Social critic James Baldwin’s hidden side surfaces at NW African American Museum
Barbara Earl Thomas, executive director of Seattle's Northwest African American Museum and a prominent national artist. Credit: Ingrid Pape-Sheldon Photography
James Baldwin (1924-1987), the renowned American novelist, essayist, civil rights advocate and social critic, was an outspoken advocate for equality and respect for all people.
His novels include Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country, but he may be most remembered for his powerful essays, often reflections on the timeless American obsessions with race and sexuality, found in his books such as Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name.
Gay and black, Baldwin was at the height of his career in the early 1960s — and the demands of admirers and critics alike grew so overwhelming that he was often unable to work in his native land. From 1961 to 1971, he often sought refuge in Turkey to write and enjoy a less frenzied and more contemplative life.
A young Turkish photographer, Sedat Pakay, met Baldwin in Istanbul and became a close friend.
Born in Turkey in 1945. Pakay studied art at Yale and received his Masters in Fine Arts in 1968. Pakay has worked for various magazines including Holiday, Esquire and New York. His photographs are in international private and museum collections including those of The Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, Museum of Turkish-Islamic Arts, Getty Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Istanbul Modern Art Museum and Lehigh University. He lives with his wife in Hudson, New York.
Now, Seattle’s own Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) is hosting a rare exhibition of dozens of Pakay’s candid photographs of Baldwin, as well as his short documentary of Baldwin in Istanbul, In Another Country. The images reveal a relaxed, happy, funny and reflective man.
Barbara Earl Thomas, the museum’s executive director — and a nationally renowned visual artist and writer — learned of Pakay’s remarkable photos through a friend of his, who agreed the Northwest African American Museum was the place to host the show, despite the fact that the museum, as described by Thomas, is "a small, very modest place."
Last year, Thomas and Brian J. Carter, NAAM’s assistant executive director and exhibition curator, traveled to Pakay’s home in the Hudson Valley of New York. After reviewing hundreds of Pakay's slides, contact sheets and photographs of Baldwin, Thomas and Carter decided to do a show. Though Thomas says that Carter visualized the show and put it together, she added, “I take credit for being captivated by the idea and pursuing it.”
Pakay recently spoke by telephone from his home in New York about his exhibition and his relationship with James Baldwin.
Robin Lindley: How did you meet James Baldwin?
Sedat Pakay: I met him in 1964, the year I finished high school at an American school [in Istanbul] called Robert Academy, a part of Robert College.
I saw an item in one of the newspapers that said “Famous American Writer Visiting Istanbul.” Immediately, I wanted to photograph this man because he had a fabulously photogenic face. I collect faces. I like doing portraiture and faces and people fascinate me.
You were already a photographer then?
I was a novice. This was really my first trial at photographing somebody well-known. I went in without any expectation that [the photographs] would be sought after. I didn’t really know about him and hadn’t read any of his books.
Through a friend, my art teacher, I got to the people he was staying with. I asked if I could photograph Jimmy Baldwin and they said fine. It was a very easy assignment. I asked him to sit here, sit there, move your hand, move your head. He complied and he was very nice.
Later, I read about him and, my goodness, I was 19 years old and [directing] this seasoned writer and well-known personality.
He was immediately quite comfortable with you?
He was. I wasn’t pushing. I’m basically of the school of photojournalists who didn’t want to show themselves to the world. For example, the photographer Cartier-Bresson who refused to have his picture taken and didn’t want anybody to know who he is.
Throughout the years that I photographed Jimmy, I was just a witness in his scene. He was comfortable, and did whatever I asked because he knew I wasn’t exploiting him and he was very cooperative.
How did you become a member of Baldwin’s inner circle in Turkey?
After I met and photographed him, I had a show at Robert College about a Turkish painter Aliye, who was very blonde, and I opened that show called “Aliye and Jimmy.” Jimmy was the opposite: dark and not a great beauty, whereas this woman was. The show opened, and I gradually made friends and I was invited to meet his friends, Engin Cezzar and his wife.
So I knew these people and other artists and newspaper people, but luckily no photographers. I had the camera and nobody else had one. I was able to photograph and catch him in my quiet way without any forceful interruption.
And this was at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, yet Baldwin chose to often leave the country?
He was already active in that earlier than his arrival in Istanbul.
My theory is that he was not really free to write his books in New York. There were always interruptions and he was pulled in every different direction. He was invited to four or five dinners every night and he couldn’t say no. The first would end at twelve, and then he’d go to the second dinner, and by five o’clock, more or less finish this round with the proper amount of Scotch.
He was a big celebrity. People would come to our table to get his autograph and he was always dressed as a dandy [with] this scarf around his neck and beautifully dressed. He knew he was at the top of the world, and he acted as such.
Was Baldwin open about his sexuality?
He was very open and everyone knew he was gay. There was a wonderful interview with a BBC reporter who said, to the effect, “Mr. Baldwin, you are a Negro and you’re such and such and you are a homosexual.” And Baldwin said, “Baby, I hit the jackpot.”
You note that celebrities often visited him.
Yes. Marlon Brando visited him in Istanbul. He and Brando had worked together at the Actors Studio in New York and they were good friends. …
Baldwin moved to L.A. [to work on the Malcolm X screenplay] and I had a tough photography assignment in upstate New York. I was exhausted and I asked Jimmy if he minded if I come to stay in L.A. He said come on over.
I flew there the next day and went to this house in the Hollywood Hills and stayed with him. He had a young Frenchman from Marseilles accompanying him. He always had young guys from England and France hanging around. I became the third person in the house. One of my duties was to take this French guy around L.A. — just to keep him busy when Baldwin would go to the studio and work on the screenplay.
A lot of people came to visit Baldwin then. Billie Dee Williams, who wasn’t a star then and was doing police shows, was at the house every day because he wanted to play Malcolm X. And others wanted to play Malcolm X, like Raymond St. Jacques and Roscoe Lee Brown. … And the photographer, Gordon Parks, did his first [film] directing at the time from his book The Learning Tree about his childhood in Kansas. He invited us to look at the rough print [at] Warner Studios. And Parks wanted to direct Malcolm X. This project had gold attached to it, and everybody wanted a piece of it.
Baldwin would come home at night quite exhausted after dealing with studio executives. One night he came in and said, “You won’t believe what happened today . . . The studio executive wants Charlton Heston to play Malcolm X. He said with a little makeup job, we can make him into Malcolm.” He couldn’t believe it, but that’s the mentality he was up against. We both considered it a joke that the man who split the Red Sea would play Malcolm.
Shortly after, he left [the U.S.]. The film was never finished as a feature film.
When did you make your film on Baldwin, In Another Country?
I graduated in 1968, and all of these new documentary films were coming out by the Maysles Brothers, Pennebaker, Wiseman and people of that sort. They didn’t have the usual voice-over narration. I thought Baldwin would be the ideal subject for a film like this if you just let him talk. All you had to do was point a camera at him and you’d get a fabulous film.
His agent told Jimmy not to do it, because this would be a waste of money and time, and he convinced me not to do it. But I still wanted to do something on Baldwin. He was so animated, so intelligent, so articulate. Something had to be done to preserve this bundle of energy and intelligence.
Baldwin rented a house in the middle of Istanbul. I said let’s do [the film] here. A good friend who did feature films had his own camera. The very first morning, the maid answered the door and I asked where was Mr. Baldwin, and she said he’s sleeping. I said to the cameraman, “Let’s go into the bedroom.” We barged into his room as he was waking.
We finished filming, and I couldn’t take it out because Turkey had very strict rules about exporting film. You had to go through a censor board and government agencies. The film sat in my family’s apartment [and] my clever uncle found a way to get this film out. It came to my apartment in New York City.
The film was finished and I rented a classy theater in New York City. The place was full, standing room only. I showed the film, which was only 12 minutes. It was very well received.
One of the audience members was Maya Angelou, who came with Gloria, Baldwin’s sister. Gloria was always embarrassed by Baldwin’s sexual preference. I have a feeling they may have been embarrassed by the opening scenes with Baldwin in his underwear. They passed me by without saying anything.
Baldwin never saw it. He was in France. He was very disturbed at that time by an article in Life about white mothers in Alabama spitting on little black children, and I asked him about it. He asked, “How can a mother do this to somebody else’s child?”
I didn’t see Baldwin after that, which is a shame.
What else should people know about Baldwin, especially younger people who may not be familiar with his work?
Many people ask me this question. I always tell them that what directed his life was love. He basically wanted people of all colors and races and nationalities to live together, to understand the humanity in all of us. To me, that’s what James Baldwin represents — that we shouldn’t divide people into categories according these specifications. What he wanted was synthesis of races, black and white. Everybody should live together and love one another.
If you go: Sedat Pakay's collection of James Baldwin photographs will be on display at the Northwest African American Museum until September 2013. 2300 South Massachusetts Street, Seattle, WA 98144