Ed­ward Kos­ner

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ed­ward Kos­ner


The Mak­ing of Weegee the Fa­mous by Christo­pher Bo­nanos.

Henry Holt, 379 pp., $32.00

Ex­tra! Weegee:

A Col­lec­tion of 359 Vin­tage Pho­to­graphs from 1929–1946 edited by Daniel Blau.

Hirmer, 336 pp., $55.00

Weegee’s peo­ple are gen­er­ally fun­ny­look­ing and badly dressed. Many of them are mur­dered—the blood pool­ing around their heads, some with their an­kles oddly crossed as if they are tak­ing a nap in the gut­ter. Their cars are wrecked, their ten­e­ments gut­ted by fire, their loved ones sob­bing in the streets. Even their pets look mo­rose. The rare happy ones are cel­e­brat­ing Hitler’s de­feat or stam­ped­ing through the lobby of the Roxy The­atre in Times Square to score seats for Jimmy Dorsey’s big-band show. All of the pic­tures Weegee took with his Speed Graphic cam­era are in high-con­trast black-and­white, like scenes from Or­son Welles’s Touch of Evil.

He snapped his mes­mer­iz­ing pho­to­graphs in a sweaty frenzy be­tween sev­enty and eighty years ago. There are two haughty dowa­gers ac­costed by a shab­bily dressed drunk woman at the open­ing of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera; chil­dren sleep­ing on a fire es­cape in a slum; a man ar­rested for cross-dress­ing grin­ning and bar­ing his thigh in the back of a paddy wagon; a panoramic mob fill­ing ev­ery inch of sand at Coney Is­land; an an­guished mother in a black ker­chief star­ing at the ten­e­ment fire in which her daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter are per­ish­ing. These fa­mil­iar im­ages were cap­tured by an im­mi­grant work­ing in the depths of the De­pres­sion and wartime for a cou­ple of dol­lars per news­pa­per shot. The alchemy of time and evolv­ing taste has trans­muted more than a few of them into art. Weegee was less con­cerned with art than with fame. “A pic­ture is like a blintz,” he liked to say. “Eat it while it’s hot.” He was so ob­sessed with celebrity that he pro­claimed him­self Weegee the Fa­mous when he was no more than a leg­end in his own mind. When his work and re­lent­less self-pro­mo­tion fi­nally won him recog­ni­tion, his photography veered off into idio­syn­cratic and schlocky tan­gents. The man whose im­ages were in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art churned out tits-and-ass shots for a pair of men’s mag­a­zines called Hi and Ho!, which were each half the width of a reg­u­lar mag­a­zine—the bet­ter to hide in a rain­coat.

Self-taught and self-pro­pelled, Weegee has a sin­gu­lar place in the pan­theon of street pho­tog­ra­phers that in­cludes such masters as Bras­saï, Henri CartierBres­son, Berenice Ab­bott, Robert Frank, Ruth Orkin, and Di­ane Ar­bus. Only Ar­bus rou­tinely used flash, as Weegee did, to cap­ture her menagerie of odd sub­jects, and none shot with Weegee’s Speed Graphic press cam­era. His prints were raw, some­times over­ex­posed, of­ten rep­e­ti­tious. They have none of the aus­tere seren­ity of Orkin’s pic­tures of snowy Cen­tral Park from her win­dow or the creepy pathos of Ar­bus’s por­trait of the young gi­ant and his tiny par­ents in their claus­tro­pho­bic flat or the fi­nesse of Cartier-Bres­son. In­stead, Weegee’s punks and grotesque car wrecks have the brassy clank of a Coney Is­land shoot­ing gallery or the gar­licky tang of a fresh grilled hot dog at Nathan’s Fa­mous.

Where did they come from? In his new book, Flash: The Mak­ing of Weegee the Fa­mous, Christo­pher Bo­nanos, an ed­i­tor at New York, tells the story of this tor­mented lit­tle man with an out­size cam­era and sim­i­larly in­flated ego. Scrupu­lously re­searched—no small feat with a se­rial fab­u­list like Weegee—and flu­ently writ­ten, Bo­nanos’s book is an un­sen­ti­men­tal yet sym­pa­thetic ac­count of a bizarre life and ca­reer, an Amer­i­can Dream con­torted as if by one of the trick lenses Weegee loved to fool around with.

He was born Usher Fel­lig in 1899 in the Gali­cian shtetl of Zolochev, then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire. His fa­ther yearned to be a rabbi but wound up work­ing in his in-laws’ busi­ness, sell­ing food to Em­peror Franz Josef’s army. With his fourth child on the way, Berisch Fel­lig set off for the New World in steer­age with the equiv­a­lent of four dol­lars in his pocket. A cousin greeted him in New York, and he set­tled in a fetid ten­e­ment on East 7th Street and worked a push­cart. Still, he man­aged to eke out enough to send for his wife and chil­dren, and in the sum­mer of 1909 they sailed for New York. At El­lis Is­land, Usher was handed a ba­nana. He’d never seen one be­fore and had to be shown how to eat it.

The boy, now called Arthur, spoke no English and could not read or write in any lan­guage. But he was smart and was soon mak­ing his way at school and, prophet­i­cally, sell­ing news­pa­pers to help sup­port the fam­ily. One day when he was four­teen, a street pho­tog­ra­pher with a big view cam­era on a tri­pod took his pic­ture. With that ad­dict­ing click of the shut­ter, although Fel­lig didn’t know it at the time, his life’s work be­gan. He quit school in the mid­dle of the sev­enth grade and started out with a tin­type kit bought by mail-or­der from Chicago. It took pic­tures not on film or glass, but on sheet metal coated with black enamel. When he couldn’t make a liv­ing, he got a job as an as­sis­tant at an in­dus­trial photo stu­dio—the first of sev­eral low-paid ap­pren­tice­ships in his trade. In be­tween, he worked the Lower East Side with a pony he named Hypo (for the fix­a­tive used in de­vel­op­ing neg­a­tives). He’d snatch kids off the street, hoist them onto Hypo, snap their pic­ture, and try to sell a print to their par­ents for a nickel. Most of the chil­dren were dark-skinned im­mi­grants. Fel­lig made his prints on the high­est-con­trast pa­per he could find, turn­ing their teeth and faces al­abaster—a tech­nique he prac­ticed for the next five decades. Hypo ate up most of his mea­ger take, so Fel­lig took an en­try-level job in the photo lab at The New York Times, where his co­work­ers nick­named him “Squeegee Boy” for the tool used to dry off fin­ished prints. Later, when he joined the Acme photo agency, he once de­vel­oped rush prints in a va­cant mo­tor­man’s com­part­ment on a speed­ing sub­way train; an­other time, ever in­ge­nious, he did the job in an am­bu­lance spe­cially hired for the oc­ca­sion. He be­came the best printer in the shop—so good that they pro­moted him to “Mr. Squeegee.”

In later years, the Weegee ori­gin story evolved. Some­one re­marked that his mag­i­cal gift for an­tic­i­pat­ing a gang­land rubout or deadly ten­e­ment blaze was like that of a Ouiji board. Hence, Sque­egy/Weegee or Ouiji/Weegee. He seemed to pre­fer the Ouiji ver­sion, but no­body re­ally knows which, if ei­ther, is true.

Weegee la­bored on in the Acme lab, get­ting stray as­sign­ments on the street. He be­came the night man for spot news sto­ries, rac­ing up­town one spring night in 1931 when cops ques­tioned Dutch Schultz, a prin­ci­pal in Mur­der Inc. At the precinct, he slipped the mob­ster a cou­ple of as­pirins and a cig­a­rette, a kind­ness that paid off later. He got to shoot Vin­cent “Mad Dog” Coll, Dutch’s ri­val, in Oc­to­ber when po­lice hauled him in. By now, he was us­ing the Speed Graphic and newly in­vented flash­bulbs in­stead of risky flash pow­der. He prac­ticed ob­ses­sively with the bulky cam­era, slip­ping the frames that held the in­di­vid­ual sheets of film in and out of the cam­era and swap­ping in fresh flash­bulbs on the run. Some­times he ac­costed ran­dom folk on the street and shot their por­traits; some­times he re­sorted to “dry” shoot­ing, with­out film in the cam­era, to sharpen his re­flexes. He per­fected a method of cap­tur­ing most of his sub­jects at six or ten feet to avoid hav­ing to fid­dle with his set­tings in ac­tion. By 1935, he was ready to go out on his own and be­gan free­lanc­ing for the New York papers. It’s hard to imag­ine now how lim­ited news im­ages were in the De­pres­sion years. There were news­reels, of course, as well as news­pa­per pic­tures and week­end ro­togravure sec­tions. Read­ers loved them, and the papers com­peted for sen­sa­tional shots from their own staff pho­tog­ra­phers, free­lancers, and photo agen­cies like Acme. Then, in 1936, Henry Luce’s Life show­cased pho­to­jour­nal­ism, quickly copied by Look. The New York news­pa­pers that ran Weegee’s pic­tures are a lost world of their own—nine met­ro­pol­i­tan papers all along the spec­trum from sober and au­thor­i­ta­tive broad­sheets (the Times and the bet­ter-writ­ten, starchily Repub­li­can New York Her­ald Tri­bune) to sen­sa­tion­al­ist tabloids (the Daily News, Daily Mir­ror, and the an­tic Evening Graphic). In be­tween were four other broad­sheets of vary­ing so­bri­ety (the con­ser­va­tive Sun, mid­dle-of-the-road New York World-Tele­gram, Hearst’s ram­bunc­tious New York Jour­nal-Amer­i­can, and the lib­eral New York Post).

The stan­dards of these pub­li­ca­tions could char­i­ta­bly be de­scribed as flex­i­ble. Jimmy Bres­lin called the Jour­nalAmer­i­can, where he once worked, “a pa­per, where, be­lieve me, ya couldn’t even be­lieve the weather re­port.” On the tabloids and the Jour­nal-Amer­i­can, leg­men and desk ed­i­tors rou­tinely dis­missed sto­ries out of Har­lem or the Brook­lyn ghet­tos as “so­cial notes,” code for black crime. Re­write men— there were hardly any women—were known to “pipe” (make up) juicy quotes. The Daily News in­tro­duced phrases like “trig­ger man” and “gun moll” into the ver­nac­u­lar and the di­a­logue of film noir. The tabs would lead with sen­sa­tional “con­fes­sions” from mur­der­ers and rapists con­fected from the just-the-facts ac­count of the ar­rest­ing cops. The Graphic pi­o­neered the trick of cre­at­ing a nonex­is­tent pic­ture of two peo­ple in the news by sim­ply past­ing to­gether two in­di­vid­ual shots into an “ex­clu­sive” photo. Time, founded by Luce and Brit Had­den in 1923, called the Graphic a “daily freak.”

The News pro­claimed it­self “New York’s Pic­ture News­pa­per” and had a lit­tle line draw­ing of a Speed Graphic like Weegee’s in its logo. At its peak a decade later, it sold 2.4 mil­lion copies a day and 4.7 mil­lion on Sun­days. Its com­pe­ti­tion was the Mir­ror, which boasted Wal­ter Winchell, the mouthy king of gos­sip. The Jour­nal-Amer­i­can led the af­ter­noon pack for pic­tures, but the other broad­sheets used their share.

Weegee set him­self up in a build­ing across the street from po­lice head­quar­ters, in a stair­well nook equipped with an un­made bed, an alarm clock, and a po­lice ra­dio; his cam­eras, film hold­ers, flash­bulbs, and cigar butts were strewn about. He be­gan to plas­ter the wall be­hind the bed with tear sheets of his pic­tures from the papers. He of­ten slept in his clothes. An­other pho­tog­ra­pher la­beled Weegee’s haunt “the cock­roach café.” Soon enough, the wall blos­somed with star­tling im­ages, many of dead bod­ies.


1939, Weegee owned the night. He got to know dozens of cops and fire­men, who let him into their squad rooms and across fire lines. He cap­tured count­less shots of ar­rested perps, many with black eyes or ban­daged faces after ques­tion­ing. Some had been hung by their heels over air­shafts in the back of sta­tion houses or whacked with a phone book un­til they con­fessed. On freez­ing nights, he shot pic­tures of ice-en­crusted fire trucks and fire­fight­ers. When there was no ac­tion, he fo­cused on peo­ple sleep­ing off binges in door­ways or on park benches or in flop­houses for a quar­ter a cot. He chat­tered on non­stop. Some found his run­ning com­men­tary ob­nox­ious—he liked to pro­claim: “I’m a gen-u-is!” But he charmed most peo­ple with his in­fec­tious em­pa­thy and comic repar­tee, and they would tip him to good shots. Petty gang­sters ran wild in the city in those days, and they rou­tinely killed one an­other. Weegee hus­tled to ev­ery promis­ing po­lice call and was re­warded with fresh corpses and gag­gles of popeyed on­look­ers. Con­ve­niently, some of the bod­ies came to rest within view of signs pro­vid­ing ironic com­men­tary on their fate. In one clas­sic im­age, the vic­tim is laid out be­neath the sign for the Spot Bar & Grill—“on the spot” be­ing short­hand at the time for hav­ing been rubbed out. An­other body lies next to a post of­fice box with the re­minder “Mail Early for De­liv­ery Be­fore Christ­mas.” A car-ac­ci­dent DOA is cov­ered with news­pa­pers un­der a movie mar­quee fea­tur­ing Irene Dunne in Joy of Liv­ing. These jux­ta­po­si­tions bred sus­pi­cion that Weegee moved bod­ies or oth­er­wise hoked up his mur­der pic­tures. He de­nied all such ac­cu­sa­tions, but at least two of his most fa­mous im­ages were more stage-man­aged than spon­ta­neous. Weegee likely posed the chil­dren sleep­ing on the fire es­cape amid a heat wave—he had made the shot ear­lier in the sum­mer and didn’t send it out for pub­li­ca­tion till the hottest night. And Weegee’s most fa­mous pic­ture—the one he called “The Critic,” of the be­jew­eled opera pa­trons be­ing heck­led by the di­sheveled woman—was a set-up. He ad­mit­ted later that a co­con­spir­a­tor had got the woman so liquored up that she could barely stand, then shoved her in the path of the rich ma­trons. Still, the pic­ture out­shines the back­story. “His best pic­tures are in­tensely truth­ful,” Bo­nanos ob­serves, even if “some­times he would give the truth some ex­tra help.” Five years after go­ing out on his own, Weegee fi­nally found a re­li­able home for his work. He’d been wran­gling in­ces­santly with ed­i­tors about pic­ture choice and es­pe­cially photo credit. His shots were mostly cred­ited to Acme or to “Fel­lig” and some­times “Felig.” Then, in June 1940, Ralph Inger­soll, a Luce ex­ec­u­tive, founded PM, an in­no­va­tive tabloid de­signed to lure up­scale read­ers from the News and Mir­ror. PM had mod­ern ty­pog­ra­phy, car­ried no ad­ver­tis­ing, was mildly left­ist in its pol­i­tics, and used dra­matic photography to punch up its ap­peal. It was a nat­u­ral fit for Weegee, and he soon signed on as a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor. PM not only fea­tured his photography, it rec­og­nized and pro­moted his tal­ent as a writer with a dis­tinc­tive street­wise voice. For years, Weegee had been do­ing his own pic­ture cap­tions, of­ten on a type­writer an­chored in the trunk of the bat­tered Chevro­let he used as a rolling of­fice. His pic­tures fre­quently ac­com­pa­nied fea­tures with Weegee’s own slant on the story. Start­ing in 1941, he be­gan la­bel­ing ev­ery pic­ture “Credit Photo by Weegee the Fa­mous.” Soon enough, the rub­ber stamp be­came a re­al­ity. PM bizarrely re­jected his opera pic­ture, but he had been sell­ing to Life, and even Alexan­der Liber­man, the fas­tid­i­ous Rus­sian émi­gré art di­rec­tor of Vogue, found room for Weegee the Fa­mous in its slick pages. In 1943 two of his now clas­sic pic­tures were hung in a show at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art called “Ac­tion Photography.” One was the shot of the woman in the ker­chief cry­ing as a ten­e­ment fire con­sumed her daugh­ter and grand­child, which Weegee ti­tled “I Cried When I Took This Pic­ture.” The other cap­tured the crowd—an­guished, glee­ful—at the scene of a mob killing. He called it “Their First Mur­der.” Weegee now had a sub­stan­tial body of work, and in 1945 he pub­lished Naked City, a sen­sa­tional col­lec­tion of more than two hun­dred of his pic­tures with his own text.

A shot of fe­male man­nequins be­ing car­ried out of a burned-out dress store is cap­tioned: “The flower of ‘Amer­ica’s pure white wom­an­hood, is saved from a fate worse than . . . Death.’” A se­quence of pic­tures shows Sammy’s Bow­ery Fol­lies, a night­club Weegee adored. “Norma’s am­bi­tion,” reads the cap­tion for a shot of Sammy’s three-hun­dred-pound star chanteuse, “is to un­der­study Mae West...but that will be a sorry day on the Bow­ery...be­cause who will un­der­study Norma?” At the end of the book, he gen­er­ously of­fers tips to am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers who’d like to be the next Weegee. His se­cret: “Don’t for­get . . . be hu­man . . . think . . . feel. When you find your­self be­gin­ning to feel a bond be­tween your­self and the peo­ple you pho­to­graph, when you laugh and cry with their laugh­ter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”

The pub­li­ca­tion of Naked City was prob­a­bly the apogee of his ca­reer. Two years later, the pro­ducer Mark Hellinger bought the book so he could use the ti­tle for a film noir about New York he was mak­ing in the style of a doc­u­men­tary. Weegee talked his way into the movie—he ap­pears for an in­stant in a crowd grab­bing a quick shot of its star get­ting out of a car—but he was smit­ten. “O boy, me for Cal­i­for­nia,” he told a re­porter. He stayed in Hol­ly­wood for four years, con­tribut­ing short trick-photography se­quences to a cou­ple of movies and mak­ing now-you-see-him, now-youdon’t ap­pear­ances in a hand­ful more. In 1947, after long years alone, he mar­ried a widow with money named Mar­garet At­wood who’d come to New York from Bos­ton and pur­sued him at a book sign­ing. But his Hol­ly­wood ad­ven­ture ended that mar­riage, and he was soon back on the road pro­mot­ing a movie called The Sleep­ing City. The gim­mick had Weegee trav­el­ing to more than a dozen cities and pho­tograph­ing sleep­ing peo­ple. He then gave the pic­tures to the lo­cal papers, which plugged the movie in their cov­er­age. It was a huge suc­cess and a big pay­off for him. “That tour may have marked the mo­ment,” writes Bo­nanos, “when Weegee the night-crawl­ing news­pa­per­man who had to beat ev­ery­one else to the scene fi­nally dis­ap­peared for good.”

Back in New York, he hit the lec­ture cir­cuit, mak­ing as much as $5,000 a night in to­day’s money. He pub­lished Naked Hol­ly­wood, which had lit­tle of the verve of Naked City. He took nude pic­tures of the ac­tress Ju­dith Malina and tried (fruit­lessly) to ro­mance her. He started mak­ing dis­torted car­i­ca­tures of celebri­ties and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers us­ing his “elas­tic” lenses, and pur­sued all sorts of projects, promis­ing and pre­pos­ter­ous, in­clud­ing film­ing joke tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and try­ing to ped­dle a dis­tor­tion gad­get called the Weegeescope. Hugh Hefner used some of his pic­tures in an early is­sue of Play­boy, and Liber­man ran his car­i­ca­tures of Charles de Gaulle and oth­ers in Vogue. “In­creas­ingly, Weegee had be­come an oldies act,” Bo­nanos writes. He took up again with a one­time flame, Wilma Wil­cox, who seems to have been as much care­giv­ing man­ager as lover. Weegee’s ma­jor work over the last decade of his life was shoot­ing for a now lost genre of men’s mag­a­zines with ti­tles like Stag, Night and Day, Eye, and the un­for­get­table Hi and Ho! He re­cy­cled some of his old work and stalked Greenwich Vil­lage for new tal­ent. “I’m look­ing for a girl with a healthy body and a sick mind,” he liked to say. An­other pa­tron was Bob Har­ri­son, the cre­ator of Con­fi­den­tial, the hys­ter­i­cal scan­dal mag­a­zine, as well as Tit­ter, Eye­ful, and Wink. Har­ri­son wanted Weegee to con­coct lewd dis­tor­tion shots of women with four breasts, two be­hinds, or two vagi­nas, and he obliged. To­ward the end, he was in Eu­rope, mak­ing low-rent nudie movies with ti­tles like My Bare Lady and The Imp-Prob­a­ble Mr. Weegee.

He did have one last bril­liant mo­ment. In 1963, Stan­ley Kubrick, who had be­gun as a Look pho­tog­ra­pher at sev­en­teen and ad­mired Weegee’s artistry, in­vited him to bring his Speed Graphic and flash to the set of Dr. Strangelove. Weegee doc­u­mented the pro­duc­tion and made mem­o­rable shots, among oth­ers, of the fi­nal scene—an an­tic pie fight in the war room—that was cut in the fin­ished film. Later, Peter Sellers cred­ited Weegee’s gar­gly voice as the in­spi­ra­tion for the ac­cent he used to play the ti­tle char­ac­ter. Fame in­deed. Weegee died of a brain tu­mor at sixty-nine on the day after Christ­mas in 1968. He left thou­sands of im­ages in his squalid Times Square flat, which Wilma Wil­cox du­ti­fully sorted through. Nineteen thou­sand prints wound up in five hun­dred archival boxes at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter of Photography in New York; his ashes were later found in the trove and scat­tered at sea. There have been many post­mortem ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing a 1973 MoMA show of press photography cu­rated by Di­ane Ar­bus. Caches of Weegee pic­tures con­tinue to be un­cov­ered, in­clud­ing a stash from the Acme agency, mostly al­ter­nate frames or work ped­dled to the New York papers and later syn­di­cated around the coun­try. These pic­tures are newly reprinted in Ex­tra! Weegee, a sump­tu­ous al­bum with hard-to-read orig­i­nal cap­tions, which does noth­ing to di­min­ish his rep­u­ta­tion.

The coda to Weegee’s story can be writ­ten to taste or in­cli­na­tion. He was a tal­ented prim­i­tive who couldn’t help but make art while work­ing his trade. He did what many oth­ers did, but self-pro­moted to star­dom. De­based aes­thet­ics have el­e­vated com­mon work to the sub­lime. The power of photography is so pro­found that the im­age, no mat­ter its prove­nance, trounces ev­ery­thing. “I cre­ated this mon­ster, Weegee, and I can’t get rid of it,” he told an in­ter­viewer to­ward the end. Or, as Bo­nanos con­cludes, he was “eaten alive by his own im­age.”

Fire­men at Coney Is­land, New Year’s Eve, 1940

Weegee at the type­writer he kept in the trunk of his Chevro­let, 1942

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