The Bad & The Beautiful Book Release

by David Patrick Columbia, New York Social Diary

October 2004


Over at Bergdorf’s last Thursday night they had a book signing for Ellen Graham and her new book, The Bad and the Beautiful (Abrams, publishers, with introduction by John Loring). Ellen Graham has been taking pictures for many years. Her work has been seen in all the major magazines of fashion and style. Many of her portraits are some of the most important people of their day.

She took her first important photograph when she was seventeen – on the Lido in Venice where she was vacationing with her mother – of Valentina, the great fashion designer of the 1930s and 40s. Valentina is remembered today for having once been a companion of Greta Garbo who took up, in some way or another, with Valentina’s husband George Schlee. The two lived in the same building for years thereafter, 450 East 52nd Street, and saw to it that they never shared the same elevator or crossed paths in the lobby.

A man named Gaylord Hauser (the most famous nutritionist of the 1950s) brought Garbo to Graham’s house in Beverly Hills for dinner one night. The house which Graham shares with her husband, insurance executive Ian Graham, is filled with Graham’s work. Garbo, while having a tour, saw the picture of Valentina – along with portraits of Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, David Bowie, Gloria Swanson, etc.

“Who are these people?” the legendary star wanted to know. “Are they your friends? Who took the pictures?”

Graham already knew that the woman habitually recoiled from even the thought of any kind of publicity, and she knew also of her history with Valentina. It wouldn’t have been unlikely if Garbo at that moment turned on heel and departed, but Graham had to confess to her guest that the pictures were her work.

“Well, they are first class.”

Garbo came back several times for dinner and never mentioned them again. Nor did Graham ever ask to take her picture, knowing that would be the end of the relationship then and there.

Ellen Graham’s first big professional assignment came forty years ago, photographing “the World’s One Hundred Most Attractive Men” for Men’s Bazaar. Both the magazine and the men liked the results, and she was invited back for more.

In 1974, she was asked to photograph Gloria Swanson, then as old as the century, during the filming of Airport ’75. Graham remembers thinking:

“How am I going to make a seventy-four-year-old woman look good?” She recalls, “well, she made me look good. She never lost it, she was incredibly beautiful at seventy-four. She had pale blue eyes that didn’t look at you – they looked through you. Those eyes had seen it all, and I could never get over how beautiful she was.”

“I suggested shooting Gloria on a bare stage surrounded by the empty chairs of the other stars of the film” (which included Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Helen Reddy, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Efrem Zimbalist and Martha Scott). Two hundred people watched at Universal Studios as Miss Swanson walked out onto the set and sat down in her chair. She was magnificent. She was the only real star, and she knew it.”

Swanson, like a lot of actors, hated to be photographed. She said it was worse than going to the dentist. The still photograph is anathema to many of the biggest stars. There’s nothing to do for the still. They like something where they can be moving, where they can play a part.

Swanson and Graham became friends after that first shoot. She later photographed the legend in denim and sables for Vogue and for the cover of her autobiography, Swanson.

After that initial shoot, Ellen Graham has photographed many stars and legends including Groucho, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Sammy Davis Jr, Dietrich, Joe Louis, Rudolph Nureyev, Diana Vreeland and Fred Astaire.

There are many others who skyrocketed to fame after Graham first photographed them including Candice Bergen, Christopher Walken (who graces the cover) Anthony Hopkins, Viggo Mortenson, Kevin Kline, Lorenzo Lamas.

There are many whose fame has survived: Prince Philip, Arlene Dahl, Kirk Douglas, roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Olivia de Haviland, her sister Joan Fontaine, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and Dominick Dunne. Their images can all be found in the book.

There are images of those who came to tragic circumstances including Monroe, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Vicki Morgan – the mistress of Alfred Bloomingdale who was murdered after his death, and Berry Berenson who was killed in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

There are also those never touched by fame such as the transvestite prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne, the people at the racetrack in Paris, the street photographer in Havana. There are the young – the baby-faced Melanie Griffith and the American-looking preppie Prince Albert of Monaco, as well as the old – Al Hirschfeld, still at work at his drawing board in his nineties, and the eternally chic – Denise Hale (at the time of the photograph was Denise (Mrs. Vincente) Minnelli of Beverly Hills draped in a white towel that could pass for a Madame Gres, as well as Manhattan’s own Nan Kempner, and the eternally beautiful model Carmen.

Many familiar, many a memory, many like us, just faces of humanity, all to intrigue. As Garbo said, “they are first class.”