sort of thing was at the beginning of what is now called ‘the roaring twenties’ or prohibition speakeasies, postwar (No. 1) night life, bootlegging and leggy chorus girls. We didn’t feel we were roaring too much; we merely adjusted to a changing world as painlessly as possible.

Received Nod.
As a theatrical photographer this one merely received a ‘good evening’ nod on entering any stage door, be it Ziegfeld’s (New Amsterdam) Theater, John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies, or the Macdougal Street Playhouse, where I photographed Eugene O’Neill himself, his ‘Hairy Ape,’ ‘Emperor Jones’ and others. I had opened up a new field of stage photography, using the thousand watt lamps and spots to be found in every theater. It was John Barrymore who unwittingly opened the way.

Barrymore’s Rebellion

Because John Barrymore refused to pose for publicity stills in my studio, he opened up a new field of photography for me, and changed the style of camer publicity for the entertainment world. Barrymore had put his temperamental foot down when produer Arthur Hopkins and his publicity lady Ruth Hale (Mrs. Heywood Broun in private life) pleaded with him to visit my studio for the publicity shots. The year was 1919.

Final Stages.
Hopkins’ production of ‘The Jest’ was in the final stages of rehearsal at the Plymouth Theater. John and Lionel were co-starred in one of their infrequent appearances together.
During a discussion—which became an argument—in John’s dressing room, John held out against Hopkins, Lionel, Ruth and me. He said, ‘It is damned foolishness shooting pictures of performers in costume in some photographer’s studio. If photographs h ad any imagination they’d learn how to shoot in the theater, on the stage, with the sets and props that prove and adequate atmosphere.’ That crack at the likes of this photographer sounded like a cure. So, I brashly offered to work on the stage provided Hopkins would provide the full stage crew, including electricians and the portable thousand watt lamps. I never had done it before but I’d juggled lights shooting Norma Talmadge in a New York movie studio, so why not on a theater stage?

Put on Spot.
The offer put Hopkins John, Ruth (and to a lesser degree Lionel, who was amenable to anything) on the spot. Overtime for the crew after a rehearsal would run into money; especially as I insisted upon at least three hours of time. John was unhappy, because actually he didn’t care if the papers published a single picture of him. Hopkins didn’t relish the overtime. Ruth wasn’t convinced that this type of publicity photo would make a hit with the press. But they all reluctantly agreed to go through with it.

Paid Off Big.
The four-hour, midnight to morning session paid off big. The papers went all out with the pictures. The magazines berated Ruth and me for not saving them exclusives. From then on virtually every show that opened on Broadway afforded me the exclusive shooting rights on stage, and I was seemingly on the way to live high on the hog, ever after. Archie Selwyn sent me to Detroit to shoot Jane Cowl in ‘Smilin’ Throught. John Murray Anderson sent me to Atlantic City for the pre-Broadway start of ‘Greenwich Village Follies” Then to Washington for ‘Tangerine’ with Julia Sanderson and Frank Crummit.

Hollywood Beckons

In 1919 I moved from 67th St. to Tin Pan Alley on 47th St. outfitting a big room over the roof of the Romax Building with motion picture lights like an undersized movie studio. I was in fast company in that location, what with neighbors like Irving Berlin and ex-champion heavy-weight of the world Jack Johnson. Posing for stills in my new studio, film stors like Lillian Gish, Theda Bara, Mabel Normand and Pola Negri would ask ‘Jim, why not move to the picture-taking capital of the world?” When D. W. Griffith said he thought I should pay the film colony a visit, my mind was made up.

Had it Made.
Since I had established a reputation in New York, you might say I ‘had it made’ when I went to Hollywood. I checked in at the Hollywood Hotel with its old-fashioned rocking chair front porch facing Hollywood Boulevard, and its rock-em and roll-em Saturday night dance parties. It was here the movie elite flocked on Saturday nights, along with the movie-struck girls from far and wide longing to be elite. Feeling the need of feminine companionship, I looked up Helen Weir, who was new to Hollywood. We went to an obscure (as I recall it) Los Angeles hotel with a five-piece dance orchestra, led by a man who played the violin as he directed his players. I had got acquainted with the diminutive and gentle Helen while shooting photos for David Belasco in New Yorked—publicity stills for a revival production of ‘The Music Master’ with David Warfield. Helen played the young girl the aging music master adored. (No wonder!)

Danced Divinely.
Helen, a charming diminutive blonde, danced divinely. As we moved about the floor I was in dreamland, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Back at our table between number, holding Helen’s hand, I said, ‘By rights we should tell that ‘music master’ that he and his orchestra are tops’ So we did. We asked him why, with all his talent, he wasn’t playing New York for big money. (Speaking like the sophisticated New Yorker I considered myself in those days.)

Yen for New York.
“I have always wanted to play in New York,” he replied. “But when I left Denver, it took less carfare to get to Los Angeles. Besides, movies studios were looking for orchestras to play mood music. I hinted I had connections in New York. “Would any of them pay our way back there?” he asked. I said I thought they might. “But would they stake us to fare back to L.A. if they were not pleased?” I wasn’t so sure of that. But Helen and I agreed, returning to our dancing, that New York would warm to this man. His name: Paul Whiteman.

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    kittyinva wrote on Feb 3, '10
    This is SO interesting. Thank you for taking so much time to share it with us all. Kathie
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