Saturday, March 18, 2006

Who is Van Leo

In 1998, when his health deteriorated and he donated his studio to the American University of Cairo, he moved back to his familie's house, where he was born and had grown up. He had never married, his brother Angelo was living in Paris and sister Alice in Canada. He was the only one who stayed in Egypte.

At that time fans would come to visit him in numbers. It was customary for them to wait 5 minutes for him to shuffle to the door. The same went for phone calls, you were supposed to let the phone ring for at least a minute if you wanted him to answer. When you enter the house, you are overwhelmed by the smell of mothballs. The decor is from another time: Old gramaphone, art deco sofas and chairs, black and white television. Everything was firmly circa 1947.

Still everyone was shocked by the beauty of that house, the sharp red of the chairs and the baby blue leather couches, the game of shadows. As for his friends, he would only receive them on appointment, respectful of the manners of his old times. They would always receive his trademark, tea along with chocolate covered prunes. Dinner at his place would be accompanied with beaujolais, and the radio playing old Dalida songs. Conversation would move from Armenian to French to English to Arabic to Turkish and Back.

His only companion in his late age was his page, Ahmed from Cote d'Ivoire. Over time they had become close friends. He always complained how Ahmed was lazy.

His house was also filled with stories. He would show his frinds his adress book. The names were impressive. A " Gentlemen's " section with the phone numbers of Carry Grant, Rushdie Abaza, Fareed el Atrash, etc. A " Ladies' " section with the phone numbers of Ingrid Bergmann, Catherine Hepburn, So'ad Hosni, Mervat Amine, etc. Except for one or two names, they were all dead.

Other stories could be found in his bedroom where he kept two boxes. One filled with photographs to which he was personally attached and the other with old letters. The letters, owing to his eccentric looks maybe, were mostly love letters. They were filled with absurdly dramatic love declarations. Inseparable love and devotion forever: Drury Smith from Southe Africa, Hilda and Gisella from Germany, Ursula from swizerland and Maryse from France.

There is also Raga Serag from Egypte with whome he was linked for 17 years. They could not marry because of their different religions. As for the photo box. On the back of each photo there would be a story written with a pencil. One is a beautiful Egyptian girl, on the back there is a shaky handwritting "Elham Zaki, She wanted to be a star" -never became one. Another one is this Egyptian lady who entered his shop and in total self confidence and in perfect french she asked him to do a series of 12 shots of her. In each one she would take off one piece of clothes and the last one would be her wearing nothing but a big white baloone.


Blogger Raafat said...

Van Leo and his elder brother Angelo artistic Photography covered a wide range of Egyptian life in the 1940's and 1950's, many artists, stars and celebrities had their pictures taken and now the entire collection is the American University in Cairo.
Van, our family photographer friend of my father (Sam), every Christmas his gift to us was a family photo, a beautiful classic collection we always enjoy and cherish. Raafat Samuel, Baltimore,USA.

3:52 PM  

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