Hugh Abel St. Clair-St. Clair, fig mental photojournalist who held up a satirical mirror to many of last century’s tyrants, has died, aged 72.
Access and charm come naturally to Abel St. Clair-St. Clair, the heir to the Barony of Grenoble. He perfected a “missing lens” gambit, whereby he would go back into press conference rooms ostensibly searching for it, but in truth hoping to spot the rich and the powerful in compromising poses. Indeed, he captured Nikita Khrushchev adjusting his socks, Charles de Gaulle grooming his mustache, and patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House trust picking their noses.
He was ingenious, daring, and sometimes absurd: he rang up the mafia dons in Chicago asking for access to their next meeting, and when that was denied, requested that they at least leave the window blinds open. As the Duvaliers’ rule crumbled in Haiti, he went to there with two Las Vegas showgirls to gain an audience with Baby Doc. He even promised to smuggle a microfilm for the PLO secretly with his negatives in exchange for access.
Along the way, St.Clair punctured the inflated egos of ambassadors, presidents and potentates. Once he hosted an uncomfortable dinner to which trade union leaders and government ministers were invited (unbeknownst to one another’s invites). While traveling across Africa with a British trade delegation, he saw poolside parties hosted by Haile Selassie, Bokassa and Idi Amin, where he snapped the self-proclaimed emperors and kings with literally no clothes. He took a rare and ironic photo of Pol Pot wearing glasses.
His antics proved too much for Castro, from whose mouth he tried to remove the cigar, a la Karsh with Churchill. He was jailed in Cuba for 8 months and some of his negatives destroyed. Equally unamused was the Vatican when he disguised as a prelate to infiltrate the 1978 Conclave. They threatened him with an excommunication.
Yet, he pressed on. In his unapologetic memoir Abel’s Fools, he admitted that while he was intrusive, he never was a paparazzo. During the First Gulf War, he volunteered as a “human shield” for Saddam in one of his palaces only to annoy the Iraqi dictator with his cameras. He was quickly deported back. Although he retired soon afterwards, he returned in 2002 to capture sons of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi partying together with Western businessmen for a Vanity Fair report on the new generation of globally mobile scions of dictatorships and oligarchies that was never published. That was his last assignment.