The son of a publisher of architecture books, William Helburn knew both wealth and poverty at an early age, after his father sold his share of the business to become a stockbroker, and promptly lost everything in the crash of 1929. His mother was supported by his grandmother, who owned an apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan and a seventeen-room estate called Chateau Ophelia on a square block in Saratoga Springs, New York, where, as a ten-year-old boy in 1934, Helburn photographed the aviator Amelia Earhart with a Kodak Rainbow Hawkeye camera after she flew into town. (Helburn 2014, 7). His granny put them up and paid for Helburn’s private schools until she died in 1936, and they discovered she hadn’t paid her taxes. The money was gone. At sixteen, in 1940, he got a job at Bonwit Teller and was promptly fired for smoking. (Helburn 2014, 15)
At the end of 1942, Helburn enlisted in the Army and, facing a choice between working as a mechanic and in a photographic unit, chose the latter. He learned to develop film and make contact sheets alongside another recruit, Ted Croner, who would also become a distinguished photographer. Shipped to Guam together, they worked loading film in aerial cameras, and at the end of the war, unloaded and processed the film from the Enola Gay, chronicling the first drop of an atomic bomb.
Back in New York, they “discussed how to approach our lives,” Helburn said. Croner had recently been skiing at Stowe Mountain in Vermont, where he was riding a lift when he “saw a nude woman with a guy photographing her,” he recalled. Croner jumped off the lift to get closer to the action and learned the photographer was Fernand Fonssagrives, then still married to Lisa. He worked in the Bazaar’s New York studio and invited the two young men to come by. “He was doing a Town & Country page with a beautiful model and we were, ‘Wow,’” Helburn recalls. “We decided that’s what we wanted to do, too.”
They went looking for a studio they could afford on their veteran’s benefits, and found one over a stable a block north of Carnegie Hall. “It reeked of poop,” Helburn remembers. They built a darkroom and started shooting, mostly outdoors. “We were trying to make samples,” he says. “Idiotic, awful pictures.” Fonssagrives suggested they offer to shoot tests for modeling agencies. Spurned by John Robert Powers and Harry Conover, then the giants of that fledgling industry, they were finally taken on by Society of Models, a small agency begun in 1945 by a group of catalog photographer who didn’t want to pay prevailing rates. The aspiring models paid for their film. Two of their first subjects were Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedrin. “I just did stupid things,” Helburn says. He posed Hedrin lying on an ironing board in the middle of Seventh Avenue. “We started getting work,” he says, sounding a little amazed. Gleb Derujinsky worked around the corner, as did Avedon’s first sponsors, the Elliot brothers. “We all got very friendly,” says Helburn. “Then we heard about Brodovitch” and enrolled in the Design Lab.
Helburn wasn’t as awed as some by the great art director. He recalls the odd assignments, how everyone’s work was turned face down and mixed up on a big table, then turned over one at a time and critiqued, and “then a photographer would say, ‘I did it,’” he recalls. Asked to illustrate a nursery rhyme, he photographed Cinderella buying a sandwich in an automat and one of his shots ended up in Junior Bazaar. “I really didn’t succeed, though,” he says. Brodovitch didn’t like the way he used a Rolleiflex on a tripod. “He gave me work but he gave better work to Karen Radkai, so for my whole life, I didn’t like her. I was always nervous, but advertising people liked my work and I became very busy.”
He moved to a penthouse studio on Park Avenue South and quickly became famous for getting even busier with models than he was with advertising work. He married model Sue Jenks in 1949. “I didn’t want to be like my father who cheated but I did it and it became easier,” he says. In the mid-fifties, he had an intense affair with Elsa Martinelli, but she jilted him after meeting a son of Charles Chaplin, and he returned to New York broken-hearted—but still married, and soon, had more children.
He became friendly with the new model agent powers in town, Eileen and Jerry Ford, and they introduced him to a model named Joan Peterson. “She wants more success,” he says. “Eileen sends her to Bill. I’m getting laid more often. Here’s an almost famous model I’m going to get into bed. We go around the corner and have a meal and then go back to my studio. But I left the key inside. I can’t get in, can’t do the act. Oh God, I’m miserable. There’s a plumber across the hall. I notice his window is open, so I climb up, so I can get to my space, get Joan and we can go to bed. It’s dark. I push open the window and crawl in. I hit my head. I pull the light chain. There’s the plumber. He’d hung himself. I get Joan. ‘Get your hat box and leave.’ I call the cops.”
He was getting successful, making money, driving a Jaguar, when he met another model, Angela Howard, who was only sixteen. “So I cheat. But I cheat all the time now. I’m very successful at it. If you do good pictures, people want you. Not you. They want the pictures. One girl says, ‘You don’t think people love you because you’re wonderful?’ Lying in my arms!” But at least, she told him the truth.
Helburn was a model for photographers that followed, just as Avedon was. But it was Avedon’s success at photography they admired. Helburn’s success with women, an industry secret at the time, set the stage for the emergence of a new breed of fashion photographers. Unlike Avedon, they were unabashedly heterosexual. And unlike Penn, they were aggressive about it.
William Helburn’s tenure at the red hot center of fashion ended after a brief affair with Jean Shrimpton and he turned his attention to advertising. “I sort of faded out in the early Seventies and switched to commercials,” he says. “They all continued forever in fashion. I sort of, I don’t know, died out. Maybe because of my personal life, I didn’t pay enough attention to business. I maybe lost interest. I raced cars. I travelled. I tried drugs a bit and drugs hurt a bit. Cocaine was like candy. You’d have a casting assistant in L.A., and you’d say get me three ounces of coke, you’d pass it around in the dressing room, I’d put it in an inhaler and do it on set. At one point, an assistant director said, ‘People are talking about you,’ and I stopped. I have will power.
“I enjoyed every moment,” he continues. “It sounds wonderful and it was wonderful. I had beautiful women, beautiful cars, clothes. People liked me. I had nice friends. I have a house. I have no debts. I’m old but I have my head. My body is shot, but hell, I’m 91. I had happy moments and unhappy moments. And if I had my life to live over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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