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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Gene Smith's Sink

A Wide-Angle View

Sam Stephenson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




On the night of Friday, April 21, 1939, Gene Smith went to the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre between Broadway and Eighth Avenue to photograph the opening of a new show. The assignment came through his agency, Black Star, and he expected the resulting pictures to run in Life, the exciting new magazine that began publishing his work regularly in 1938 when he was only nineteen years old. He was now twenty and on freelance retainer.

Opening was Mexicana, a revue sponsored by the Republic of Mexico and featuring 142 musicians, singers, actors, and dancers. Twelve days earlier, a train arrived at Penn Station carrying nearly two hundred performers, crew members, and diplomats from Mexico City, dozens of cases of costumes, murals of painted scenery, and two chickens that were intended to fight onstage (U.S. laws prevented it). According to reports, “nine-tenths” of the entourage had never visited the United States.

Mexicana was the first Broadway show presented by a foreign government. It arrived in conjunction with Mexico’s exhibit at the heralded New York World’s Fair, which opened a few days later in Queens. Ominous economic and political undertows were spreading around the globe—and the 1938–39 New York theater season had been dismal, even by standards set earlier in the Depression—but the much-anticipated Fair generated a breeze of hope and goodwill around the city.

At the time, Smith and his mother, Nettie Lee Caplinger Smith, age forty-nine, lived together on Fordham Road in the Bronx, near the Botanical Garden. Gene endured less than a year at Notre Dame on a photography scholarship before dropping out and moving to New York. Nettie followed, handling her son’s schedule and finances, and she assisted him in the darkroom. A devout, converted Catholic, she was domineering and stern. Gene’s cousins in Kansas feared her. From her he inherited an indomitable willpower—hers, grim and authoritative; his, more chameleonic and enigmatic; the shared core quality a cord that riddled them.

Gene soon was hired to be a staff photographer at Newsweek, but he was fired for using the new, more flexible “miniature” 2¼-inch-square cameras that the magazine prohibited. In a depressed era when most young adults grasped for any foothold they could find, the nineteen-year-old Smith had already given up a major university scholarship and challenged a prominent magazine’s editorial boundaries until he was fired. He wouldn’t follow his father’s burdened, suit-and-tie path to an early death; he might kill himself, but in a different way.

Smith was a normal-size man, five foot nine or ten (according to his passports), with sandy hair, and he wore glasses. Like most photographers who lug cameras, tripods, and bags of equipment, his upper body was wiry strong. He spent hours per day holding cameras to his face like a curl exercise and maneuvering the lenses, dials, levers, and buttons with his fingers, forging sinews in his biceps, forearms, and hands. Then in the darkroom he spent many more hours rooting his hands around the developing reels, the enlarger, the sinks and basins, and the clothesline where he hung prints. Near the end of his life, in his fifties, when doctors said he had the distressed organs of a man several decades older, his hands and arms remained those of a professional gardener or auto mechanic.

On the afternoon of April 21, 1939, the temperature in Central Park peaked at fifty-nine degrees and there were scattered spring showers. By the time the doors opened at the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre, a dark drizzle filtered the streetlights and dampened the sidewalks. The seats were full but not sold-out.

The Forty-Sixth Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) was designed by the most prolific architect in the Broadway theater district, Herbert J. Krapp, during the burgeoning 1920s. It was grand and elegant, typical of American glamour of the time, with neo-Renaissance structures and extensive, ornate terra-cotta details.

What happened inside the theater that night was described this way by Celestino Gorostiza, the director of fine arts of the Mexican Ministry of Education: “Mexicana aims to cover Mexican life in song and dance and pantomime from the earliest Aztec times down to today, and at the same time it brings together a kind of kaleidoscope of all the costumes and customs and legends of every geological division of the republic.”

The curtain rose at 8:30 p.m. Over the next three-plus hours dramatic colors were displayed in mural backdrops created by followers of Diego Rivera. Bright costumes crisscrossed the stage—female dancers wearing woven rainbow sashes and wraparounds, with colorful ribbons and hoop earrings, or dark colored dresses with intricate trimming and glistening sequins and beads sewn into the fabric. The male dancers and musicians wore traditional Spanish charro suits, in a variety of colors, with silver studs on their pants and big bows tied around their necks. There were also more traditional outfits with men wearing ponchos and women dark skirts with aprons and white embroidered shirts. There were big, straw-colored sombreros with a spiral weave for men and women, and various head wraps, often flowered, for the women.

Reviews of Mexicana emphasized the visuals, using words and phrases such as “sun-kissed colorful,” “glowing loveliness,” “brilliant colors.” The “flow” of the “native costumes” impressed one writer and the “primitive vitality” of the scenery another. In virtually every review, all written by men, the “lovely girls” were mentioned; the “almond-skinned beauties,” wrote one, “the fetching senoritas,” wrote another. One notice mentioned that “[Mexicana] boasts of [dancer] Marissa Flores among other appealing items.”

The subtitle of Mexicana in a hand-typed rehearsal outline was “A Mexican Folk Show,” but in the published Broadway Playbill it was “A Musical Extravaganza.” The change may have been made by publicists seeking to cut off at the pass condescending comments based on ethnicity, which came about anyway. In the New York Daily News, John Chapman called the show “one of the most disarmingly naïve entertainments ever presented on a Broadway stage surfeited with professional artifice.” In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson said that the show “lacks showmanship” and that it needed a professional director (from New York, no doubt, he meant) to “make something dynamic out of it.”

Several critics pointed out the merits of Mexicana—Flores and her dance partner José Fernandez, and a comic baseball pantomime—but then they complained that it was overlong and monotonous, its initial energy and vitality diluted in the second act. The reviews stress the show’s folk, comic, and visual elements, not the music. The only musician singled out was the guitarist Vicente Gomez, a flamenco virtuoso who had performed at New York’s Town Hall the year before.

The producers of Mexicana, in their eagerness, may have tried to do too much. The show’s Playbill indicates there were twenty-seven scenes in two acts. A surviving rehearsal outline listed only twenty scenes. Seven scenes were added, perhaps during the twelve days between arriving in New York and opening night. Maybe this was a mistake, maybe the extra scenes made the production too long. But it’s also possible that the critics responded the same way more Eurocentric observers often respond to musical forms like reggae and salsa the first time they hear them: Are they playing the same song over and over again?

The show entranced Gene Smith from beginning to end. In the July 1943 issue of Popular Photography, Peter Martin profiled him in an article called “The Kid Who Lived Photography.” Martin reported that Smith attended sixty-three consecutive performances of Mexicana, obsessed with Marissa Flores and in particular her dancing to the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’s 1915 opera, Goyescas, the twenty-sixth of twenty-seven scenes in the show.

Flores and her partner José Fernandez danced the penultimate scenes of both acts. In act 1 they performed a “bulerias” with Gomez on guitar. It’s a form of flamenco that allows for the most improvisation and passion, and flamenco performances typically build to it, as act 1 of Mexicana did (the final scene of act 1 was a wedding). We can’t know exactly what the performance of Flores and Fernandez looked like from Smith’s front-row seat, but from Gomez’s recorded work we know his guitar would have sounded alert and torrential in small, cascading emotional moments. With Flores’s castanets clicking in flamenco’s complex, heated rhythms, her black hair in long dual braided ponytails under a scarf, her tan skin, dark eyes, and her native dress whipping and flowing on her fluid dancer’s body, she would have made visible Gomez’s guitar sounds. She impressed Smith like no woman he had ever seen.

In act 2, Flores and Fernandez essentially closed the show with their performance of the Intermezzo from Goyescas (the scene following was a “Finale” with no performers listed in the Playbill; it was presumably an encore number with the whole cast onstage). Flores bandied her castanets again, but it was a more classical dance than the raw flamenco bulerias she performed with Fernandez earlier. Rather than backed by the expressive solo guitarist Gomez, this time the dancers were backed by a pit orchestra and the movements were certainly slower and more choreographed, more graceful in a manner that Smith may have appreciated from high school ballroom dancing, but no less emotional. Flores’s ability to perform on the two levels must have excited Smith.

According to Martin’s 1943 profile in Popular Photography, Smith bought a vinyl record containing the Intermezzo and played it repeatedly every night. Along with his memory of Flores, the record may have struck another chord for Smith: that the composer Granados was inspired by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, of whom Granados wrote, “I am enamored with the psychology of Goya, with his palette, with him, with his muse the Duchess of Alba, with his quarrels, with his models, his loves and flatteries. That whitish pink of the cheeks, contrasting with the blend of black velvet; those subterranean creatures, hands of mother-of-pearl and jasmine resting on jet trinkets, have possessed me.” Smith identified with a psychology of contrast like this, and he may have been influenced by Goya’s ability to express these contrasts with paint. Smith’s eventual war photography, his later work in Spain … the threads may extend back to Mexicana. But there are more tangible threads that connect Smith’s future life to what happened in the Forty-Sixth Street Theater.

Smith attended Mexicana with Ilse Stadler, a writer-researcher with Black Star who was still alive when Smith’s first biographer, Jim Hughes, was researching his book in the 1980s. Stadler confirmed that Smith attended the show night after night. She also told Hughes that Smith invited Marissa Flores to a midnight dinner after each show. Flores attended with a singer from the cast who spoke English. The singer fell in love with Smith and she wrote him long love letters in Spanish upon her return to Mexico City. Smith had those letters translated by Carmen Martinez, a Puerto Rican American he connected with through Black Star. Smith eventually married Martinez and they named their first daughter Marissa.

Thirty years later, in the 1969 Aperture monograph financed by his third Guggenheim Fellowship, Smith summarized his Mexicana experience this way: “Discovered responsiveness to ‘wonderment world of music,’ which became and continued as one of several major influences in development of views on ethics, professional integrity, and the creative process.” Another major influence, mentioned by him throughout his career, was theater.

For the next seven decades the story of Smith attending these sixty-three consecutive shows has been repeated often, including by me. The trouble is, Mexicana was performed only thirty-five times.

Copyright © 2017 by Sam Stephenson