What is a muse? With the May 4 gala benefiting the Met’s Costume Institute nearing, its theme—the role of fashion models as muses—has become tolerable party talk. To wit, while inspiration came in the slope of a trumpet, or the hard edge of Steve McQueen, to legendary lensman William Claxton no subject offered more grist than wife Peggy Moffitt. The L.A. girl took Rudi Gernreich’s clothes, Vidal Sassoon’s hair and Bill’s camera lens and made them her own. Anyone who ever questioned Peggy’s role has never had the pleasure to watch her at work. I have. In these last few weeks since we pushed up our sleeves and began planning the memorial for her late husband, Bill, who died a day shy of his 81st birthday last October, Peggy’s own muse became a life of 49 years with her husband, lived to the max—of experimentation, creativity, innovation and, most of all, love.
Before hundreds of friends, the Claxtons' collaborations were on vibrant display Monday night inside the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: The iconic photographs of Chet Baker and Judy Garland; the live songs he loved, including a spirited “Clickin' with Clax” that pal Shortie Rogers penned about Bill, whose perspective defined the West Coast jazz scene; and, on the massive theater screen, the 1967 short “Basic Black,” a milestone as the first fashion video and now part of the permanent collection at MOMA-NY.
The “Basic Black” principals came together for the first time in ages for the memorial, a venerable bunch who chased ideas that went against the grain and forever impacted those of us who came after them. Vidal Sassoon provided the influential beauty team. David Lucas, a jazz and rock musician who was among the first to give ad jingles a pop song pop (ATT’s “Reach out and Touch Someone”) and produced the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, scored the haunting soundtrack with a Moog synthesizer. Gary Youngman not only conceived the concept as a way to attract fashion brands to his ad agency, but as film editor, also developed the technique of triple exposures. Quite a feat in the pre-digital 1960s. And, of course, Peggy, who could act out her signature theatrics on film in a way that the still images only suggested.
Of course, the only key contributor missing was the film’s director and producer, William Claxton.
The Shortie Rogers opener wasn’t the only reference to the jazz artist. Shortie was a Claxton friend, and at their wedding in New York in 1959, Bill asked him to perform “That’s All” as a gift to Peggy. Surprise as it was, the gesture was returned when Shortie followed it up with Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” as a gift from Peggy to Bill. As singer Steve Tyrell retold the tale Monday night, and then lead his terrific band through the songs, the collective emotion seemed palpable. Likewise when jazz star Sue Raney elegantly performed the program’s final songs, “His is the Music That Makes Me Dance” and “Bill,” accompanied by pianist Alan Broadbent.
It was just that kind of evening, executed exactly as Peggy dreamed by a crew of us who wanted to move mountains to make it happen. Ethel Seno, who art directed Bill’s encyclopedic Jazz Life book for Taschen, was my co-pilot through it all. The Taschens, Lauren and Benedikt, along with Bill’s gallery reps, David Fahey and Ken Devln, footed the bill. Still we relied on the selfless help of all kinds of folks, including my sister Blanca, my old assistant Robert Barr, Kevin Phillips, Tyler Boye and many others. But, most of all, thank the gods we had Bryan Rabin overseeing the endless to-dos of the event and Xander Smith stressing over every staging detail. They did it for nothing, but ensured the evening was really something.
Bill was one of those individuals who others fell madly for at first greet, and the memories that spilled from speakers such as music journalist James Gavin (who tapped Bill to collaborate on his definitive bio on Chet Baker) and fellow legendary photographer Herman Leonard spoke to this a
By the time Bernie Taupin, a self-avowed fanatic of Bill’s work, appeared at the podium, we could all use the comic relief. Leave it to a Brit to make the mundane hysterical. But he hit heart strings with his retelling of Bill sneaking out last summer to catch a concert. Frail as he was and despite Peggy’s protests, Bill was determined to go. He grabbed his keys on the evening of the show and was off in his Porsche 911. Hours went by and Peggy agonized, no doubt inhaling a box of Now 100s in no time (a detail that evoked laughs since everyone is well aware of Peggy’s fondness for her smokes). Finally, Bill walked through the door. He couldn’t have been more ecstatic, loudly and gleefully telling about his visit backstage to see his old friend and it was hands-down the best concert he’d ever attended in his life. It would also be his last.
A perfect lead in to Burt Bacharach, who rambled onto the stage and after a few words, delivered the tenderest “Alfie.” Everyone was in pieces on the Bing Theater floor.
Fahey/Klein remains Bill’s gallery, and David Fahey gave a thoughtful account of Bill’s impact on photography, written with the heart of a jazz poet. His gallery partner Ken Devlin illuminated the audience of Bill’s last creative foray, where, curbed by physical challenges to continue shooting as he once did, Bill focused his eye on typography and, with Peggy at his side, the pair created a deconstructed subject which he then photographed—right there in their driveway. The results are stunning, and appeared in a brief video also shown at the event. You could hear the collective gasp in the Bing over this body of work. To the end, Bill never ceased to create or amaze.
So, too, Peggy. She art directed every ebb and high of the evening, from pal Benedikt Taschen’s opening words to the rousing New Orleans band that capped the night and had us all dancing up a storm in the museum courtyard. A dozen musicians ripped into the theater with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and lead us all out under the stars to toast old friends and linger a bit more on the magic of what we all just witnessed on stage, on Bill and Peggy's crazy creative collaborative output…on their love affair.
No one better than Bill knew the seamless synergy between muse and artist, how one breathes life into the other until it’s impossible to tell them apart.
Note: A vastly abridged version of this appeared yesterday at Style.com.
All Photographs by Tyler Boye
Leave a Comment