Remembrance of naked chicks past

Helmut Newton's "Autobiography" offers a surprisingly touching reminiscence of a childhood in pre-Nazi Germany -- and the life of erotic pleasure that followed.

Published October 2, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

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 hard-on.

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 self-abuser's eyes.)

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 this day.

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.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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