A trio of tomes defying our wimpy times land with a big, bad-ass bang from three visual giants who occupied Manhattan when it was the great and powerful Gotham. Bow to, and unbind them.
Cecil Beaton, Harry Benson and Martin Scorsese—all chroniclers, in their way, of a lost New York City, the glamour and smoking manholes and “Read All About It!” newsboys—a more atavistic era when both the dirt and the light were more intense, before so much of the city became akin to a theme park sans rides. Not a trio you would necessarily picture sharing a table at Elaine’s (yet another casualty, alas).
But all three, alive and not, have new books out celebrating the Way It Used to Be: Cecil Beaton: The New York Years (Skira Rizzoli, $65), Benson’s New York New York (powerHouse, $85), and Scorsese on Scorsese (Cahiers du cinema, $70).
Okay, so Scorsese’s book is not strictly about the oversized Apple, but he made his bones evoking the mean streets, and the city oozes from every page, be it “Taxi Driver” or “Gangs of New York.”
Beaton, the aristocratic British photographer, was merely a visitor to the city, yet compiled quite a chronicle of its more compelling elements and profiles, from Warhol and Capote to the young Tom Wolfe. Unfortunately, like Andy and Truman, Beaton also died during the decade (1980–1990) that now seems like a culling of the Studio 54 crowd.
While Benson is also U.K.-born, he made Manhattan his home after arriving with the Beatles in 1964, and has the pictures to prove it: from George Plimpton to Jackie O., Brooke Astor to Woody Allen, there is scarcely a boldface name he hasn’t snapped.
Like Benson, many of his subjects “arrived with a mythic image of the city from movies, TV songs, and novels, to create their own myths,” writes Jay McInerney, in the book’s introduction.
With so few of these larger-than-life types left on the landscape, and legends fading fast, these are essential evidence that it really happened here on our stoops, cafes and hooch houses. Proof, if you will, that we once had giants roaming the streets.
By Jared Stern