This is the third in a series of excerpts from the biographical introduction to Brooklyn Boys, the new monograph on Danny Fitzgerald and Les Demi Dieux.
With the start of the 1960s, Fitzgerald met Richard Bennett, the man who would become his collaborator and life partner until Fitzgerald’s death in 2000. A chiseled, masculine beauty with the natural ability of a classic artistic poser, Bennett came to New York City from working-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, looking for acting and modeling gigs. He apparently pursued Fitzgerald himself, submitting his resume to Fitzgerald through an enthusiast in the Bronx who was familiar with the photographer’s aesthetic.
“Danny was mesmerizing,” Bennett remembers from his first encounters with Fitzgerald. “He could talk about anything—art, literature, opera, film—and people really listened to him.” Fitzgerald’s only notes on Bennett speak of the model’s admiration for the photographer and personal willingness to participate in the photographs themselves. “After pictures (8 rolls),” Fitzgerald notes in his diary, “I slip a ten into Richy’s pocket: he replies faintly ‘that’s not necessary—I enjoy it as much as you.'”
As Bennett became Fitzgerald’s primary model, his work changed quickly and dramatically, incorporating the visual drama of modernist photographers and filmmakers, and breaking from the clichés of the “beefcake” photography of the previous decade. The influences of photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt and filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein became more apparent in Fitzgerald’s work. His photographs began to evidence the technical mastery and restrained sensuality of earlier male nude photographer George Platt Lynes, though less theatrical and with greater realism.
In no time, Bennett moved into Fitzgerald’s home and they began to shoot photographs everywhere together. Over the next few years they would take the camera from the makeshift photography studio on the second floor of their home to New Jersey beaches, to the woods of Western Pennsylvania. Fitzgerald’s photography came into its own with Bennett as his collaborator, and they soon formed a routine that drew in other models as well.
It was then, with the naturally gregarious and muscular Bennett at his side, that the now forty-year-old Fitzgerald returned to the streets of Carroll Gardens with his camera and the confidence he had reserved for the world outside of Brooklyn. Over the next six years, he photographed the Brooklyn street youths as they slouched between the tailfins of their Buicks or against the chain-linked fence of the local basketball court with the smoldering sensuality of a Cadmus urban tableau. He caught them playing in the streets or loitering down under the Brooklyn Bridge, capturing their fleeting emotions and beauty. And then, he would often draw them into his studio to remove their clothes for a series of tasteful nudes and the opportunity for a little freedom from the rigors of the neighborhood outside.
Bennett was the photographer’s bait. Fitzgerald would sometimes photograph Bennett on the street or in the woods first before anyone else, drawing the other potential model’s attention with Bennett’s fine physique and ability to pose. Then Fitzgerald would flatter the other youth by asking him to pose as well, giving the boy the impression that he was as attractive and photogenic as bodybuilder Bennett. It was a routine they would play out time and again from Henry Street to the swimming holes around Scranton, sometimes photographing Bennett with their new model, often allowing Bennett to assist with the camera and the posing—a routine dramatized with poetic license by the editors of the November 1963 issue of The Young Physique:
Hector Ramon never appeared before any camera until he was discovered by Les Demi Dieux, and it happened through that famous Les Demi Dieux star who has become everyone’s favorite—Richard Bennett.
Richard, of course, magnetizes everyone … he is so kind and gentle and has such beautiful manners that one is instantly drawn to him, as Hector was. In the brief span of their acquaintance they had become very good friends indeed, and so it was that Richard invited Hector to accompany him and a group of Les Demi Dieux models on an outdoor photography expedition to what Richard calls “that enchanted place” in the forest, which all of you know so well by now.
Hector gladly went along, and in his quiet, introspective way observed much and said little. Noting this, the ever-sensitive Richard asked, “Why don’t you join us in our group eurhythmics, Hector? After that we always have our nature-in-poetry study and Les Demi Dieux will read to us from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This will put us into the mood and spirit of this haunted woodland and we will work at some creative posing in which you are welcome to join.”
The language of classical literature, art, and dance, which may seem quaint, if not pretentious, to the contemporary reader, was a common conceit in which mid-Twentieth Century homosexuals cloaked their interests , whether to codify it for an insider audience, or to give what was deemed shameful by the larger society a more noble and philosophic context for themselves personally.
Again, it is important to remember that this was the early 1960s and homosexuality was illegal, banished to speakeasies, covered up, or so repressed that even men like Fitzgerald may not have admitted it—even to themselves—and certainly would not have spoken of it openly or flaunted it publicly. Like many artists of the time, Fitzgerald sublimated his sexual energy into the process of making his art, keeping proper distance between himself and his model, and charging the images with all the power and longing of the feelings he pressed down into the work.
Similarly, in their own relationship, Bennett and Fitzgerald were very much men of their times. To this day, when asked whether he and Fitzgerald were “lovers” or “partners” (words that are anachronistic to the early 1960s), Bennett simply, quietly replies, “We were friends, in the Greek sense of the word,” leaving interpretation to one’s own propriety, and connecting their care and affection for one another to their love of classical beauty, philosophy, literature, and the ages.
See all the posts from the preface of Brooklyn Boys.