In Paris, the past is present and the legends are sociable. The night in 1981 that I first met June and Helmut Newton, at their place on the Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée, he and I immediately started arguing. I’d come to discuss a text I was supposed to write for one of his photo books, but the expat-in-Paris atmosphere of culture as pleasure was so familiar that I forgot he was a legend and 30 years my senior. I contested what he’d just said. He shouted. I shouted.
June watched with the unfazed appreciation of an actress at a noisy rehearsal, then booked a table and swept us out to a restaurant, because, as we all knew, dinner is the cornerstone of expat survival. And then we were friends for decades of dinners, collaborations, and fun shouting matches. He was Berlin-blunt, she was Melbourne-blunt, and both were like family to their friends, but ever suspicious of the gatekeepers—the editors, the clients. Our friendship collapsed when I became the gatekeeper of French Vogue, and it sprang back to life after I left.
Helmut Newton’s photos conveyed such complex sexual tension that the British press dubbed him “the King of Kink.” People speculated about his relationship with models, what his actual wife looked like, what she knew, what she didn’t know, and what there was to know. One of the sexiest photographs he ever took was of June lighting a cigarette at a dinner table, her dress pulled open to expose her breasts. Married for 56 years, citizens of the world, childless, they loved each other.
Helmut Newton’s photos conveyed such complex sexual tension that the British press dubbed him “the King of Kink.”
June was not an amazon like his models, but a mastermind. Small, energetic, curious, always alert to nuance and depth, primed for approaching bullshit, June could see below the surface; her perspicacity could run acid, with a short list of short words to use on a long list of people. Always that tension between enjoying the company of fools and hating them for being fools.
Her face was square, her mouth small, her straight brown hair in a bob. I only saw her wear clothes that were black or white, with some kind of chunky Art Deco bracelet. I didn’t know until very recently that she’d won an award for excellence in theater and played Hedda Gabler on television. “I was an actress” was as much as she said. The photos of her when she was an actress in Melbourne, stage name “June Brunelle,” show a severe expression, a tidy mouth, and the same bangs.
He called her Junie; she called him Helmie.
Their legend was set. They’d met in Melbourne, where she was an actress of 23 and he was a beginning photographer of 27, a German-Jewish refugee released from an internment camp and then from the Australian Army. They married in 1948, and she carried on acting until, and a little after, they moved to Paris in 1957; he worked for French Vogue, was discovered and then rejected by Diana Vreeland, and later re-discovered by Alex Liberman.
While shooting 45 pages for American Vogue in New York in 1971, he had a major heart attack. As he underwent one of many procedures, he photographed himself on his bed, full of tubes. “There is something about a camera,” he wrote in his 2003 autobiography. “It can act as a barrier between me and reality.”
He was too sick to work; June flew to New York, picked up his camera, and completed the assignment. She needed a pseudonym and, in the spirit of irony, chose the name of a small Australian town, Alice Springs.
By 1981, June took only portraits, and not often enough. They were extraordinary, frequently of women, and ran in Vanity Fair and Egoïste, Nicole Wisniak’s large-format black-and-white magazine. That was when a black-and-white photo shot on Tri-X film could be as potent as a thriller. The contrast between her impenetrable black and luminous whites, brought out through the silver-gelatin process by the same, often French, master printers that Helmut used, gave a unique depth and power to the faces she caught on a Pentax camera with a 50-mm. lens.
Helmut’s photos expressed a fantasy of his, a construct or a memory, and were directed, lit, and staged; posed by fashion editors, hair and makeup artists, and assistants; and commissioned by brands or magazines, principally Vogue. June’s portraits were taken in ambient light, with neither editor, nor hair, nor makeup, often for no reason other than her desire to take a picture. She proceeded from a combination of sympathy, curiosity, and respect for the imagined self-image of the subject. I asked June to take portraits of certain people I interviewed. One of the remarkable ones was Marie-Louise von Franz. June went to Küsnacht to shoot the revered 70-year-old Jungian—a small, severe, slight woman—with her bulldog drooling just behind her in the frame, more shadow side than pet.
In the 80s, anyone who posed for a magazine feature—politician, actor, artist—was dressed up in sample clothing and amended by a makeup artist to promote a fashion advertiser. June went for the person, and always caught what lay beneath the surface. I’d posed for her as a friend in 1983, in full joy on their terrace at the Chateau Marmont, wearing a T-shirt and my grandmother’s pearls, on a day when I had a secret that made me happy, and it showed. The photo wasn’t published for 34 years.
It was different when she took my portrait in 1987, to go with a magazine story for the launch of my second novel; I was so unsure whom I was trying to be that she had to do three sittings before we had the one usable picture, in which I am pretending to be Romaine Brooks. Or maybe George Sand, or maybe Ronald Firbank.
The socialist victory of François Mitterrand in 1981 scattered those expatriates who actually paid French taxes to easier systems, and that was the end of the glamorous, tasteful life on the Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée. The Newtons went into tax exile and ended up in the bleached half-life of a Monte Carlo high-rise, where they knew only two people: Princess Caroline and Karl Lagerfeld.
Starved for a wider selection of fun, they began to spend their winters at the Chateau Marmont, where they could be with half the people they knew, and meet a new cast of characters. Their friends were Timothy Leary and Arthur Janov, father of the primal scream, and artists, movie stars, comics, publishers, producers, and rich louche couples who wanted private photos.
When Helmut’s wonderfully candid autobiography came out, I reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times, and June welcomed me back into their lives. I booked a week at the Chateau Marmont to be with them again. It was January 2004.
Helmut now wore glasses with red plastic rims; June’s hair was still brown, still straight in a bob. He was 83; she was 80. They could have been my age, full of work plans and details about the imminent opening of the Helmut Newton Foundation, in Berlin. We ate lunches and dinners and caught up on years of stories.
On Friday we gathered in the Marmont garage. June was going to return their rental car, while Helmut followed in the monster white Escalade they had been loaned. He pulled out of the garage first, then June; I was behind. Suddenly everything stopped, chambermaids turned in the walkway, a waiter began to run. I got out of my car. June waved me over to her. “Come, come!”
The Escalade was embedded in the retaining wall across the narrow Marmont Lane, at a slight angle. As we reached the door, we saw Helmut’s head pressed against the steering wheel. He was immobile. June turned to me.
“Do you think this is how he died?” she asked. The future and the present became the past. She opened the Escalade door, took Helmut’s glasses off the steering wheel, and handed them to me.
A woman whose car he’d clipped on Marmont Lane stood in the road, taking pictures.
The ambulance arrived swiftly, but remained parked a long time, with Helmut in the back. June issued orders as she got into the ambulance: “Call Barbara Davis because it’s going to Cedars. Get Phil Pavel, and join me there with him.”
In a waiting room decorated with cartoon nursery figures, Phil Pavel and I sat on either side of June while a doctor told her that Helmut was dead. She listened, took a breath, rose to her feet, and asked Phil to take her back to the Marmont for her camera.
A barrier between herself and reality. Maybe that’s what talent is.
June Newton, photographer and actress, was born on June 3, 1923. She died of undisclosed causes on April 9, 2021
Joan Juliet Buck is a writer and actress and the former editor in chief of French Vogue