A contemporary of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Francesco Scavullo, William “Bill” Helburn was at the top of his profession from the early 1950s through the 1960s, with bylined covers and editorial images in the pages of such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and McCall’s. Helburn also worked extensively in advertising. Throughout his career Helburn strove to grab the viewer’s attention, “Shock value was a term that was used. And I meant to shock people as much as I could.” A few years ago Gillian McCain went to Connecticut to buy some photos and talk with Helburn. Below is their conversation, edited.
W: So, what do you want to talk about?
G: Well, I heard you used to throw really amazing parties.
W: I did. I always told people that I had a list of the most important things in my life. Number one was women and intimacy; sex. Number two was your first car. That gave you freedom you never experienced, before that you were limited to walking and roller-skating, but when you had wheels…
G: You could do anything.
W: You could escape. The third was I had Count Basie play at my studio for a party—this was my third most wonderful thing. Count Basie’s band came, set up at one end of my studio. At the other end Gino, a restaurant…
G: Oh, Gino’s the restaurant that just closed?
W: Yes. And he gave me his bartender and so I stood there at the bar with a martini and Basie came up to me and he said, “Bill, would you like to hear a number?” And there I was alone on the roof on Park Avenue looking up at the stars and Basie played “April in Paris”…da, da, da… And then—just to heighten that moment—a blonde head peaked around the corner and said, “Bill, can I come in?” About three weeks earlier I had done pictures of Jayne Mansfield—she was in a Broadway play with Walter Matthau and Martin Gable, who was a name then—and she wanted to thank me for the pictures. So, she came in the studio while Basie was playing and her head and boobs stepped around the corner, you may notice I’m a boob man, so we really can’t get married.
“The first two girls that came through the door were Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly… “
W: Anyway… That’s the biggest moment, third biggest. Fourth is I was a swimmer in school and I dove and I was in the Olympics…
G: You were?
W: … but it was kind of an ersatz sort of Olympics. It was when I was in Guam, which was with the 20th Air Force Bomb… in order to get you out of the service was based on how many points you’d accumulated… but I had very few. I had been in the service a while but I hadn’t done anything miraculous like any bombing missions or things like that. So they asked if I wanted to be in the Olympics. They were having Olympic games for New Zealand and Australia and Americans and all the Pacific theater troops so I went to Honolulu and I was a diver representing the Mariana Islands.
W: Eventually I built a house in West Hampton and early in the morning when my wife was asleep and the whole town was dead… and the mist was coming off the ground…
G: You’d go swimming.
W: … I got naked and jumped into my pool and I thought, that’s number five… or was it four? Who cares.
“When I started in the business all of the photographers were gay. So I had no competition whatsoever. It was like the dessert cart was being wheeled by in the restaurant. “
G: How old are you?
W: It’s a secret… eighty-seven.
G: Okay, let’s talk about your photographs.
W: I thought you wanted to get me into bed.
G: Maybe later.
W: I brag about everybody I ever slept with.
G: Okay, so name names.
W: Name names?
G: Dorian Leigh?
W: Oh sure.
G: Suzy Parker?
W: Carmen, no.
G: Jean Shrimpton?
W: Yes. We lived together for about six months.
W: I never worked with her. She was a little too scrawny. When I started in the business all of the photographers were gay. So I had no competition whatsoever. It was like the dessert cart was being wheeled by in the restaurant. It was just ridiculous. I thought this ugly Jewish kid, I’m going to never get rid of my acne, I’m never going to have a girl, I was too bright in school so I was too young and everybody was ahead of me.
G: Tell me what it was like early on in the business.
W: When I first went in business I had a partner, Ted Crowner, who was never as successful as me but he did reportage and he has lots and lots of stuff at MOMA. We were overseas together and he was staying in New York and we were going to get together on Monday—this was maybe a Friday—and talk about what we were going to do. I had some big ideas on being aerial photographers because we sort of had a little background in that and people were buying army surplus cameras and airplanes, so we entertained doing that. I thought with all the cameras and my knowledge… I was also going to do weddings and bar mitzvahs. Anyway, Ted went up to Stowe in Vermont to go skiing and I stayed at home, pinched my pimples and Monday morning he and I got together and he said, “Bill, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do …” I said, “What?” He said, “I was at Stowe and I got up early one morning to go skiing and I took the milk run up where they bring the food up to the top of the hill—where there’s a place to have hamburgers and milkshakes—and as I’m going up the hill I see in the distance a naked lady. And I got off the lift and skied over and there was Fernard Fonssagrives…” who was married to Lisa Fonssagrives, who later became Irving Penn’s wife and one of the twelve best models in the world. Anyway, Ted went over and watched her being photographed, naked…
G: In the snow?
W: In the snow. Anyway, then they all introduced themselves and while Lisa was warming up, he and Fernard had coffee at the top of the hill and he said to Ted, “Stop in and see me.” So, that’s how we became fashion photographers after that wonderful moment.
W: The first thing we did was we rented a little building. It was on 58th and 7th Avenue. You can’t imagine, this was in New York in 1947 and on the corner of 58th Street there was a filling station and next to the filling station towards Broadway was a little, narrow building and we rented the second floor. Our room was like a hallway and we had a dark room at one end and sort of a living room at the other which was our studio and in the middle was a little foyer. That barn down there was like the Taj Mahal by comparison.
G: Uh huh.
W: Anyway, we built a sink and lined it with tar paper so it was waterproof and we got a second hand enlarger and we were ready. We each had a camera. And he went downtown and I went uptown into the park. And we would come back and develop our pictures and see what we got—maybe we’d get some samples that day.
“I was never artsy craftsy; I had a Bentley.”
W: One day Ted came back with a pretty girl and introduced me. He said, “Bill, I want you to meet a girl I met…” and she was going to school and her name was Cloris Leachman.
G: I love her.
W: Isn’t she wonderful? So she became a very dear friend of ours and she just lived right down the block and every Sunday we went to a brunch where artists got together… but anyway we had to get samples of our work, so we went to a modeling agency called Society of Models. It was an agency on 46th and Fifth started by photographers because they resented the heavy-handed attitudes of Harry Conover and John Powers who were the only agencies back then. I have to push your dress in…
W: … because you’re keeping my mind off my subject… so they started this agency so that models were treated more respectfully, and were more available, so there were a lot of new girls that went to there. Ted and I went down with a few snapshots that we’d done and we’d offer to do test shots of models and all they had to do is pay for the film, which amounted to thirty-two cents a roll, and pay for the prints, so we’d swap their talent and our capabilities for test shots. The first two girls that came through the door were Tippy Hedren and Grace Kelly.
G: Oh my god!
W: Can you imagine that?
W: They were nobody’s; they were just pretty girls. The funny thing is Ted took Grace and photographed her and I took Tippy and I had an idea for a picture. We had a new ironing board and I opened it up and I put in the middle of 7th Avenue, and I had Tippy Hedren lying on the ironing board on 7th Avenue. I would give anything to have that picture today. Once I had Paul Newman and Joann Woodward and I put them in the middle of Broadway sitting on stools and the traffic going by. They were terrific pictures.
W: After we were through I asked if they would like to have a bite to eat. And we went to Sardie’s, which was the in sort of theatrical restaurant… and so anyway, when we’re through eating, I said, “my car just arrived and I can go up and see it” so we took a taxi up and we got out and they unloaded the boat and all these bright, beautiful, cherry red Ferraris are lined up, you know, maybe sixteen of them for the factory team and maybe four or five of them for driver owners like myself, and Paul walked through like a kid at a candy factory and he was in love and after that he started racing.
M: After that?
W: After that, and he became good. I was never very good.
G: How could you have not been good?
W: Okay, I was pretty good, how could I not be?
G: It sounds like you had a lot of fun.
W: It really was. It was like fun. Well, I’ve always felt that I had the best job in the world because I almost didn’t like oversleeping because my fun began when I got to work.
W: I loved coming up with ideas like the girl under the 3rd Avenue L…
W: … and on the lamp post… I had so many terrific pictures that I can’t find, they’re all thrown out. I did buses coming down 5th Avenue with girls standing, posing on top of them.
G: Oh yeah, that’s beautiful.
W: I think when I used to do car ads…
G: Is that why you are in the Director’s Guild?
W: Yes, magazines started going out of business… so I did less and less work and people were doing more and more commercials so I switched over.
G: Well, the money must have been a lot better doing commercials. Would you have called yourself a bohemian back then?
W: No, I never was.
W: No. I went to private schools, I lived on Park Avenue. I didn’t have any money, my mother didn’t but my grandmother who we lived with was wealthy. I was never artsy craftsy; I had a Bentley.
G: You did?
W: I raced for Ferrari.
“Well, I’ve always felt that I had the best job in the world because I almost didn’t like oversleeping because my fun began when I got to work.”
G: Oh, that’s right, you raced.
W: No, but many of the photographers were bohemian and when their careers ended they were through.
W: I bought some real estate, I bought some houses, I lived on the ocean. Now, it’s not unusual but then people did not make a great deal of money and if they did they didn’t spend it wisely.
W: I apparently did.
W: I want to propose a toast. Yes, to you, my love. I can’t wait till you put your bathing suit on.
G: This is good.
W: It is.
G: Really nice.
W: It’s not too brut and it’s cheap.
G: It tastes expensive.
W: It’s not, but that’s what I want, it’s the impression that counts.
William Helburn died in Connecticut on November 3, 2020. He was 96 years old.