Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Having 'A Wonderful Time': A Rare Book Adventure

First edition, 1974.

In the summer of 2001 through 2004, one of the best-selling volumes at William Dailey Rare Books was Slim Aarons' A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life (1974). It was, early in the decade, a relatively easy book to find in fine condition in fine dust jacket, retailing at around $300-$450. By 2004 it had become increasingly difficult to find in that condition.

"A Wonderful Time captures magnificently the life of America's elite from coast to coast, in Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Acapulco. Drawing from thousands of pictures taken since World War II on assignments for Holiday, Town & Country, Harper's Bazaar, Life, Vogue, Travel & Leisure, and other publications, Slim Aarons has put together the best of them - many never before published - with a narrative of his experiences and impressions while photographing American aristocrats on their estates and at play at their favorite resorts...having a wonderful time" (from the dust jacket blurb).

 Renata Boeck at the Regency Hotel in New York, 1964. 

The vanished world of A Wonderful Time includes The Myopia Hunt Club, Sugarbush, Snowmass,  La Jolla, Nassau, The Exumas, The Bath and Tennis Club, Aspen, Hobe Sound, Montego Bay, and The Waldorf-Astoria - the usual hangouts for old money seeking rest and recreation away from the rest of us as if they were the best of us; the best people at their best, living well and getting the best revenge. It's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous before television exploited our fascination with it ten years later, in 1984, and the rich cooperated - unheard of in the world of A Wonderful Time. I suspect the show's creator's had a copy of the book lying around his office. It's an essential reference.

It is most certainly not the vanished, celluloid world of Bedford Falls; it is about as far away from Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life as you can get. There isn't a small town, struggling middle class citizen anywhere to be found. This was the conspicuously wealthy at conspicuous leisure.

Slim Aarons was “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places. I knew everyone. They would invite me to one of their parties because they knew I wouldn’t hurt them. I was one of them." 

We sold a few copies during that first summer, all the while wondering why, all of a sudden, we were getting street traffic and phone calls asking for the book.

The answer walked in the shop that Fall. His name was (and remains) Paul Smith.

 Photo © Paul Smith.

The acclaimed British fashion designer was in town. He stopped in after spending time next door at Decades, Cameron Silver's internationally renowned vintage couture shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Paul is a preternaturally youthful man, dapper whether casual or formal, irreverent, and in possession of enough energy to light up Las Vegas. The man is a solar wind with legs.

Paul had just recently launched his Aarons-inspired collection, A Wonderful Time, based upon the fashions found in the book - colorful, stylish clothes and printed fabrics with retro-50s-60s Palm Beach elegance and panache. Designer Tom Ford and others were also looking backward toward that era and milieu. Paul wanted a couple of copies, we sold him a couple of copies. And then a couple more. Soon, his assistant, Colette, was calling from London asking for copies of it or other rare and out of print books that Paul had his eye on.

Lady Daphne Cameron in the trophy room at 
socialite Laddie Sanford's home in Palm Beach

Very soon, prices for A Wonderful Time began to rise, simply because of the low supply of fine copies and high demand for same. We couldn't acquire decent copies fast enough to satisfy drop-ins and callers. By 2003, we were selling fine copies in fine dust jacket for $1250.

So high was demand that, desperate, we bought a copy within which a previous owner had written delightfully irreverent, impertinent, and impudent rejoinders to the captions. America's aristocrats at play on their estates did not impress him at all. It was a hoot but, dust jacket a mess and with inked asides within, an iffy sell - until we marketed it as The John J. Wisenheimer Copy, The Heckler Copy, or something along those lines, thus turning the defect into an asset by making the witty quips  the copy's selling point. And yes, it sold, and fast. People were anxious to own the book. If they could vicariously ridicule the rich at the same time, even better.

 A wonderful drink on a wonderful day at poolside.

Paul began to routinely stop by when in town. Once, when William was away and I was by myself, Paul insisted that I close up the shop, get into the limo with Colette and him, and traipse around L.A. for an improvised escapade. With great reluctance and strength I had to decline his very powerful pitch.

Nudie Cohn. 
 On another occasion, he swooped into the shop and asked about Nudie (Cohn. 1902-1984)), the Ukrainian-born, Jewish-American tailor and King of Country Couture who created singularly over-the-top costumes for Elvis and a generation or three of Country-Western stars. Paul was thinking about an upcoming collection and had Nudie on his mind. Gotta find Nudie. He's dead, Paul. Dead!?! But shop survives. Where is it? I found out. Paul, once again, wanted me to accompany him and Colette. And once again, I had to decline. I gave Paul directions, and off they went in the stretch limo. I would not have been surprised if he had returned in Nudie's Wild-West themed Cadillac with huge bullhorn  hood ornament and cowhide upholstery, limo driver at the wheel, his chauffeur's cap a Stetson.

Later, Paul was in town to choose a site for the L.A. branch of his retail division. For the next six months, William and I watched as construction for Paul Smith-L.A. began  - directly across the street from the book shop. We were, of course, invited to the grand opening. The parking lot was tented and reception royally catered. Though completely engulfed by other guests, Paul greeted us as old friends and made sure we were enjoying ourselves.
 Paul Smith 8221 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.

Soon afterward, we were doing some minor repairs on rare art and photography books that Paul stocked for the shop. One Christmas, the manager presented me with one of Paul's beautiful, collared print shirts as thanks for being neighborly. Retailing for $275, I don't often wear it. I don't know whether to hang it in the closet or on a wall. It seems like it should be matted and framed.

I haven't seen Paul in four or five years. His L.A. shop remains on the NE corner of Harper and Melrose in L.A. William Dailey Rare Books, on the SE corner, alas, does not.

But a wonderful time was had by all.

 A Wonderful Time outside The Carlton, in Cannes, France.
(Alas, not outside of William Dailey Rare Books).

The raw hunger for A Wonderful Time that began with Paul Smith's fashion collection has subsided but  the book remains highly collectible. Fine copies in fine DJ of A Wonderful Time are now selling for $1500-$2000. A scarce, inscribed copy is being offered for $5,000. The book has become one of the most celebrated photography books of the last forty years and is now a cult classic, a cultural record of a bygone, closed world of American social-set affluence relaxing with the nonchalance of the nobility and an innocence only they perceive, from the perspective of an insider who captured more than he knew.

AARONS, Slim. A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. First edition. Folio, 250 pp. Blue cloth, dust jacket.

Paul Smith wrote a fine article about Slim Aarons for the U.K. Telegraph.

1 comment:

  1. Those good days on Melrose seem as far and as ephemeral as a Slim Aarons photograph - thanks for the Temps Perdu.


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