Anyone picking up Erwin Blumenfeld’s eccentric, absorbing autobiography expecting an insider’s view of the fashion business in the ’40s and ’50s will be disappointed by its lack of dishy gossip. Though Blumenfeld aims some corrosive barbs at his colleagues at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, for whom he produced many of the period’s most startlingly inventive fashion photographs, neither they nor the work that made him (occasionally) rich and (fitfully) famous concerns him much here. So he skewers Bazaar‘s imperious editor, Carmel Snow, in a funny set piece orchestrated around the last Paris collections before the German invasion, dismisses that magazine’s avant-garde art director, Alexy Brodovitch, as an “arsehole,” and makes hilarious fun of models with a list of absurd names (“Jinx, Janx, Junx, Kay, Key, Kee, Lippy, Misty, Mips, Mops, Mistory”), but he treats his career among these flaming creatures as a footnote to his life, not as its crowning achievement.
And no wonder: after surviving World War I in Germany (where he served as an ambulance driver, or “Corpse-Carrier,” and the bookkeeper at an army-run brothel), financial ruin in Amsterdam, and— following the outbreak of World War II— a horrific succession of French concentration camps, only issues of life, death, sex, and syphilis truly grab Blumenfeld’s attention. With a perspective that skews toward enlightened, if curmudgeonly, skepticism leavened by the blackest of humor, he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator, moving quickly from sly exaggeration to full-blown apocrypha, and leaving out great chunks of personal history along the way. What else would you expect from someone who begins not with his birth but with his conception and prenatal “solitary confinement”? The book is a third of the way through before he reaches 15, having described in obsessive detail not just his privileged childhood in Berlin but his doctor, his best friend, his fears, his infatuations, and his unsuccessful negotiations with a prostitute.
“I loved word-play,” he confesses at one point, long after the reader has noticed his fondness for puns, rhymes, alliteration, jokes,
poems, lists, literary quotations, and other compulsive verbal tics that must have given translators Mike Mitchell and Brian Murdoch no end of trouble and delight. (Eye to I was written in German and completed just before Blumenfeld’s death in 1969.) The show-offy quality of Blumenfeld’s writing in these early sections is relieved by his shrewd, relentless self-examination and the liveliness of his anecdotes. “The aim of our education was to make officers, civil servants, idiots and heroes out of us,” he writes of his schooling, and declares, “I was never a German. I was a Berliner, and a Berliner I have stayed.” He remarks the early onset of the fetishes that marked his later photographic work— “eyes, hair, breasts, mouth”— as well as a taste for the veiled or mirrored female image. “What drove me to the arts? Sex drove me.”
Indeed. Blumenfeld describes meeting and marrying Lena Citroen and moving to Holland to be with her, but she and their three children remain rather shadowy appendages to his travels and travails. Far more vivid are his descriptions of “unbearably beautiful” models and fleeting dalliances, one of whom crops up fortuitously with her head between the legs of the very American consulate officer Blumenfeld hopes will issue him the visas he needs to get his family out of France. Though Blumenfeld maintains a certain discretion about these affairs after his marriage, his writing is suffused with sensuality and ever alert to the feel, look, and smell of things. Attuned as he is to beauty, Blumenfeld also has a taste for grotesquerie, which serves him well when it comes to describing his wartime experiences, particularly his odyssey through French internment camps in 1939 and ’40. These episodes, bracketed as they are by his first triumph with Bazaar in New York and the eventual resumption of his career there, contain some of the book’s most comic and compelling writing. They begin with Blumenfeld driving himself to the first of several chaotic, brutal camps when the three guards assigned to take him there get drunk and pass out in the car, and end with his skin-of-the-teeth escape on a freighter that then sits in the harbor at Casablanca for two months— a floating concentration camp worse than some he’d already endured. When another ship finally delivers him and his family to New York, he rushes to the Harper’s Bazaar offices, where he’s received by a preoccupied Carmel Snow “as if we had never been separated by two years of world war,” and given a rush assignment to shoot eight pages that night.
What those eight pages looked like we can imagine from the many photo illustrations included here, but what the remainder of Blumenfeld’s life in photography involved we can only wonder. The few episodes that follow his return to New York include another improbable set piece revolving around a former model with mob connections and several bursts of bracingly vitriolic character assassination. Eye to I is peppered with cold-blooded descriptions, but the venom that he directs at “the prettiest queen of New York City,” a man he calls Dorian O’Hole, and the homosexuals he worked with in the fashion biz (“Their charm can all too easily blind you to their depravity”) is over the top even for Blumenfeld. After the reader has been alternately entertained and irritated by this witty, intelligent man, this final bit of ugliness isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s damaging to the book’s otherwise complex (if rather unforgiving) view of humanity.