Remembrance of Naked Chicks Past
A review by Charles Taylor
If all obsessives were as content as Helmut Newton seems to be, the world would
be a happier place. Maybe it's easy to be happy when you're as self-involved as
Newton cheerfully admits he is.
Perhaps people looking at the icy eroticism of Newton's high-fashion photography,
images so precise they beg the adjective "Germanic," don't expect
warmth. The striking thing about Newton's Autobiography is that
it both is and isn't what you'd expect from the man. The warmth of the book
comes from Newton's memories of what gave him pleasure. He seems oblivious to
anything else, even Adolf Hitler -- even though Newton is a Jew who fled Germany
for Singapore in 1938.
It's not that Newton wasn't in fear for his life, not that he doesn't realize
how lucky he was to get out and not that he doesn't know that not everyone was
as lucky as he. The aristocratic disdain with which he regards the Third Reich
is this Jew's ultimate revenge. To Newton, the Führer is an upstart little
pisher who interrupted a life dedicated to pleasure, the gnat who intruded himself
between a pampered, bourgeois childhood and the world travels of a young roué.
What could be more of an affront to Hitler, that self-proclaimed enemy of "decadence,"
than a Jew who spent his entire life celebrating and embracing it? The irony
of Newton's photography is that it is a rigidly controlled expression of something
that makes most of us lose control: our erotic fantasies. What more delicious
slap in the face to the man who drove Newton from his homeland than to produce
images whose inspiration -- as the world knows -- came from a circumcised Jewish
Everybody who picks up Helmut Newton's memoirs is going to be looking for a
good, juicy read, perhaps expecting anecdotes of models misbehaving, of encounters
with the famous and sordid. Autobiography is a juicy read -- but
not in the manner of gossipy celeb bios. Who expected Newton to be such a good
writer? At its best -- that is, roughly the first two-thirds of the book --
Autobiography reads like the bastard child of Arthur Schnitzler
and Henry Miller.
We open in Berlin one evening in the mid-1920s. Little Helmut, 3 or 4, is where
all good little boys should be, at home in bed. His nurse is preparing for an
evening on the town, half-naked (she's in a slip) and applying her makeup. This
is Helmie's first vision of a half-naked woman, and he is entranced. His skimpily
dressed nanny functions as his Proustian madeleine. Soon he's remembering how
his own mother used to come in to say goodnight in preparation for her own evenings
out. Halfway through dressing, in a flesh-colored satin slip -- always flesh-colored
-- she would hold Helmut next to her capacious bosom while he delighted in the
feel of her skin and the scent of her Chanel No. 5.
The pampered European childhood that Newton describes is like a 1920s German
version of Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart. It's a life of middle-class
propriety maintained on the surface and happily abandoned when it can be. It's
a life perfectly represented by the family get-togethers during which 13-year-old
Newton was happily fondled by his cousin's ice-skater wife under the table.
The great thing about Newton's erotic reveries is that they are totally without
guilt. He is a man refreshingly unconflicted by pleasure. His only regret about
filching his brother's girlie magazines at the age of 6 was getting caught by
his mother. At 13, when his parents expressed concern to their family doctor
about young Helmut's nocturnally stiffened bedsheets, the doctor advised Helmut
to find a nice girl to make "boom-boom" with. (The girls with dark
rings under their eyes in Newton photographs, he explains, are in homage to
the warnings of Newton's adolescence that masturbation left circles under the
Boom-boom followed the next year with a swimming champ named Illa (quite the
looker, to judge from the photo of her included). Heading off to a swim meet
one weekend, she helpfully informed her beloved Helmut that she would find a
boy who would show her how to do it. True to her word, she came back experienced,
and Helmut was the beneficiary of her newfound knowledge.
Newton's beloved mother must take some credit for his sexual openness. After
making love with Illa for the first time, he wolfed down a sandwich in the kitchen
and told his mother what had happened. Her response was to tell him he could
only do it once a week so as not to interfere with his schoolwork and to increase
his pocket money so he could buy condoms. She also took the time to explain
about venereal disease and avoiding pregnancy. (Who says we couldn't benefit
from a return to the values of the past?)
His mother saved him in more important ways too. She became the family's pillar
of strength as the mounting restrictions against Jews sapped the will of his
father. When the laws forbade Jews from driving, Newton's father sold the family
car and Mrs. Neustadter (Newton's original family name) insisted on taking the
money, knowing that if it were put in the bank it was only a matter of time
before the Nazis seized it. It was this money that his mother used to book his
1938 passage to China. (Newton's parents managed to get to South America.)
One of the book's more incredible episodes recounts how Newton obtained his
visa. Summoned to Gestapo headquarters after requesting to leave Germany, Newton
found himself in the presence of an officer who rained abuse upon him, calling
him a Jewish pig, interrupting himself only to send his secretary on an errand.
As soon as the woman was gone, the officer's tone became quiet and urgent, giving
Newton information on where to get a passport and stressing how important it
was for him to get out of Germany as quickly as possible. When the secretary
returned, the officer went back into his previous performance, screaming "Get
out, you Jew bastard!" But he had very likely saved Newton's life.
Once out of Germany, Autobiography proceeds from Singapore, where
Newton became the kept man of a successful businesswoman who set him up as a
portrait photographer, to Australia, where he wound up in an internment camp
after being deported from Singapore as a "stateless person," to his
four years in the Australian army, to his studio in Melbourne after the war,
where he met June, the woman he married in 1948 and who remains his wife to
What Newton achieves in this section of the book is, as the comparison to Schnitzler
and Miller suggests, a combination of sophistication and flat-out rut. Newton
has described his life as a picaresque tale, and though his circumstances were
very different -- life in an internment camp is not life at a resort -- there
are times when he could be one of the perpetually traveling yet essentially
languid characters who populate the stories and novellas of Schnitzler. On the
other hand, the episode he relates working as a fruit picker in Australia is
one that, in its nonchalant raunch, would make Miller smile. Newton and a buddy
are sharing a cottage with two Aussie pickers and their girlfriend. The third
night, one of the guys comes into Newton's room and asks, "How would you
like to have a go at my sheila?" I'll let Newton take it from there:
"I hopped out of bed and followed the guy into his room across the landing;
there on the floor the girl was curled up with the other guy on a big mattress
with a few pillows. She made a welcoming gesture to me. She was pretty good
looking, and at least at the time I thought she was fantastic. I just flew
into bed. I didn't take any notice of her friend next to her and started to
fuck her. We had a wonderful time, but a few minutes later the other guy,
who had brought me into the room, jumped into bed -- that made a sandwich
with his friend on the left of the girl and me and the other one on her other
side. Obviously what he wanted to do was bugger me, and he already had a clinch
with my back to him. He was stark naked. I just let out a blood-curdling scream.
I don't know how I got out of his clutches, because I'm not very strong and
these guys were all muscle and didn't muck about, but in desperation I jumped
out of bed and raced across into mine and Wally's room, locked the door, and
just crawled under the bedsheets."
Autobiography slows down a bit, as all success stories do, when
Newton begins to recount his first forays into professional photography. The
book offers glimpses into the formation of his aesthetic, like his loving memories
of the rue St.-Denis in Paris where housewives went about their chores while
the whores sold themselves. He particularly admires the whores' "inborn
feel for fashion" and admits that he was too fascinated to resist going
with them a few times. Newton ends the first part of the book abruptly, in 1983,
with the words, "I am ending my story here, for to write about one's successes,
small or big, is simply of no interest to the reader. Getting there is what
this book is all about."
The remaining 66 pages are Newton's notes on his work and some brief reminiscences.
They do not have the sustained charm or flow of the first part, but they are
all of a piece. You have to love someone whose spur-of-the-moment fetishism
runs so contrary to common sense, like being assigned to shoot Hanna Schygulla
for German Vogue and falling in love with her underarm hair, insisting it be
seen in every shot. Or who admits that the "Big Nudes" series begun
in the '80s -- huge, oversized pictures of Amazonian women -- were inspired
by the police identity photos of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the left-wing terrorists
who tormented West German society.
Newton would probably have no trouble admitting that he is a complete amoralist.
Photographing Margaret Thatcher was a dream of Newton's, for the sole reason
that her power seemed sexy to him. It makes sense to see Thatcher as a version
of the dominatrixes that have populated Newton's work, just as it would require
a cartoonist or a novelist to take that connection into the pornographic realms
where the idea could really explode. (Imagine Maggie with a strap-on, about
to make the British Lion her bend-over boyfriend, instructing him to lie back
and think of England!) But it would never occur to Newton to consider what Thatcher's
naked lust for power, her determination to root out everyone she believed had
no place in Britain, shared with the people who drove him from Germany. But
of course an artist should not be required to be a political commentator.
Newton's Autobiography is that rare artist's bio that does not
attempt to explain work but to evoke it. Seen in the context of this book, the
Newton photos that scream "Weimar decadence," the woman dressed as
a man lighting a cigarette off a woman backed up against a wall, the settings
which always seem to be hotel lobbies or rooms at 3 a.m., the sexual interplay
that is both oblique and explicit, simultaneously formal and right on the edge
of total abandon, seem intensely nostalgic and yet resolutely unsentimental.
If sentiment does creep in, you can see it in a shot of two girls in their lingerie
being rowed in a boat by a man with his back to the camera. This is Newton's
re-creation of the outings of his youth, the ones that, for him, still imbue
the scent of Nivea cream with the power of an aphrodisiac.
But the photo that gets the spirit of Autobiography is the one
by Alice Springs on the cover of the book. Newton, camera in hand, stripped
to the waist in a pair of creased jeans, looking trim though somewhere (I'm
guessing) in his 60s (he is 83 now), while behind him two models diffidently
await his bidding. The look on Newton's face is often the one we see in photos
of him, the peaked eyebrows giving an air of assumed (and false) innocence to
the closed-mouth grin that is entirely self-satisfied. It's too funny to seem
arrogant, too cagey to seem voracious. It's the look of a naughty boy who has
landed in a dream of thighs and legs and breasts and untold luxury and is still
pretending that he has no idea how he got there. "Just lucky, I'd guess,"
he'd probably say. The foxy old bastard knows he's lucky. Boy, does he know.