New Year’s Eve 1975. My husband and I were having a few friends over for a champagne toast. Martin was the worldwide creative director of Revlon at the time and had invited to drop by—should he have nothing better to do—his go-to photographer for big splashy four-color “lips and matching fingertips” ad campaigns (“Fire and Ice,” “Persian Melon,” “Cherries in the Snow,” “Stormy Pink,” “Wine with Everything” . . .). A little before midnight Richard Avedon—the ne-plus-ultra arbiter of feminine grace and beauty, the ambassador of glamour, the epitome of chic—burst through our front door bearing a dozen American Beauty roses, which he presented to me with romantic-comedy panache, fanning them out as if he were showing his hand in a card game. “You shouldn’t have,” I said, “but now I think I’d be disappointed if you hadn’t.”
It was an entrance—a performance—worthy of Fred Astaire. And why not, I thought, since Astaire’s character in the film Funny Face had been modeled on him. I remember what he had on that night: lavender silk shirt, skinny black knitted tie, dove-gray double-breasted suit fitted to his wiry frame. And behind the horn-rimmed glasses, those black mile-a-minute pinwheel eyes! And then the crowning glory—his untamed mane of silvery hair.
After I’d introduced him to our other guests, he pulled me aside and said, “I’ve got to talk to you. Where can we go?”
I had met Richard Avedon for the first time in the late 1960s when I was a Mad Woman—the creative director of a small advertising agency. I worked on girlie accounts like Coty, Charles of the Ritz, and Monsanto—cosmetics, fibers, and fabrics—while aching to cut my teeth on bigger-budget stuff like cars and booze. One of my clients, Almay, was about to launch a hypoallergenic line to compete with Estée Lauder’s Clinique, for which Irving Penn had produced a series of pristine still lifes that spoke to the product’s immaculate conception. There was only one photographer who could give Penn a run for his money, and that was Richard Avedon.
I contacted his longtime rep, Laura Kanelous, who asked right off the bat, “What’s in the budget?” When I told her, she said, “Forget it. He won’t work for that.” I doubled the money. She said, “Keep going!” I said, “That’s it.” She said, “Okay, but you only get six months’ usage,” and she put me through to Avedon. “What’s up?” he barked. I was hearing that unmistakably New York voice for the first time. In my New York voice I told him how I saw the ad: clean, white, pure, nun-like. He said “I got it” and hung up.
The morning of the sitting I dressed expressly for him—cream silk shirt, crisp blue blazer with gold buttons, designer shoes. I walked the few blocks from my office to the Avedon studio on East Fifty-eighth Street eager to meet the legend, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that when he charged into the reception area to greet me I felt the electricity.
Over coffee he fired off a volley of personal questions—where had I gone to college, what was I reading, what did I like to eat?—but before I could get two words out he was directing my attention to one of his celebrated portraits of Marilyn Monroe that was propped against a wall. And before I knew it he was telling me how she had reached out to him from a phone booth in Beverly Hills just a couple of days before she “committed sui” because she needed him to know that he was the only photographer she implicitly trusted and that more people complimented her on the pictures he had taken of her than on the pictures—the movies—she’d made. “She confided in me an awful lot,” he said. “She even gave me the phone number she said no one else had.”
At that point the stylist appeared and said, “We’re ready,” and the model, a Swedish beauty, emerged from the dressing room. Avedon approved her hair and makeup, and then back she went, to be dressed. But when she reappeared, she was swathed not in white organdy like the virgin I’d envisioned but embalmed head to toe in rolls of Saran Wrap. He said to me, “Don’t you love this!” I did—I recognized it as something that had never been done before. No surprise there: Avedon was the photographer of so many firsts—the first portrait of the First Family, JFK and Jackie; the first belly button in an American high-fashion mag, Suzy Parker’s; the first bared breasts, Contessa Christina Paolozzi’s; the first ménage à trois; the first fashion-mag cover boy, Steve McQueen; the first haute-couture black beauty, Donyale Luna; the first to shoot outdoors in Paris after the Occupation . . . So why not, now, the first hypoallergenic mummy?
He led the model onto the set, turned up the music (Ella Fitzgerald), and clicked away. When I presented the image to my client, they didn’t buy it: they wanted something literal. I broke the news to Laura Kanelous, who said, “No reshoot. And Avedon gets paid in full.” This felt like the ending of Dick and Me. It was just the beginning.
The next time I encountered Richard Avedon, I had just married his biggest client. He sent Martin the following telegram: congratulations stop you have just won the marriage portrait of the year stop you and your bride are expected at the avedon studio on thursday 10 a.m. love dick. I slipped back into my flowered black voile wedding dress for the occasion. Avedon took one look at me and said, “Oh, it’s you! The Almay girl. The girl with white on the brain. Who I see got married in a black dress. This union is doomed,” he said, laughing.
The celebrity hairdresser Ernie Adler was on hand to do my hair. When he was done, Avedon turned on the big-band music he knew Martin liked, and said to us, “Dance!” I did an arabesque holding on to Martin’s arm (I had once, briefly, been a bunhead—a baby ballerina). He said “Fabulous!” and clicked. It was over so quickly I had post-performance depression. Which lifted the minute he brought out champagne and caviar, crying, “Eat! Drink!” Later that week he sent us a complete album of wedding photographs, ending with a signed formal portrait: the first of the innumerable Avedons we were to own, and the most precious.
It would be a couple of years before I saw Avedon again. Martin and I ran into him and his onetime star model Dorian Leigh in 1972 in the lobby of the Paris Ritz, and he insisted that we join them for a drink in the bar. Martin and Dorian were nose to nose, catching up, so Dick turned his attention to me. “I’ve just bought a carriage house way over east on Seventy-fifth Street that I’m going to make into my new studio,” he said. “I’m planning to live there, too. Over the store—like the Goodmans do, above Bergdorf.” I asked him how his wife felt about the move. “I’m running away from home,” he told me. “I’m flying the coop. I’m going to go it alone. Only I haven’t told her yet. What do you think I should say?” I was so startled by his question that I had to take a sip of champagne before answering, “Tell her it’s nothing personal, it’s just about work.” He said, “Oh, that’s good. You’ve saved my life.”
“Dick,” Dorian was elbowing him, “you’ve been ignoring me!” He spun around. “How could I possibly ignore my first Bazaar cover?” he exclaimed. “My first face for Revlon. My Fire and Ice girl, who ‘loves to flirt with fire,’ who ‘dares to skate on thin ice.’ I even forgave her for having once been engaged to Irving Penn.” He turned to Martin: “Did I ever tell you that Dorian and I won first prize in a Charleston contest at the Tavern on the Green when we were kids? Actually, I was twenty-nine and leaving the next morning on my honeymoon with Evelyn. Oh boy,” he said, turning back to Dorian, who was giving him an icy stare and breathing fire, “let’s go—we have a reservation at Véfour.”
No sooner were these avatars of glamour out of earshot than Martin was regaling me with how, once when he had had to put a Revlon shoot on hold because Dorian was outrageously late, Dick had amused himself by compiling a list of all the men he knew for a fact she had slept with. He had gotten up to sixty-two by the time she appeared, and had just finished saying, “She’d go to bed with anything.” Martin sheepishly informed me that he was on the list.
Within the year I heard that Richard Avedon had left his wife. I remember wondering if he had used my line of departure.
Now, three years later, he was back in my life. He was standing in my living room, having just asked me where we—I was pinching myself: he and I—could go to be private.
I led him into the library, where he sank into the couch, put his head in his hands, and broke down. “Forgive me for making an exhibition of myself,” he finally said, “but the single most important person in my life for the past twenty-five years just died.” I had noticed Laura Kanelous’s name in the Times paid obituaries—she had slipped away on Christmas Eve, at only fifty. Everyone in the business had known for a long time that she was deathly ill. “I never saw it coming,” Dick insisted. I mentioned that I had run into her a couple of times at lunch at the Isle of Capri and she was wearing the telltale turban. He said, “Yeah, but I thought it was just a fashion statement—Laura trying to be stylish.” Terminal denial.
Now he was welling up again. “Laura was so funny!” he said. “The week before she died she was carrying on that I owed her a full-length mink. She claimed that schlepping my heavy portfolio all around town to all the art directors in the early days had worn a big bald spot on her dark ranch coat. I went straight to Maximilian the next morning and dropped ten grand. I have the beast hidden in my studio. I can’t face going to work. I’m totally lost without her. I’m probably going to have to close the studio. The last deal she made for me was with a Japanese client who kept going back and forth on the fee. In the end she wore him down. The guy said, ‘Okay, okay. We’ll start shooting December seventh,’ and she quipped, ‘Not this time you won’t!’ That was Laura for you all over. And now it is all over. Where am I ever going to find a mouthpiece like that again?”
I said, “Don’t worry, Dick, you’ll find someone great—they’re going to be lining up around the block to work for you.” He apologized again for “the waterworks,” and downed a third flute of champagne before calling it a night on the last night of the year.
At two in the morning, Martin and I were in bed rehashing the party when the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Did I wake you? It’s Dick. I was so impressed with how you received my flowers tonight—with open arms and then holding them close. That’s my dream of how flowers should be received.” I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “I will be—if you promise to come work with me and never leave.” I said, “Dick, you’ve had too much to drink.”
He said, “I’m serious. Laura got 10 percent of advertising, I’ll give you 15. And I’ll give you a month off every summer, and a month in the winter. We’re going to make a lot of money together and have a lot of fun.” (A year later, he upped my percentage to 25, but I never got even a week off without a fight.) Whenever anyone asked me how I got the job, I left out Dick’s wild middle-of-the-night call, thinking it made the win less “earned,” somehow. But now I want to own it.
After hanging up, I rolled over in bed and said to Martin, “You’re never going to believe this . . .” He said, “Grab it! It’s the perfect job for you. You’re going to really click with Dick.” I protested that I didn’t know enough about the photography business. He reassured me, “If Laura could do it, you can. She knew advertising from the outside in, you know it from the inside out.”
Later that morning Martin methodically laid out the pros and cons for me. He had, after all, been experiencing the ups and downs of working with Richard Avedon for years—they had done fifty Revlon ads together. First of all, he pointed out that if I became Avedon’s agent, studio director, and business manager, he and I would be reversing roles in relation to Dick: he would become “Norma’s husband,” and I would no longer be just “Martin’s wife.”
“He’s overwhelming,” Martin warned me, “but you can handle him. You’re also going to have to be the bad cop with the clients, because nothing is ever too much where Dick is concerned when it’s OPM—other people’s money—he’s spending.” Martin then rattled off a few examples of how extravagant Avedon could be. For the shade ad “Persian Melon,” Dick had a replica of a Persian palace built, which turned out to be too big for the studio Martin was renting, so he had to rent a more palatial one. Another Revlon shade ad had a jazz theme, and Dick had thought nothing of hiring a clarinetist from the New York Philharmonic to show the model how to hold the instrument. Then, for an ad for Revlon’s “Rio!” lipstick campaign, after Martin had approved the booking of a carnival dancer to back up model Janice Dickinson, Dick hired the whole cast of a Broadway show: twenty-four hoofers in full costume. “See this!” Martin gestured toward the bouquet of handmade lilacs in our bedroom that he had recently brought home from a “Lilacs in the Snow” shoot. “There’s a city block full of places where you can get beautiful, realistic-looking artificial flowers, but that’s not Dick’s way—he had to have them custom-made in silk by a French floral couturier. And if you take the job, it’s you who are going to have to make the client understand that this is all part of getting the perfect picture.
Copyright © 2017 by Norma Stevens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.