I was born in Burgundy, France, grew up in Morocco, and studied philosophy and political science in Paris. My father wanted me to be the next Simone de Beauvoir. I just wanted to travel the world, and more specifically the United States. I dared not say that to my leftist family who viewed America as a sort of evil empire. So after a marvelously adventurous road trip from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska with three other girls in two cars, I finally landed in New York.
It was love at first sight. I even remember the exact time and place where I was struck: it was December 1965, at the corner of 6th Avenue and 55th Street. The glass and steel buildings glistened against the blue sky. I had never seen skyscrapers before and I thought they were dazzling, provocative, powerful. They seemed limitless. It was then and there that I knew I was born to live in New York City and that I had arrived where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. Someone once said: “New York is not a city, it’s a world”. It was going to be my world.
Back then, New York was a dirty, dangerous place. There was pornography on 42nd street and violence in the subway. The country was going through profound changes and it seemed as if everyone under thirty had taken to the streets to protest. The hippie movement was in full bloom and drugs were everywhere. When I told my mother I had leased an apartment on West 72nd street, she called a friend who told her I was living right next to “Needle Park” where heroin addicts hung out. She was very worried. But she calmed down when I married Jean-Pierre who had been my boyfriend before my trip. He had arrived in New York a year earlier and did what he always wanted: become a photojournalist, covering the news, telling stories, and serving as a witness to his time. JP had a restless eye. He worked constantly, chasing images and photographing everything: crisis, tragedies, daily news, social issues, debates at the United Nations, even Hollywood movie stars and European celebrities visiting the city.
The sixties were a turning point for New York City and a turning point for Jean-Pierre and me. We were young and filled with the freedom of expression that seemed to define the times. Nothing seemed impossible. We opened the US office of Gamma Photo Agency and I went with J.P. on many of his self-assigned photo shoots. I learned far more watching him work than from reading the tourist brochures. Jean-Pierre’s photos helped me see and love New York and I did love it all: the parades, the rundown buildings, the junkyards, jazz clubs in Harlem, graffiti in the Bronx, the majesty of the skyscrapers, the construction of the World Trade Center, and the lavish nature in the parks.
We went to the Riverside Park with our daughter Stephanie. Jean-Pierre taught her to ride a bike and in the summer, we laid on the grass. We took trips on the Hudson River under all kind of weather. We went to Central Park, rode the carrousel, and ate fast food from all over the world, tacos, falafel, pizza, hot dogs, kebabs, pretzels… We had no money and crisscrossed the city by subway. I loved the faces of the immigrants still speaking Yiddish, Chinese, German, and Italian. I was one of them. You did not have to be rich. The museums were free and we went to all of them. Afterward, we ate at Hell’s Kitchen where you could have a beer and a sandwich for only a buck.
Yes, it was a frenetic town, “the city that never sleeps” with subways that never stopped, stores that never closed, buildings lit-up all night, and permanently busy streets with dangerous corners, constructions sites everywhere, and noise! Constant noise… Police sirens, ambulance, fire trucks, air conditioning, and an endless street traffic with cacophonous broken down trucks and buses.
Yes, they were beggars in the streets, homeless men and women in the parks, drunks in archways of the elegant stores on Madison Avenue and hustlers everywhere. But then again, everybody was hustling. I was hustling. You had to hustle in order to make it. I worked three jobs. I worked constantly. I loved it.
Yes, it was a tough city and I am going to tell you just how tough it could be: JP and I lived in a bare apartment with a terrace overlooking the Hudson River. We had no furniture except for an off-white shaggy Moroccan rug and a banquette JP built that I covered with violet-colored felt I bought on Orchard Street. There was a mattress on the floor and two oversized lambskin pillows with bright yellow embroidery that JP picked up on one of his trips to India. The minuscule windowless kitchen was transformed at night into JP’s lab with processing trays in the sink where he developed his film and made prints. Our only possessions were Jean-Pierre’s cameras and few pieces of family jewelry my mother had given me. One day, we came home to find that thieves had entered the apartment from the roof and stolen the cameras and the jewels. In the middle of the bed was a big rock they used to break the glass terrace door. The police came and said: “You’re lucky you weren’t in the apartment. They would have killed you with that rock.” That was it. We never heard from the police again and nothing was ever found. And fifty years later, I still look in pawnshop windows, hoping to discover a ring or bracelet that belonged to my mother.
New York is not for the faint of heart.
But like all New Yorkers, we adjusted. New Yorkers love great changes, are unafraid to express their feelings and act on them. The first Earth Day celebration was impressive with people wearing gas masks and children drawing doves on the asphalt. So were the poignant protests against the Vietnam War lead by veterans in wheelchairs. The Gay Pride Movement was born in New York, and then grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Angela Davis railed against racial injustice, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan spoke out about women’s liberation and abortion rights, and gave women pride. All of the sudden, it mattered who we were, whom we loved.
And they were unforgettable moments. We watched the astronaut parade down Wall Street after returning from the Moon, the biggest joyfest I have ever seen in New York. People wore astronauts helmets and 300 hundreds tons of torn-up telephone books confetti rained down from office windows on our newest heroes. People were so proud to have beaten the Russians to the Moon Race. Before animal rights raised our awareness, a flamboyant crowd wearing chinchilla, wolf, leopard, even matching color mink coats went to Madison Square Garden for the “Fight of Century”: Muhammad Ali V Joe Frazier. Ali had changed his legal name, Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, was stripped of his championship belt, won it back twice, raised our consciousness about Vietnam, fought for his beliefs, and gave outrageous statements to the press. With his flaws, he was the greatest.
New York became the new capital of the art world. Pop Art flourished. Arman, Martial and France Raysse of the “Nouveaux Réalistes” travelled to New York from the south of France to work with Andy Warhol. We went to his studio “the Factory”. Warhol was deliberately uncommunicative and looked very mysterious behind his huge glasses. He no longer was the young artist trying to find a place in the art world, he was the art world. The glam crowd from the music, fashion, and movie world mixed with his extremely eccentric entourage. We all hang out. I met Liza Minelli, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Truman Capote, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s where I first saw Warhol’s Campbell Soup Posters and the multiple portraits of Che Guevara and Mao that would eventually sell for tens of millions of dollars. Warhol was also experimenting with cinema and cameras were running all the time, while Nico, his muse of the moment, groaned incoherently and the Velvet Underground played discordant tunes. It was all very, very underground.
You were nobody if you did not come to New York. Charlie Chaplin returned to New York after 15 years of exile. Philippe Starck redesigned the landmarked Paramount and Royalton hotels. The Rolling Stones played on a flatbed truck rolling down 5th Avenue, and Mick Jagger’s bad-boy behavior turned him into a legend. Brigitte Bardot, famous for popularizing the bikini and the city of Saint-Tropez, came to New York to meet with the Beatles and discuss a possible movie that would never be made. But New Yorkers crowned her the sexiest woman in the world. Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, and Enrico Macias sang at Carnegie Hall, the most prestigious venue for both classical and popular music. We all became friends and went to Max’s Kansas City for hamburgers. We danced at Studio 54 until the wee hours of the morning, I even sang “Macho, Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” with the Village People. We all got wild and hip and took our clothes off witch was a very 70’s thing to do. The very avant-garde musical “Oh! Calcutta!” had scenes of total nudity. We met with the staff, they were cool and fun, and their lack of embarrassment made the show a huge success. We took our visiting friends to see it several times.
But what I liked the most was showing them my personal New York: the Brooklyn Bridge at night, the Beaux-Arts style of Grand Central Terminal, the Art Déco roof of the Chrysler building. The eerie beauty of the Empire State Building in the fog was undeniably the peak moment of their trip and Jean-Pierre photographed them all at the top. For me, New York, not Paris, is the Moveable Feast.
I knew I had become a real New Yorker when Jean-Pierre took me to see the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. When I gazed up at the then century-old gift from France, so imposing in the New York harbor, so laden with meaning, I cried at the thought of the millions of immigrants who first saw the torch clutched in her hand and knew, like me, that they were home.
I also remember with great emotion when fifteen angry Vietnam veterans barricaded themselves inside the Statue, held it hostage for forty hours and flew the US flag upside down to protest against President Nixon’s war. Jean-Pierre was the only photographer permitted inside when he told them he was French and himself a veteran. Diplomacy was used. That is how Liberty was saved…
None of these buildings had any security then and the World Trade Center, the symbol of American world economic dominance, was destroyed on September 11, 2001 and nearly three thousands people, including our truly heroic police officers and fire fighters, were killed. Mayor Giuliani guided the city through chaotic times: “We will rebuild” he said. And of course we did as New York has this ability to rebuild and reinvent itself all the time. To remember the Twin Towers, I chose photographs that reminded us of their grandeur. When they were completed in 1973, they were the tallest buildings in the world and JP spent a lot of time photographing them in all kind of weather. I still look at those images with nostalgia. To be honest, the World Trade Center was never particularly beloved by the people of New York, but I am among the very few that believe they should have been rebuilt exactly as they were.
So do I love New York madly all the time? Of course not. I hated it when the maintenance payments for our building jumped drastically. I hated it when I saw a family of rats on the A line subway tracks. I hated it when my favorite diner was replaced by a Gap. I hated it when the gritty, mafia-owned meatpacking district became the trendiest shopping district, when Charivari, my favorite women’s clothing store went from 72nd and Columbus to the East Side, and when SoHo artists lost their lofts to lawyers and Wall Streeters. I could not stand it when my daughter Stephanie told me she might have to move to New Jersey because she couldn’t afford Manhattan private schools for my two granddaughters. I cried when John Lennon was killed three blocks away from our apartment. I was terrified when AIDS and crack ravaged the city and I was devastated by the September 11th attacks.
But I loved it enough to say “no” to Jean-Pierre when he told me one day that we should move to Los Angeles. I looked him straight in the eye and calmly said, “You can go and come and visit me on weekends.” The Los Angeles move was never discussed again. Many years have passed. The Sygma Photo Agency that J.P. and I founded in the U.S. became the largest and most successful agency in the world, at least for a while. Jean-Pierre became the first-class world photojournalist that he wanted to be. I did not become the next Simone de Beauvoir but I did get to work with the best photographers in the world and the smartest editors, art directors, photo editors, and publishers. The young French girl who came to the U.S. in the sixties made her dreams come true in the city of her choice and has now two granddaughters who are first generation New Yorkers.
Once, long ago, I heard a joke on the radio. Bob Hope was asked, “When are you coming to perform in New York City?” He replied, “When it’s finished”. I loved it and that’s just the point. New York will never be finished. New York will always remain in a permanent state of demolition and reconstruction, decline, and recovery. Taller buildings will keep popping up, altering the skyline. The Empire State Building might still be my favorite but not the tallest anymore and certainly not the most surprising.
When I edited the photographs for this book, I realized that Jean-Pierre’s images form a historical and very personal portrait of a city with one foot in the XIX century and the other one in the XXII century. I also knew that they would be a memoir of the great adventure of our life together in this city we now call home.
New York City is fun but can make you cry. It is organized and chaotic, gritty and sophisticated, attractive and repulsive, loud and strangely quiet, cruel and tender, dirty and too clean. You like it one day, and hate it the rest of the week. It is forever changing, yet always stays the same. It is so beautiful it takes your breath away, still ugliness is around the corner, everything is up and down and down and up again.
I take it all, because, you see, I am crazy in love with New York City.
By Éliane Laffont
Éliane Laffont is a journalist and photo agency director, founding member of Gamma USA and Sygma Photo News.
New York Noir, by Jean-Pierre Laffont is published by Peanut Press, and available for $125.