A Conversation With Patricia Bosworth: A New Book, Rex Reed & Vanity Fair

No matter what else is going on in the world, I can rely on spending at least two fun-filled hours each week deep in conversation with some of the world’s most fascinating people. I’m now on my twelfth (!) year of lunching with the famous and fabulous at Michael’s and I have to tell you, it never gets old for me.

Especially on days like today. I knew I would be meeting the accomplished and award-winning journalist Patricia Bosworth to talk about her latest book, Dreamer With a Thousand Thrills (powerHouse Books) at a luncheon hosted by my good friend Betsy Perry, but I had no idea I’d be part of a group that included other best-selling authors and respected editors as well as my favorite film critic of all time. (Can you guess who? Much more on all that later.)

I arrived a few minutes before the appointed hour so I could chat with Patricia before the rest of group started to file in. I found Patricia at Table One (where else?) raring to go. I knew she was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair so I had to ask her what she thought about the changing of the guard now that Graydon Carter has departed and Radhika Jones is at the top of the masthead. “I think she’ll do a great job. She’ll bring a women’s point of view which is timely and something I think it needs.”

Patricia is the prolific author of many books including two memoirs, Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story which told the story of her family and the Hollywood Blacklist and her latest, The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan, which was released in paperback by HarperCollins in January. She’s also written biographies on Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and photographer Diane Arbus which inspired the 2006 film Fur which starred Nicole Kidman. Patricia also had a career as an actress (She played opposite Audrey Hepburn in a Nun’s Story!) I could go on, but you get the picture.

Patricia’s new book is something entirely different from her other work. It’s a massive love letter to her late husband, photographer Tom Palumbo, which includes over 250 photographs that haven’t been seen in decades that she personally selected out of literally thousands of images. Patricia told me it took her ten years to complete the book (which is understandable given her other projects), but in talking to her, it was clear she adored every minute she spent on it. “I wanted it to be a tribute to my husband’s work and life,” she said. “I wanted to immortalize him.”

If you don’t know Tom Palumbo’s name, you most certainly know his work. “He was one of the definitive photographers of the fifties and sixties,” Patricia told me. “His work is a reflection of that time. He began with Avedon when they both worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He was an up and coming photographer.”

Patricia met Tom in 1954 when she was a John Robert Powers model. “I heard he was fun to work with,” she said. “And our worlds collided.” At the time, Tom was married to his muse, Anne St. Marie, the subject of some of his most arresting work and, not surprisingly, strongly represented in the new book. “She was gorgeous,” said Patricia as we lingered on an image of Anne perched on a rock overlooking the sea seemingly unaware of the group of nude men nearby.

She told me her husband also shot scores of advertisements for Bonwit Teller, Best & Co. and Peck and Peck. If you’re sighing at the memory of these totems of a bygone era right about now, you’re not alone.

Gloria Vanderbilt
Photo by Tom Palumbo

When I told Patricia I recognized the close-up shot of Gloria Vanderbilt that’s in the book she said, “You’ve probably seen it on the cover of Town & Country.” As she turned the pages, I told her I loved Tom’s fashion work. “He documented that beautiful, elegant world. It was a different time.” I’ll say.

As Patricia took me through the book, I was struck by the breadth of Tom’s work from editorial and advertising. His work comprised iconic shots of the fashionable women of the fifties in mid-century tableaux to his black and white celebrity portraiture including his arresting images of jazz legends like Miles Davis (who he met through his friend Jack Kerouac) and mesmerizing shots of a very young Jane Fonda. “He did these on his off-hours, He is work was very personal. He loved photographing artists,” said Patricia. “His studio faced the studio of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and he would listen to this wonderful music. That’s how he was first introduced to them, and then he photographed them.” Music and musicians played an important part in Tom’s work. “He did albums covers for Capitol Records for Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. He loved it.”

There are also quite a few shots of the photographer himself in the book. “He loved selfies,” laughed Patricia. “He took selfies almost every day.”

Patricia has been getting publicity all over the place including Britain (in the Telegraph) and Spain (Spanish Vogue) which makes sense because it’s an international release whose official publication date was yesterday. There’s also a swanky party tomorrow night at the Staley-Wise Gallery downtown which is exhibiting Tom’s work.

While we’d been chatting, the rest of the guests had arrived – and what a group it turned out to be. In addition to our hostess Betsy. consultant Jo Baslow, and publicist Madison Morales who are responsible for promoting the book, the group was a literary Who’s Who. In attendance: Town & Country’s Elizabeth Angell, Amanda Vaill, biographer best known for Everybody Was So Young (about F. Scott Fitzgerald) who is currently working on a biography of Alexander Hamilton’s women, Shelley Wanger, an editor at Knopf Pantheon who edits Joan Didions and is Joan Bennett’s daughter, art critic Deborah Solomon whose latest book is a biography of Norman Rockwell and the legendary Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and more recently, Fear of Dying.

When we all sat down there was one seat still empty. Before I could wonder who we were waiting for, none other than Rex Reed arrived at the table. “Am I the only man?” he laughed. Even though he’s spent the last three weeks battling bronchitis, he proved more than up to the task. Patricia leaned over and told me, “I’ve known Rex forever. I gave him his start as a film critic at Holiday magazine!” Later, after lunch had been cleared and we played musical chairs so people could chat, I asked Rex about it. “I’d forgotten about that!” he called across the table to Patricia.

I told Rex that his movie reviews in The Daily News way, way back when had inspired me to want to write about film and actors and we had a very interesting conversation about his amazing career (perhaps the subject of another ‘Lunch’) and the death of the much beloved New York Observer. Rex worked for the salmon-colored weekly for decades (“Peter Kaplan was a great editor!”) and his film reviews were must-reads not only for his criticisms, but for his brilliant turn of a phrase. He’s still reviewing films for Observer.com, but has a new “sideline” doing a cabaret show where he sings (Ted Firth is the musical director) and shares anecdotes about the stars he has known (and that’s pretty much everyone in Hollywood from Alice Faye on down the list) at The Beach Café. His latest three-night run at the popular Upper East Side haunt three weeks ago was “jam packed” (Patricia went and loved it) and such a success he’s been asked back. “Who knew?” he said as he sipped his tea.

Before I left, I wanted to ask Patricia about the curious title of Tom’s book. “It’s lyrics from a Frank Sinatra song,” she explained. “Tom revered him. He even tried to dress like him.” Did he ever get the chance to photograph him, I asked? “No,” said Patricia. I’d say Old Blue Eyes missed out on something special.

Betsy Perry, Diane Clehane and Rex Reed

Scene & Heard Around the Room

What where they talking about? Kate Betts and Bill McCuddy on Table Two … Candy Pratts Price and Manolo Blahnik’s George Malkemus on Three … Attorney Bob Barnett and CBS News president David Rhodes on Four … John Sykes on Five … Andrew Stein on Six … Judy Price on Seven … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia, Alex Hitz and Brooke Hayward on Table Eight.

Moving On … PR maven Chris Taylor and Jennifer Gould-Keil on Fourteen … Peter Price on Fifteen  … Hunter Millington (yes, Steve’s brother on Sixteen) … Judy Licht on Twenty … and Lewis Latham on Twenty-seven. 

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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