“I adore all of you!” declares legendary celebrity photographer, producer, and humanitarian Michael Childers to the admiring audience. The man of the hour, looking rock-star rad in a black sharkskin jacket, op-art shirt, and black satiny slacks, is on the mic at the VIP after-party of his annual mega-benefit, One Night Only. Childers, who’s been christened “The Man With the Golden Rolodex” by Entertainment Tonight, is being showered with love by the Broadway and cabaret stars who’ve just wowed in his McCallum Theatre production for the 10th-anniversary edition of the show. Benefiting Jewish Family Service of the Desert, ONO has established itself as one of the Coachella Valley’s preeminent events. Tonight’s entry was a tribute to the music and lyrics of Jerry Hello, Dolly! Herman called — what else? — Hello, Jerry.
Broadway royalty such as Faith Prince, Karen Ziemba, Liz Callaway, Lucie Arnaz, Christine Andreas, and Davis Gaines all sang and danced the crowd into a frenzy under the direction of Jason Graae. Now, along with JFS donors, volunteers, and VIPs, they’ve migrated to a glamorous pink and black gala at The River at Rancho Mirage, courtesy of Hello, Jerry’s honorary co-chairs, Barbara Keller and her husband, Jerry, whose new Acqua California Bistro will soon open at the complex.
VIDEO: Michael Childers recounts the numerous celebrities he has encountered in front of and behind the camera.
Lucie Arnaz, who’s performed in and directed editions of One Night Only for years, says, “Michael is a taskmaster, a whirlwind, and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s a great character and a wonderful friend.” Barbara Fromm, honorary co-chair of the evening and current president of Jewish Family Service of the Desert (for whom ONO has raised more than $1.5 million), says, “Everyone adores Michael. They want to be here and all say, ‘Please ask me back to be a part of this again!’ It’s remarkable.” Says ONO co-producer Nancy Downer, “Working with Michael Childers is the most fabulous job in the world because Michael has impeccable taste in everything: In his choices of cast, music, and theme of every edition of One Night Only and in his choices of what and how to live life. I adore him.”
“The Wall” in Michael Childers’ living room. Top row, from left: Joe Dallesandro, Warhol Superstar, New York City by Childers; Bette Midler – Hollywood, 1979, by Childers; The Eye of Julius Shulman by Childers. Bottom row, from left: Baby’s Hand by Eve Arnold; Marlon Brando on the set of The Missouri Breaks by Mary Ellen Mark; Paul Newman in Lee Strasberg Actors Studio class, 1950, by Eve Arnold; Andy in Fur by Childers; Georgia O’Keeffe by Bruce Weber.
At around 10:30 p.m., the party begins peaking. Lubricated performers take the stage for an impromptu cabaret-of-your-dreams. Klea Blackhurst belts out Ethel Merman. Christine Andreas sings “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Amanda McBroom, backed by Sharon McKnight, executes an exquisite rendition of her classic “The Rose.”
Childers, exhausted by his triumphant evening, has left the building. Later, this man who’s photographed, partied with, and lived and hung out in mansions and on yachts with anyone who was anybody since his photography career began in 1963, will bemoan the fact that he missed this songfest. “Oh, I hate that I missed that part of the evening! God, how I adore working with and watching theater people. I spent 40 years working with film people in my photography and with my partner of 37 years, [the late Oscar-winning film director] John Schlesinger. There’s no camaraderie in the film world. But with theater people, it’s like a family. It’s thrilling!”
Back at the party, Gary Shaw (Hello, Jerry‘s announcer and Childers’ closest friend since 1976) seems relieved that his 73-year-old pal has demonstrated the better part of valor and left for the evening. “Michael’s like a Pac-Man. Chung! Chung! Chung! He devours everything in life in a passionate, artistic, creative way, whether it’s photography, film, food, theater, adventure, or life. It’s a constant effervescence. And his real fantasy was to be a Broadway singer so he’s living his dream now — along with exhibitions of his photographs, lectures on ocean liners and at colleges, universities, museums, and yet more philanthropy.
“You think, ‘When are you gonna slow down? You’ve already climbed the golden pinnacle of Hollywood. You’ve met everyone. Can’t you just sit back?’ No.” Shaw smiles. “Remember how Cher talked about Sonny being her ‘most memorable character,’ like in Reader’s Digest? That’s Michael for me. He really does break the mold.”
Michael Childers in his chic but cozy Mission Hills Club condo in Rancho Mirage.
Five days later in his airy and chic but cozy Mission Hills Country Club condo, as his beloved Bedlington Terrier, Falcon, roams the rooms, Childers is still buzzed from ONO. The ecstatic reviews of the show keep rolling in. “It’s like my mother wrote them!” he beams. As a result, the impresario has found it difficult to turn himself off. “I keep thinking, ‘When will I come down?’ I’m starting to crash a little, but not enough. And, anyway,” he continues with tiny traces of his Edenton, North Carolina–born accent creeping in, “you have to wake up with a dream every day and say, ‘I want to do this.’ You have to be possessed.”
Childers is at work every morning in his home office with his assistant, Katie, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. “And, sometimes, Saturday, too,” Katie adds with a laugh. Concedes Michael, “I know people keep saying, ‘When is he going to slow down?’ But I want to keep going. I’m a high-wire kind of guy and my mind is full of ideas.”
Top (clockwise): Behind an array of awards sits another famous Michael Childers shot, David Hockey at Rising Glen, Hollywood. And I’ve Got the Pictures to Prove It is an as-told-to book; Childers notes, “I love the title of that book … ’cause it’s true!” Bottom: Childers’ and his late partner John Schlesinger’s awards decorate the office étagère.
With “legacy” much on that mind, Childers is happily, deeply in the midst of a renewed appreciation for and renaissance of his 54-year photography career. Lately, he’s received shelves full of prestigious awards honoring both his photographic and philanthropic work. They now outnumber his former partner’s trophies (such as Schlesinger’s Best Director Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, his BAFTAs, and Golden Berlin Bear and David di Donatello awards for Sunday Bloody Sunday) on the étagère they shared. Two days from now Childers will be lecturing at Scripps College in conjunction with an exhibition entitled Celebrity Before the Paparazzi. That show is just a tease for what’s to come. There’s a summer show at San Clemente’s Casa Romantica with 60 images. And Childers is beyond stoked that next year Yale University will present a 100-image show of his Author, Author series, a project wherein, over the course of five years, he compiled photographs of a lineup of great literary stars, from Tennessee Williams (who was flying high on speed and Jack Daniels during the session, prompting the mischievous Michael to think, “Oooo, this is gonna be good!”) to his friend of 40 years, Gore Vidal (taken six weeks before Vidal’s death, while he was similarly hammered after morning tumblers of red wine and vodka).
“This is the only Oscar in Rancho Mirage,” Michael Childers boasts, referencing the golden statue John Schlesinger won for best director of Midnight Cowboy. “I know ’cause I called Barbara Sinatra and she told me that she took Frank’s back to the city.”
Next year, too, the Palm Springs Art Museum — to whom Childers donated his Distortions and Fusions series of experimental art photographs — will present Flaming Creatures, a collection of around 50 Childers images captured at a 1974 Los Angeles drag ball.
Talk of the Author, Author exhibition prompts Childers to reminiscence. “My dad was a Marine colonel and I hated being a military brat. Every time you made friends, you had to move. My escape was books. I had all the New York Times Broadway show ads taped to my bedroom walls. I was so hungry for knowledge.” The teenager also plastered Richard Avedon Vogue shots on his walls along with images taken by the great Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell. “I had to get out of North Carolina and its hypocritical, prejudiced, and gay-hating small towns. Much later, when John and I lived in London,” he says with an ever-percolating, devilish chuckle, “when I was walking our dog, I sort of semi-stalked Ava Gardner who lived near us. When Ava and I finally met on a park bench, I said, ‘I’m from North Carolina just like you.’ Ava said, ‘A Tar Heel, too? Aren’t you glad you got out of that shit hole?!’ ”
Get out he did by entering UCLA’s famed film school in 1962. A photographer since age 14 when his dad brought him a Nikon from Japan, Childers began shooting performer friends’ headshots to pay for school camera gear. Deeming himself a “champagne hippie,” Childers was soon snapping book and album covers for musicians such as Grace Slick and the then–hugely popular poet and singer Rod McKuen. McKuen shared a publicist with Kaye Ballard and it was she who led Childers to the love of his life, a Brit named Schlesinger who was red hot on the heels of his Julie Christie–starring, Oscar-winning sensation Darling.
Ballard, now 91 (who, as the circle of life would have it, was in attendance at the McCallum’s Hello, Jerry performance) hooked Childers up with her pal on a blind date at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s Oak Bar. Childers was 22; Schlesinger was in his early 40s. A smitten Michael found the famous Englishman to be, “charming, wonderful, and a genius.” Midway into their date, Schlesinger’s friend Lee Remick popped into the bar, followed by her soon-to-be The Detective co-star, Frank Sinatra. Childers recalls, “Lee Remick and Frank Sinatra on my first date with John Schlesinger? I thought, ‘This could be a nice life!’ ”
Three weeks later, on the advice of Schlesinger’s great friend, Natalie Wood — with whom Childers would forge a tight friendship, both personally and professionally, until her death in 1981 — the two men drove to Carmel and stayed at the Tickle Pink Inn. “It’s divine,” Wood had told them, confiding, “I’ve actually had three honeymoons there.” Says Childers, “John and I had too much chardonnay on the beach in Carmel and looked into each other’s eyes and started crying. I said, ‘Uh, oh. This must be what it’s like to fall in love.’ ”
“I sit on my patio every night with my [dog] Falcon, and look out at the beautiful mountains of Palm Springs,” Michael Childers says. “On some nights, when I look up at the evening stars above the mountain, I say, ‘That’s John. That’s John’s star looking down on me.’ ”
A month later, Childers moved into Schlesinger’s Malibu beach house as the director worked on the Midnight Cowboy script. Their neighbors? Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, of course. Much work was done, pot smoked, and records played. Soon thereafter, Schlesinger asked Childers, “Would you like to come to New York and work on the movie?” With only six months to go at UCLA, Childers dropped out of school. “It was a good decision,” he understates today. “I mean, I’m a UCLA dropout who was given a show at Harvard last year and have an even bigger one at Yale next year. I’m in the Ivy League!”
Solidly established as a working photographer in the late ’60s, the Schlesinger connection supercharged Childers’ professional and social reach. The director enlisted his hip, handsome young boyfriend to cast the now-famous Midnight Cowboy party scene. Where else to look for edgy talent but the fabled underground hot-spot Max’s Kansas City? There, he met Andy Warhol and the whole gang of “Warhol Superstars.” One of the latter was actor Joe Dallesandro, he of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” notoriety. Dallesandro would become the subject of what is probably Childers’ most famous photograph of all: 1970’s Joe Dallesandro, Warhol Superstar, New York City. It’s a killer shot that immortalizes Dallesandro’s flawless face and body with his fabulous long hair billowing up, up, up from what Childers says was “the strongest wind machine in Manhattan.”
Childers’ photographs of Midnight Cowboy caught an After Dark magazine editor’s eye and soon he was photographing emerging superstars such as John Travolta and Richard Gere, as well as a slew of covers for the glossy, über–gay friendly theater, music, and dance monthly. “Everyone wanted to be in After Dark,” says Childers. “Everyone.”
On Michael Childers’ shelves. Ballerina by Wynn Bullock. The Diver by Patrick Morrison.
Enter British theater critic and writer, Kenneth Tynan. Michael began shooting nudes for Tynan’s coming creation, Oh Calcutta!, the first all-nude theater revue. Debuting off Broadway in 1969, the revue, enhanced by Michael’s images projected onstage as part of its mulltimedia set design, made it to Broadway in a revival that lasted 5,959 performances, making it the seventh longest running show of all time.
Knowing the photographer was moving to London to work on Schlesinger’s ground-breaking gay-themed film, Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, Tynan asked, “Why don’t you come to the National Theater and photograph a couple of shows for Larry and I?” Childers remembers, “I said, ‘Larry who?’ Ken said, ‘Laurence Oliver.’ ” Childers shot both legends and up-and-comers such as Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Anthony Hopkins, and Alan Bates. He remains the sole American staff photographer ever employed by the National Theater.
Then — holy soup cans! — next came Warhol, who was mad for Michael’s After Dark work. Impersonating Warhol (as he playfully impersonates everyone he reminisces about), Childers affects a flawlessly disaffected Andy accent: “ ‘I’m gonna start a new monthly called Andy Warhol’s Interview,’ Andy said to me. ‘I want big, big pictures of really beautiful people. And if they’re rich and beautiful, even better.’ ” Thus began Childers’ tenure as a founding photographer at Interview and a bona fide member of Warhol’s inner circle. Childers’ Warhol photographs, including ultra-rare shots of the artist inside his secret Paris apartment (secret, because Warhol was avoiding the IRS’ knowledge of his flat) and the wildly famous Andy in Fur shot that features Warhol wrapped in a wolf-fur coat borrowed from Childers’ pal, RJ Reynolds tobacco company heir, Patrick Reynolds. Childers laughs at the memory, “If I’d known Andy would become so famous, I would have taken more!”
The ’70s were a crazy decade for Childers. He accompanied Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner on their second honeymoon in Venice for Look and Paris Match. He reunited with, and again photographed, Olivier in Hollywood on the set of Schlesinger’s mega-hit Marathon Man. He clashed with Raquel Welch (“My shit list is not very long, but I don’t care if I see her again,” Michael says in a whisper. He shot Mae West on the set of Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, then drove her to a screening of Sunday, Bloody, Sunday at Paramount studios.
Female Nude by Patrick Morrison, 1982, hangs in the guest room alongside Michael Childers’ abstract flower series.
The Zelig-like photographer was also a guest at a famous George Cukor–hosted dinner party for Greta Garbo who had requested that Cukor invite and introduce her to Mae. He shot what Peter Fetterman of Santa Monica’s renowned Peter Fetterman Gallery has called, “The greatest Hockney photograph ever taken:” David Hockney at Rising Glen, Hollywood Hills. The British artist (a close friend of Childers since 1968) is dressed in a $12,000 Savile Row suit while floating on a raft in a swimming pool.
Childers even shot the final formal portraits of his beloved Natalie Wood in 1981. “I worked with Natalie from 1967 until two days before she died,” says the photographer who nearly accompanied the actress on her final voyage. “I’d been with Natalie on [her final film] Brainstorm, which was totally unpleasant. Natalie and Chris Walken were having an affair, which really upset me because [her husband] Robert Wagner was a great friend of mine. I said, ‘Natalie, are you sure [you want to do this]?’ And she said, ‘I find Chris the most fascinating man I’ve ever met.’ I thought, ‘Uh, oh!’ Because when a woman says that kind of thing … she’s already made up her mind.
A bronze sculpture by an Australian artist commands curiosity in the living room. A collection of personal photos greets guests in the foyer.
“I was invited to go on that boat to Catalina with [Wagner and Wood]. A beautiful boat I’d been on many times with John and Natalie’s best friend, Delphine Mann. Delphine and I were both invited on that trip. About two days before we were to go, Delphine called. ‘Are you gonna go? I hear Chris Walken might be on the boat, too.’ I said, ‘Then I’m not going.’ She said, ‘If you’re not, then I’m not.’ To this day, Delphine has said, ‘If one of us had been on that boat, Natalie would still be alive.’ But I don’t want to feel that way. You can’t feel that way.”
The final portraits of Wood are some of Childers’ most beautiful. Many more stars (and authors and playwrights and painters and architects and dancers) would still pose for him, but by the late ’90s, Childers had had enough of full-time celebrity photography. “Once the publicists became all powerful, it wasn’t fun anymore and I was bored.” In 1992 he decamped to Sante Fe to renew himself. Just before leaving, Childers produced his first mega-benefit with Marianne Williamson for Project Angel Food. Employing his now-famous Rolodex, he snagged his friend Bette Midler, whom he’d photographed twice, to appear alongside Elizabeth Taylor as emcee. “Bingo. Start at the top!” laughs Childers.
Once settled in Sante Fe, “I got the itch to do another show,” he says. “And we created Live at the Lensic [to benefit a Sante Fe AIDS organization]. I got Carol Burnett and Lauren Bacall to emcee one of the three shows I did there.”
In 1998, Childers and Schlesinger set up house in Palm Springs. After having a quadruple bypass that year and a stroke in 2000, Childer’s partner of 37 years died in July 2003 at Desert Regional Medical Center. “When John died,” says Childers, “I said, ‘I’m not gonna be a victim, I’m not gonna be a manic depressive, I’m not gonna fall apart. I want to re-create myself and go back to being Michael Childers. I was already established [before the Schlesinger relationship] … but I had problems with confidence and self-esteem. Because John was so famous. An Oscar winner whose ass everyone in the world was always kissing. But I did get my confidence back and I became Michael Childers again. I rediscovered me.”
He’d begun that Coachella Valley self-rediscovery process in 2002 by producing his first One Night Only benefit for Desert AIDS Project hosted by buddy Lily Tomlin (who later presented Childers with his Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, which is now ensconced in front of the Palm Springs Art Museum next to, crows Childers, “two presidents of the United States! That’s prime real estate!”). One more Desert AIDS Project ONO benefit followed in 2003 with executive producer Ken Katz, who remains in that capacity to this day. Then, in 2007, Childers and Katz enlisted Barbara Keller to propose to her friends at Jewish Family Service of the Desert that the event become the organization’s annual ultra-high-profile fundraiser. It’s been a smash ever since.
Sitting at his dining room table at midafternoon now, Michael Childers is facing what he calls “The Wall” in his living room. Like a photographic autobiography consisting of immaculately mounted, gelatin silver prints of his greatest photographic hits (peppered with ravishing images by other remarkable photographer friends), the wall is stunning. Anchoring the display is a large print of the famous Joe Dallesandro image surrounded by portraits of Catherine Deneuve, David Hockney, Gore Vidal, Bette Midler, architectural photographer Julius Shulman (an image that’s in the Getty Museum collection), Rudolf Nureyev, Al Pacino, Groucho Marx, and other legendary subjects.
Gazing upon the work, appraisals of Childers’ art expressed by the stars of Hello, Jerry five days earlier, spring to mind. Karen Ziemba said, “When Michael does a shot of somebody, they not only look better than ever before, but you see deep into their eyes and into their soul. You meet the person. It’s a real connection.” Lucie Arnaz testified, “It’s as if he’s going, ‘Who are you? This is you.’ ”
For his take, I would later phone Childer’s close pal and acclaimed celebrity biographer James Gavin, whose book-jacket photo for Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee was shot by Childers. “Michael is a descendant of a tradition of great Hollywood glamour photographers,” says Gavin. “His [work] is quite Hollywood and quite glamorous. But I don’t see it as fake glamour. There are workmanlike photographers and then there are the special ones who see something that’s all their own. I would put Michael in that category. He really has a vision. When Michael shot me it was hot as hell in the desert, but he has ways of making you feel comfortable. And fitting you into his sensibility. For some, having their portrait taken is brutal, but it was fun with Michael — it felt like a lark.”
“Natalie and Chris Walken were having an affair, which really upset me because [her husband] Robert Wagner was a great friend of mine. I said, ‘Natalie, are you sure [you want to do this]?’ And she said, ‘I find Chris the most fascinating man I’ve ever met.’ I thought, ‘Uh, oh!’ Because when a woman says that kind of thing … she’s already made up her mind.”Michael Childers
Childers explains his ability to relax a subject and capture that person’s essence in this way: “Photographers are 80 percent psychologists and the rest is technique. Being a great psychologist is how I got a lot of these shots.”
And, speaking of psychology, Childers’ mental health gets a score of 100. “I’m still filled with wonder and awe; I’ve never lost that,” says the former North Carolina Tarheel. “And I’ve got a lot of gratitude.”
Which is fitting. After all, the man nowhas a handsome, longtime boyfriend, San Francisco’s Brett Thomas, a landscape photographer and paralegal. He’s already tossing about ideas of what the theme of next year’s One Night Only might be. There are all of those upcoming exhibitions and lectures on the horizon. And to top it all off, he enjoys a gratifying social life in the desert. “I’m very, very happy these days.”
The man has memories most would die for. “No one’s lived quite a life like mine. On three continents? In London, New York, Hollywood, and now Palm Springs? And had three different careers? It’s an extraordinary life. It wasn’t all great; there were some dark periods, but it was…” Then he pauses as if it’s all too grand to boast too loudly about. So he takes it down to a whisper. “But it was pretty fabulous.”
“I’ve lived in mansions in Beverly Hills and London. [John] and I had it all. We had 2 ½ acres in Beverly Hills, 10 people working around our house, drivers, cooks, orchid people. And it was nice to have had it. But I love my life here in Palm Springs in my condo with my dog. I’ve simplified my life.”Michael Childers