Jack Pashkovsky lived quietly in a town lit up by a thousand stars. He practiced his art anonymously. By the time he was finished, he had compiled what must be the greatest collection of celebrity photographs never seen.
I first met Pashkovsky in the fall of 2000, when I was directing a documentary film (Glitter Palace) about the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills, California. It’s a retirement home for show business veterans, and for the film I interviewed many Hollywood old-timers living there, from a vaudeville centenarian to a famous western star. But it was Pashkovsky’s story that I found the most compelling.
Yasha (Jack) Pashkovsky was born in 1911 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sometime after the October Revolution of 1917, Yasha and his family joined the mass emigration of Jews escaping religious persecution in Russia. They somehow made their way to Cherbourg, France, Pashkovsky recalled, to catch a White Star Line ship to America and a new life. In New York City, Pashkovsky fell under the spell of movie house marquees that promised adventure and escape. He liked to slip into a Times Square movie palace to watch Mary Pickford in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall or to admire Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s derring-do in The Black Pirate, The Thief of Bagdad and The Mark of Zorro.
At the age of 22, Pashkovsky went to Los Angeles, hoping to apprentice himself to a cinematographer. Instead, he got a job sweeping studios at Twentieth Century Fox. Pashkovsky was disappointed. “I thought all I had to do was show up and I would get a job,” he told me. “But only cinematographers’ sons were getting into the union.”
In 1947, director Ernst Lubitsch hired Pashkovsky as a personal assistant on That Lady in Ermine, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Betty Grable. But Lubitsch died of a heart attack early in the production of the film, and Otto Preminger was brought in to finish it—without Pashkovsky’s services. But Pashkovsky hung around the studio to soak up as much technical lore as he could. He used his meager savings to buy a 16-millimeter movie camera and began making small personal films about things that interested him. He spent most of 1948 making a film about train travel, Rhythm of the Rails, which he told me won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sources differ on how Pashkovsky actually made his living. He worked as a photographer for the U.S. Air Force and apparently also set up shop as a portrait photographer in Los Angeles. One thing is clear: he loved photographing screen stars. He walked studio lots or visited Hollywood haunts such as the Brown Derby, Romanoff’s or Ciro’s restaurants in search of celebrities. He didn’t miss many. Through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the likes of Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson and Jimmy Stewart all posed for Pashkovsky. Some of the stars knew him from his studio days; others just trusted his diffident manner. His style was totally unpretentious, whether it was capturing Clark Gable at the Hollywood Tennis Club around 1940 or Marlene Dietrich at the Brown Derby.
At the Motion Picture Country House, the walls of Pashkovsky’s small room were lined with his photographs. He proudly told me the story of each one—where he was on the day he took it and so forth—and smothered me with technical details. Then he told me he had never sold any of the prints or negatives; he took them all for himself, sharing them only with friends and, of course, his wife of 54 years, Elly, a former model. “I wasn’t interested in selling them,” he told me. “I just loved taking pictures.”
It took me several trips to California before this quiet man pulled from under his bed a large box containing 400 negatives of his never-before-seen photographs. I was speechless; it was like uncovering a long lost artistic treasure. I immediately proposed that I write a book about his work.
I’ve shown some of the pictures to Mary Corliss, former assistant curator of the film stills archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She particularly likes the way Pashkovsky caught stars at their ease. “They appeared fresher, more relaxed when they were away from the set, the portrait studio, the Hollywood première,” she says. “The beautiful people looked like real people, and that’s what makes his portraits illuminating. They have a startling immediacy.”
Whenever I visited him, Pashkovsky would be watching a classic movie on his small television in his overheated room. The old movies seemed to transport him back in time. Of the current stars, he liked Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. And he predicted, long before Legally Blonde made her one, that Reese Witherspoon would become a big star.
Pashkovsky died in his sleep at the age of 89 in April 2001. And I’m still working on that book.