My mom’s Harcourt portrait

This being the Fourth of July, I thought about posting something about one or both of my parents. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and earned the Silver Star by doing so. My mother, a registered nurse, was assigned to a U.S. Army hospital in Paris, and treated American soldiers who were wounded there and elsewhere.

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Lt. Alta Widener Frederick

Instead, I decided to tell you how my mother’s time in Paris resulted in her having something significant in common with Marlene Dietrich, Simone Signoret and Bridget Bardot.

The picture of my mom that I’ve posted here has been in the family forever. She is in her Army uniform, and the word “Paris” is printed down in the lower right-hand corner. So I knew the portrait was taken during her time in Paris, and I never figured there was much more to know about the story than that.

But not long ago I realized there was another word above “Paris.”

“Harcourt.”

Studio Harcourt in Paris was perhaps the world’s most famous photo studio of its day. Founded in 1934, the studio was located in an impressive limestone mansion on a quiet street near the Champs-Élysées. Actors and actresses, entertainers of all kinds and famous politicians made their way to Studio Harcourt from all over Europe to get their portraits taken.

th[7]The studio was affected by the German occupation, and some of the studio’s principals, who were Jewish, left the city. But the studio continued to operate through the war years.

Harcourt brought a new look to portraiture, using lighting and camera angles developed in the movie industry. And they included some of their own techniques, like making sure facial features were in sharp focus while hair, cheeks and foreheads were slightly blurred. They did this by covering the camera lens with a woman’s stocking, then burning a hole in the very center with a cigarette.

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Marlene Dietrich

(I checked this little factoid by looking closely at my mother’s picture. Sure enough. Sharp eyes, nose, mouth and chin, slightly blurry hair.)

Once Paris was liberated, it didn’t take long for American service men and women to discover that Studio Harcourt was not to be missed, and many Americans returned home with Harcourt portraits. Including Mom. Those Harcourt portraits did much to spread Harcourt’s reputation to the U.S.

Studio Harcourt is still in business, and it still relies on many of the lighting techniques that it developed more than 80 years ago.

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Simone Sigoret

In 2000, the French government bought Studio Harcourt’s historic negatives taken between 1934 and 1991. There were about five million such negatives in all, involving about 550,000 people. So the negative of my mom’s Harcourt portrait now resides in the French National Archives.

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