“If you liked Bill Cunningham, you will adore Bettina” – Ernest Schmatolla
In her 10 years as a fashion model and her 40 years as a travel and fashion/celebrity photojournalist, Bettina Cirone has been both muse and master, hunter and hunted, predator and prey. In her past, she’s been idolized and worshipped, as well as denigrated and defiled.
As she marks her 84th birthday this month she is unable to stand up straight or get around without a walker due to repeated and devastating bicycle injuries, an occupational hazard. “I’ve been hit by so many cars, an Academy bus, a pickup truck, a van, taxis, a DUI driver and broken so many parts of my ribs, limbs, spine and hip. it’s a miracle I’m alive,” she says. Yet, she is a true living legend who has visually recorded her extraordinary life during a very special era in history.
A former resident of the Carnegie Hall studios along with friends and fellow photogs Bill Cunningham and Editta Sherman (known as “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall”), Bettina and Bill were relocated to the same Central Park South building where Bettina still lives. Her apartment bears a strong resemblance to Bill’s former pad: floor to ceiling filing cabinets co-mingled with loose photos, newspaper clippings, books, magazines — all strewn about in organized chaos.
Unlike the late Bill Cunningham, she has company: a large Himalayan Lilac Point cat named “Kitty,” (a name reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” who, seeking not to get attached, names her feline “Cat”).
Bettina and Bill used to commiserate over the fact that they had, no doubt, provided vehicles for a good number of Manhattan’s bicycle messengers, each having lost somewhere around 30 purloined bikes over the years. As for Editta whose posthumous exhibit at the New York Historical Society is currently on view, Bettina was asked to sit for her in 1969 but never did, finding Editta to be “pushy, a braggart and eccentric. I did go to her 100th birthday party after I got older and warmed up to her and met her grown children. I grew to like her and value what she’d accomplished. She deserves the accolades and attention,” Bettina added.
Perched on the edge of a folding chair, I listened raptly to Bettina’s first-hand anecdotes tempered with some stark and occasionally brutal life lessons. For three and a half hours, she spoke about many things, including being one of the first women to stand shoulder to shoulder with the often inelegant paparazzi, who will literally push and shove anyone out of the way in the interest of getting the money shot. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of her fascinating experiences on both sides of the lens.
Born in 1933 during the Depression, Bettina was raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn by an overprotective mother and a father whose secret hobby was photographing his wife, friends and neighbors in the buff. Bettina was a great early beauty — as a teen she was scouted to enter the Miss America pageant and to model for Eileen Ford who squeezed her breasts telling her she needed to lose some weight because except for them she was perfect.
Eileen told her she would send her to photographers to start her portfolio. ” I told her my father could photograph me and I need not go to hers, not realizing there was a vast difference between fashion photographers and my Dad’s. But domineering Mother’s rule was no modeling and no moving out of the house until the age of 21 so I didn’t return to Eileen until age 27.”
Starting at seventeen, Bettina worked instead at various office secretarial jobs from American Bankers Association to Harper Collins and as a United Nations guide for UNICEF all with Mother’s approval. Upon reaching the age of adulthood, she obtained a GS4 clearance and hightailed it to Japan for a position as a civil secretary for U.S. and European highest ranking military officers stationed at an airbase outside of Tokyo. She arrived at Haneda Airport, not speaking a word of Japanese, in a snowstorm that she originally thought was nuclear fallout. “Every Japanese citizen was wearing a surgical mask including my driver who purchased one for me on the road to Tokyo.
I later learned they were de rigueur to protect from frequent fatal Tuberculosis attacks in almost every family and crowds were running away from where the taxi was taking me.” Clad in a big red coat given to her by her mom, bare Japanese sandals due to a broken toe she got on a high diving board in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, (a refueling and recuperating layover from 36 hours of flying through a monsoon) and a surgical mask she wore over her nose and mouth that her driver presented her with. All that topped by her voluminous mane of flame red hair, the desk sergeant at intake in Tokyo burst out laughing so hard he lay his head on his desk pounding on it at this awesome sight.
In 1955 Japan, she inadvertently got her modeling start, ending up on covers of magazines courtesy of a renowned Japanese photographer who entered her photo into a contest which she won. He had also taken candid headshots of her during the contest which ended up as a huge mural in Tokyo’s Ueno Park Museum and on covers of Japanese magazines.
They became friends — he and his wife invited her to their home where they dressed her in an elaborate four layers of traditional Japanese wedding costumes, each layer exquisitely hand woven embroidered silk sashed by colorful obi (belts) that combined on her delicate frame felt like “I was carrying an armchair on my back. Good training for my backpacking through the Grand Canyon, India and Sri Lanka with 5 to 6 metal cameras, several lenses and loads of film on my back in the decades to come. “
“Women were second class citizens in Japan then. It was customary to see females walking behind their spouses carrying large packages securely wrapped as their spouses were freewheeling unhampered on bicycles in front of them. Men were always seated on trains and buses as women, no matter how young or old, stood unless the vehicle had enough seats for everyone. It was not uncommon to see a 90 year old woman carrying packages bigger than her size get up to give a 14 year old boy her seat that the boy took for granted without even a gesture of gratitude.
Recognizing and respectful of my host country’s traditions, when I boarded a crowded train to Tokyo from Tachikawa I took my place standing. One elderly gentleman offered me his seat. I declined. He insisted. I declined again, he demanded I take his seat. My last denial engendered a jiu jitsu movement from him that I feared he was going to send me through the moving train’s window but I ended up forcibly in his seat. The entire train of male passengers on their way to work burst out in gales of laughter. One couldn’t refuse the respectable demands of an elderly Japanese man no matter what.”
“When I first visited the photographer’s Nagahama home, everything was in traditional Japanese order. The wife who prepared our meal and served us would eat at their stove while he and I ate at the cozy table warmed by the burning coals in a pit under us. My objections were to no avail when I pleaded with him to let her join us.
By my third visit, both Nagahama Sans would not only be seated with me a table but they passionately argued about which was the best photo to be published and exhibited of me, reminding me of my parents loud arguments except for my parents colorful vulgarities. Tradition was broken before my eyes. He told me he always listens to her, that she was the real boss. It was another lesson I learned, that beyond tradition, people share the same values all over the world,” she added.
After two years in Japan where she was nicknamed “Betiko-San,” she relocated to Rocquencourt, France where she did learn to speak the language fluently, continuing her work for international top ranking military officers at a James Bond-ish sounding agency called SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe).
She eventually earned a high level security clearance enabling her to work on top security documents. “I was told when I attained that status after nine months of rigorous scrutiny from international and national security that I would have unlimited access to everything that the current and past President of the United States did. I had also gotten Cosmic Top Secret access to all documents that were generated at SHAPE which I traveled to daily in my stick shift Dauphine from my little house in St. Cloud, and later in my Paris apartment with a spectacular view of the Tour Eiffel.”
Unfortunate circumstances including a “Romanian screwball (boyfriend) who was beating me up,” meant a return to the U.S. where she settled for a time in Key West, Florida. (The abusive ex later followed her there thanks to her mother who unknowingly gave him Bettina’s address). Of course, the most famous resident of Key West — none other than Ernest Hemingway — spotted her walking to the beach in her bikini one day and invited her inside for tea.
She had a similar experience with Pablo Picasso in the south of France where he motioned to her to come over as she walked à la plage. (No surprise that she later became a bathing suit and lingerie model). She declined both invitations.
However, Bettina did became friends with Hemingway’s son Patrick and spent a night as a guest in the Hemingway house which she described as somewhat dilapidated and furnished like a shack — “full of animal skins and very rustic. Patrick’s small room was full of old books. Years after Papa Hemingway’s death when it became the Hemingway House open to the public, all the walls had been painted blue and white — not at all how it was. It was redecorated in a manner so unlike Hemingway. All the books in Patrick’s room were covered in white in freshly painted bookcases. His unpainted walls were now glowing white. too. The dining room table was covered with precious china and crystal.
In Key West, Bettina also met Tennessee Williams and his boyfriend Frank Merlo, along with Tallulah Bankhead. While dining in a local cafe on conch chowder with Frank she saw Tennessee eyeing up the local beach boys, however, he insisted jovially that he didn’t approach them that young. Actor and playwright Jim Herlihy, who at that time had just published “The Sleep of Baby Filbertson” before he wrote “Midnight Cowboy” and other better known plays, was hosting Tallulah. They invited Bettina over for cocktails at Tallulah’s request along with her “Welcome Darlings” co-star Jim Kirkwood (who later co-authored “A Chorus Line) but she refused. “I had heard that Tallulah might have some lesbian tendencies,” she said, especially since Herlihy, Kirkwood and Hemingway were all gay and the way in which the sophisticated Tallulah was eyeing me on the beach put me off. Jim was aghast that I said “no” and repeated: “NO?!?” I repeated “NO!”
At the ripe old age of 27 Bettina finally decided that she would give modeling a go. She returned to New York City and Ford Models where Eileen Ford asked why she had never followed through after their first meeting in 1952. Ten years on she was told it was too late to launch a career as a fashion, runway and beauty photographic model but not too late to become a swimsuit and lingerie model. Eileen told her that she had no lingerie clients at the agency so she joined the Wagner Agency (owned by Paul Wagner which later became Zoli). She remembers being in demand; the booking agents telling her “every time the phone rings, it’s for you.” Even Diana Vreeland with then assistant Polly Mellen were in her corner. Diana Vreeland sent out memos to each of her editors to ‘Use, use, use, use use Bettina.’ And so they did.
“I did get booked immediately for a Vogue runway show and a fur show before I decided how much easier it was to model lingerie that fell in my lap at double fee and was much more relaxing than being clothes pinned and restrained into outerwear, holding painful positions for an hour on set, under uncomfortably hot lights. There was often no air conditioning on fur shoots in August and I would have to remain in bed from the fatigue and pains from having to hold myself in unnatural positions while telling myself to hold the position for which I was being paid $1 per minute at a time when I was previously getting only $100 for a 40 hour work week at my SHAPE secretarial job.”
She enrolled in acting classes with Lee Strasberg and with Uta Hagen but never auditioned, for fear of the casting couch. She repeatedly had to fight off men whether on modeling shoots, or in her previous foreign secretarial jobs where she had horrible experiences which scarred her to this day, with two different military officers. It seems her mother’s protectiveness had ill prepared her for the evils of certain uniformed men used to getting their way. Interestingly, Bettina was comfortable enough to do nude shoots for Mel Sokolsky where Ali McGraw was the stylist and then for Gosta Peterson which became a five page spread in Glamour. She also worked with Gleb Derujinksy for a twelve month Van Raalte lingerie campaign.
Walking from her apartment on West 58th Street through Central Park to his studio at the Dakota she began snapping photos with a 35mm single lens reflex camera which she used to document some Japanese Haiku poems. These photos later ended up in both the Guggenheim Museum in 1965 and later in an exhibit at the Contemporary Crafts Museum, now the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). A year or so later it became a photo essay for Eastern Airlines’ inflight magazine. An OGGI editor sent her to a press conference with Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot and the rest was history. “I liked shooting celebrities — the photos are easier and quicker to sell than art and travel photos,” she remarked. Unlike the paparazzi she doesn’t want to shoot those who aren’t willing to be photographed and prefers to shoot those who comply.
She met then New York Mayor John Lindsay at a club where she had accompanied a friend to see another belly dancer friend. “Lindsay had asked me to dance with him after I rejected a seat at his table. He gave me a ride home in his limo. We talked for three hours. I told him I was a photographer but didn’t mention modeling. I was no less than flabbergasted when then Mayor John Lindsay offered me a lift home, then took my key from my hand and opened my door and followed me up to my apartment. I still believed he was simply being gallant and courteously seeing me to my door. Next thing I knew he was in my shower then wrapped my blue towel around him like a short sarong and proceeded to kiss me. I was fully clothed and pretty nervous. When he attempted to undress me I stopped him. It wasn’t that his hunkiness didn’t attract me. He was way too fast.”
Nevertheless, Mayor Lindsay was instrumental in getting Bettina a job as a photographer at the Lower Manhattan Development City Planning Commission where she photographed landmarked architecture. From streets, helicopter, Coast Guard vessels and groundbreakings and openings for their archives and architectural books. “They called me ‘the spy’ because of my resume (and high security clearance) from SHAPE,” she said of the job which she held for two years and quit despite offers to remain. She had the travel bug and had gotten assignments in Haiti, Jamaica, Italy and Ireland she couldn’t resist.
She also had an interesting relationship with Salvador Dali who she met while viewing his exhibit at the same building that now houses MAD, when it was the grand opening of A&P heir’s Huntington Hartford Museum. Dali followed her through the exhibit and finally asked her in French if she would pose nude for him. She replied in French that she was nothing but bones (“Mais je n’ai que des os,”) to which he kissed her hand and replied “J’adore les os.” They ended up working out a deal — she posed for him and was represented as the middle figure of his Three Graces sculpture; he struck a portrait pose for her camera. She spent time in their NYC apartment at the St Regis Hotel with his wife Gala and with artist Isabelle Collin Dufresne also known as Ultra Violet at her apartment.
Through Dali she met and photographed Andy Warhol (who she says was very shy, as was she) and others who hung out as Dali “held court” at the St. Regis King Cole Room and at La Cote Basque. She really didn’t become friendly with Warhol until the ’70s and ’80s when she started to photograph him at events. He asked her to do a regular column with photos for his “Interview” Magazine but she was just too busy then with modeling assignments and later as a photographer. Bettina is quoted in the 2016 book “Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol: Encounters in New York and Beyond” by Torsten Otte about how she initially thought that “Andy was a Dali groupie” but later realized that there was a mutual admiration society between Warhol and Dali.
Summoned to Dali’s apartment at the St. Regis to photograph him with the astronauts who had just returned from the moon landing very early one morning, Bettina stretched out to catch a few winks on a chaise lounge while she waited for the astronauts to arrive. The next thing she knew, Dali’s pet ocelot had turned the doorknob where Dali and Gala slept. The ocelot cuddled up lengthwise on top of her, nuzzling his head under her chin. “Dali had an ocelot and a margay. One time the ocelot sh*t in the elevator and the St REGIS had to close it down,” she laughingly recalled. Bettina was in the news in 2014 regarding the unfortunate incidence of the disappearance of a piece of art from her apartment that Dali had created and inscribed for her entitled “The Blue Lion,” and two other works that he gave her. In 2008 she sold her copy of “Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali” in an auction at Bonham’s which featured a drawing and inscription addressed to her, before it could be lost or stolen.
I would be remiss if I did not include a few anecdotes about some of the famous folk Bettina has photographed either at press events, by invitation or in their homes (see below). She even photographed Pia Lindstrom’s wedding at her step sister Isabella Rossellini’s house on Fifth Ave. Her work has been featured nationally and internationally in major publications including the Daily News, Newsday, People, USA Today, New York Magazine, Jet, Playboy, New York Newsday, The New York Post, Architectural Digest and American Photo. She has photographed nearly every big name celebrity in the fields of acting, music, dance, literature, politics and art. Everyone from Mother Theresa to Muhammed Ali was captured by her lens. Her one regret: she never made it to an event that she had been invited to and planned to attend to photograph Princess Diana.
Lillian Gish — “I photographed her at a premier and in her apartment. She always had her grayed hair in a tight bun and wore black clothes and outfitted very conservatively. So it was such a pleasant surprise to see her long gray hair falling over her shoulders in waves and ringlets and wearing a silk lacey nightgown. She looked like a sweet teenager.”
Joan Crawford — “Carleton Varney (of Dorothy Draper) was a friend of Joan Crawford’s. I had photographed several celebrities in their apartments for him including Pauline Trigere and Ethel Merman for Carleton. I photographed Joan Crawford towards the end of her life when I heard she never left her apartment. A butler and a maid dressed in uniforms were there but she opened her door and immediately showed me to two pristine white towels laid out on the floor by her living room window which she told me my tripod and camera gear were to be placed. She also demanded that my photog friend who had originally invited me for lunch that day asked us to put our lighting and tripod on. She told us we were not to touch anything! The lighting guy accidentally grazed the edge of her guest room orange corduroy couch with his clean khaki pants and she shrieked. We were told to take a lunch break during which time I hopped on my bike on this scorching hot day and rode about twenty blocks to the lab to get the morning film developed. When I got back I was parched so I asked her for a glass of water. She took a glass from the cabinet, filled it with tap water and the minute I took it out from her, she grabbed it away before I could take a single sip, washed it and put it back in the cabinet. She also called for total silence so that her tiny dog could relieve herself. ‘Quiet! Princess has to piddle,’ she screamed.”
Bette Davis — “I photographed Bette Davis at Tavern on the Green. She was holding a huge wine glass with milk in it in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I also watched as she put 18 teaspoons of sugar in a tiny demitasse cup of coffee and somehow drank it!”
Malcolm Forbes — “I was invited to photograph Malcolm Forbes 70th birthday celebration in Tangiers. He and I share a birthday (August 19). Of course no one knew it would be his last.”
Mia Farrow — Bettina has a large black & white photo of Mia Farrow and her children on her wall, which she shot at a tea party at the Sheraton. “I also photographed Mia and her mother (Maureen O’Sullivan). Soon-Yi (who later became Woody Allen’s wife) was also in the picture with the other kids. Soon-Yi went after Woody but he was willing.”
Dustin Hoffman — “A roll of black and white film that I shot of him trying on hats in his dressing room for ‘Death of a Salesman’ is featured on his website.” It is one of her most well-published series.
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy — “I felt she was superficial. She reminded me of my mother.”
A frequent visitor to both Regine’s and Studio 54, I asked Bettina for any stories about her nights there. She mentions Halston sticking out his tongue at her, Jon Voight taking her inside to meet Franco Zeffirelli, and Warren Beatty holding her in a bear hug to prevent her from taking his photo. She once took a number of photos of Al Pacino, Gordon Parks and Melina Mercouri and sadly left the roll of film in the pocket of a dress which she took to the dry cleaners. Her David Bowie shots were mysteriously lifted when her apartment had water damage.
Bettina’s work can also be seen at the Skyscraper Museum for WTC: MONUMENT, a memorial to the World Trade Center as one of the witnessing photographers that captured “the wrenching images, the fears and sorrows, the reconciliation, the extraordinary drive and devotion” following the 2001 World Trade Center disaster for Aileen Ghee’s “Witnessing” documentary and “Here is New York” photograph exhibit. Proceeds benefitted World Trade Center victims through the Children’s Aid Society.
The last retrospective of Bettina’s work was exhibited in 1995 in Norwich, Connecticut at the New England Museum for Contemporary Art. Curator Baird Jones called Bettina “one of New York’s most durable celeb photographers.” Twenty-two years later, I believe a New York City exhibition of her works is long overdue.