A Cloud of Pink Chiffon
The story of David Bailey's early life and career would come to sound a cliche: Scruffy East End (or maybe northern) boy aspires to a field normally reserved for the posh and sets the world on its ear without bending his personality to fit the long-established model. But like the jokes in Shakespeare or the Marx Brothers, it was only familiar because it was repeated so often from the original. All the pop stars, actors, dressmakers, haircutters, club owners, scenesters, satirists and boy tycoons who exploded on the London scene in the early sixties did so after Bailey, often in his mold and almost always in front of his camera.
Before mod and the Beat Boom, before Carnaby Street and the swinging hot spots of Soho and Chelsea, before, indeed, sex and drugs and most of rock 'n' roll there were the laddish young photographers from the East: Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, "the Terrible Three" in the affectionate phrase of Cecil Beaton, an iconoclastic snapper of another age whose approval of the new lot made it that much easier for them to barge in on what had been a very exclusive and sedate party.
The trio--and a few others who came along in the rush--dressed and spoke and carried on as no important photographers ever had, not even in the putatively wide-open worlds of fashion magazines and photojournalism. They spoke like smart alecks and ruffians, they flaunted their high salaries and the Rolls-Royces they flashed around in, they slept with the beautiful women who modeled for them, they employed new cameras and technologies to break fertile ground in portraiture and fashion shoots. They were superstars from a world that had previously been invisible, perhaps with reason. "Before 1960," Duffy famously said, "a fashion photographer was somebody tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual."
Duffy could enjoy such self-deprecating boasts because, recalled Dick Fontaine, who tried to make a documentary about the trio, "He was really the kind of architect of the guerilla warfare on those who control the fashion industry and the press."
But it was Bailey who would bring the group their fame and glory. Bailey was the first bright shiny star of the sixties, a subject of jealous gossip, an inspiration in fashion, speech and behavior, an exemplar of getting ahead in a glamorous world, and, incidentally, the great, lasting chronicler of his day.
Bailey was born January 2, 1938, in Leytonstone, east of the East End, a block over, he always liked to brag, from the street where Alfred Hitchcock was born. When Bailey was three, the family home took a hit from a Nazi bomb and they relocated to Heigham Road, East Ham, which was where Bailey and his younger sister, Thelma, were raised.
Their father, Herbert, was a tailor's cutter and a flash character who dressed nattily, ran around on his wife and like to have a roll of fivers at hand; his wife, Gladys, kept house but also worked as a machinist, especially after Bert finally split on her. The family wasn't rich, but they were comfortable--they were among the first people in the block to have a telephone and TV set, and Bailey was made to dress smartly, to his chagrin ("What chance have you got in a punch-up in East Ham wearing sandals?" he later sighed). But they weren't entirely free of money worries, and one of their ways of dealing with them was, to Bailey, a blessing: "In the winter," he recalled, the family "would take bread-and-jam sandwiches and go to the cinema every night because in those days it was cheaper to go to the cinema than to put on the gas fire. I'll bet I saw seven or eight movies a week."
Bailey fell, predictably enough, under the spell of rugged (and mainly American) actors at around the same time that his parents' marriage was foundering. But Bert Bailey was nonetheless a little worried about his son's fancy for birdwatching and natural history, which loves led the boy into vegetarianism. "My father thought I was fucking queer," Bailey said, "but queer didn't mean homosexual. In those days it just meant a bit of an oddball."
Part of Bailey's queerness was taking and developing photos of birds--he preferred the latter process, as it involved playing with chemicals. But he didn't think of taking pictures as a career ambition--"photography was something you did once a year on Margate beach"--and he had enough on his hands at school, where his learning disabilities (undiagnosed at the time) made for a hellish routine. "I can't read and write," Bailey said. "Dysgraphia, dyslexia--I've got them all. I went to the silly class--the school for idiots--and they used to cane me when I couldn't spell. It was quite tough knowing that you're smart and thinking you're an idiot."
At fifteen, he dropped out of school altogether and started a series of unpromising jobs: copy boy at the Fleet Street offices of the Yorkshire Post, carpet salesman, shoe salesman, window dresser, time-and-motion man at the tailoring firm where his dad worked and debt collector. He developed a taste for jazz and spent nights checking out the music and women at the handful of venues the East End offered someone his age. His musical interests were underscored in his oft-quoted quip about his roots: "You had two ways of getting out in the fifties--you were either a boxer or a jazz musician." So perhaps it was inevitable that he followed an artistic muse, especially as he quickly learned how ill-suited he was to make a living with his fists: "The Krays, the Barking Boys and the Canning Town Boys were the three gangs at the time," Bailey remembered. "They weren't gangsters, they were just hooligans. They just went around beating people up if you looked at them wrong in a dance hall. I got beat up by the Barking Boys because I danced with one of their girlfriends. They left me in the doorway of Times Furnishing."
Bailey's dreamy aimlessness was finally punctured by the call-up: In the spring of 1956, he was ordered to report for a physical for the National Service. He tried to duck it--he stayed up two nights straight and consumed a huge quantity of nutmeg ("Someone said it made your heart go faster"), but it didn't work. He might have requested assignment to a photographic unit, but that meant a longer hitch than he was ready to sign for. In August, he reported for basic training in the Royal Air Force, and by December he was stationed in Singapore as a first-level aircraftman with duties such as helping to keep planes flight ready and standing guard on funeral drill.
On the whole, Private Bailey found the situation pleasant enough. "I had a good time in the National Service," he confessed years later. "I hate to sound like a right-wing middle-aged man, but I think it was very good for me." There were, he admitted, drawbacks: "The snobbery! They had a toilet for privates, a toilet for sergeants and a toilet for commissioned officers, as if all our arses were different. It made me angry, the way we were treated, almost like a slave. You were dirt compared with an officer."
Indeed, it was a run-in with an officer that would prove pivotal in shaping Bailey's future. He was still on his jazz kick--his "Chet Baker phase," as he later deemed it--and trying to teach himself to play the trumpet. But when an officer borrowed his horn and failed to return it, he was forced to seek another creative outlet. Cameras could be gotten cheap in Singapore, so Bailey--who'd been as enamored of the photos of Baker on the trumpeter's album jackets as by the playing inside--bought a knockoff Rolleiflex. He was sufficiently hard up for money that he had to pawn the camera every time he wanted to pay for developing his film, but he caught the bug.
The camera suited Bailey's growing bohemianism. He had begun to read, and where his barracks mates had pinup girls hung over their beds, he had a reproduction of a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar. His pretensions didn't go unnoticed: "I did used to get into fights," he said. "But because I was from the East End I could look after myself. I also had the best-looking WAAF as my girlfriend, so they knew I wasn't gay."
When he demobbed in August 1958, Bailey acquired a Canon Rangefinder camera and the ambition to make a living with it. He applied to the London College of Printing but was rejected because he'd dropped out of school. Instead, he wound up working as a second assistant to photographer David Olins at his studio in Charlotte Mews in the West End. He was a glorified gofer--not even glorified, actually, at three pounds, ten shillings a week--and was therefore delighted a few months later to be called to an interview at the studio of John French, a somewhat better-known name and a man who had a reputation for nurturing his assistants' careers.
French, then in his early fifties, was the epitome of the fashion photographer and portraitist of the era: exquisitely attired, fastidious, posh and gay (although, as it happened, married). "John French looked," Bailey remembered, "like Fred Astaire. 'David,' he said, 'do you know about incandescent light and strobe? Do you know how to load a ten-by-eight film pack?' I said yes to everything he asked and he gave me the job, but, at that time, I didn't even know what a strobe was. We became friends and after six o'clock Mr. French became John. One night I asked him why he gave me the job. 'Well, you know, David,' he said, 'I liked the way you dressed.' Six months later everyone thought we were having an affair, but in fact, although we were fond of each other, we never got it on."
In fact, French--"a screaming queen who fancied East End boys," according to documentarian Dick Fontaine--was the first person to really recognize something special in Bailey. Partly it was his bohemian style--Cuban-heeled boots, jeans, leather jacket and hair over the ears, all before the Beatles had been heard of; party in was his aptitude for the craft. French liked to compare his young protege to the unnamed hero of Colin MacInnes's cult novel about bohemian London, Absolute Beginners--a savvy insight--and he was perfectly willing, as he had with many previous disciples, to see Bailey get ahead in his own work.
"He was an incredibly decent type of man," Bailey would say of his mentor after French died in 1966. "I don't think he was very good as a photographer, but he had a good attitude. His photography sort of slowed me down a bit, because I had to break away from his way of doing things, but I benefited from his attitude."
Even more, he would say years later, "I owe my success to two gay men, really, who told me I was wonderful and pushed me. Being a Cockney and working class, I was an outsider, and in those days gays were outcasts, too. So we felt an affinity. Anyway, John French introduced me to the picture editor of the Daily Express, and John Parsons, the art director of British Vogue--the second gay man--saw my pictures in the newspaper and offered me a job at the magazine."
It was in the Daily Express, in fact, that Bailey published his first really important photo--an image of the model Paulene Stone wearing a dark knee-length skirt and a bright turtleneck mohair sweater and crouching on the leaf-strewn ground to commune with a squirrel, who was nibbling on an ort. Terence Donovan, who didn't yet know Bailey, was among the people who reacted strongly to the image, pronouncing himself "disturbed by its freshness and its oblique quality." On the strength of that shot and a few other striking pictures, Bailey found himself hired in May 1960, as a full-fledged photographer at John Cole's Studio Five, earning thirty to forty pounds a week.
The money came in handy, as Bailey had in February of that year married Rosemary Bramble, a typist whom he'd met at Soho's Flamingo Club a few months previous. The couple lived in a small apartment near The Oval cricket ground in South London. Bailey's salary wasn't grand, but it was good, and when John Parsons of Vogue called on Bailey later that year to ask him about joining the staff of the magazine, Bailey refused because he was doing so well with Cole.
"They were offering me less per week than Woman's Own was paying me per picture," Bailey remembered. "I didn't realize that Vogue was different from any other fashion magazine. . . . I thought it was just another magazine that used pictures. I wasn't that interested in fashion and preferred reportage and portraits, but fashion gradually took over because of Vogue." The next time Parsons asked, though, Bailey agreed. His first small piece appeared in the magazine in September 1960, followed by full-page work the next month and, in February 1961, his first cover. The Bailey legend was about to be made.
Bailey's arrival at deluxe fashion magazines couldn't have come at a more perfect time to suit his ambitions. The media business, so long a stolid presence in English life, had grown increasingly itchy in the preceding years. English magazine culture was in the throes of an invigorating shake-up that had begun in the least likely of places. The Queen, a hundred year old society magazine, had undergone a radical change at the hands of its new owner/editor, Jocelyn Stevens, who transformed it from a dry lifestyle report for the upper classes and those with a passion for following their lives (Stevens sniffed that the old Queen was all about how to "knit your own royal family") into the most vital publication in the country, with fresh concepts in photography and layout and a wry new attitude toward its putative subject: British tradition.
Queen began branching out into areas that had never before been within the purview of a society magazine: articles about the Cuban revolution, a four-issue photo essay about Red China by Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was then hired by Stevens to cover the annual Queen Charlotte's debutante ball "like a war") and a series of articles and features that tried to capture the changing mood of Britain. In one, a parody of the Eton College Chronicle (Stevens had attended the school), the establishment of the day, insofar as The Queen saw it, was sent up as a bunch of schoolboys. In 1959, an entire issue was dedicated to the "Boom . . . Boom . . . boom"--the new decorators, dress designers, cars, art treasures and overall lavish living ("When did you last hear the word austerity," the lead article asked, and then went on to chronicle England's rise as a producer of advertising, a consumer of champagne and a piler-up of consumer debt); surveys were published on the New Thinkers (including fashion designer Mary Quant, satirist Jonathan Miller and interior designer Terence Conran), the Challengers (including actor Terence Stamp) and New Faces; charts of Who Revolves Around Who were run. Within three years, the magazine nearly tripled in size to accommodate all the advertising its heat had drawn.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ready, Steady, Go! by Shawn Levy. Copyright © 2002 by Shawn Levy. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.