The star of one of the 20th century’s most famous and controversial images was 90
17 May 2018 | Staff | The Economist
THE photograph, by Ruth Orkin, was called “American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951”. Whenever it surfaced, in restaurants, in students’ rooms, on T-shirts, on tote bags, so did the questions for Ninalee Allen Craig, who walked at its heart through a phalanx of Italian men. They stared and leered; one grabbed his crotch; their calls were almost audible. Wasn’t she afraid? Surely she was upset? Her downcast eyes, that clutch of her shawl, strongly suggested both those things.
Then she would laugh her boisterous full laugh and say, not at all. On the contrary, she was imagining she was Dante’s Beatrice. She had studied the “Divine Comedy” with Robert Fitzgerald at Sarah Lawrence in New York, and had fallen in love with that notion of unattainable beauty.
Her dollar-a-night hotel was on the Arno, and she had a corny postcard of a Victorian painting by Henry Holiday that showed Beatrice walking by the river, in shining white, ignoring the stricken Dante, who pressed his pounding heart at the sight of her. Who knew whether her very own Dante might not be standing on some corner, while she swept luminously by?
Besides, even when she was not Beatrice, she was a New York girl having a wonderful time. When she left college she didn’t know where her place in the world was, so the answer seemed to be to explore it. Her mother, who had travelled young to Sicily, encouraged her to tour Europe until the money ran out. So she sailed third-class with a cardboard suitcase, going to France and round Spain on buses, ending up in Italy to look at art and to paint.
At 23, she was quite alone. That was rare for a woman, and intoxicating. Europe was open and empty of tourists, recovering from the war. Almost no papers were needed. In that spirit of adventure she revived her childhood nickname, “Jinx”, which sounded larky and exciting.
No one kept tabs on her. She could call at the American Express office to check letters, but there was no need to communicate with home. And just as well, because when her father saw The Photograph, blown up big one day in Grand Central, he was horrified that she had been walking round Italy in that way. The world was hers to conquer.
When she met Ruth, who was doing the same and taking pictures as she went, they agreed to do a photo essay together, a spoof on the perils of girls travelling alone. It was August, the hottest day of the year. In full Jinx mode, she put on her New Look long skirt, a wide belt and an orange Mexican shawl. Her purse was a horse-feed bag which she had picked up in Spain.
As they walked through the city she asked the way from a policeman, bargained for straw bags in a market, visited the Amex office. Much of what she did was flirty. She chatted to a young man in a café while putting on her violent red lipstick. Guide book in hand, she gawked at a statue of two naked wrestlers and sat, with a bored look, in front of a statue of Pan with his usual erection. Ignoring him.
In most of these pictures men were staring at her. At six feet tall, beautiful, foreign and walking alone, she was clearly an object of curiosity. And so she was when they turned at 10.30 into the Piazza della Repubblica, where there was a sea of men, and Ruth told her to walk through. She did so twice. Two shots, 35 seconds. After that, she climbed onto the back seat of the Lambretta whose rider had drawn up to admire her, and went for a ride.
Nothing was posed, she insisted. The men were just there, hanging round the Caffè Gilli because they had no jobs. She was furious when the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an exhibition, described it as “staged”. Her second walk had increased the reaction, but that did not make it inauthentic. It was the real McCoy.
This was not, however, the ground on which she had to defend the picture for the rest of her life. As she moved through two marriages, and from America to Italy to Canada, where she settled in Toronto, it was the sexual message that bothered people.
In 1952, when it first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine with a piece advising single women that “ogling the ladies is a popular, harmless and flattering pastime…in many foreign countries”, the crotch-grabber was cropped out. Time-Life books airbrushed his hand out in 1961. She couldn’t think why. She was used to Italian men doing it, almost as a good-luck sign; a sort of reassurance, that the family jewels were intact. As if she cared.
When the censoring ended, feminist commentary began. Time after time the Photograph was used for stories of women’s harassment and victimhood. #MeToo made it worse. Though she supported the movement and thought it was a wake-up call, as ardent in her late 80s as she would have been in her Jinx years, it also made many more people see something sinister and awful in that image of her younger self. In 2017 she was heartbroken to hear that a restaurateur in Philadelphia had taken the picture down after two dozen customers complained.
How to persuade them that she had not been scared, that she felt thrilled and strong? In the first contact print, she looked frightened. Ruth told her to walk the second time “as if it’s killing you, but you’re going to make it”. She explained that her shawl had been her shield, sheathing her body, and that the last thing she wanted to do was to look the men in the eye and smile.
Yet the more other, younger women called this harassment, the louder she denied it. When a man whistled at you, or called out “Che bella!”, you were appreciated. You walked taller. In that moment, you owned the street. She still kept the bag and shawl from that day, as well as the postcard in which Dante stood, staring, in Beatrice’s path. How could Beatrice ever be vulnerable?
Original Link | Ninalee Allen Craig died on May 1st
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