Peter Castro
January 12, 1998 12:00 PM

His 300 Cosmo covers oozed sex and sensuality

ASSISTANTS ARE BUSY ARRANGING platters of miniature bagels and Danishes, and a security guard is settling into a chair next to a knapsack full of diamond jewelry borrowed from Harry Winston, when Patti Hansen arrives at Francesco Scavullo’s Upper East Side Manhattan studio. After a hearty embrace, she plants a kiss on Scavullo’s cheek. It has been more than a decade since Hansen, 41, wife of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, last saw the small, trim photographer, and even longer since his cover photo of her for Vogue in 1975 helped turn her into one of the original supermodels.

“You haven’t changed! You haven’t changed!” gushes Hansen, who has come to pose for a fashion spread in a new lifestyle magazine called Notorious. “Who is your doctor? What do you do?” Scavullo, 68, tickled by her fawning, responds: “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. And I don’t take drugs.”

Scavullo’s longevity, in fact, is the result of what he does take—photographs. Over the course of his five-decade-long career, chronicled in the latest of his five books, a lavish, 225-page, $60 volume entitled Scavullo: Photographs, 50 Years, he has become known for his glamorous, impeccably lit, always flattering fashion and celebrity shots for magazines ranging from Good Housekeeping to TIME. He has turned Burt Reynolds into a pinup boy for Cosmopolitan magazine and Martha Mitchell, wife of former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, into a glamor puss for New York. But it is the 300-plus covers he created for Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown between 1965 and 1997 that are Scavullo’s trademark. “The women had to be sexy and they had to have bosoms,” says Scavullo of Brown’s directives. (He is no longer the magazine’s cover specialist since a new editor succeeded Brown last year.) “Helen wanted them luscious and colorful.” The resulting look helped establish the magazine as the single girl’s sex guide and launched the careers of such up-and-coming sexpots as Farrah Fawcett, Brooke Shields and Claudia Schiffer.

“It was a fantasy, no question,” says Rene Russo, who worked with Scavullo at age 18 (and went on to a career as a Hollywood leading lady). “None of us look that way really. Having Francesco shoot you for Cosmo meant you had arrived in New York.” Hansen agrees. “You’re a little kid and, all of sudden, you’re a sex symbol. That’s what Cosmo was like. It was also,” she says, “the start of big money.”

Scavullo got his start in Staten Island, N.Y. Born in 1929, he was the fourth of five children of Angelo, a successful caterer, and Margaret, a homemaker. Scavullo’s obsession with glamor began when, as a preschooler, he saw Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. “I was fascinated by the closeups,” he says. Later, he began reading his mother’s Harper’s Bazaars, and Vogues, as well as books on photography and movie makeup artists. “I remember finding photos of Dietrich and Garbo before they came to Hollywood and thinking, ‘They aren’t that gorgeous. Hollywood made them gorgeous.’ I said, ‘Anybody can be glamorous.’ ”

By the time he was 8, Scavullo, whose family had moved to a tony Manhattan apartment in 1937, began photographing his sisters—Margaret and Marie, now in their 70s—with a camera he borrowed from his father. At 10, he turned a linen closet into a darkroom and, using self-taught retouching techniques, began taking glam shots of his sisters’ girlfriends.

To the dismay of his father, who wanted him to go into the family business, Scavullo’s passion for photography overshadowed his interest in school. When he was 16 he did a stint at a photo studio in New York City that led to an assistant’s job at Vogue working for famed photographer Horst. He learned more than lighting from his new boss. “Horst was so charming to his subjects,” says Scavullo. “And they adored him. I realized that the nicer you are to the people, the better the picture you get.”

A year later, Scavullo was hired as an assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, where he helped light shoots with screen sirens such as Lauren Bacall. But his big break came in 1948 at age 19 when he talked the fashion editor of Seventeen into letting him shoot a cover. She liked the result—two teenage models in yellow slickers shot through glass sprayed with water—and offered him a contract. “When my father saw my name in Seventeen,” says Scavullo, “the fight was over. I’d won the war.”

But a bigger battle lay ahead. In 1951, Scavullo suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized for two weeks. Years of failed remedies, including lithium salts and electroshock treatments, followed. In 1981, after his fourth hospitalization, he was finally diagnosed as manic-depressive and put on the drug Haldol. “I never had a breakdown since,” he says. Not that he regrets his illness. Scavullo is convinced he became more creative and productive during what he calls his “manic elations.” In fact, he says, “If you asked me ‘Would you like to have not been manic-depressive?’ I’d have to say I think I rather liked it.”

Soon after his first attack, Scavullo married model Carol McCallson in 1952. “The relationship was very special,” he says, “and we fell in love.” But the marriage ended in 1955. “She called it quits,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at it…Carol was a wild, beautiful child. I’m much more reserved.” Still, the two remained friends until McCallson’s death about a decade ago. Through her, Scavullo met Andy Warhol who, in the early ’70s, hired Scavullo to shoot for his Interview magazine.

Scavullo didn’t always delight the talon-tongued Warhol. In a diary entry not published until 1989, two years after Warhol’s death, the artist expressed anger about the way he looked in photos Scavullo had taken for the Jordan Marsh catalogue. “He didn’t airbrush at all,” Warhol wrote. “And he’s an airbrush queen.” Scavullo laughs about the incident now but defends what he likes to call “finishing.” “I don’t remove every flaw. But I like to retouch things I didn’t see when I shot you,” he explains. “There’s no reason to be cruel with the camera. That’s why people come to me.”

He has the photos to prove it. Covering the walls of his two-floor apartment above his studio are stunning photographs and silkscreens of Grace Kelly, Brooke Shields and Diana Ross, among others. The going rate for portraits like these starts at $10,000 and is orchestrated by Scavullo and his stylist and confidant, Sean Byrnes. After meeting at a New York fashion show in 1971, the two hit it off, and Scavullo hired Byrnes to help oversee the Cosmo covers. They’ve been a team ever since. “He’s about the closest person to me in my life,” says Scavullo.

And a fairly regimented life it is. Scavullo generally rises at 5:30 a.m., gulps down dozens of vitamin and herb pills during the course of the day and works out at the gym five times a week. He still gets occasional mood swings, but he knows that with medication and the right approach he can be content. “I don’t let anything get me down,” Scavullo insists. When the going gets tough, he says, “I pick up my camera and work.”


SUE MILLER in New York City

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