Christopher Bonanos’ superb biography reveals how the man born as Usher Fellig in 1899 reinvented himself as a chronicler of the seedier sides of nocturnal Manhattan in the 1930s.
We know the name: Weegee. And we know the photographs — most famously, “The Critic,” in which two operagoers, all dolled up in furs and jewels, are oblivious to a drunk woman at their side who’s spitting pure venom at them.
But most of us don’t know much about the man himself.
Christopher Bonanos’ superb biography, “Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous,” fills us in. It reveals how the man born in an eastern European shtetl as Usher Fellig in 1899 reinvented himself as a chronicler of the seedier sides of nocturnal Manhattan in the 1930s. The book is a zesty read, steeped in the history of photography (Bonanos’ first book was “Instant: The Story of Polaroid”) while creating an indelible portrait of his subject.
Fellig, who came to New York with his family in 1909, was a seventh-grade dropout. After trying to make it on his own as a street photographer in his teens, he worked in a commercial photography studio where he lasted two years. Following odd jobs as a hole puncher at a Life Savers factory, a silent-movie violin accompanist and a candy seller at a burlesque hall, he landed a darkroom gig at The New York Times in 1921 before moving on to a similar job at Acme Newspictures in 1924.
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At Acme, Fellig, lacking accommodation elsewhere, took to sleeping at the office. After getting caught, he rented a room around the corner from New York City Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan and became “Acme’s on-call night man.” He scrambled to make a living, but had several advantages over his competitors. He’d go wherever the story was, no matter how rough the neighborhood or how late the hour. He also had no scruples about staging photographs (to “give the truth some extra help,” Bonanos quips) or disguising himself as, say, a doctor to take “beautiful candid shots” (Weegee’s words) of a hospitalized gangster on his deathbed.
Murders, fires and crashes were his bread and butter. (“Three murders in 36 hours,” he crowed in 1937. “Boy, was business good!”) His work appeared anonymously at first. But, by 1929, he’d come up with the “Weegee” moniker and insisted that his outlets use it. A self-declared clairvoyant with an instinct for news about to happen, he pushed the idea that he was a human Ouija board — then made the spelling phonetic “to make it easier for the fan mail.”
When crime sharply declined in New York in the 1940s, he shifted into street-smart observation of the city’s high life and low life. He was always “watching the watchers,” as Bonanos puts it, whether training his lens on “swooning” young women at a Frank Sinatra concert or photographing the cameramen at a public appearance of pinup sensation Bettie Page. In the final phase of his career, he became obsessed with lens distortions and darkroom trickery. A 1955 shot of Liberace, for example, grotesquely stretches the camp icon’s smile into a toothy piano keyboard.
The private life behind his puckish public persona was sketchy, especially if you go by the standards of the #MeToo era. Weegee had “a standing interest in looking at nude girls,” Bonanos says, and was a frequent visitor to brothels. Although he was briefly married, he had an aversion to domesticity. “I’d come over more often,” he told his on-again-off-again girlfriend Wilma Wilcox, “but you need to get rid of all those pots and pans.”
Wilcox, a social worker, is almost as fascinating as Weegee in her elusive way. It’s thanks to her that his work was preserved after his death in 1968. In his images she saw artistic merit (something he never worried about), and she also was alert to something sensitive in his character beneath the bluster.
“I have no time for messages in my pictures,” he insisted. “That’s for Western Union and the Salvation Army.”
To Wilcox and his later admirers, Weegee saw and said more than he ever cared to admit.
“Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous” by Christopher Bonanos, Henry Holt, 379 pp., $32