Interview with Laura Hawk, Author of Slim Aarons: Women (Abrams, 2016)

(Originally published in Upstate Diary November, 2016)

Slim Aarons, famed for his lifestyle photographs of the rich and famous, described his job as “photographing attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places."For 20 years, his assistant, Laura Hawk, accompanied Aarons to homes and places where few have been invited. For the recently released book ‘Slim Aarons: Women,' Hawk compiled and wrote the detailed captions for Slim's photographs of the women that most influenced him, including Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Diana Vreeland, and Marilyn Monroe.

ZA: The story of your relationship with Slim Aarons starts with Slim arriving at your mother’s apartment to interview you. How was it that Slim Aarons was coming by your mother’s apartment?

LH: I was working on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma after college. My mother lived in New York, and she wanted me back. It was that push-pull that parents and children often have.

My mother was married many times and had many men in her life – my sister and I call them our “faux fathers.” One of these faux fathers was an art collector named Patrick Lannan. Town & Country magazine had just done a piece on him, so mother knew he had a connection there. Being a protective, manipulating mother, she called Patrick thinking he might be able to connect me with a desk job.

So, Patrick sets me up with an interview with Frank Zachary, the editor-in-chief of Town & Country. When I met Frank, I’m sure he thought, “Aha, this one’s right for Slim,” because I was quiet and self-effacing. Exactly what you needed to be to work with Slim. So Frank set up the meeting at my mother’s apartment. Slim had been lunching at Le Cirque and stopped by after.

ZA: Slim was known for being very territorial. How was it that he let you into his world?

LH: Slim was in his early fifties when I started working with him. I was in my late twenties. And what I couldn’t have known back then is that he had gone through so many assistants, so many women – always women. Nobody could deal with him! He was exacting, demanding, controlling, imperious.

ZA: What prepared you to deal with someone like that?

LH: My upbringing. I went to nineteen schools the first twelve years of my life. I was used to never putting roots down. My parents divorced young and each of them moved around a lot. So I was easily adaptable, and had no desire to be the main player. I was always an adjunct. It was the role I was most comfortable playing. I think I’ve finally gotten over that. But it’s taken a whole lifetime.

ZA: Slim moved in high society so effortlessly. Did you ever allow yourself to get swept up in these fantastical worlds?

LH: I really didn’t. But I loved the voyeuristic part of it. I loved seeing and traveling and walking into some palatial home and saying, “Oh my God.” Slim was exactly the same way. Oddly enough, I would say that the people that we ran into were more interested in him than he was in them.

At the end of a shoot they’d say, “Come have dinner with us!” and Slim would say, “No, thank you. I’m working.” I was very shy, so the worst thing I could think of was being at a dinner party with European royals, having to sit there and be scintillating. I could count on one hand the amount of times that I had to do that. Thank God.

ZA: He preferred to have a certain distance with his subjects?

LH: There was only a handful with whom he wasn’t distant. Manni Wittgenstein was one of them. She was an Austrian princess, a photographer. She was wonderful, jovial. It’s kind of curious, the people that he really connected with were working people; they weren’t only socialites.

ZA: In the 1960s and ‘70s, when these photographs were being taken, there was social upheaval all around the world. Did Slim seem aware of that?

LH: He certainly was. He'd fought in a war in his youth. But he'd made this mental decision to not be bothered by pain and suffering after the war, to only focus on leisure. I guess he felt he'd put his time in. He did, however read the New York Times — or The Herald Tribune if we were on the road — every single day, front to back. 

ZA: What was Slim’s background? Did he grow up wealthy?

 LH: No. He didn’t grow up wealthy at all. His entire life, he hid his background. He grew up in New Jersey in a fairly regular family. But when I first met Slim, he’d go on and on about his childhood in New Hampshire: an idyllic childhood, very Mark Twain. He always told the story about how he loved to poke the pigtail of the girl sitting in front of him in class in ink. And when he’d get caught, he’d jump out the window of the schoolhouse and hide in the woods until dark. It’s all made up, I’m sure.

ZA: He was a fantasy-creator, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

LH: Right. I’m guessing he made it all up as he left the Army and started as a photographer.

ZA: Though he appeared to be the quintessential WASP, Slim was, in fact, Jewish. Is that correct?

LH: Yes! And nobody knew. His wife and his daughter didn’t even know. Right after he died it became known. Once a year, a phone-call would come through to their house. The people on the other end of the line would say, “It’s us! It’s us! Your cousins from New Jersey!” Slim’s daughter or wife would say to Slim, “It’s them again!” Slim would get on the phone and say, “Who are you? Stop bothering me! I don’t have any cousins in New Jersey!” When he died, all of these people showed up at his funeral. 

ZA: Do the social types that Slim photographed still exist?

LH: It’s all changed so much. If these people were living today, everyone would be so much more guarded. It amazes me that the people that Slim would run into all over the world — in Gstaad or St. Moritz — really famous, wealthy people, would instantly agree to be photographed. They’d never ask, “Where are these pictures going?” There was this ease about it all. That was Slim and his track record, but it was also the times. 

ZA: Today I know you as a progressive and a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter. How do you reconcile Bernie’s message with the wealth you experienced with Slim?

LH: I don't believe Bernie's message is in any way anti-wealth. I believe his message is about fixing a very broken system that, over time, has awarded the financial and political elites tax breaks, favors, and laws beneficial to their interests, while expecting the middle class to shoulder the bulk of the massive burdens of two wars put on credit cards… and a global financial meltdown. I don't believe that retooling the system to expect wealthy individuals and corporations to shoulder a fair share of the country's tax burden and to pay living wages is in any way anti-wealth.

ZA: Tell me a bit about your process in writing this book.

LH: There are three banker’s boxes in the Harper’s Bazaar offices at Hearst filled with color photocopies of Slim’s stories. I started there and got 600 or 700 images from those boxes. That was beautiful for me. The publisher didn’t want to use more than 20% previously published images, so we cut it down to 230 images. But when I sent those images to Slim’s archive in London, they came up with only a fraction of the original negatives. Only a fraction of Slim’s work has been archived. We simply couldn’t get to the material, so we compromised and used 40% previously unpublished images.

From there, we had to decide where the words would come in. I would dig and try to tell the story of these women’s lives. This was an opportunity to be a bit of a revisionist and draw out more of the realities behind these women that Slim would have no idea about. That’s how I tried to present anew images that had been published before.

ZA: Slim passed a way 10 years ago, what do you think he would’ve thought of this book?

LH: What a great question. I don’t know. Maybe it would’ve made him pause. It would’ve made him stop for a moment and think about who these people were. That’s it.