West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 24 | November 14 - 20, 2007


Fred McDarrah, 81, photographer of Beat Generation


Fred W. McDarrah, the super-prolific Village-based photographer who died at home in his sleep on the night of his 81st birthday — Monday, November 5, or very early Tuesday morning — was a wonderful contradiction in terms: warm, generous, gabby, outgoing, professionally helpful, yet crusty and cranky as hell, in fact, hair-trigger litigious, if he saw his work mishandled, uncredited or wrongly credited.

God help you if you committed any of those misdeeds.

I knew him almost 50 years, ever since he turned up at The Village Voice, first as an advertising salesman, then as a staff photographer, then and thereafter as photo editor of the newborn anti-establishment weekly newspaper.

It was at The Voice that he built the reputation which quickly fanned out to an almost encyclopedic photographic coverage of artists, writers, poets, novelists, playwrights, actors, musicians, politicians, aspirants, characters, flotsam and jetsam of what was even then a great deal more than its journalistic label of “Beat Generation.”

It all added up to an unbelievable 200,000 separate photographs — separate images — over the years.

“And Jerry,” Fred said with a stifled grin just one year ago at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea where the walls were covered with McDarrah’s stuff, “I’ve got news for you. I remember every photograph, every single picture, I took in my entire life.”

He and his wife, Gloria, walked around the exhibit with me, with Fred providing a little background on some of the more famous shots. Among them:

Bob Dylan, age 23, four years after his arrival in New York, giving a crisp military salute in Sheridan Square, January 22, 1965.

“That was taken in that little triangular park. There was snow all around. Dylan was extremely gracious, absolutely cooperative. … I went to a lot of his concerts and took a lot of pictures of him. In those days I used to go to five or more events a day; they’d all be on one contact sheet.”

Andy Warhol, stiff and upright, amidst a bunch of his Brillo boxes, April 24, 1964.

“That was at the Stable Gallery, uptown. His second major show in New York. … Andy was the nicest guy you’d ever meet in your life. … He was not one of those who sought publicity. That was not his style. And people gravitated to him.”

Jack Kerouac in a plaid shirt, on a stage, arms thrust wide, February 15, 1959.

“That was when he was reading from ‘On the Road’ at a poetry gig on East Second Street. This was the first time I shot him. One of my great photos.”

Willem de Kooning.

“That was in his Broadway studio before he went out to Long Island. I photographed him when he was dabbling around at his paints but not painting.”

Charlotte Moorman, the cellist who frequently made headlines by giving concerts bare-breasted.

“She called me up and said: ‘Freddie, come on over, I’m going to be naked.’ The performance was across from Carnegie Hall on 57th Street. The cops got all excited and arrested her.”

Elvis Presley during his first visit ever to New York. Alice Neel in front of her painting of Andy Warhol’s scar after Valerie Solanis had shot him in the stomach. Valerie Solanis herself, founder and only member of the Society for Cutting Up Men. Photographer Robert Frank at a demonstration in Central Park. Susan Sontag being arrested at some other demonstration. Playwright Maria Irene Fornes. Performance artist Carolee Schneeman, emoting.

And, the prize of them all — “my most-loved picture by the public” — Allen Ginsberg with full, black, Karl Marx beard and bushy, black head of hair under an Uncle Sam stars-and-stripes stovepipe hat, at a peace demonstration in Central Park, March 26, 1966.

Many of Fred’s photographs went into one or another of his half-dozen books — “The Beat Scene,” “The Artist’s World,” “New York, N.Y.,” “Beat Generation: Glory Days in Greenwich Village,” etc. — images by McDarrah, texts often by Gloria Schoffel McDarrah.

Frederick William McDarrah had been born in Brooklyn on November 5, 1926. His father, he told me, “did nothing, never worked, a manic depressive who used to sit by the window and just stare out. We used to live on Home Relief. My brother David and I went begging for food.”

At the 1939 World’s Fair, young Fred bought his first camera — so says The New York Times obit — for 39 cents. It was as a paratrooper in Occupied Japan that he actually began to labor as a photographer. On his return to New York he earned his B.A. in journalism from N.Y.U., and one day in 1953, when Gloria Schoffel of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and the Bronx, fresh out of Penn State, was working as a secretary for Metropolitan Sunday Newspapers, on Madison Avenue, Fred McDarrah came in, looking for a job. He got the job — a salesman working slide shows — and they started going together.

She was Jewish, not very observant. He was half Catholic, half Protestant, and not observant at all. Seven years later they were married at her sister’s house in Patchogue, Long Island. Their sons are Timothy, 45, and Patrick, 41. Gloria and the boys were pretty good friends — “We all went to ‘Hair’ together at the Public Theater” — of my own two children and their mother, with Fred especially gracious on occasions when my son dropped in at The Voice.

“Fred was in good health,” Gloria told me late last week. “He used to go to the gym. For his birthday, that Monday, which was also the 47th anniversary of our wedding day, we went out to Lupa, the Mediterranean restaurant on Thompson Street. We don’t really know the cause [of death]. That night — we don’t even know when — all of a sudden, there he was, in bed, like a statue. The police came at 6 a.m., so that’s the official time.”

Fred could be pretty tough on credit violators, couldn’t he, Gloria?

“Oh my goodness. Several times he had to sue. Once he sued LIFE magazine until they acknowledged what they’d done wrong. Fred wasn’t intimidated by anybody.”

Hey, Peter, you with the wings. Just move a little bit to the left and look straight into the camera, O.K.?

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