What Slim Saw

He began his career as a combat photographer in the Second World War, and it was an experience that defined the rest of Slim Aarons’ life. ‘Beaches were made for lying on, not invading,’ he concluded. 18 years after his death his death, the Aarons legend — as a chronicler of the jet set, high society’s leading impressionist — is as strong as ever.

What Slim Saw

Ibelieve in fairytales. For six decades I have concentrated on photographing attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places.” These words have the ring of F. Scott Fitzgerald about them: they could have been spoken by a Nick Carraway or Dick Diver, and would make a suitable introduction to a novella or short story. But they belong to Slim Aarons, and he used them to introduce his 2003 photo-memoir, Once Upon a Time. A few years earlier Getty had bought the Aarons archive, and this was the book that presented the Aarons oeuvre to a generation unborn when he had been at his zenith. The publication marked the return and rehabilitation of one of the most remarkable chroniclers of high society during the second half of the 20th century. He died three years later, aged 89, but happily he lived long enough to witness a revival of interest in his work. 

This was not the first Slim Aarons book. Almost 30 years earlier he had published A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life. In its pre-Christmas round-up of books in December 1974, The New York Times did not hold back, describing it as “the most repelling” of photography books published that year, “a survey of rich homes, people and resorts that manages to make even T.S. Eliot look decadent”. (By contrast, in the same round-up, Leni Riefenstahl, the glamoriser-in-chief of the Third Reich, came off rather better: her photographic study of an obscure Sudanesetribewasdescribedas“haunting”.) 

To be fair to the Times, this was the age of Watergate, the oil shock, and the final act of the war in Vietnam, so America — especially the high-minded America of The New York Times — was not in the mood for lavish and lush photography depicting the idle rich at play. Now, of course, A Wonderful Time is a collector’s item selling for thousands, and even a first edition of Once Upon a Time won’t leave you much change from a grand. 

Once Upon a Time was a hit. It was followed by Slim Aarons: A Place in the Sun (2005); Poolside with Slim Aarons (2007); Slim Aarons: La Dolce Vita (2012); and Slim Aarons: Women (2016). And there are more in the pipeline. In late 2019 I was approached about contributing to one or other of two forthcoming Aarons books, the first with the working title Slim Aarons Style, which focuses on his early fashion work, and a large-format 400-plus pager, nicknamed ‘Fat Slim’, which is a comprehensive survey of his body of work. Then, of course, there is the brisk trade in everything from framed prints to Slim Aarons swimming trunks. 

I believe in fairytales. For six decades I concentrated on photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.

Sgt. Aarons holds the wartime booklet on how to behave in Britain, 1942.
Aarons, far right, pictured with the mobster Lucky Luciano, centre.
On a romantic punt in Britain.
Slim trying his hand at cricket.

Since his rediscovery, Aarons has become an industry. But I was lucky enough to meet him when he was still just a sprightly octogenarian living the life of a country gentleman about an hour outside New York. Shortly after the publication of Once Upon a Time, I made the pilgrimage to his farmhouse in Westchester County, where, beneath an inscription above the front door dating the house to the 1780s, I was greeted by a man in a knitted skiing jacket he had picked up half a century earlier in an Austrian winter sports resort. Although in his late eighties, he was still recognisable as the 6’4” man with the movie-star looks who had been photographer-by-appointment to the jet set. I pointed out that he bore a striking resemblance to one film star in particular, Jimmy Stewart. Clearly I was not the first person to make this observation, and he had his riposte ready. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he muttered, “Thanks. He’s dead.” By the time I met him he had reached that stage in life when the filter between what entered his mind and what came out of his mouth was beyond repair. “You’ve probably got the last interview with me,” he chuckled when, after a lunch of smoked salmon, cranberry sauce, cheese, iced grapes, and a pitcher of pink lemonade, I followed him into his den, where I conducted the interview in front of a brand-new home cinema operating at full volume. 

Like so many of his generation (he was born in 1916), the defining event of his life was world war two. Slim enlisted in the army, and by the time America joined the war he was the official photographer at West Point military academy, where Dwight Eisenhower’s son was a cadet. Next thing Aarons knew, Frank Capra “came to West Point looking for people for Yank magazine”. Yank magazine was the weekly U.S. armed forces magazine, fulfilling the role of the weekend supplement to the daily newspaper Stars and Stripes. “I was lucky Frank Capra loved tall guys, and we hit it offrightaway,”Aaronssaid.“Heaskedme,‘Howwouldyoulike to go and be a photographer on Yank magazine and go over and photograph the war?’ I said, ‘Fine’.”

He found himself taking his first flight aboard the Pan Am Clipper bound for Europe. On his arrival in London the first thing he did was take a note to H.Q. for Eisenhower from his son. Then it was a case of being bought endless drinks by grateful Londoners. “Hitler was going full blast and England was in trouble,” he said. He did his best to observe local customs: “There was a little booklet which came to the troops on how to behave in Great Britain. It said that if a girl tells you to knock her up at seven it means ring her up at seven rather than maker her pregnant at seven.” He even told me that he went to 10 Downing Street to see if Winston Churchill was home. “The [security] guy said, ‘Sorry, he is not here, he is in Moscow with what’s his name... Stalin’.” 

Slim saw the Desert war with Alexander and Montgomery, and told great stories, like the one about the time the Long Range Desert Group “went out to capture Rommel on his birthday, but he was in the john and they missed him”. As well as the good times, like the liberation of a brothel in Marseilles and naming his jeep after a particularly beautiful nurse with whom he fell in love, there were moments of horror, when he saw the inside of a concentration camp, and paralysing terror, such as the Battle of Monte Cassino, when anyone being sent to the frontline had to carry in supplies. “They put a roll of barbed wire on me and we went up the hill,” he said. “I was so frightened I shit in my pants. I was so scared, but nobodycanscaremenowwithanythingafterthat.” 

He was awarded the Purple Heart, though the second world war did not turn him into a war junkie. “I decided I’d had my fill of human suffering and despair,” he said. “When I was asked to hotfoot it to Korea to cover the war, I let it be known the only beach I was interested in landing on was one decorated with beautiful girls tanning in a tranquil sun. Beaches were made for strolling and lying on, not for invading.” It was a maxim that was to guide the rest of his long and, yes, wonderful life. From then on, the only shooting he was interested in was with a camera. 

Aarons may have seemed all easy-going charm, but he approached his work with an almost scientific discipline. 

A Christmas portrait of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with their son, Stephen.
Chorus girls backstage at La Scala.
Louis Armstrong eating pasta.
H.S.H. Heinrich von und zu Fürstenberg with his wife, Maximiliana, in the grounds of Schloss Fürstenberg. The tail of the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter is painted in the family colours, matching the flag on the mansion roof.
Britt Ekland in Porto Ercole.
Consuelo Crespi and a friend in conversation with Marcello Mastroianni on the Costa Smeralda, 1968.
Marilyn Monroe going through her fan mail.
Laddie Sanford.
Prince Philip at the Royal Albert Hall in 1955.
Stars chatting at a party in Beverly Hills in 1954: rom left to right, the actor James Mason, the restaurateur Michael Romanoff, and the actress Pamela Mason.

On his return to America, he started freelancing for the then burgeoning colour magazines, covering the New York and Hollywood social circuits. In Manhattan he was capturing the sort of life that would have been familiar to Edith Wharton: débutante cotillions, dance classes, and scions of the Vanderbilt, Astor, Rockefeller and Van Rensselaer dynasties. Out on ‘the coast’ he was shooting Golden Age Hollywood: Bogart, Bacall, a twentysomething Joan Collins on a pink bed with a pink poodle, Marilyn Monroe amid an avalanche of fan mail, and the Howards Hawks and Hughes. In 1957 he captured what is arguably the defining image of the era: the ‘Kings of Hollywood’, which depicts Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and James Stewart celebrating New Year’s Eve in white-tie. As Aarons mingled with his subjects, they were won over by his lanky good looks and easy-going charm. He had actually screen-tested for a role in Hollywood, and he told me that Hitchcock had modelled the set of Rear Window on his apartment on the West Side. 

Even if he had remained a chronicler of the high life in L.A. and New York, he would have achieved lasting fame. But his reach was global. When Life opened a Rome bureau, he took a job there just as the Dolce Vita was beginning to sweeten. When we met, he was still able to fit into the Brioni dinner jacket he had had made in Rome in the fifties, and he reminisced fondly of life on Via Veneto at a time when a couple of hundred lire could fill a girl’s room with flowers. What Nadar achieved with the gratin of Second Empire and Belle Époque Paris, and Beaton did for the Bright Young Things of London Café Society, Aarons accomplished globally. 

During the 1950s and sixties life kept getting better, and it was during these decades that Aarons perfected his signature style, probably best described as the sort of ‘conversation piece’ popularised during the 18th century and updated for the jet age. 

Conversation piece paintings were a break from the tradition of formal portraiture, and depicted their sitters interacting with their surroundings, their pets, their possessions, and each other. Slim’s photographs and the paintings of Johan Zoffany may be separated by a couple of centuries, but they are united by their careful composition. Aarons perfected this way of working under Frank Zachary, his editor first at Holiday magazine from the 1950s and then at Town & Country until 1991. Zachary described Slim’s pictures as “environmental portraits”. 

Aarons may have seemed all easy-going, wisecracking charm, but he approached his work with an almost scientific discipline. He told me that he had a points system for composing pictures that went something like this: a noble sitter (one point), doing something domestic, say, eating breakfast (one point), with a beautiful spouse (one point), in the cavernous interior of a castle or stately home (one point). Other objects scored bonus points (for instance: the motorcycle next to Lord Hesketh outside his ancestral seat of Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, or the helicopter painted in the family colours of H.S.H. Prince Heinrich von und zu Fürstenberg that matched the flag atop the family palace in the background while he strode into the foreground accompanied by his young wife (a Windisch-Graetz) and an old English sheepdog). 

Aarons’ subject matter is polarising in as much as it does not carry the cultural payload associated with the photography of suffering and poverty. His may not be the world of Don McCullin’s starving Biafran mother suckling a baby on her withered breasts, his shellshocked U.S. soldier in Vietnam, or his grime-encrusted vagrant gazing blankly into the lens, yet it is too easy and facile to dismiss Slim’s work as merely meretricious pandering to the vanity of an elite leisure class, as The New York Times did in 1974. Slim would be the first to admit that it was fun — after all, that was the promise he made to himself after witnessing the horrors of war — but, like an anthropologist specialising in the study of exotic nomadic tribes, his body of work, built up over half a century, documents and examines the customs and rituals of the true jet set, from its tentative beginnings in the years following the second world war to its end in the vapid vulgarity of today’s celebrity culture (the definition of an oxymoron). 

Because he was active for such a long time, he revisited locations and subjects multiple times. For example, the Lord Hesketh he photographed as a bonhomous, bow-tied F1 boss turned motorcycle maker in 1990 was also the Lord Hesketh he’d photographed as a seven-year-old child in red shorts fishing in the pond in front of which — 33 years later — Hesketh was then photographed with his young daughters. 

Sunbathers by a swimming pool at the Hotel Punta Tragara in Capri in 1974.
Boutique owner Paul Pallardy helps a customer choose a bikini top in Saint-Tropez.
Inez Calleja dries off in the sun in Marbella.
Valerie Cates in Marbella.
A woman combing her hair by a waterfall at Rose Hall, Jamaica.
Women having lunch in Saint-Tropez.

Aarons may be celebrated today for his portraits, but his landscape work deserves serious consideration, too, not least because, as he returned to some favourite spots over the course of his career, he effectively charted the development of some of the most emblematic locations in the world. 

His photographs of Marbella and its residents — whether Hector and Chico de Ayala and their guests around the pool of her house beneath the mountain La Concha, or Bastiano Bergese in the pine-shaded garden of the beachside villa subsequently owned by Baron Hubert von Pantz and the oil mogul Marc Rich — are a photographic history of the early decades of the resort founded by Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe. 

Aarons pulled off the same trick between 1967 and 1991 by visiting Il Pellicano hotel in Porto Ercole, Italy. He shot its founder, Michael Graham, with a cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, and the current owner, Roberto Sciò, with his wife, Marie-Louise, reclining on a brightly patterned sofa.

His Porto Ercole pictures demonstrate another aspect of his work, in that it constitutes the closest thing there is to a register of the jet set, reifying the world of glamour in a manner that, say, Debrett’s and the Gotha were too rigidly traditional to capture. A long-tressed, big-eyed, multi-ringed, arm-scarfed Britt Ekland in Porto Ercole in 1969 warrants her place in the Aarons archive just as much as a more demure looking but extravagantly named Countess Desideria dei Principe Corsini di Laiatico shot in a T-shirt and simple necklace in 1973. 

In one way, that world of glamour is gone, but at the same time it lives on in Slim’s work, a vast back catalogue that reaches from Acapulco to Aspen and the Bahamas to Burma, and incorporates poets (T.S. Eliot among them) and princesses (too many to count) alike. Moreover, in today’s world, so much of which is lived vicariously online and through social media, his images enjoy an existence that he could never have imagined as references on a global, ever-expanding mood board. Whether it is the Neutra house and pool photographed in 1970 in Palm Springs, which has become internationally understood as shorthand for the world of mid-century modern design, or the 1955 image of Palm Beach polo star Laddie Sanford resting in a folding canvas chair next to a station wagon (which is said to have been a source of inspiration for Ralph Lauren), in an increasingly visual culture Slim’s images give new life to the cliché that the right picture is worth a thousand words (and certainly 140 characters). 

Slim became better connected than most of the people he photographed. One of the most famous anecdotes concerns Royal Ascot. Depending on who tells the story, Slim was either having trouble getting into the Royal Enclosure or getting into trouble for trying to take a photograph, whereupon a friendly voice called out his name. The friendly voice belonged to the late Duke of Edinburgh, who made sure that Slim wasn’t given any more trouble. “I did so many pictures of Prince Philip, and he gottoknowme,”Aaronsexplained.Hewaspleasedaboutthat. But then, who wouldn’t be? 

In one way, that world of glamour is gone, but at the same time it lives on in Slim Aarons’ work. 

A group of men and women on Portogallo beach in Brazil, 1988.
The bar at Plantation Cocoyer in Haiti.
A famous Aarons image, of guests at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France, August 1976.
The Ferragamo family at their residence in Tuscany.

War photography aside, almost without exception his images flatter — after all, he was in the business of portraying the wonderful life. Nevertheless, Slim did not sell out. “I never had a boss,” he told me. “I did things my way.” Although, according to one former editor, he loved to boast of the royalty and aristocracy he photographed, when necessary he knew how to put his subjects in their place. During our meeting he described a mutual friend as being minor European nobility (though it was almost 20 years ago, I remember the ‘minor’ being particularly important), and in a 2016 documentary, Slim Aarons: The High Life, Laura Hawk,  one of his assistants, recalled how, during an evening in Palm Beach, he bumped into the lavatory paper heir Jim Kimberly and addressed him as “the Kleenex and Cotex guy”, at which Kimberly  bridled. “He loved to chide and poke at people,” Hawk said. “Maybe that was a way he kinda pulled rank.” 

The same film made an interesting disclosure that goes some way to explaining that remark. During Slim’s lifetime, his upbringing was described as that of an orphan raised by New England grandparents. “He loved to tell the story of his classic New Hampshire childhood,” read the foreword to Slim Aarons: Women. “The genesis of Slim’s straightforward style lies in his Yankee roots,” his long-time editor and mentor Frank Zachary wrote in the introduction to Once Upon a Time. 

So, after his death, his widow and daughter were astounded to be contacted by a family they never knew he had. It transpired that Slim was the child of Jewish immigrants to America at a time when anti-Semitism was more prevalent than it is today. Instead of New Hampshire, he had lived a troubled childhood on the Lower East Side, passed from relative to relative after his mother was institutionalised. Thus, when he strode confidently through the palaces and pleasure grounds of the Old World, it was not just as an interloping photographer but as an interloping photographer who invented his biography. Though why not? He spent half a century photographing people who could do and act as they pleased, so if he did not care for his childhood why shouldn’t he create himself a more congenial one? 

With that in mind, the dedication in one of the books he gave to the man he saw as his creative heir, the society photographer Jonathan Becker, makes complete sense: 
Dear Jonathan,
Remember. It’s all Bullshit.
Best as Always,

Previous spread: passengers on Dino Pecci Blunt’s yacht in Marbella in 1967.

Photo Credits: Getty Images