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Private Lives: Picture Perfect

Matthew Lynch sits down with beauty's prince of prints, John Demsey.

Actually, that photograph there is probably my new favorite,” John Demsey says, pointing to a Bert Stern portrait of Elizabeth Taylor circa 1960 vamping in full Cleopatra regalia. Demsey is on the second floor of his townhouse in New York’s east sixties, a building that both Teddy Roosevelt and Montgomery Clift once called home. In addition to housing the Estée Lauder Cos. group president, his young daughter and three cats, the abode is also home to Demsey’s vast photography collection, which hangs amid a Willy Wonka–worthy trove of pop ephemera.

“Talk about a score,” Demsey says of the Taylor shot. “[Stern] signed that a week before he died… Not to make anybody nervous about selling me anything.”

Not 10 minutes prior, he had estimated that another recent acquisition, a William Klein shot of Muhammad Ali, was his favorite. He pauses to think and the truth emerges: “It’s whatever’s the newest.”

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Given Demsey’s knack for recognizing the next great cool thing, it makes sense that he’d spend his off hours hunting out such iconography. Demsey is perched on a couch, a giant 1980-something Patrick McMullan print of Grace Jones hanging over his shoulder. Nearby is Delmar Watson’s much-reproduced shot of Sophia Loren catching a sideways glance of Jayne Mansfield’s decolletage. The collection weaves from David Bailey’s Sixties Mods to Ron Galella’s paparazzi work in the Seventies to modern-day fashion photography by the likes of Miles Aldridge, Steven Klein and Terry Richardson. The whole thing is an overstimulized pop dream punctuated by the 650 Fornasetti plates that also hang around the house.

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Demsey wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mention that certain professionals prefer to leave their work at the office, Demsey scoffs. “Most of our art directors live in minimalist environments,” he laughs in concession.

The collection’s two urtexts hang on the third floor. First is a portrait of Demsey at age 18 taken by the 20th century master Yousuf Karsh, commissioned by his father. The second is a black-and-white publicity still of Brigitte Bardot as a brunette that Demsey found in a Paris flea market.

“I was a fan of pop culture… I bought old publicity photos,” he says of that very first acquisition. “When you’re in college, you can’t really afford very much.”

Presumably, Demsey’s budget is a bit larger these days.

“I’ve been known to buy art sitting in a boring meeting on my Blackberry,” he smiles.