In late December 1960 standing there alone, terrified, being forced to speak a language I did not understand, (although I thought the characters beautiful and interesting) I think I finally understood that at a profound level, I was totally lost.
I already had a glimpse of this over the past months, as I was forced on a weekly basis to attend Hebrew classes in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah into manhood.
I had week after week recited passages that I did not understand or believe. I had learned to speak the language, but any Holy Spirit had eluded me. The walls around me seemed so baron and empty.
I had vigorously protested this whole exercise with my father, but he in deference to his parents, and with the opportunity to have a large lavish party, dismissed my protest.
Although we were only nominally reform Jewish, life in the late fifties and early sixties was segregated not only for blacks, but for the most part for Jews as well.
There were non-Jewish sports clubs, country clubs, neighborhoods, etc. and the Patrician WASP culture of America, although much kinder and accepting of Jews than Blacks, in their hearts felt a Jew to be ugly, crass, and second rate. Jews were very smart and cunning, but for the most part to be avoided as good close friends. They were a different breed with far less style and breeding than their Christian counterparts in the elite East Coast corridor of America.
My mother in her never-ending attempt to expunge Judaism from our home, mimicked the WASP culture to a tee. She could have put Ralph (Lipschitz) Lauren to shame.
We became a family that socialized with likeminded Jews but we all looked like we didn’t quite belong. My sister and I went off to boarding schools and we too appropriated the style and demeanor of our Christian associates. I learned how to out-prep the preppies in my dress and learned how to emulate the WASP culture and continually put myself up for comparison. I didn’t have the blond hair or the blue eyes. I didn’t excel at sports. I was second rate, but I still wanted to be seen past my Jewishness, past my curly hair, my nose, past this exterior, I was never apart of, and be accepted by those of style, and provenance for being acceptable. Although I wasn’t born into it, it was the only culture that felt right, and I wanted to be a part of it.
In later years I went to Chapel at boarding school daily, recited The Lords Prayer, sung the carols, gave penitence, but still found myself both culturally and spiritually on the outside looking in. I yearned for assimilation, something to be apart of, something I could believe in, and in the end although I came very close to membership I never felt I truly belonged.
So on this Easter Holiday, this Moveable Feast that intwines the Jewish holiday of Passover with the Christian holiday of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of the Son of God I find myself as always wondering what if ?
What if Jesus was the actual Son of God. How different our lives would be. This Good News would allow us to know our purpose, our reason for existence, and how to live our lives. We would be allowed to forgive our trespasses, and find peace and grace on this earth. His Kingdom Would Be Done.
But on that late December day on the eve of Jesus’s birthday, as I looked out over the congregation in search of my Father, although I think I may have seen him in the distance, I never was able to reach out my arms, my soul, nor lift my gaze, and find peace. I remained, as always, on the outside feeling very much alone.
I live in a very small, somewhat Bohemian community on the Hudson River about ten miles from Manhattan. We are so close to the city that if this was LA I would be living downtown amidst cement and shopping centers, but luckily it’s not and the metropolis of New York ends at the George Washington Bridge separating New York from the foreign land of New Jersey.
It is an eighteenth century community nestled into the Palisades (cliffs that lie near the river), with a great deal of history.
Although closely attached to the extremities of New York City, it is far far away with few unpaved roads, and a mixture of homes from the eighteenth century to the ultra modern. No two homes are the same in appearance or even scale. There are large estates, and tiny cottages all intwined into the community called Sneden’s Landing.
It dates back to the American Revolution, where George Washington had his headquarters a few miles from the landing and it became one of the main traverses of Washington as he traveled with his troops to cross the Hudson River. In fact the main lane is called Washington Spring Road as legend has it that he often stopped at the small spring to get water for himself and his troops.
At the foot of the Palisades lies the original Molly Sneden house, which used to provide Ferry Service across the great expanse of the Hudson River to the alternate side of Dobbs Ferry. Legend states that there existed a great love affair between Molly Sneden and William Dobbs.
For a time in the 19th Century at the foot of the landing Hudson River sloops were built at the edge of the river, and grand Hudson River estates were built to escape the noise and heat of Manhattan in the Summer.
Beautiful gardens were built and some truly majestic trees were planted that still existed until recently (See Above Picture), and like the homes of England each house in the landing has a name. There is the Ding Dong House, The Laundry, Cliffside, The Captains Lair, etc. and often houses have passed on to descendants or people move from one house to another as their lives change.
Throughout its history Sneden’s Landing has always been home to the eccentric and the artistic. In the twenties it was filled with writers and publishers, and today it is filled with movie stars, dancers, directors, theatrical lawyers, and some businessmen, and me.
Sneden’s prides itself in its slightly organic quality. Things ramble a bit, houses decay, stone walls are left to their own devices, and things in general are left to fall where they may. This is part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic, that was original to the original landing but today is something only money can buy.
Although my house is very old (1840) it is very meticulously restored and it is a place of order and solace. When you turn down Washington Spring Road into Sneden’s Landing that is far away from traditional American suburbia. It is a small remnant of nonchalant country life, but when you finally enter the large black gates, the entrance to our home you have left the laissez-faire behind. My hedges are neatly clipped. My lawn, which at the moment is being vacuumed to pick up winter’s debris, is usually carefully clipped and manicured. My driveway is raked like a Japanese monastery, and I agonize over the quality of paint (buying fifty gallons of the last oil based paint available). Unlike the slow decay around me I am continually in odds with mother nature, defying its continual effort to dull my paint, give my grass heartache, and my stones a truly unkempt look. I never win this battle but as long as I’m breathing I will try to stand strong.
Like my photographs all is in its place, serene, peaceful, and balanced. I would think that when you enter the property you have entered the world of Rodney Smith.
I hope it is as inviting as what lies before, for like the original Sneden’s Landing, I would hope that I am one of a kind.
In the early nineties when there were large numbers of Masters of the Universe filling Wall Street, and power and money oozed through every poor of the cavernous streets, I found myself one morning in the midst of all this money and power waiting to meet one of the large scions of Wall Street to take his portrait.
As usual, his name will be withheld to protect the guilty, but at the time he along with very few others controlled billions if not trillions of dollars that coursed through every exchange throughout the world.
Wall Street was booming. He was booming and it was imperative to quickly get back to making more billions. He had no time for photography, or did he.
At this point, after photographing many of the worlds CEOs and Power Brokers, I had become very adept in getting what I wanted, which was time away from the office. If I could get these men (and at the time it was almost all men) away from their work and their office, they behaved graciously and seemed to enjoy the experience. We would get along very well and some even became my friends.
My secret was my little box. Enclosed were prints of portraits of their contemporaries that I had taken and quite often after a great deal of work and enormous effort I would either get to meet the CEO in his office or on occasion over lunch or dinner and show them the work I had done of their contemporaries. It was implied that they too could look like these other men if only they would give me enough time and the right place. If they accepted this promise like a flash of revelation hostility towards me would mostly dissipate, and the rest of the discussion would be the appropriate location and how much time I needed. The conclusion of lunch or dinner would go something like this. See you in London, or in the Bahamas, or in Aspen, or in Paris etc. If they were going some place I thought interesting I would tag along and they would usually find a day for me.
But here I was waiting in the most mundane boardroom imaginable waiting for our subject. The entourage that surrounded him never let me approach him before the shoot, and it had been determined that I would only be allowed fifteen minutes with the man of the hour.
I had learned over the years that all this play for power and control was simply fear. These men were very public figures and equally as vain as most celebrities. They wanted to look good but only if they could control the situation. They were afraid of something they did not trust or control. If in the end you could earn their trust they were willing to be truly vulnerable and powerful subjects.
So on this early morning in the early nineties, our subject walks into the room and says to all around, “I’m busy, so let’s get this over-with as fast as possible”.
Now, it’s time to provide some background music. Every job is filled with anxiety, some more than others. In this case, the marketing director of the firm was terrified that the CEO would not like the photographer as in years past, and he or she would find herself severely reprimanded for hiring the firm that hired me. The firm that hired me was nervous that if I failed in any way they then they failed too and therefore their job was in jeopardy. So as everyone stands quietly and watches you could almost feel the pores of sweat forming on people’s foreheads until, this ordeal would be concluded, and they could graciously slip away and sigh with relief.
So when our impatient CEO walks in the room and utters his comment the silence was roaring. Everyone stood motionless in fear.
I ask him quickly to stand in one place, to look directly at me, and I take one frame and put my camera down, and announce to him that he is finished and can now go.
He stares at me with shock and amusement and even a little annoyance and asks again if I am serious that this session was truly done.
I tell him “I believe he has a competent picture equal to the effort he has put into the experience, and I realize he is in a great rush (there are millions of dollars at stake) and I am a willing to accommodate his need for speed. If in the future he had more time and was willing, together we could produce something of far more substance, but for now one frame was enough”.
With this comment he laughs, thanks me, and walks out of the room.
Everyone left standing in the room doesn’t know whether to cry or laugh but to avoid this uncomfortable situation everyone quietly dismisses themselves and leaves as quickly as possible. Nobody knows what to say. Has this been a good experience or terrible. They are all praying this one frame was worth its weight in gold.
I too pack up quickly and am just about at the elevator door when our subjects’ secretary comes running over to me and tells me the CEO would love to see me in his office.
I join him in his beautiful mahogany filled office, and he begins to show me pictures of all his houses around the United States.
At first I’m not sure I understand but soon it becomes clear he is asking me to reshoot his picture at one of these locations where he would have more time.
It is never my intent to be arrogant, although I often am, nor to be tough or rude or inconsiderate, but what I will do is fight relentlessly for the picture. The picture is bigger and far stronger than me. It is almost sacred and it is worth fighting for. A portrait requires full participation by all involved to even begin to have the chance to produce something truly special. If one opens up to me I will give my heart and soul to them.
What our subject only offered at first was a handshake but in the end great portraiture requires an intimate embrace.
As early evening descended on some excruciatingly hot summers day in 1967, Niven and I were walking slowly through acres of walnut trees at his ranch in Hollister, California, when he mentioned casually that these acres of trees almost became a vineyard.
In typical Niven fashion, with a languid meandering drawl, which fit the hot dusty earth of California, he began to unwind a slow and bemused story of an almost wealth that was not to be.
California in the early and mid sixties was just beginning to produce grapes on a large scale for wine. Napa and Sonoma were in their infancy as one of the wine producing capitols and one of the largest producers of wine was Almaden Vineyards.
Almaden was one of the businesses of Louis Benoist of San Francisco, a descendent of French aristocracy, a uniquely extravagant and flamboyant figure of the late fifties and early sixties, he had five houses planted around California, huge yachts and planes, and a lifestyle that fitted a boastful man of means.
One afternoon, some months before our conversation, Niven received a call from a representative of Mr. Benoist, who asked if he may come over that day for a conversation.
It turns out, Mr. Benoist was expanding both his lifestyle and his property and wanted to buy Niven’s few hundred acres of mostly untended apricot and walnut trees and turn them into more land for Almaden to grow grapes.
Although the land looked fallow, dusty, and dry to me, and the ranch an unpretentious single level house that was comfortable but nothing special, it turned out the land was perfect for a premiere vineyard and Louis Benoist wanted it. Niven in his usual fashion negotiated an extravagant and incredibly prosperous deal for himself and with his very best gold pen signed that day a letter of intent to be finalized and notarized at Mr. Benoist extravaganza party at one of his palatial estates in two weeks.
As we reached an end of an allay of walnut trees my heart began to beat faster in expectation. If you think I’m a good story teller you should have heard Niven. Remember he’s a screenwriter novelist and if there ever was one who could spin a yarn it was Britton Niven Busch. Niven told me he was ecstatic at the thought of selling a few hundred acres of dirt. He had negotiated a huge sum and with it he had fantasies of a beautiful townhouse in Pacific Palisades in San Francisco.
Finally the evening arrives and Niven and Cheeta, his fourth and my most favorite wife, go to Mr. Benoist house for one of the most lavish and extravagant parties Niven had ever seen. And Niven, who was a product of Long Island extravaganza, had seen a lot. Remember this man was friends with many of Hollywoods most illustrious luminaries, and I could only imagine what his good times were like.
As we are slowly meandering back towards the ranch Niven tells me that all night Mr. Benoist eludes him. He seems to be continually avoiding any opportunity to sign the papers but finally at the very end of the evening Mr. Benoist tells Niven he’s too busy at the moment but they will get together next week to finalize everything.
I am now more impatient than ever and beg Niven to get on with the story and tell me what happened. He laughs and slowly unveils the remainder and the most important part of the story I’m about to tell you.
Firstly, despite numerous attempts by Niven over the next few weeks, Louis Benoist never signed the papers. Two weeks after this last extravagant and lustful party, Niven reads in the San Francisco Chronicle that Louis Benoist has been arrested by the FBI, and here is where this story like many other stories of the past, the present, and I am sure the future merge into the common denominator of greed.
With an eye for going from rich to even richer Louis Benoist began to expand his empire on credit, buying more businesses and more land, and this is where Niven came in. Louis Benoist was on a tear buying more and more land for his ever-expanding Almaden Vineyards and to raise the capital that all acquisitions need, Louis Benoist put up as collateral all the soybean oil he had stored in his tanks being held at Lawrence Warehousing, which I understand to be many millions of dollars.
He borrowed huge sums of money against this oil to go on his buying spree. The banks, to continually check and confirm their collateral, would send inspectors out to the warehouse on a monthly basis armed with a giant dipstick that they would place into the top of the tanks to make sure their oil was still there. Month after month they would confirm their collateral. It was just on the day that Niven was to get his papers signed, that someone spilled the oil and told the FBI that there was fraudulent playing at Lawrence Warehousing. Oh to imagine what could have been.
So the story goes like this. Over the last number of years Louis Benoist had been sucking dry his soybean oil unbeknownst to the banks. He did this, like all intelligent men of greed, by cheating those who supported him. He had placed a small and narrow tube down the inside of each of his tanks and slowly syphoned out and sold all the oil outside of this small tube. By the time the FBI got to him the tanks were basically empty except for a few hundred gallons that remained inside the tube to satisfy the bankers dipsticks.
So with this discovery the world of Louis Benoist, Almaden Vineyards, Lawrence Warehousing, and a number of other businesses along with the houses, the yachts, the planes, came tumbling down and just a few days after his arrest Almaden was sold in a fire sale to National Distilleries. Along with the sale all the hopes of what might have been for Niven were lost.
Niven the ultimate wheeler-dealer had been double wheeled and double dealed by the infamous Louis Benoist.
P.S. It has come to my attention that my story is correct but some of the facts are wrong, well what you would expect from a story that is 47 years old told to me by the greatest storyteller I’d ever met.
This is a story about my first wife’s father Niven Busch, the GRANDfather to my son Jonah. For he was truly grand in every way and like my own father, left his mark imbedded and scattered throughout his seven children and five wives.
He was born of wealthy patrician parents and lived in Centre Island, Long Island, New York. He went to Princeton, worked with his cousin Briton Hadden, the co-founder of Time Life with Henry Luce, at The New Yorker, and ultimately (an this is another story) abandoned the East and all its history to become a screenwriter and novelist in California.
He became quite a legend writing films like Duel in the Sun, and The Postman Never Rings Twice as well as writing many novels set in California such as California Street, The San Franciscans etc.
He was tall and very handsome “looking like a cross between Errol Flynn (a good friend and fellow polo player) and John Huston, and women by the droves were attracted to this handsome, adventurous, smart, cunning man. His life was an enormous adventure, which I became a part of my last two years of high school and remained so for many years.
He often confided in me, and even wrote one book with a little help from my father whom he liked. These two giant egos seemed to mesh perfectly as they had different lives in different places. They related and understood each other from afar.
Niven was tall and very Western and my father was small Jewish and very Eastern yet these two men were both a force to be reckoned with and despite their deaths their legacy has lived on strongly.
Karl Malden once told me his agent told him never to go into a room alone with Niven as he would come out the loser.
Niven married the actress Teresa Wright, my first wife’s mother and his third wife in 1942 and they were divorced in 1952, when Mary-Kelly and her mother moved to New York City, and Niven and Terrence, Mary-Kelly’s brother, stayed in California moving north to Hollister where Niven bought an Apricot and Walnut Ranch and settled in to write novels. After the less than amicable divorce Niven and Teresa barely spoke to each other except to exchange information on the children.
He quickly remarried for his forth time to Carmenceta (Cheetah) and had three other children. Cheetah was one of the most special people, and as time went on became one of my closest friends. I was always Rodney Lewis to her and I will get back to her at a later date but for now this is a story about Niven and I must plow ahead.
As one might expect from these two very beautiful and handsome people, a movie star and a writer, two children were conceived Terrence, who I always thought was going to be the next John Steinbeck, brilliant handsome and my idol as a child. He was four years older than me but yet seemed miles ahead of me and Mary-Kelly my wife whom I met in our high school years. Mary-Kelly was beautiful, fragile, and very delicate and when I met her much of the damage of the divorce, the separation from her father and her brother was already done. I think I only contributed to closing the lid on this very special person.
For a number of summers while in high school and my first years of college, I would spend one month at the ranch. Mary-Kelly my girlfriend at the time would spend her whole summers there and I would go in early August to join the Busch clan, and this is where one of my Niven stories begins.
For some reason I think Niven, unlike Teresa who resented my fathers wealth, took a real liking to me. He had come from wealth, his father had lost everything in The Depression, but he never was uncomfortable around it. Cheetah a San Francisco socialite and I loved each other. She was hysterically funny and so human. We laughed from morning to night and it was all great fun. On occasion Niven and I would take a walk and he would tell me stories about his life.
In the summer of 1966 or 67, when I was enjoying the life of a small ranch in California, one evening on a long walk Niven began to tell me the story I’m about to tell you. It’s a story about California, about loss and gain and maybe what could have been. In any case I’ve run out of room and time so this little story about California life in the mid sixties will have to wait till next time.
It’s time for a fourth annual give and take sometimes better known as “ask and you shall receive”, and on rare occasions “give it to me Mr. Smith”. The interview will take place as always by me, probing ever deeper into the truly eccentric ID of Mr. Smith.
Mr. S: For those who have followed your exploits and notations, is it true that you believe self-awareness (an examined life) constitutes a strong part of one’s ability to make great photographs?
Mr. Smith: Wow, you get right to the point. Absolutely, yet not necessarily so. I don’t mean to be elusive, but this is a very complicated issue. For me I find photography to often be a key to unlock some of the great mysteries about oneself. I can look at photographs and tell a great deal about the person who took the photograph: it’s as if the photograph is a guidebook that helps reflect what one feels about the world around them. But I’m not sure self-reflection is necessary for everyone. If your life and your pictures are working well and you are comfortable with your work, so be it.
Mr. S: Can you elaborate further?
Mr. Smith: Firstly it is my belief that great photography as well as many of the arts is an expression of deep profound feeling that lingers in one’s soul ready and able to be expressed. Some rare people have an avenue directly to these feelings, and need nothing else. This is quite exceptional and often not the case. Most people are unable to express the positive forces that reside within them. They express resistance, frustration, distance, anger, and other repressed feelings in their work.
Mr. S: So what is wrong with that. Isn’t that simply expressing what they are feeling?
Mr. Smith: Good question, but no. It is an expression of confusion and conflict, which is ok, but generally not that successful photographically. One needs to pour one’s heart out, to stand vulnerable, exposed, shouting (even if it’s a whisper) a very clear message to those around them to have the world even begin to take notice.
Mr S: I still don’t understand why confusion expressed in ones work isn’t successful?
Mr. Smith: Please remember, I am not talking about the surface, or a purely descriptive expression of something. The surface, i.e. the subject matter, is not in question. I am talking about what resides below the picture. For example I can feel in the photograph how one relates to the subject, whether it be a figure, or a landscape or even a still life. Is a photographer tentative, frightened, aloof, angry, etc. then the viewer consciously or unconsciously feels confusion rather than intimacy. The viewer will feel confused about their feelings. The photograph will remain unresolved, off-putting, and incomplete.
If you look at a Rembrandt or a Leonardo painting the subject is emotionally very complicated, but the painter who made those pictures is very clear.
Mr. S: Do you think you have the ability to make the same intense pictures as you are getting older and you have some illnesses?
Mr. Smith: As long as the intensity is still there, as long as I can respond powerfully, as long as I am deeply attracted to people and the world in which we live, all is well. In fact I am far wiser today than years ago so one now gets the very best of me when I make photographs.
Mr. S: How do you see your legacy?
Mr. Smith: I put my life on the line for photography, and it returned the effort with abundance. Its gift back to me was a me devoid of most of my neuroses. One who is clear, sharp, and energetic. Whether all these years of work, or whether the work is good enough to pass the test of time, is beyond my control. What I do control is my effort and focus on trying to make great pictures. Whether they are or whether they’re not successful is up to the viewer.
Mr. S: So what is The End meant to stand for?
Mr. Smith: Many opposing things, and with that I will say goodbye and good luck for now.