Saturday 7 January 2017

The Two Lives of Lucius Beebe

Born into a wealthy Boston family and untroubled by the need to earn a living, Beebe (1902-1966) was what used to be known as a bon vivant, socialite, man about town and gourmand. Journalism became his trade and his high society columns in which he reported in person from the battlefront of Manhattan’s most exclusive bars and nightclubs were extensively syndicated across the USA. The expression Café Society is said to be his coinage. Here he is in 1939 in all his foppish splendour on the cover of Life magazine – no mean accolade. Immaculately turned out in top hat and waistcoat with a fine cigar in the grip of kid-gloved hands – the sort of figure that Preston Sturges loved to caricature. Dressing up was his social duty but in another life he was no stranger to dressing down. Because Beebe had another sphere of interest, one that scarcely touched, let alone overlapped with the fashionable pursuits of the haut monde. Having drained his last champagne glass, stubbed out a final cigar, unbuttoned his spats and hung up the handmade suit in his cavernous wardrobe, he would pick up his Graflex camera and, clad in proletarian work clothes, head for the railroad tracks.

Beebe was what Americans call a rail fan – an obsessive trackside photographer and author of numerous railroad books with an interest in the arcane and obscure as well as the mainstream. As a photographer he favoured the unimpeded three-quarter view of the oncoming train that became the orthodox composition for several decades of rail photography. A singular focus on the train, isolated from the wider scene often lead to chronically monotonous results. Leafing through Beebe’s volumes can become a dispiriting experience and the arrival of a new generation influenced by Walker Evans, Jack Delano and Winston Link that sought to locate the subject in context of its surroundings was a welcome development.

With his partner and fellow rail fan, Charles Clegg he criss-crossed North America in his own purpose-built private railcar. Named the Virginia City, it was a mini-Versailles mounted on steel wheels and Timken roller bearings, complete with marble fireplace, gilded chandeliers, private dining for eight guests, a drawing room and three staterooms. In the manner of Charles Foster Kane, an 18th. century Rococo mirror and cornices from a 14th. century Spanish altarpiece found their way on board. Attached to and detached from time-tabled services at the whim of its occupants, this mobile oasis of opulence shone its lustre on the extremities of the North American rail network in the course of a 15 year odyssey. The Beebe legacy is a groaning shelf of volumes on railroads, local history and the leisure pursuits of the super-rich. The railway books have been extensively reprinted and to this day are easily available at modest expense.

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