Scavullo is feeling marvelous.
His hotel suite is marvelous, the view of the White House is mar- velous, his new, buffet table-size book of photographs is marvelous. The reporter's questions might be marvelous too, but Francesco Scavullo -- the Manhattan fashion photographer whose work is synonymous with all things sexy and stylish -- chats so incessantly that any queries must be airbrushed in later.
"I'm impressed by glamor," he says. "I'm impressed by beauty. I'm impressed by charming people. I'm impressed! I'm impressed!"
All this is a way of explaining how a skinny Italian kid from Staten Island became one of the most successful portrait photographers in history, using his camera lens to capture the idle rich, the famous and the well-endowed.
He is a fashion statement in black: black jacket, black trousers, black leather sneakers on his tiny feet, a jaunty, custom-made black cap pierced by a rhinestone airplane pin and a black silk shirt slashed by a skinny, blood-red tie. On his left wrist is a fat, solid gold Rolex, and the only other jewelry is a black lorgnette slung around his neck by golden chain. At first glance, he could be a man in his forties. At second glance, the liver spots on the back of both tiny hands give him away.
"How old am I? I like to say I'm 55," he says, flopping on the down-cushioned sofa of his Washington hotel suite.
His words chatter in rapid New York-ese, punctuated by the drawn-out, theatrical drawl of a man in the arhhhhrtzz. A man who has taken anorexic models and given them watermelon-sized cleavage for Cosmopolitan covers. A man who turned Martha Mitchell into a raving beauty for the cover of New York magazine. ("We don't do airbrushing. We do a little etching.") A man who is obsessed with the hip, the young, the beautiful.
"My dear, symmetrical features are boring. Beauty is all off. Beauty is one eye higher than the other. Beauty is a crooked nose. That's why Picasso painted all those lopsided faces. That's beauty. I think perfection in a face is quite boring."
He photographs an average of 10 people a week, some for major magazine covers, some for album covers, others for sheer vanity. Private sittings chez Scavullo go for $10,000, hair and makeup artists at no extra charge.
"He makes people look pretty," says one New York artist who has posed for Scavullo. "And people want to look pretty. There are certain celebrities who won't let anyone else take their picture. He makes people feel good."
Scavullo willingly reveals his technique for putting his subjects at ease.
"The thing I try to do first of all is try to get to know you. I try to make you like me," he says, leaning closer. "It's very important that you like me."
Isn't that manipulation?
"In a way. I look you in the eye and I want you to like me. And then I want you to trust me, because" -- he leans even closer, fixing his gaze, lowering his voice -- "I'm going to start saying, 'You know, did you ever think of changing your hair?' or 'Maybe your eyes would look better if we took a little tuck in there,' and 'Oh, look what you're doing now. That's great!'
"This," he says, sitting back, "is how I attack a subject. They become hypnotized and they go with me. It's really winning them over."
All celebrities, he says, walk through his door resisting that impulse to succumb to Scavullo. "But they are there asking for something. 'Is there a new look for me?' The last time we did Diana Ross we did her in a wet T-shirt and a pair of jeans. No makeup. No eyelashes, we took them off. And very plain hair, a little wet. At first she didn't like the pictures. Then, all of a sudden, someone said to her, 'That picture's great of you!' "
So it naturally turned out to be . . .
He had a harder time with actress Nastassja Kinski, who was posing for a Time magazine cover.
"I had a lot of trouble photographing her. She really jumped around like a chicken on a hot griddle, and it was like being on a jet plane during a thunder and lightning storm."
He also struck out several years ago with Raquel Welch. "First, I photographed her with the children. Then she was marvelous." A second shooting was a disaster. "She did go through a difficult period of her life, but then grew after that and became marvelous. Now we're good friends."
Shooting First Lady Nancy Reagan for a spread in last month's Harper's Bazaar, he boasts, was "a piece of cake."
"I did get a little nervous about it. She showed us right into her bedroom! We picked out the clothes. We saw the gym the president works out in. I thought that was fabulous. I said, 'Does he really use that?' She said, 'Yes, he has to. After he was shot, the doctors told him to.' She said, 'He's gotten so big, all his clothes don't fit!'
"She's marvelously thin, a very tiny woman, beautifully proportioned, and I think the best thing you can do when you're small like that is keep close to the bone and you'll look marvelous."
Is Mrs. Reagan beautiful?
"She's certainly well taken care of. I mean, she has clean, beautifully cut hair. Her skin looks beautiful. I love a woman that's neat and looks very clean. Especially for the first lady. I certainly didn't want Ma Kettle coming out!"
Does money make a woman beautiful?
"Let's say environment can help. It costs money, this room! But it makes me feel nice. The sun is coming in here and the White House is right over there. I could wave to Nancy, although I didn't. I didn't want to reach out the window and scream, 'Nancy!!!' "
He giggles, waving his hand in the general direction of the White House.
"In Cleveland, I was in a Stouffer's Inn. That's the only hotel there is." He sticks his finger down his throat Joan Rivers-style, pretending to gag. "The pits."
Back to money.
"I don't think it gives all women a glow," he says. "I know a lot of women who have money who have no glow at all. You see them walking out of places and they look like old battle horses with those ropes and chains hanging around them full of diamonds. They have all the money and no taste or style. Money doesn't always do it. Money helps if you have style, so that you can have more style."
And striving for more style is in Scavullo's blood.
Born on Staten Island on Jan. 16, 1929, Scavullo -- one of five children -- moved to Manhattan at the age of 8. His father was in the catering and restaurant utensil business. Scavullo says it was a Saturday matinee that changed his life.
"I was fascinated the first time I went to the movies," he says, settling back. "I saw this woman on the screen. The camera almost choked me with this close-up of a woman called Garbo!
"Magic, it was for me. Images. Fantasy. Sure, it was total escape into a world of imagination."
He persuaded his father to buy him a camera, and began shooting his sisters at the beach.
"When I was a kid I was very self-conscious. I thought I was a very ugly little boy, and I only admired attractive people. I liked beautiful women and I liked beautiful guys.
"I didn't think I was bright. I didn't think I had a personality. I was very quiet. I didn't speak. I was very much alive when I was with my sisters. The camera made me very bold. Now I can sit here and talk, but before I had to have a camera in my hand. Like a rattler. Or a toy. It always made me feel better."
By high school he had decided to become a fashion photographer, and landed a job as a studio assistant. He was later hired by Vogue and worked as Horst's assistant. He left Vogue, joined a private studio where he began shooting portraits, and eventually landed a job with Seventeen magazine, which he says was the start of his fashion career.
"I started doing ponytails and Alice-in-Wonderland hairdos. I just did all my little fantasies," he giggles, "on little girls."
Now, he says, his only counterparts are Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
"I don't think I can say I'm the best," he says smiling. "I'm not Muhammad Ali. But I think I do what no one else does. My pictures are alive. They are never dead. They're never negative of people. I'm unique. I think it's the Italian thing. A romantic decadence. Maybe that's in the photographs, whereas the other two photographers are not Italians. I think that's their problem."
He is known as highly competitive and highly connected. One New York professional says Scavullo's success may be based more on "hype than on photographic merits."
"He's a very sweet man," says one former associate, "but he's a groupie."
A lot of people also say he can be a word that rhymes with rich.
"I'm Capricorn," he explains. "They're really tough. They fight."
For example, when he arrived at the Light Gallery in New York in October where the first major retrospective of his work was being installed, he discovered that another artist was showing prints in a small room. "I said, 'WHILE MINE IS OPEN?' They said 'Yes.' I said, 'Wait a minute. I gotta call my lawwwya. If I don't have the total gallery, no show!' "
He got his wish, although Bob Mann, director of the gallery, says that while Scavullo "did rant and rave," they decided to exclude the other artist at the last minute because the types of audiences for the two shows would have clashed. Scavullo's audience, Mann says, "is a pretty eccentric group. Glittery, flamboyant and, I would say, to put it politely, weird."
Mann, who added that he would probably not be doing another Scavullo show, says the photographer's work did not translate to the gallery wall as well as other portrait photographers', among them Irving Penn.
At another recent show at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles, Scavullo threw a fit in front of a scheduled press conference. He didn't like the way the photographs had been hung. "I screamed, 'There will be no show! I'm gonna bomb this place!' "
Yes, he says, he usually gets his way. "People are afraid of me when I fight for what I want."
The day after he had a kidney stone removed, he lay in the hospital furious that he could not shoot Rose Kennedy's portrait for her 92nd birthday. "I said, 'Take the tubes out!' " He gestures dramatically. "I took a nurse and I flew up. I got to sleep in the president's bed! I got to sit in his office and have angel cake and milk!"
But Scavullo says his social life is not as exciting as it once was.
"There was a big crowd we hung around with in the '60s and '70s. Now, there's no crowd to run around with! In the '70s, it was Halston on Madison Avenue and we were there every other night and Liza Minnelli, Calvin Klein, Marisa Berenson and Tony Perkins. There were all these people. Now, there's nothing. I think it just sort of stopped. Studio 54 closed. All of a sudden, people got tired of going out all the time."
Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Sylvia Miles. "We all ran around together and suddenly we dropped people."
He smiles sadly, his cheeks glowing. "The ball is over."
Now, he says, he enjoys staying home, hosting small dinner parties at his East 63rd Street town house or maison secondaire in the Hamptons with his roommate and editor Sean Byrnes. He says he's not decadent. "Although a lot of people tell me I am."
"I used to give big parties. I thought nothing of having 400 people." Now, "I really find that I'd rather stay home and read." The decadent times were not necessarily gay scenes, he says, but a mix of European and American trend setters. "Gay is too boring. Just plain gay scenes bore me. That's awful."
Above all, Scavullo has survived for more than three decades in the eye of the social storm.
"Halston was a great friend of mine and then all of a sudden I wasn't invited to Halston's parties! I was a little hurt. It was part of a friendship that went back to when he was a hat designer at Bergdorf Goodman! I never got upset about it. You're on somebody's list and you're off the list.
"It's like Women's Wear Daily. They used to love me. If I went to the opening of a new john in the subway they put my picture in! Now, they cut me out. I don't even exist for W. I don't know what I did," he says, eyes widening, "but it must have been something real baaaaad."
He fiddles with his lorgnette.
"I think if everybody likes you, how boring. It would be dreadful, because I don't like everybody."
He picks up his $50 book of photographs, leafing through the pages. He stops at the portrait of Paul and Linda McCartney. The expression on the former Beatle's face is as soft and vulnerable as a puppy's.
"He is softer. She's a very determined girl. She wanted to marry him! You can see it in her face. She got what she wanted. That's why she got him and that's why she holds him. She's strong."
On the facing page is the wedding portrait of Tony Perkins and Berry Berenson, standing stiffly side by side.
"There's a distance between the two of them," he says, pointing. "I think he's a difficult person. I don't think he's found himself. They are both living together, with children, but distanced."
He turns the page. Michael Jackson's face looms out.
"He was a very frightened boy. Very afraid of people. Afraid of being taken, afraid people wanted his money. Imagine what it's like now that he's gotten so much richer."
The '80s, Scavullo says, are not boring. They just seem that way.
"I think people are pulling into themselves. I think it's a time for looking inward. To discover yourself. To see," he says, adjusting his black cap with the rhinestone airplane, "what you've been running away from."