Imagine it! The names! Anita Ekberg, Jane Fonda, Grace Kelly, Anouk Aimee, Brigitte Bardot, Candice Bergen, Eva Marie Saint, Jody Foster, Kim Novak, Sharon Tate, Sophia Loren and Barbara Nichols. ‘Barbara Nichols?’ you might ask. ‘Who in the hell is she?’ Well, we’ll come to her later. But the known ones were only the tip of the iceberg for the German American glamour photographer who captured for posterity the prominent stars of his period, many of them when they were mere starlets, during the 50s and 60s. If this wasn’t dazzling enough, Mr Hefner’s organisation often commissioned him to grace his famous publication with unclad beauty. So, if you also go checking him out in the ether, beware there is some NSFW material, as well as his fine Hollywood imagery.
Peter Basch was a Berliner, born in 1921, to parents heavily involved in the theatre and film scene of the anything-goes Weimer Republic period. With the rise of the Nazis they saw the writing on the wall and took their son to America in 1933. They opened a restaurant in NYC, which provided Peter’s first job as a member of its wait staff. His interest in photography was aroused when, during the war, he served in the US Army Air Force’s motion picture unit. After peace came, he studied at UCLA, but took a side job photographing – providing young hopefuls with the type of cheesy images they hoped would get them started on the road to stardom. He soon built up a reputation in the glamour industry, his ‘moments in time’ appearing in mags such as ‘Look’ and ‘Life’, as well as ‘Playboy’. His popularity rested on his penchant for taking his models out of the studio situation, which helped to make them seem more normal; more human. This worked particularly well for those who were already names. But he too became a victim to changing tastes, so, as the seventies dawned, his photographic star waned. His books, on the art of taking pictures of beautiful girls, kept him going. I suppose it was inevitable that he would marry an actress, as he did in 1951, producing two offspring. He passed away in 2004.
As for Barbara Nichols – it was his image of her that I came across in cyberspace that first led me to her story, followed by his. See – I have time to spare in this unfettered retirement of mine. His image of Barbara, up to her chest in water, was so fresh looking and attractive. When I investigated further, in other pin-ups of her, she appears hard of face and singularly, to our modern tastes, somewhat unappealing. There is a comely softness to Basch’s depiction of her. But who was she?
As it turned out, Barbara Nichols, at least in her public persona, was more a creature of those other camerasmiths who lacked the finesse of PB. She was your stereotypical New York blonde bimbo; one who was never going to make it truly big on the screen. But if a producer needed someone to heat said screen up in the bland days of the Hayes Code, she was your gal. Getting her start in beauty contests, she garnered such titles as Miss Mink of 1953, Miss Dill Pickle and Miss Welder. Soon her glamour snaps were finding a wider audience with the male of the species and she started to gain stage gigs – usually as a gum-chewing, wise cracking platinum blonde of the Mae West variety. Her roles were small, usually playing a floosie, barfly or stripper – and this remained the case when she graduated to the movies. She possessed a natural comedic timing on the few occasions she was given some dialogue, but she was mainly employed for her cleavage. Once censorship restrictions were loosened there were soon found to be plenty of young things who were eager to reveal all their assets on stage or screen, so the days of just giving a hint of what lay beneath were over. Barbara’s career in the industry hit the skids. Guesting on television became her mainstay, with appearances on such fare as ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘The Untouchables’ and ‘Twilight Zone’. For a short time she even had a regular role, on an outing titled ‘Love That Jill’, which ran for a couple of seasons in the late fifties.
By this time she had been involved in two quite severe car accidents that, as time wore on, gave her long term health challenges. She was forced to retire from acting completely and it eventually shortened her life. She died at age 47.
Sadly she was definitely a second leaguer, following in the tail wind of Jane Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and Diana Dors. Way out in front, of course, was you know who. But for a moment in time, with the camerawizardry of Peter Basch, she was lifted momentarily above the pack of wannabes in an image that made her truly beautiful for all eternity.
A Gallery of Peter Basch Photography = http://www.faheykleingallery.com/photographers/basch/personal/basch_pp_frames.htm