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A Twenties Constellation

June 2024
3min read

Stars of the era still glow brightly in portraits by photographer James Abbe

The personage at left is neither Cossack nor commissar, but an American photographer who pursued—and overtook—an extraordinarily lively career in photojournalism and who today, at eighty-nine, lives in San Francisco. Although James Abbe’s photographic adventures unfolded in many exotic places, including Russia, some of his most successful pictures were of American stage and film performers, and especially of those glamorous figures of the 1920’s who became the first truly world-famous stars. When two AMERICAN HERITAGE picture editors visited an exhibition of Abbe’s star portraits in New York a few months ago, they were so impressed with the quality of his work that it was decided to present a sample in our pages. The only problem was one of selection, and the group that follows is indeed a very small sample of an enormously rich collection of photographs.

We discovered, in the course of preparing this feature, that Mr. Abbe is a fascinating individual as well as a fine photographer. In response to our request for personal information he sent us a bundle of typescripts and letters, from which we have patched together a kind of biographical sketch in his own words. —The Editors

Looking back over the past eighty-nine years, I’d probably react approximately the same way were I to live them over again. On the whole, I would say that I have made the most of most opportunities.

Glaring exceptions would include failing to accept an invitation, in 1903, to take my camera to a place called Kitty Hawk and record the efforts of a pair of visionary men to fly. I explain that failure by the fact that I had then reached the ripe old age of twenty and believed with most of my contemporaries that if God had intended men to fly, he’d have equipped them with wings.

At that age I had been educated for the most part by the facilities afforded in my father’s bookstore in Newport News, Virginia. As a student at the local high school I had failed to graduate. My peers couldn’t bear to have a perfect class image spoiled by one delinquent, and apparently the school authorities agreed; at any rate, as I learned decades later, my name was expunged from the record.


One of my first professional assignments was taking photos of college girls for the annuals published by the highly respectable J. P. Bell Company of Lynchburg, Virginia. The knees and thighs so freely exhibited by the present generation of girls were only dreamed of in 1913, when I completed the work for my first college annual; but the girls themselves were no different. As the years passed, I annually took pride in never having seduced a college girl when the opportunity presented itself (I was already married and had three children). But this joyful ordeal could not last forever, and in 1917, after some nudging by the J. P. Bell Company and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, I took the train for New York and began the second plateau of my career as a photographer.

In my Tin Pan Alley studio on West Forty-seventh Street, between 1917 and 1922, I took publicity photos of dozens of stage and film celebrities of the period and made contacts that eventually led me to similar assignments in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Berlin, and various other European cities and resorts. Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha, Fred and Adele Astaire, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, Gilda Gray, Anna Pavlova, the Dolly sisters, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love, Charlie Chaplin, Jeanne Eagels, Will Rogers, Ann Harding, Betty Compson, Marion Davies, Ziegfeld Follies girls and Folies Bergères girls—those are just a few of the names that come to my mind when I think back to those days. In 1922 Lillian Gish suggested that I spend a few months away from New York and go to Italy to take stills for her film The White Sister . I went, and instead of a few months I stayed in Europe for the next fifteen years, producing thousands of photos and a whole new set of children by a new wife. In addition to theatrical work I got into news journalism, which among other things resulted in my taking portraits of Hitler, in 1931, and Stalin, in 1932. At that time Hitler was just moving into a position of national power, while Stalin had already arrived. (Stalin was notoriously camera shy, and I photographed him with an ordinary folding Kodak on the theory that it would scare him less than any of the complicated German cameras I’d left in my Novo Moscovskoy hotel. In the end he let me have a full half hour of his time instead of the promised five minutes.) In 1937 I was a photographer-correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, covering the Spanish Civil War from the Franco side; Ernest Hemingway was my opposite number on the Loyalist side of the lines. Then I came back to the States and worked in Hollywood for a time; when World War n came along, they said I was too old to be a war correspondent, so I got a job as a radio news commentator—no doubt partly because, in Sheridan, Wyoming (where I happened to be at the time), there were not many people around who knew how to pronounce such words as Luftwaffe and Dnepropetrovsk.

I now live happily in San Francisco with my fourth wife, where I muse upon the past and keep in touch with my children and grandchildren, one of whom is gathering materials for a biography of me that she says will be entitled Our Father Who Ain’t in Heaven .

James Abbe


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