Gordon Parks was a serious man. His claim to greatness as a photographer and essayist rests on the work that he did for Life magazine, between 1948 and 1971, on some of the most pressing issues facing the nation and the world, especially poverty and racial injustice.
But Parks had many sides, just like the magazine he worked for. He loved the trappings of his success -- the salary that catapulted him out of poverty and into the upper middle class, the travel, the nearly unlimited expense account, the sharp clothes, the smart cars... He earned all of this by giving his editors what they wanted -- great pictures of hard news on one day, fluffy frivolities the next.
It's unlikely that Parks ever did anything fluffier than "Wow, Quel Babes!," a giddy look at the lives of American teenagers in Paris.
Life, 7 January 1952, pp. 70-71. [Click on any image to see a much larger version.]
The photos that Parks made to accompany the story are polished, if unexceptional. As his editors would have wanted, he captured the Paris of the American imagination -- a streetcar in front of the Arc de Triomphe, a sidewalk cafe on the Champs-Élysées, a jazz club on the Left Bank... At the same time, he managed to suggest that readers were being given an intimate peek into the private lives of the American teens. It's a glimpse of a pro at work.
Life, 7 January 1952, pp. 72-73.
It's hard to know what to make of the text. The basic point is to reassure readers that Paris hasn't corrupted our kids by turning them into young Frenchmen and -women. (Notice the footballs and cowboys boots in Parks' photos.) Having moved to the city with parents whose careers required them to be there...
These exuberant young Americans are living against a background that ordinary U.S. tourists ransom their life savings to see. ...They love the adventure. But they still prefer their own way of life. ...Neither boys nor girls think much of frogs' legs, but they know every place in Paris that makes hamburgers and hot dogs and, while having a snack at a sidewalk cafe, are inclined to dream of the corner drugstore.
Life, 7 January 1952, pp. 74-75.
The Horrible Six (above) were the "best known" clique among the American girls in Paris. They had "a strict code of dress. Sweater must be worn loosely, not snugly. One strand of pearls is all right, more are banned." The "Lemon Squeeze" was their monthly self-improvement session.
By every girl's admission, the goal is to keep the dates coming in Paris, build charm for college years in the U.S. and ultimately lead to a nice, home-grown marriage to the right man. Right now the girls don't think that he'll be a Frenchman.
It seems to me that whoever wrote this story didn't take any of this very seriously. (Unlike the photos, no credit is given.) Life's staffers were a sophisticated bunch, as anyone who's read Parks' accounts of his Paris years will know. And being posted to the Paris bureau was a coveted assignment.
It's true that Life's owner and founder, Henry Luce, was well known for his celebration of The American Century and that his magazines tended to extol American virtues and promote American interests. But Life's photographers and writers were grown-up men and women with ideas of their own. "Wow, Quel Babes!" reads like an exercise in self-parody, and I'd like to think that at least a few of Life's readers were in on the joke 61 years ago.
Gordon Parks/Life: Jam Session in the shadowy cellar of Vieux Colombier attracts a crowds of Americans (foreground). Their compatriot, clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (left), is the big attraction. On such forays, the boys save money by dividing a bottle of champagne eight ways. In Paris, American teens ignore Eckstine and Sinatra records as démodé. Prefer French crooners Charles Trenet and Yves Montand. They have a favorite French tune, Fou de Vous (Crazy About You).
There's another little joke embedded in the story. Ex-pat American jazz musician "Mezz" Mezzrow was the antithesis of white, middle-class American values. (He's the younger man playing clarinet above and in the magazine on page 72.) He was a fine clarinetist, but he's better known for being one of the most prolific marijuana dealers on the jazz scene and for marrying an African-American woman, moving to Harlem, and declaring himself a "voluntary Negro." He's one of my heroes. At the time, he was a well known figure. Parks, his writer, and many readers would have known all about him, and might even have read his autobiography, which was published in 1946. (It's called Really the Blues, and it's a hoot.)
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If we take "Wow, Quel Babes!" at face value, we come away thinking that our American teenagers didn't like Paris. Parks, on the other hand, loved it.
Parks, like so many other African-Americans -- writers, artists, musicians, cabbies, and cooks -- found freedom in Paris. Freedom from the burden of race. It was a transforming experience. This is how he put it in one of his memoirs, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography:
I needed Paris. It was a feast, a grand carnival of imagery, and immediately everything there seemed to offer sublimation to those inner desires that had for so long been hampered by racism back in America. For the first time in my life I was relaxing from tension and pressure. My thoughts, continually rampaging against racial conditions, were suddenly becoming as peaceful as snowflakes. Slowly a curtain was dropping between me and those soiled years.
Paris became my beautiful mistress, seducing me with Bach, Mozart and Brahms, Proust, Sartre, Camus and others I hadn’t bothered to stop and listen to.
I was moving through centuries of history, and not unaware of the possibility of its help in shaping my future. Being a part of it was like feeling at once young and old.