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Costume Dramas

March 30, 2008|Monica Corcoran | Times Staff Writer

HARRY BENSON never befriends his subjects. The legendary Scottish photojournalist -- who has shot everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Halle Berry -- knows better than to name-drop too. "I never say, 'I know so-and-so' because it's likely that the person you're shooting will hate so-and-so," he says, with a chortle.

Social snubs and prickly rivalries, no doubt, swirled through the ballroom at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1966 on the night Benson photographed Truman Capote's notorious Black & White Ball. Tallulah Bankhead insulted Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall spurned eager dance partners, and the host himself tried to physically block the exit when Frank Sinatra and then-wife Mia Farrow departed at midnight.

Hours earlier, Benson, who was 36 at the time, caught the grand retinue of 500 masked guests, as they arrived, including, most memorably, Sinatra and Farrow. That image is now part of an exhibition of Benson's photography at the Pacific Design Center.

"To this day, that was the biggest party I ever shot," Benson recalls. "Capote's ball was unique. Everyone wanted to be there. People who weren't invited went out of town.

"I was at the top of the stairs at 9 o'clock and caught Sinatra as he was walking in. He couldn't get past me. He felt really stupid in that mask. Someone had just yelled to him, 'Hey, there's Frankie Batman.' You can see the anger in his eyes behind the mask. He was this tough guy, thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?' Mia Farrow had that precious, elfin look, but she was as tough as nails too.

"You had to wear a mask, but they all came off in the first hour. Everyone was afraid of Capote -- even Norman Mailer. Capote had a name for everyone. He called Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill 'the geishas.' I wore a tuxedo because I've always found that it's better to be overdressed than underdressed. I always wear a suit and tie when I am working -- even when I have covered wars. It's a matter of showing respect. I got into the second floor of the White House because I never looked like a maintenance man."

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monica.corcoran@latimes.com

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'Through His Lens: Harry Benson's Portraits of Our World'

Where: At Pacific Design Center, First floor, Blue lobby, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 360-6426.

When: Through May 31. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

How much: Admission is free.

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