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Bob Davidoff, 78; Florida Photographer of the Kennedys

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page C10

Bob Davidoff, 78, the court photographer of the Camelot years of the Kennedy clan in Palm Beach, died Oct. 9 of pneumonia at a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.

For more than 40 years, he chronicled the Kennedy family on its winter sojourns in Palm Beach, the Florida playground of the rich and well-connected. His images of a youthful John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, looking at ease and effortlessly glamorous, helped gild the image of the Kennedys as America's royal family.

Mr. Davidoff was a society photographer, not a paparazzo, a distinction he considered important. He never allowed unflattering pictures of his subjects, whether political figures, tycoons or movie stars, to find their way into print.

"The one thing that kept him going in Palm Beach," said his son, Daryl Davidoff, "was his discretion. People trusted him."

For more than 30 years, Mr. Davidoff was the house photographer at the Breakers, Palm Beach's oldest and grandest hotel, where he had a studio. More recently, he and his sons were the official photographers at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club.

Since arriving in Palm Beach in 1955, Mr. Davidoff captured the comings and goings of the high-society resort. He photographed Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, Jayne Mansfield and Paul Newman.

"They all took to him," said another of Mr. Davidoff's three sons, Michael.

"He had an incredible sense of humor," said Daryl Davidoff. "He knew how to make anyone laugh and smile."

But it was his relationship with the Kennedys, which developed from cultivating the trust of Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch, that made Mr. Davidoff more like a family friend than a photographer. He was invited to the family home on North Ocean Drive to shoot formal portraits and casual scenes of family birthdays and holiday celebrations.

He captured images of the president attending church, laughing with his brothers or playfully lifting his children over his head. He took his final pictures of Kennedy in November 1963, four days before the president was assassinated.

"I mean, people's hearts used to pound when they would see him -- he had such charisma," Mr. Davidoff said in 1999.

He was especially close to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and continued to shoot pictures of her throughout her life.

"If I took a bad picture of her, I would kill it," he said. "She trusted me and would not duck me."

He continued to photograph the Kennedy family through the 1990s, including a private portrait session with John Kennedy Jr. and his future wife, Carolyn Bessette. Many of his photographs are on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

"Bobby was a very loyal person," said his wife of 57 years, Sarah "Babe" Davidoff. "If anyone said anything negative about the Kennedys, he didn't want to hear it."

Robert Davidoff was born in New York and grew up in Brooklyn. He studied photography before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He turned 18 on June 5, 1944, while aboard the light cruiser USS Marblehead, preparing for the D-Day invasion of France. He was awarded a Silver Star for rescuing a wounded sailor from waters off Normandy.

He worked as a photographer at a resort on Long Island, N.Y., before answering a newspaper advertisement for a position in Palm Beach. He had a camera at the ready whenever he was driving around Palm Beach. He taught all of his sons the photography business.

Besides the Kennedy family, Mr. Davidoff always managed to get in the picture with another of his favorite photographic subjects.

"He loved tall blondes," his wife said. "He was only 5-4 or 5-5, but he loved to have his picture taken with tall blondes."

Three books of Mr. Davidoff's photographs are in preparation: one on Trump, one on the Kennedys and a third featuring the celebrities who passed through Palm Beach.

Besides his wife, of Palm Springs, Fla., survivors include his three sons, Kenneth, Michael and Daryl Davidoff, all of Lake Worth, Fla.; and three granddaughters.

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