"Podaroy," says Lord Snowdon former husband of Princess Margaret and author of a new photography book.
Podaroy? Did his lordship say "podaroy?"
"Yes, of course: podaroy." How he frets! His ginger eyebrows rendezvous at forehead central, his coltish face grimaces.
Is . . . his lordship mumbling? Or is it the Eton-Cambridge accent, so adamantly insouciant? Or is it just the racket of the rush-hour traffic smogging up through the hotel suite windows. He keeps opening and closing the windows. Can't take the central heat.Has a wonderful 16th-century cottage in the country, beamed ceilings, no heat at all, heaven . . . .
Anyhow: "Podaroy. Surely you've heard of them, the photographic firm."
Ahhhh -- Polaroid! Yes, of course, apologies all round, certainly, not a bit, clipped accent and all.
Accent is a bit strained, but then Lord Snowdon has spent his life pushing against the perimeters -- a gentleman who in the '50s became, to his world, that lowest of low-life journalists, a photographer. And then married Queen Elizabeth's younger sister. All the while retaining the chronic feyness of the amateur, the putterer.
"Yes, I went to them to ask about t he device on their camera that does the automatic focusing, the sonar thing, yes. I want to make a device for the blind."
He springs off the couch and [See SNOWDON, B3, Col. 1] [SNOWDON, From B1] rumages through a leather bag till he finds a bronze-colored disk.
"That's what does the sonar," he says, starting to walk toward a wall. "We could have it give off a tone as the blind person approached the wall boop-boop-beep-beep-bap," he says, his voice rising util he has, in fact, walked into the wall.
"We could mount it on the white cane for them, you see. Or perhaps make a pair of glasses out of them." He holds the disk to his right eye. It would make a strange-looking pair of glasses, certainly.
At 49, Snowdon is also the inventor of the chairmobile -- wheelchairs made out of Bertoia or Eames office chairs mounted on a wheeled platform. And at Eton he wired up his top hat so that he could listen to the Home Service on the radio while watching games. And built a photo enlarger out of soup cans, and learned how to talk in sign language, funny little Tony, always into something.
"Yes, I learnt it at school during the war because we couldn't talk during the blackouts."
His face, a bit pallid from all this traveling for television interviews in the last few days (including one in Boston, where he also visited his friend at Polaroid), hovers in a tart glance of indecision. He has the kind of face in which you always seem to be able to see both rows of teeth.
Sign language during a blackout?
"No, it wasn't that at all. It was . . . we had periods of silence, that's what it was. And I learnt sign language so I could talk. It's very old-fashioned sign language, actually. I saw some on television here and I couldn't understand it all."
Lord Snowdon was what the royal family preferred over Peter Townsend as s husband for Princess Margaret, back in the 1950s. Townsend, an RAF flier, had all of the wonderfully dull qualities one hoped for in commoner, if that's what a princess insisted on marrying. But he was divorced. So no marriage. And enter Anthony Armstrong-Jones, son of a lawyer, nephew of Oliver Messel (a famous set designer), grandson of a cartoonist for Punch.
Margaret, inheriting the rakehell genes which have livened up the British royal family in the last two Edwards, had found someone even more shocking than Townsend in this motorcycling photographer who flunked out of Cambridge.
As Princess Margaret once said: "He is naughty, but I do love him." Indeed, he'd been expected to marry an actress named Jacqui Chan. And his father, commenting on the prospect of his son's life in the royal household, said: "Tony's far too independent a sort of fellow to be subjected to discipline." Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth made him an earl.
The couple kept a palace spokesman busy denying rifts, and filled gossip columns with reports of "slanging matches" in restaurants, scenes at parties, a reputed flirtation between Snowdon and Lady Jacqueline Rufus Isaacs, known as the barefoot debutante.
But all the while, he kept taking photographs, getting more and more serious -- photographs of children under stress, mental patients, old people, the grime of Liverpool. Took them up through his divorce in 1978, and is still taking them.
The worst -- and maybe the best -- that can be said of the new book, "SNOWDON -- A Photographic Autobiography," is that there isn't one picture in it you could hold up and say, "Snowdon." He has no individual stamp at all, in an age in which one of the great esthetic struggles has been the photographer's attempt to bend the camera to his vision.
"Thank you very much," he says. "I can't think of a better compliment. My job as a journalist is to get people to ready the articles."
A question as to the class origins. More of this self-effacing attituted all, some artists may become gentlemen, but few gentlemen become artists -- yields nothing but protests as to the humility of his origins. More self-effacement.
And: "Most people of my age went into photography because they'd failed at something else."
And: "I try not to take impressive pictures."
Amazing! But then, photography is the ultimately self-effacing medium, immaculately genteel, like wearing sensible shoes. (Why else would half the rich girls in the United States prefer nowadays to designate themselves as photographers, once they stop riding horses?)
Snowdon has saved the rogue side of his ego for stunts like water skiing across the English Channel -- which he now discounts with "It's not clever, it's mad."
He is so self-effacing, in fact, that he insists that his age be taken down as 50, though his birthday isn't till next March.
"Fifty," he keeps saying, the smile rising till it almost seems like a challenge, this modesty. Of course, he has as much ego as anyone. He'll claim he has no idea how to photograph himself, then start turning off lights and lowering his cigarette when a photographer begins shooting.
"Do you mind awfully? There's a new report, just out, that shows cigarettes have become the number-two killer of women! I don't want to be seen smoking."
As if it would influence people to smoke . . . but then it would, wouldn't it? There's no effacing that, he's famous, even if Madame Tussaud's waxworks took his statue down after the divorce. (He has since remarried.)
Perhaps the touch that demonstrates all of these contradictions of aristocracy, humility, self-effacement, sensible shoes, all of it, is the suit. You would never see a suit like it in America.
"I'm awfully sorry," Snowdon says, though it't not certain why he's apologizing for the suit. "It's man-made fiber, a combination of them."
Dear God, could the Earl of Snowdon be wearing some dread tapestry of polyester?
"It doesn't wrinkle, and if you pack as carelessly as I do that's important."
But then, one can't help but notice that the shoulders don't rise when he lifts his arm, the coat doesn't say back to his pelvic bones when he stands the four-cuff buttons unbutton.
Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, photographer, may be wearing the only custom-tailered total-synthetic polyester suit in thw world, black as a telephone, but not as shiny.
This isn't done, of course, unless one is Snowdon. Who's been doing it, one way or another, all his life.