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Nancy Holmes: Soft Focus

If a picture paints a thousand words, then Nancy Holmes has captured millions of them in her photojournalistic career. In a Brilliant exclusive, the San Antonio resident recounts her career, her loves and her life on the locations of some of the world’s best loved films with the most fascinating movie stars of the era.

“They say the camera doesn’t lie,” reflects Nancy Holmes about her career as a globe-trotting photojournalist, “…you bet it does. Exactly the way you want it to.” Few have captured images as substantial as Holmes has. The 85-years old’s age is a tad misleading. She has the style of a woman decades younger and a twinkle in her eye of a woman even younger than that. It’s called being ageless, and Holmes’ life has seemed, to many, quite an ageless and charmed one.

Ensconced in a San Antonio high-rise apartment that could be easily mistaken for a residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Holmes is in a reflective mood about her career and life. Every wall and shelf is dotted with images from her life. There’s even a ‘Men’s Room’ − a guest bathroom with walls covered with photos of her favorite men in her life and career. “As Sophie Tucker so famously said, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.’ I don’t agree. I’ve loved being both because I had to make a living and create my destiny. I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” quips Holmes. From the mid-20th century forward, Holmes is certain to have a common denominator with just about any notable personality from the worlds of entertainment, fashion, art and commerce. She either met them at a dinner party while yachting on the Mediterranean in the 1950s, as the set photographer for Columbia Pictures during the 1960s, or perhaps encountered them while serving as an editor at Town and Country magazine from 1972 to 1984.

Friend’s names such as Gloria Guinness, Frank Sinatra, Malcolm Forbes, Art Buchwald, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis roll off her tongue easily. When it comes to knowing influential people, Holmes could write a book on it. In fact, she’s written several works of fiction based on her jet-set experiences with the super rich and infamous over the years. She’s penned saucy novels even Sidney Sheldon would envy.

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Glamour Girl #1

Glamour came easily to Holmes. She first understood the allure that a camera could create when she was the first American couture model in Paris for the House of Pierre Balmain after World War II. She discovered being in front of the camera is very different than being behind it when she dated Life’s famed photographer Robert Capa in post-war Europe. The richness of hues, the play of light, and the ability to create a portrait are just some of the reasons she took up a camera herself. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, her words and images appeared in magazines such as Life, Look, Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Town & Country.

Holmes’ beginnings were illustrious. She started in the world of high-profile journalism as the New York Journal American afternoon fashion editor. “I was called the afternoon fashion editor because the other two fashion editors there, both named Alice, loved to have their three martinis at the Colony Club for lunch and never made it back to work in the afternoons,” Holmes confides. “I didn’t drink then and I was always there working through the afternoons.” As a young divorcee, she quickly became the fashion editor of twice-monthly Look magazine after the newspaper position. “Supporting myself, my mother, and two children, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Look doubled my salary,” she says. Then an offer she really couldn’t refuse came when she was living in London during the 1960s − to shoot for Columbia Pictures on exotic locations for magazine publicity for their upcoming films.

She recalls that London was a glittering place during those days. Tycoon Walter Annenberg, the ambassador from the United States to the Court of Saint Jameses in England and his socialite wife, Lee, were prolific entertainers. “Lee called me and said,

‘Nancy, we love having you, but there are times when I’m going to ring you up on late notice when someone drops out on me and you’ll have to be the ‘extra man’ guest at my dinner parties,” Holmes says. “I never did mind since I was seated next to almost anybody who was anybody of that era.”

Charmed, I’m Sure

Holmes is known to have charmed many men across several continents. Holmes admits, “If I had to choose a song that describes me, it’s I Fall in Love Too Easily.” She was one of the girlfriends of Charles Addams, the famous New Yorker cartoonist and creator of The Addams Family and is mentioned prominently throughout the new biography of him, A Cartoonist’s Life. She also dated Greg Bauzter, the attorney with movie star looks from the Golden Age of Hollywood who dated stars like Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Joan Crawford. “Greg once pointed to one of the many scars on his face and said ‘That’s the one Crawford gave me after a party at Ciro’s. And once she gave me a white Cadillac convertible with blue leather seats, then had it driven into the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. She would get so mad at me when I would talk to other women.’”

Her fusion of the worlds of fashion and celebrity attributed to her continued success. “Jack Hamilton the movie editor at Look called me when I had moved to Europe to be with my children who were in school in Switzerland,” says Holmes. “I had lived in Rome for a year before that, which was great in those days − Anita Eckberg, Alain Delon, the Spaghetti Westerns. Hamilton tracked me down at my chalet in Gstaad and said, ‘I have an assignment for you.’ That was it. I was on my way. He was a great editor and very instinctual because much later on he said, ‘I want you to do a story on Rex Harrison because I think he’s going to win the Oscar for My Fair Lady. It had to be my favorite story I photographed. It was called The Rich, Restless Life of Rex Harrison and, of course, he won the Oscar. He and his wife Rachel were close friends of mine, and I photographed him for nine years as his personal photographer.”

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Seeing Green

Holmes was also close pals with the Taylor-Burtons, as in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She met them in Italy when they were filming Cleopatra, and Rex Harrison, playing Caesar in the film, was assigned to be photographed by Holmes. “I then began to shoot Elizabeth,” says Holmes. “I was one of her favorites, thank Heaven, because she and I got along great. At that time she was married to Eddie Fisher. A marriage that was over by the time Cleopatra was done. In 1962, Two Weeks in Another Town, a big hit starring Kirk Douglas was about to start filming in Rome. To welcome the cast and crew to Rome, Eddie and Elizabeth gave a party at the Grand Hotel honoring Kirk. Kirk called me and said, ‘Let’s go together,’ Elizabeth was wearing a divine white chiffon number with scads of emeralds around her neck, and who walks in unforgivably late but Richard Burton off the plane from New York in a rented a dinner jacket? He had just finished starring inCamelot on Broadway and was considered to be quite hot. When Richard walked in, he and Elizabeth locked eyes and Kirk and I actually saw the beginning of that relationship. Kirk said to me, ‘Did you see what I saw? And I said ‘No one could miss it.’ And well, we know the rest about them.”

Holmes was on many of Taylor’s films and was an eye witness to the celebrity relationship the rest of the world hungered to hear about at the time. “One day on Cleopatra, Elizabeth called me and asked that I join her in her dressing room, which was about half the size of the Hollywood Bowl,” says Holmes. “She said, ‘The gentleman from Bulgari is coming to show me some things.’ So, Richard Burton pops into the room and Liz says, ‘Richard, isn’t this emerald divine?’ This emerald was about two and a half inches square. Richard responds, ‘How much is that damn thing?’ The salesman quoted its multi-million lira price, which was about $250,000 in those days. Burton exploded and asked Liz, ‘What kind of idiot would pay that kind of money for a piece of green glass?’ To which Liz quickly replied, ‘Darling, you are.’” Holmes notes that Taylor made Burton a-million-dollar-a-film star.

Holmes even taught Taylor’s young son, Michael Wilding, Jr., how to use a camera on the film set of X, Y and Zee as a favor to Taylor. “I’ll never forget that,” recalls Holmes.

“Liz had stalled for weeks for a cover shot I really needed to get. So on the last day of shoot, I thought, it’s now or never, and Elizabeth just wasn’t going to have it. So I

actually grabbed her by the wrist and said ‘Sit down,’ and in five minutes I got what I needed. That photo ended up on seven magazine covers and was seen all over the world. She wore the most beautiful lowcut V-neck dress and a brooch. You know, if you have to get a photo, you have to get it. It’s that simple. I showed Michael how to get a shot when you really needed one.”

Location, Location, Location

Holmes reflects that some of the film locales were quite dangerous. “I spent six weeks living in a tent in Nimibia which used to be Southwest Africa,” recalls Holmes. “It was the toughest of the 33 films I did. It was called Creatures of the World Forget and starred Julie Ege, whom I shot in a zebra bikini because she had such a knockout figure. She’d had an affair with a British Member of Parliament and had quite a reputation. The costar was Australian actor Tony Bonner. It was a prehistoric themed film, and all they did was grunt because it was produced by the Winter brothers in England who were too cheap to pay for translating dialog. It was an amazing time because we came up against Apartheid, so we had the Irish and South African actors, who were the cavemen extras in the film, as our bodyguards. We were glad to have them to protect us since Julie and I were the only women on the location. I remember that it was so dry and so hot and the only meat served at the food tent was zebra which was horrible. Julie and I lived on some wonderful South African oranges we found, some bread and good South African white wine. And we found an old opal mine filled with water that we and the muddied extras used as a swimming hole.”

War films can sometimes be the most dangerous of all to work on and Holmes learned that first hand. “In 1968 we were shooting a film called Castle Keep, starring Burt Lancaster, Patrick O’Neal and Bruce Dern in Petrovaradin, Yugoslavia, on the Danube River,” she remembers. “It was a story of the Battle of the Bulge, and the cast and crew were living in a castle. Well, the day we arrived, they had a blizzard that was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Then, it never snowed again, and we had to use manufactured

snow. The most dangerous thing was that defective WWII ammunition was being used in all the war scenes. I was such a smartass in those days and I was always taking risks to get a picture. I was standing by the camera and a little bullet whizzed by my ear and

destroyed the Panavision lens just inches away from me. I didn’t take as many risks after that.”

Asked the secret to her success, Holmes shares that she was never influenced by other photographer’s style. “I loved shooting portraits and shooting them in black and white,” says Holmes. “The more spontaneous, the better.” Her trained eye came in handy when she was a Town & Country magazine contributing editor and worked with photography greats like Slim Aarons and Norman Parkinson. Her taste is her own and she does not revere other photographers just because they are famous. “I hated what Richard Avedon did to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when he shot them,” says Holmes. “He made them look horrible. And Diane Arbus? She shot freaks. I couldn’t stand any of it. My style is for beauty, not beasts.”

These days Nancy Holmes stays busy with myriad friends and family and always makes time to travel in high style. She’s writing another book and confides, “It’s for my great grandson. It’s called Dear Harry, and it is advice from great grandmother to great grandson. It will be about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and I plan to dance with him when I am 100. The first sentence is, ‘Dear Harry, I’ve had such a lucky life. I have so much to tell you that I don’t even know where to start.’”