NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Harry Benson

GET UPDATES FROM Harry Benson
 

RFK's Assassination, The Reagans Dancing, The Clintons Kissing: The Photographs Of Harry Benson (PHOTOS)

Posted: 12/10/09 01:58 PM ET

On one hand, to decide which pictures to use for my new book, "Harry Benson: Photographs", was a hell of a task. On the other hand, it was quite easy. Basically it comes down to your eye: that's a good picture or that's a bad picture. Either you like it or you don't. My wife, Gigi, and I went over hundreds of photographs to narrow it down. Actually it was Gigi who talked me into doing this book as I was hesitant about it. In retrospect, I'm glad she did. People ask me if I am still working and, yes, I'm still working. After all, people retire to do what I do -- take pictures. (Scroll down for photos.)

Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, Grey Gardens, Southampton, New York, 1971
The Bouvier Beales were photographed in 1971, almost four years before the documentary was made. I had to weave my way through bramble to reach the house. Finally a 'yoo hoo' came wafting down from the second floor. I was invited into the house when Edith and her daughter Edie learned I was from Scotland. Edith had not been downstairs in almost a year, and when she saw the state of the house -- debris everywhere, cat food cans piled up to the window sill, the stench of cat urine permeating the house -- she scolded her daughter, "Edie, you haven't been doing the dusting."

Edith wore a diamond bracelet and a housecoat for the photograph. She mentioned that Jackie (Kennedy) was still very upset over the death of the Senator. When I said, "You mean her husband, John?'" Mrs. Beale replied, "No, Robert." Before I left Edie sang a song for me and pointed out that when they were teens, she was considered more beautiful than her cousins, Jackie and Lee.

It was frightening to see the way they lived with no electricity or telephone and in total squalor. What was interesting is the fact that there was no interest in the story from the national press and only Newsday would print the story at the time.

President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, The White House, Washington DC, 1985
Tina Brown asked me to photograph the Reagans for the cover of Vanity Fair. The White House staff said we could have five minutes before the Reagans hosted a state dinner.

While waiting in the Map Room, I turned it into a studio. The White House staff were taken by surprise but couldn't do anything about it when they walked in with the Reagans. I put on a tape of Sinatra singing "Nancy with the Laughing Face". The Reagans laughed and started dancing as I snapped their photo. The cover sold off the stands, and Vanity Fair, which was on the verge of being closed by Si Newhouse, was given a reprieve.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, June 5,1968
I don't know why I covered Bobby's speech that evening as everyone knew he would win the California Democratic Primary. But something told me not to miss it. "And on the Chicago" brought a roar from the crowd. I followed Bobby out through the kitchen. I heard the scream and it told me everything I needed to know. I knew this was it. We had walked out of happiness into hell. I kept telling myself 'this is for history, pull yourself together, fail tomorrow, not today'.

Someone placed a rosary in his hand as he lay on the floor.

Ethel Kennedy, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, June 5, 1968
I was standing on the warming table in the center of the room. Ethel was brought to Bobby's side. She turned and put her hand up and said, "Give him air." I was stuffing the exposed film into my sock in case a policeman demanded my film. One of the last to leave the kitchen that night, I saw a campaign worker put her straw boater on the pool of blood on the floor. That was all that was left.

The Clintons' Kiss, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1992.
Governor Clinton was campaigning for the presidency when I flew to Little Rock to photograph him. I like this photograph because their lips don't quite meet. I think it is more sensuous. Having photographed the Clintons many times since, this is my favorite photograph of the couple.

President Richard Nixon, The Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, 1974
Nixon was giving a speech in the Israeli legislature at the invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Behind him loomed the massive Chagall mural of Moses with the ten commandments. What struck me was Nixon without knowing it held his hands exactly like those in the painting.

R. Crumb, New York City, 1968
Underground cartoonist and cult figure R. Crumb was an early subject for one of my early stories for Life Magazine. The assigning editor didn't realize how raunchy his drawings were and the story never ran. He was quite amusing, slightly outrageous, and I had a lot of fun photographing him.

Truman Capote, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1980
The diminutive writer with the high-pitched voice was the most melancholic person I have ever met, yet he was surprisingly tough, a quality people didn't expect at first meeting. Back in his hometown for a visit, we were having dinner at the hotel when he began to cry as he started talking about the two convicted murderers he wrote about in 'In Cold Blood.'