He is asked if he likes his face. It is, all in all, a not unreasonable question since faces are what he does for a living - only not the faces you and I might see, and certainly not the troubling grimaces of the soul Picasso once saw.But rather the faces we all are just aching to see on ourselves, but never will unless we have $3,000 to fork over to Francesco Scavullo.
Who made Barbara Streisand in the embrace of Kris Kristofferson look like a Roman empress toying with her slave. (Touch his chest, he advised her, as he aimed the camera. Feel how smooth and fabulous the skin on his chest is. "Oooo," squealed Streisand. "Now I know why boys like boys.")
Who made Martha Mitchell look like a glamour queen, and Henry Winkler a wood sprite. All these famous, happy people knew that if they smiled for Scavullo, the photographer, they smile in peace. He is the court painter of our time, and the dirty secrets of our face are safe with him.
"My face?" He seems momentarily troubled for the first and last time, for Francesco Scavullo usually has the eager friendly look of a pampered Pekinese.
"I like it," he concedes, "if I don't have to think about it a lot. I'd certainly rather look like Alain Delon. I'd certainly rather be 5 foot-7, since I'm 5-foot-7. I mean - I mean people like me. You know what I mean.
"I mean I'm okay. In a sense I'm like an actor on a stage. I like the people I work with to like me."
"I wasn't too big in the '60s," Scavullo says drily. "I hated fashion in the '60s. I liked the hippies. I loved how the people in the streets looked in the '60s. But fashion was at its worst in the '60s. Laced-up scandals and Dynel wigs and mini-skirts up to here . . . "
And introspection, which can be an ugly, discomfiting thing. And all the demons of hard drugs, hard rock, hard sex, and hard news from the Eastern front that brutalized the '60s and the faces of the '60s - a photographic era that really belonged to Avedon with his hard lens and crooked eye.
"A great photographer," notes Scavullo, "although Avedon and I work on different ends of the pole."
Why, of course. Scavullo is of the '70s, although strictly speaking he has been with us since 1929 when he was born to a comfortable Staten Island family that made its money out of a banqueting and cooking-utensil business.
So from Scavullo we get the self-indulgence of the '70s, the softness and the exculpating veil of half-truths. He took out Martha Mitchell's liver spots when she appeared in New York Magazine. And - "Sometimes I do a little etching because I find that makeup intensifies the lines on the face."
And because "a lot of women want makeup and need it," Scavullo brings in salvation: the hairdresser, the makeup artist, the right costumes . . . "I like to get the beauty inside people."
Do you wonder that he's the chicest photographer big money and big names can buy? That Vogue loves him and Town and County uses him, that he did the Ella Fitzgerald Memorex commercials that he gets commissioned for private protraits? That Dinana Ross can't wait to get into his studio?
"I'm not bragging or anything," says the photographer, when asked to explain his phenomenal success, "but I think people like the pictures I take of them. It's like gathering moss. The models like what I did for them and now I do personalities. When I did Helen Reddy - I got all these stars. Like when I did Janis Joplin - she was fabulous! Beautiful! I didn't see her bad skin, the chin, anything. I saw something beautiful in that girl! Vulnerable!"
By now he's charging through his thoughts so quickly, the words run into each other. "Gloria Vanderbilt. Once I took her picture - now she doesn't want anyone else to take her picture. Barbara Walters. Anybody. Barbra Streisand - she's, you know, very difficult to please. I could stand her on her head. Anything.
"More and more women turn up looking great. But I just can't get a women into the studio if I hate her clothes, hate her hair. The first time I saw Barbara Walters, I said - 'Let me get you into a black shirt by Jackie Rogers.' She loved it so much, she bought it. The women listen to me because of track record.
"I always had a way of charming women and getting my way."
He pauses for breath and effect."Raquel Welch - she was the one I couldn't get along with.I dunno. I photographed her last year and we just couldn't make it. And she didn't like the pictures. Nor did I. That was my big failure."
He launches another anecdote. "Lester Persky, the producer of Equus, he calls me one Sunday, and wants me to do a picture of him for The New York Times. Well I didn't have a camera -"
He didn't have a camera???
"No" Scavullo shrugs midly. "It was a Sunday. I never carry a camera. When I go on a holiday I never have a camera. Well - I might take a Polaroid. Otherwise you have to get the correct exposure."
And Scavullo doesn't like to talk about correct exposures, f-stops and all that. "It's too boring . . . I don't know anything about exposures. I always use two assistants."
So anyway, that day, that Sunday - when Persky requested Scavuloo's services out in the Hamptons (where the photographer has a home on 10 acres of land) - they did, finally, manage to get him a camera.
"And one roll was ruined. But on the other roll, I took a picture of Persky he said was the best ever taken."
For 10 years Scavullo saw a psychiatrist. "First a strictly Freudian one, then a Jungian doctor," he remembers. "Then - I'd had it. The Freudian one I saw six days a week. But it was the Jungian who helped me accept myself more than I had been."
In rapid-fire staccato, he rattles off his old problems. "Being raised a Roman Catholic and yet thinking everyone should be free to do what they want creates problems. I'm very sensitived, only sometimes people don't know it because I'm also strong. But I do hve a strength now."
The voice lowers and softens. "Go only knows where it came from."
He remains his normal tone. "Being the only one of five children who didn't go into the hotel business creates problems.
"When I told my father I was going to be a photographer, he didn't speak to me anymore. He figures" - a wry smile - "He figured I'd be one of those people with cameras on the sidewalk who hand out those little cards. So I had to move out of my home to some dump.
"But the moment he saw my pictures in Seventeen magazine he said, 'What can I do for you?" And so he bought me my house - 212 East 63d St. And that's where I live and work to this day."
Well so much for overhead and so much for a life of pounding the sidewalks. Scavullo got to do all the covers for Seventeen, just as he now does all the covers for Cosmopolitan.
Every single cleavage you see is, in a manner of speaking, his. "Cleavages are old-fashioned," he concedes with a small sigh. But there you go. Cosmo doesn't approve of see-through blouses on its covers. And Scavullo isn't hurting. "I don't even know how much money I have. I have a business manager." He brushes away the tedious thought. "I hate money."
In his spare time he has managed to come up with a sequel to an earlier book on women and beauty - this one called "Scavullo on Men." It's coffee table large, with technically satisfactory photographs of everyone from a cancer researcher to Mick Jagger, combined with pages of soft-shoe journalism ("Can you describe you day?" "Do you watch your diet?".
Scavullo, rest assured, watches his diet. Perched on the dresser of his hotel room, like watchful gods of the hearth, are two large boxes chock full of vitamins and ancient Indian herbs, antidotes to the hectic life he leads.
"If I could. I would go five nights a week - every night I could go - to Studio 54, you know that New York disco. And it's fun, I want to tell you. They seem to let in only the beautiful people." He smiles as he thinks of it.
He is asked if it's lonely, living alone. He shakes his head. "All I have to do is go to Studio 54, and I'm with people in about two seconds . . . I have people stay with me off and on, but when they stay, they stay on the other floor. I think I lead a very selfish life. Even a dog - I don't think I'd be good with a dog. Because sometimes I'd just want him to get away from me. . .
"Yes, I was married once. I married a model, but we were divorced after about four years. You know you can't be a photographer and be married. I'm always looking for The New Girl."
He chuckles to himself. "You know I once said that with men - well, I photograph men standing up - and I do it in 15 minutes.
"But women - I put them on the floor. It takes the whole afternoon. And I kneel."
He says he likes shooting men as much as women. But he doesn't talk about them the same way. Not at all. His conversation is peppered with lists - lists of women, long lists, and the words come out like a litany:
"I think Martha Graham is fabulous, Dominique Sanda - absolutely beautiful. I did her a while ago. I adore Rene Russo. Jane Fonda - I love the way she looks now. But I loved her back then, too, when she was Barbarella - that's my favorite movie. My fantasy movie. Farrah Fawcett - she always since I discovered her. Fabulous swingly blond hair. Very California. . ."