Winner by a Decision
When Sonny Liston decided not to meet the Beatles 40 years ago, photographer Harry Benson pulled a switcheroo
The Beatles were furious. They were standing in the center of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, a large, dingy, smoky room that smelled of sweat and liniment, stamping their feet and jabbering among themselves. They'd been conned! Photographer Harry Benson had told them he would set up a picture with the heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston. But instead he had dumped them in the training camp of Liston's next victim, Cassius Clay, who John Lennon called "that big mouth who's going to lose."
This was February 18, 1964, and the Beatles, Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali), Benson and I were all about to take major steps forward in our respective careers. The Fab Four, sensations in Europe, were in the early days of their first American tour. Within eight days, Clay would be the new champ (after Liston failed to come out after the seventh round), and my coverage of the fight would get me my first page-one byline in the New York Times. And in minutes, Benson, a 34-year-old Fleet Street photographer who had traveled with the Beatles from London, would take a picture that would become one of the 20th century's iconic pop images. It almost didn't happen. Clay was late, and while Benson pushed his way into the boxing ring to get the best position, the Beatles decided they'd had enough.
"Where the f--- is he," Ringo asked no one in particular. "Let's get the hell out of here," said Lennon, and they started for the door. But Clay's press agent, who wanted the photo op to help promote the fight, signaled two huge Florida state troopers, who blocked the Beatles, then herded them into Clay's dressing room. I was swept along. The troopers slammed the door. For the next five or six minutes, the Beatles fussed and fumed. Oh, they were going to get that Harry Benson!
Suddenly, the dressing room door burst open, and Clay bellowed, "Hello there, Beatles. We oughta do some roadshows together. We'll get rich." The Beatles gaped; he was even bigger and handsomer than in his pictures.
Moments later, the five of them were in the ring, cavorting like old pals. Clay pretended to knock them all out with one punch. The Beatles fell down domino-style, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay's jaw. The five of them began laughing so hard their impromptu routines collapsed into slapstick.
Benson kept clicking away. When it was over, he recalls, the Beatles told him they would never speak to him again. The session had been "degrading. You made a fool of us," one of them said. As the singers piled into their limo, Benson was already thinking about his next assignment, shooting Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, at his Jamaica home. Another day, another icon. "You have to move on," he says.
Benson is 74 now and still moving. His photojournalism, most notably for Life magazine and Vanity Fair, is a history of the past 50 years. He has covered conflict in Afghanistan, Israel, the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, Poland and Pakistan. He was steps away when Senator Robert Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, when Caroline Kennedy got married, when President Nixon resigned. He took the first baby pictures of Michael Jackson's son, Prince. He witnessed the Freedom March through Mississippi, the Watts riot, IRA hunger strikes, the fall of Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Berlin Wall. He says he hid for 15 hours in a palm tree on a London movie set to get the first picture of Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra. Benson's cheek has been matched only by his charm; years later, Ms. Taylor agreed to allow Benson to shoot her hairless, stitched scalp after a brain tumor operation.
"I'm not precious, I'll do anything," said Benson recently in his New York home, a Scot's burr in his deep voice. "And I always remember, opportunity comes up like an express train. It's very sudden, and you have to be ready."
The scrappy, athletic son of a zoo-keeper, Benson got ready by shooting weddings in his native Glasgow. Even rivals describe him as endlessly creative. After Liston refused to pose with the Beatles, Benson decided that Clay, who he'd seen boasting on TV, would do just as well, although he didn't bother telling the foursome of the change in plans and tricked them into thinking they were still headed for Liston's gym. After all, he needed the picture. And the Beatles quickly forgot the deception, especially after Clay became Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ. Benson went on to have a friendly relationship with the late George Harrison and says he is still friendly with Sir Paul McCartney.
"Friendly, but you don't want to get that close to your subjects," says the photographer, whose most recent book, Once There Was a Way, celebrates the Beatles. "I'm a journalist, I'm not one of them. Never get that close. You need to stay in that no man's land where they trust you but can't tell you what to do."
Benson last saw Ali in 1993, in Iraq. The former champion was waiting for an audience with Saddam Hussein. Benson shadowed him for days, hoping to photograph the two together, but that shot eluded him. "Would've been a good one," he says cheerily. "But you have to move on."