Of the many holidays Americans celebrate, none is half so glamorous—I may be going back a few years here—as New Year's Eve, when we break out the best of our wardrobes as if to show the arriving future that we haven't lost a step during the year just past. And no image of New Year's Eve is more glamorous than the picture taken by Slim Aarons of four great film leading men at Romanoff's restaurant in Hollywood on the last day of 1957. Though nostalgia has its dangerous side effects, not least a tendency to resent the way things are now, it's hard not to look at this picture and think that there was a time when movie stars really were larger than life.
The photograph has become known as The Kings of Hollywood, but what makes it so endlessly appealing is the intimate glimpse it gives us not of a kind of royalty, but of four friends on top of their glittering world, at home in white tie and chic surroundings and so clearly at ease with one another.
For readers not addicted to such classic movies as Gone With the Wind, Battle Cry, High Noon and Rear Window, the four are (from left) Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart—a Mount Rushmore of stardom. In an afterword to I, a collection of decades' worth of pictures published in Town & Country magazine, novelist Louis Auchincloss praised the Aarons photograph as "the greatest of all in this volume," and said of its subjects, "they compose the very image of American he-men. You feel sure they could strip off their finery and punch you in the nose the moment you got out of hand. And then go back to dazzle the ladies at the bar after their brief male recess."
The relaxation of these film greats says as much about the photographer as it does about his subjects. The stars were at ease around Aarons—who was (and, at 89, still is) tall, elegantly slender and well dressed—for good reason: they all knew him.
"I had done photographs from my New York apartment at 57th and Park to help Alfred Hitchcock on the set design for Rear Window, and I'd gotten to know Jimmy Stewart," Aarons recalls. "I was friends with Gable too—I [later] hung around with him when he was filming It Started in Naples with Sophia Loren, and even played a small part in the movie. When my wife and I went to parties at stars' homes in Los Angeles, I would never go off later and knock them, and they knew that. So when I walked over to the bar at Romanoff's with my camera, I wasn't an intruder. In fact, the reason these guys are laughing is that Gable is telling them how bad he thought I'd be in the movie."
Not all stars of the '50s were he-men, of course, but these screen kings, besides playing heroes, had what today might be called "street cred." Stewart, who had already won an Academy Award in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story, piloted a B-24 on 20 combat missions over Germany. Gable joined the Army in his 40s and also flew in bombers over Germany, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Heflin served in the Army field artillery, and though Cooper wasn't in the military, he visited hazardous areas of the Pacific making personal appearances for the troops. These men knew that Aarons had earned his spurs with the Army, as a combat photographer who had been wounded at Anzio in Italy and had recorded action on the front lines throughout the European theater for Yank magazine. He worked beside such legends as Ernie Pyle, Robert Capa and Carl Mydans, but while Capa kept covering wars, Aarons had other ideas.
"After the war," he says, "the only beaches I wanted to hit were the ones with beautiful girls on them." He told friends he wanted to make a career of photographing "attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places."
And thus Aarons became one of the most successful chroniclers of the rich and famous for magazines such as Life, Holiday and Town & Country. What separated him from a run-of-the-mansion celebrity portraitist is his offhand intimacy and sly wit. He never made fun of his subjects; rather, he liked to show them having fun, or poking a little fun at themselves.
The genesis of The Kings of Hollywood is not entirely clear. Aarons recalls being in Romanoff's that night to shoot the glitterati for Life or Holiday. Frank Zachary, the legendary art director turned editor who worked at both Holiday and Town & Country, thinks the picture was done for Town & Country, though before he got there in 1972. "It ran as a one-column society party picture," says Zachary, now in his 90s and still a consultant for the Hearst Corporation. "I came across it years later and thought it was a great picture, so I ran it as a two-page spread in a photo essay called ‘Slim's Guys.' It's still one of my favorite pictures."
Full disclosure: A print of this picture hangs on my office wall. But I keep it behind my desk, so I'm not facing it. If I saw it too often, I might grow resentful at the way things are now.