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Bigwigs, swells, swans, cafe society — Benno Graziani has interviewed, photographed and befriended more than his share.
This story first appeared in the November 6, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
And he is still at it, writing longhand and snapping his own photos with no need for a cell phone or computers. Antiquarian as that might seem, Graziani very much lives in the moment — which is evident in the images (many of which he happens to be in) in “Collection Privée,” his book depicting the jet-set’s European follies from 1955 to 1975. During his New York stay, the Paris-based journalist and his wife, Ghislaine, hosted a book party, caught up with friends and canvassed the major art museums.
In the Fifties, Graziani’s high-flying, carpe diem lifestyle inspired his pal Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” As editor of Paris Match from 1949 to 1960, Graziani profiled bold-faced names and routinely snapped a few candids even though a photographer was always on hand. His shots — such as the one of Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill, slack as can be in beach chairs sharing a smoke — were taken for pleasure or for his subjects, not for publication. That swimsuit shot, as well as ones of Grace Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, Gianni Agnelli, Ursula Andress and others at play, are on view by appointment at the Upper East Side townhouse owned by another chum, Oleg Cassini, through Tuesday.
During an interview there Tuesday, Graziani jauntily chatted about his career, the jam-packed magazine market and the two museum exhibitions planned for next year in Rome and his hometown of Nice. In his heyday in the Fifties, Paris Match sold nearly two million copies each week and now that figure is closer to 500,000. (The Kennedy assassination sold almost three million.)
Spurred on by the reception to “Collection Privée,” Graziani has embarked on another about his 50 years in journalism due out next year. “I live on my memories,” he said with a shrug. “I could write 10 books. This next one is going to be 700 pages with maybe 1,000 photographs.”
While many consider Paris Match to be the precursor of tabloid journalism, Graziani bears no responsibility for the zenith it has rocketed to. He scoffed at the suggestion the paparazzi shouldered some blame for Princess Diana’s death, saying, “She loved the publicity and the paparazzi. Her driver was drunk.”
While sharp elbows are an essential tool of the trade today, Graziani was more accustomed to the double-air kiss. That gentility can be seen in his subjects, who were often captured laughing, carousing and looking genuinely glad to see one another. “I made friendships with all the people I interviewed and photographed always — even Jackie Kennedy,” Graziani said.
They met when she was a cub photographer-reporter for the Washington Times Herald in the Fifties. His journalistic advice for her? “Make short articles with pictures and always write with humor. But she was really a good journalist by herself.” They remained friends for 50 years, though she never uttered a word about whom she held responsible for her husband’s death.
“A good photograph is a photograph that tells a story in two seconds. You can see immediately if the picture is good or not. The picture must speak to the spectator,” he said. “Today some [celebrity photographs] are good but they don’t make reportage. They are good for fashion or for publicity. Before people loved to be photographed. The paparazzi did not disrespect them.”
The same could not be said of Graziani, who tipped off the Shah of Iran to the counter-coup in Tehran, served as a war correspondent with the Israeli army and chronicled President Eisenhower’s 1959 trip around the world, among other historic events. He was as at ease with Jean Cocteau or Henry Luce as he was with John Wayne. Contrary to today’s one-track media pack, “We did everything. We fought wars. Opera, movies — we changed subjects every week. There were few journalists at this time. TV did not exist, so we were the TV of France. It was so easy to talk to people then. There was no paparazzi. They didn’t exist yet. It’s a different journalism now. Everything is different. There are too many photographers now. When Sharon Stone comes to Paris, they fight to take one picture. There are too many magazines. In America, how many are there — 2,000, 3,000?” he said. “We are in another time now. It will never return to what it was. It never does.”
Asked how he would change the U.S. media landscape given the chance, Graziani said, “They should take away 50 percent of those magazines. You read them and you forget what you read two minutes later. No one reads books. People prefer to watch TV or read magazines now. It’s another civilization. When you live long enough, you see that all of life changes.”