From The Vault of Art Shay: Claude Lanzmann, Director of Shoah

By Art Shay in News on Aug 15, 2012 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his archives, Art dives again into six degrees of Simone de Beauvoir.)

Claude Lanzmann is a tough old intellectual Frenchman of 86, who happened to have taken over Jean-Paul Sartre's magazine Les Temps Modernes and coincidentally, Sarte's lifelong playmate (and Algren's sometimes girlfriend) Simone de Beauvoir: he was her lover for the last seven years of her life.

He has lived through it all, filmed it all so well: his nine-hour Shoah, which took 12 years to film, is in the pantheon of cinema along with Spielberg's best. The Polish government banned his masterpiece for cajoling Polish Nazis and simple farmers into telling their stories, shaming all of Poland by the horror of their ordinariness. The simple barber telling the camera how he cut the hair of doomed Jewish ladies and bundled it up for the Nazis at the end of the day, for one. In a book that preceded Shoah he had plumbed the depths of Nazi depravity by pointing out they had bred a flock of geese to provide covering sounds to the death cries of strangling women. Never mind their bull dykes collecting the skins of tattooed sex organs for their lampshades, their torture and their guillotines. How did he get this way? He grew up in fear. He sought out righteous wars like Algeria's, he educated himself prodigiously on the legends of heroes and heroines across the world being led to unfair decimation. I am proud that his life and mine touched. That he spoke to me once on the telephone in Paris!

Florence and I were in Paris in 2008 for the opening of my photo exhibition at Galerie Loeb. There was turmoil at the headquarters of Paris magazine L' Observateur. They had run on their cover my 1950 dorsal nude of Simone de Beauvoir emerging from her bath and checking her face in the mirror of an apartment I borrowed at Algren's request. (The Division Street Y wouldn't permit her to shower there with him.)

Being French and having just fought off some vocal feminists who demanded the editor run a nude of himself on his cover, he hammered away at the circumstances of my picture; the inaccurate New Yorker article on the shot having not yet appeared.

"Deed you ave sex wiz ze lady?" he asked. "Mais non." I said. "She was 40 and I was 27. And I am happily married to a beautiful rare book dealer."

"But Madame was beautiful too, and zee flirt, no?"


"’Ow could you reesist her?" he asked.

"Nelson Algren was my friend," I said. "Would you let yourself be seduced by the woman of your friend?"

He paused. I took it as a "Oui.”

Anyway, at my crowded opening—guarded by two off-duty cops—a beautiful woman in her ebullient mid-forties, came up to Florence and me with a huge Sony cinema camera on a heavy tripod."

"I am Christine Fizscher," she said, "a filmmaker and a writer. I am zee meestress of Claude Lanzmann. He directed Shoah..." she added unnecessarily.

"Claude could not be here—he is after surgery. But he saw your picture of Simone de Beauvoir and has asked me to film you and your wife." I dragged Florence away from three French government honchos, and Christine began
to document several of my opening night sales. "You see," said proprietor Albert Loeb," I told you zay would buy your peectures of Cheecago!"

Christine drew me off to the droit- handing me her cell phone. "Eet ees Claude-"

I kvelled at the idea I would in a moment talk to the director of Shoah!

"Artoor-" he said, " I adore zee picture of Simone. I weesh to purchase one for myself. Many times I have seen this lovely view in our apartment but I nevaire stopped to bring my Leica out of zee drawer and make zees picture. But you did it for me! Merci!"

Long story short: I sent Claude Lanzmann two vintage prints of his woman asking him to autograph one and send it back to me- wrapping and postage provided. I share it with you in today's gallery.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.