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Post-Studio 54, His Life Doesn't Have the Same Flash

Paparazzo Felice Quinto Misses the Old Days, but His Celebrity Photos Are Still in Demand

January 11, 1998|FRANK AHRENS | WASHINGTON POST

In the late '50s, Rome was "Hollywood-on-the-Tiber." Glamorous, dissolute celebrities in dark glasses ruled its night life. Director Federico Fellini watched the city's grand debauchery and elegized it in "La Dolce Vita." One of his characters was a ruthless photographer named Paparazzo, the fictional counterpart of a shooter named Felice Quinto.

Twenty years later, Quinto was still in the thick of the glitterati. By 1977, he was a New York wire-service freelancer. One night he got a call from his editor: A hysterical club owner was swearing that Christina Onassis was disco dancing on his floor right now!

Quinto sped to the site, where a man named Steve Rubell led him inside and pointed out the tycoon's daughter. Quinto snapped one shot before she stomped out of Studio 54. Over the next decade, the club would become his second home.

Today, Quinto is 68 and retired. If he steps out his door, he doesn't land on the cobblestone streets of Rome or the manic sidewalks of Manhattan. These days, he walks on a tidy sidewalk, as his neighbors in Montgomery Village, Md., drive by at responsible speeds.

He is aware of the irony. It's like finding Sophia Loren holed up in a Leisure World. Does he miss the old days? More specifically--the old nights? Speeding around Rome on his Moto Guzzi? Tale-tattling at the Studio 54 bar?

He shrugs, turning beefy palms upward toward his dining-room ceiling. His voice is loud and lyrical.

"I adapt," he says. He is trying hard to convince himself. "I just adapt."

Quinto sits at his dinner table, surrounded by black-and-white prints that chronicle 40 years of celebrity. Many of the images have been gathered into a book, "Studio 54: The Legend," released this fall, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the New York club famous for hosting a pre-AIDS Bacchanalia of sex, drugs and celebrity.

The luminaries--with over-made, over-lifted or over-aged faces--are splashed in the searing glare of straight-on flash. Faces become porcelain masks, frozen forever on film. It was a place, wrote denizen Andy Warhol, "like junior high school. All the girls look at what the other girls are wearing and all the boys see who can get laid the most." Quinto, immaculate in his pinstriped, double-breasted suits, wielding a Nikon or a Leica, was there for it all, snapping away.

Quinto got the pictures because he worked Studio 54 like a good beat reporter works city hall--smart and relentlessly. He read all the gossip columns and the foreign magazines. He was a world-class gossip himself. He knew who belonged together--and who didn't.

"He had a fullback approach to getting across the goal line, to getting the picture," says longtime Associated Press photo editor Hal Buell, now retired. Quinto didn't photograph only celebrities, though. As a freelancer, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and won a national photo prize for a 1964 picture of a black Philadelphia man being beaten by white cops.

But his personal style suited him perfectly for Studio 54.

"He was incredibly flamboyant," Buell says. "He had these milk-soft leather jackets. A Rolex. He would say, 'I'm a peacock.' "

Flip through Quinto's pictures: There's Yves Saint Laurent. Truman Capote. Liza Minnelli. Vladimir Horowitz, doing a 75th-birthday jig with his wife. Dustin Hoffman, dancing with Studio 54's resident senior citizen, Disco Sally. Liz Taylor, getting her face stuffed with birthday cake. He knew most of them. He was Taylor's photographer for a time, until she asked what he thought of her adopted daughter.

"She'd make a good mama," Quinto said. The next day, he was fired.

He's got story after story like this.

Here's another:

In the late '50s, the wavy-haired, dark-eyed Quinto met a pretty blond American teacher named Geraldine Del Giorno at a film festival in Venice. They corresponded after she returned to America.

Shortly after, he was sent to Hollywood to photograph movie stars. He eventually settled in New York, freelancing for the AP. He kept in touch with Del Giorno, who by now was teaching school in Montgomery County, Md. In 1965 they were married. And, two decades before it became fashionable, they established a commuter marriage: Every weekend but one for 22 years, and then frequently thereafter, Del Giorno left school on Friday afternoon and took the train to New York, grading her students' papers en route. Every Sunday night, she returned to her other life and regaled her students with tales of dancing stars. During the week, they spoke on the phone, sometimes seven times a day.

"Every weekend in New York was like a honeymoon," Geri Quinto says.

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