“Let me tell of a time when the world was in rhyme with the sound of our laughter,” sang Charles Aznavour. This was the lyric that Jean-Pierre Laffont chose as the introduction to his latest book. Nostalgia? Or because most of the celebrities shot in black and white have passed away? “Not in the slightest,” replies the photographer, 84, still renowned for his photos of gangs from the Bronx and anti-Vietnam War protests, who also co-founded the Gamma and Sygma photo agencies. “There were no press agents, make-up artists, or producers,” he says. “Just me and the stars. It would be impossible to capture such intimate moments today.”
In October 1966, Maurice Chevalier was invited to perform at the April in Paris Ball at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Surrounded by his friends in his suite after the event, the variety-show king had changed out of his stage costume and was lounging on his bed wearing a checked bathrobe! Another city, another atmosphere: In February 1972, André Malraux arrived in Washington D.C. where he was to meet with President Nixon. The former French minister of culture was ravaged by alcoholism and depression. As he disembarks from the plane, he is seen clinging to the handrail, his face a rictus of nervous twitches.
Photographer and Tour Guide
“I was a reporter, not a paparazzi,” says the photographer. “I approached each encounter like a report, and celebrities trusted me.” This was before the Internet, Instagram, and low-cost transatlantic ﬂights. The stars of the music, theater, and cinema worlds swapped Laffont’s telephone number. At the time, he was one of the only French photo-graphers working in the United States.
“Most of these big names were in America for the very ﬁrst time. They called me when they arrived and we would go for a walk.” One double-page photo features actor Yves Montand in the middle of Times Square. It was 9 am, he had walked there from his hotel on 44th Street, and was sitting on a bench between a couple and two homeless people. He was enjoying the anonymity, casually reading a newspaper. “I would never be able to do that in Paris,” he said later.
Souvenir Photos in Front of the Empire State Building
Little-known in the United States, the French celebrities took advantage of this freedom to explore the country. Singer Françoise Hardy wanted to visit the MoMA and listen to jazz musicians in Central Park; actor Yves Rénier wanted to see St. Mark’s Place, the hippies’ street in the East Village; and singer Guy Béard, who needed a new guitar, spent two hours in a music store on 46th Street. Jean-Claude Brialy, Nana Mouskouri, and Philippe Starck also passed through New York, and they all wanted to visit the Empire State Building. “It was the perfect postcard photo,” says Laffont.
The portrait of actor Jean-Pierre Cassel in front of the fa-mous skyscraper, taken from the observation deck of the Rockefeller Center, was published in the magazine Jour de France. Even the accordionist Yvette Horner, who realized her “wild-west dream” of being photographed in Nashville with a cowboy hat and a fringe jacket, could not resist a souvenir photo on the 70th ﬂoor!
A photoshoot with Gilbert Bécaud in 1966 was a little more complicated. Nicknamed “Monsieur 100,000 Volts,” the singer was unable to stand still. Laffont decided to take him to the roof of the Americana Hotel — at the time, all stair-wells were accessible. “I just had time to take two photos while he was jumping in the air, and the second one was perfect! It’s still my favorite picture.” Bécaud, with this iconic polka-dot tie ﬂying in the wind, seems to be levitating in front of the Empire State Building.
Sheila and the Bikers
During his forty-year career in the United States, Laffont also accompanied singer Serge Lama to Cleveland and met novelist Marguerite Yourcenar in Maine. He took the ﬁrst photos of yachtsman Eric Tabarly, who won his second transatlantic race in 1976, and arranged a meeting between the singer Sheila – who was in Los Angeles recording a disco album – with a gang of bearded bikers!
This wealth of memories and anecdotes have been compiled in a book by the photographer and his wife Eliane Laffont, who edited the work and helped write the texts. And both of them enjoy looking back over the past. “I took great pleasure in accompanying these celebrities, showing them my America,” says Laffont. “Many of them are still good friends!”
Nos stars en Amérique : Cartes postales de Jean-Pierre Laffont by Jean-Pierre Laffont and Eliane Laffont, La Martinière, 2019. Jean-Pierre Laffont will present his book at the Albertine bookstore in New York on December 12 at 6:30 pm.
Article published in the November 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.