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Dreamer With a Thousand Thrills: A Q&A with Patricia Bosworth

The cover image for DREAMER WITH A THOUSAND THRILLS: THE REDISCOVERED PHOTOGRAPHS OF TOM PALUMBO. Photo courtesy of Patricia Bosworth.
In Honeysuckle’s HERS issue, readers got a sneak peek at Patricia Bosworth’s new book DREAMER WITH A THOUSAND THRILLS: THE REDISCOVERED PHOTOGRAPHS OF TOM PALUMBO. It chronicles the work of photographer Tom Palumbo, Bosworth’s late husband who was part of a renowned group of photographers working for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. During the “glory years of fashion,” Palumbo’s serene classical style provided a counterbalance to Richard Avedon’s energetic, almost confrontational images. Mentored by the great art director Alexey Brodovitch and adored by Bazaar’s legendary editor Diana Vreeland, Palumbo constantly experimented in his photography – but he always managed to capture stunning moments in time.
Whether it was Miles Davis laughing, young Mia Farrow and Jane Fonda in their first publicity shoots, or supermodel Anne St. Marie striking a grand pose on a beach, Palumbo had the gift of injecting his love for life into any situation. Bosworth explains in DREAMER how the unique compilation of pictures represents her husband’s various passions, particularly the joys of trying something new. Ranging from celebrity portraits to the Italian fishing village where he was born to 1962 Paris during Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection to astronaut John Glenn’s triumphant return to New York, DREAMER WITH A THOUSAND THRILLS is more than photography. It is a testament to the beauty of imagination.
We spoke to Bosworth about her history with Tom, his creativity, and why immigration inspired the book’s title – but not in the way you’d expect.

HONEYSUCKLE: What was your concept for DREAMER?

PATRICIA BOSWORTH: It’s a history of sorts, the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties as seen through Tom Palumbo’s eyes. I wanted to show how Tom evolved as a photographer by displaying or collecting as many different kinds of images [as possible]. He was one of the main fashion photographers of the Fifties along with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who were consistently in Harper’s Bazaar during the years when the magazine was so innovative. It expressed the fashions of the time in a gorgeous, almost profound way. There was a young group of photographers who began in that era with Alexey Brodovitch as their mentor, all changing the game, and Tom was among them. You see that very definitely in his pictures.

Some of his earliest photographs were ones that he took at Junior Bazaar, an insert in Bazaar where new photographers were tested. The early fashion pictures were more direct and serene. [Then you go] up through his more experimental work, which ends with the stuff he did in Paris and then the John Glenn parade in 1962, which was very abstract and impressionistic. The later work was in color, but in the beginning he’d always worked in black and white.

You and Tom knew each other for many years before you were a couple. In the early Fifties, you were starting out as a model and aware of him as an up-and-coming photographer at Bazaar. Then you became an actress on Broadway and in movies like The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn, which you write about in your memoir The Men in My Life. It seems like that was when you and Tom got to be good friends.

He and Bert Stern were the only photographers ever admitted to the Actors Studio, where I auditioned and became a lifelong member in the Fifties. Our lives have been colliding since that time. I didn’t put Tom in The Men in My Life, but the entire time I was writing that book, I was thinking about him. Now [DREAMER] and its essay that I’ve written about his art and our relationship, is working as a sequel to The Men in My Life.

The two of you got to observe each other at all these different vantage points. You left acting to become a journalist and editor. He eventually left photography, first for TV commercial directing and then to direct Off-Broadway theatre. It’s very interesting to think that you began as someone who might have been subservient to him, then grew to be his peer and ultimately might have been his superior if he had continued in magazines.

Well, that’s true, but we did work together in a couple of instances. We went out on assignment together in Italy, doing a piece for Conde Nast Traveler. I wrote it and he photographed it, and looking back that piece is just wonderful. We were always trying new things, but neither one of us was aggressive enough. I don’t quite know why, because we could’ve made an incredible team. But I didn’t push it and he didn’t push it, because he was so interested in theatre at that point. We worked on theatre projects together instead, and our collaborations there were very special.

Tom’s celebrity portraits are quite unique: Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, and so many others. Often they appear to be spur-of-the-moment takes because Tom was friends with everybody and would just get into a mood where he’d start snapping pictures instead of prearranging things.

In terms of the Miles Davis, yes. Jack Kerouac too. I love all Tom’s celebrity portraits and they all have a story behind them. With [legendary musical comedy team] Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Tom had a studio which looked into the windows of their studio on West 55th Street, so he could hear them composing things like Bells Are Ringing and Wonderful Town. He got to know them and I think one of the reasons he enjoyed photographing them was that he heard their music.

Marcello Mastrioanni was funny, because Tom did have an assignment [to photograph him] on the set of La Dolce Vita. But of course Mastrioanni wanted to talk to him because they could speak Italian together. I think one of the reasons that Mastrioanni just hung around was that they literally spoke the same language.

Italian heritage is a big part of Tom’s story. He was actually an immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, and even though he worked very hard to shed that identity (he got rid of his accent), you can see the Italian influence in his pictures. It’s obvious in the series he shot in his old hometown of Molfetta, but if you look it’s noticeable in other ways too.

I do touch on his being an immigrant in the essay. During the days of the Second World War, which is when he arrived in Hoboken, there was a great deal of prejudice against Italians. In the beginning, he had a very hard time. He and his brother were beaten up at school and called Wops. At one point he even wanted to change his name. He used to talk to Gay Talese about that, because Gay decided not to change his name.

But what really changed Tom’s mind was Frank Sinatra, who kept his name and became a huge celebrity and a great artist. He was also from Hoboken. Sinatra was Tom’s idol and of course he loved the song “The Old Master Painter” that Sinatra sang. That’s where the title of the book comes from: “The old master painter from the faraway hills… Captured the dreamer with a thousand thrills…”

People have really picked up on the title now and they’re calling the book DREAMER. It works perfectly on so many levels I couldn’t have anticipated. I’m also very pleased with the connection to Sinatra, because being Italian was such an important part of Tom’s identity as a man and an artist.

What did working on this book help you to learn about Tom or his place in history that you hadn’t known before?

In a way, it helped me see his importance historically and culturally as a photographer who was part [of a larger shift]. I want people to see this book as a historical document and I think it has value as such, because of all the kinds of pictures he took.

But what’s surprised me is how strongly people are reacting to the book and to Tom. A friend who read it called me in tears, saying, “He was such an artist! He wore so many different hats.” I do emphasize that Tom tried many things – he was an actor, a director, a painter, and a photographer. He really was an artist at heart.

DREAMER WITH A THOUSAND THRILLS is now available from powerHouse Books. THE MEN IN MY LIFE is now available in paperback from HarperCollins. To learn more about Patricia Bosworth, visit pbosworth.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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