WHAT DOES THE CAMERA SEE? LEE WILEY’S LOVE LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS

The endearing singer Lee Wiley was said to have legendary erotic energies, but they are not my subject.

Rather, I present to you two public photographs just encountered on eBay — each one oddly evocative, both presenting and concealing.

The first finds Miss Wiley with the composer Victor Young — a publicity shot from the early Thirties (circa 1934-6) for Al Jolson’s radio program SHELL CHATEAU:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large

and the slip glued to the photograph’s back:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large backThat photograph has an understandable stiffness: two musicians caught in the act of pretending to rehearse.  Everything is too neat: the “informal” clothing; the way that they are both looking at the camera while trying not to — not at each other.  I can hear the photographer: “Look like you’re singing, Lee.  Victor, don’t look down at the piano.  Look as if you’re accompanying her but don’t look at her.”

From this photograph, one wouldn’t know that Lee and Victor were “an item,” lovers for a long time.  There was a Mrs. Young, but the Wiley-Young affair was known among musicians.  The photograph of “Lee Wiley . . . and her old maestro” doesn’t even look as if they knew each other before this session. The truth of Lee and Victor — one of the possible truths — would not have been captured for the public eye.  Is it fitting that Lee and Victor made music together most frequently for records and radio broadcasts, where they would have been heard but never seen?

Slightly less than a decade later, another uncomfortable photograph freezes a present moment and accurately forecasts a less happy future:

LEE AND JESS 1943 largeGranted, wedding pictures do not always catch the moment in authentic ways, but the body language of this couple is less than ardent: their hands barely touch, their gazes are remote.  Even the text of the press release is more concerned with Lieut. Boettcher than with Jess Stacy, a great artist and a gentle man but hardly a “member of a wealthy Denver family.”  (Was this Charles Boettcher II, who had been kidnapped in 1933 and a $60,000 ransom paid?)

LEE AND JESS large back

The back of the picture tells its own story.  The marriage did not last five years.

These photographs come from the files of J. Walter Thompson.  Years later, an administrative assistant went through the files with a rubber stamp, noting the DECEASED — a job with certain melancholy overtones.  (I think of Bartelby in the Dead-Letter Office.)  Someone on eBay will buy these as cheerful nostalgic artifacts.

Music, Maestro, please?

CARELESS LOVE is from 1934 — Lee, with Victor directing.

SUGAR is from a 1944 Eddie Condon Town Hall concert / radio broadcast (Ernie Caceres, clarinet).

And — since I can’t see it too often — here is Joe Rushton’s home movie of Lee and Jess, newly married, walking down the street.  Is it the same day as the press photograph? Lee has on a different outfit; Jess wears what seems to be the same double-breasted suit.  Consider what this shows of their marriage.

Does the camera capture only a moment of staged reality or does it show more than we know at the time?

May your happiness increase!

11 responses to “WHAT DOES THE CAMERA SEE? LEE WILEY’S LOVE LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS

  1. Wow -­ a lovely piece! Is the lady a tramp?

    Dave

  2. A gentleman never tells.

  3. DDn "Zoot" Conner

    The great Lee Wiley-never thought i’d see her in a video,but here she is, erortic energies and all. Great stuff,Michael, also went over to the September videos of yours,smashing and exclusive.

  4. Michael P. Zirpolo

    Michael, I am happy you posted these photos. I hoped you would have also included a long-hidden one of Lee and perhaps the love of her life, if such a thing was possible, Bunny Berigan. I know of only one photo of the two of them together, one taken at the Pennsylvania Roof in the spring of 1937 when Bunny was just beginning to find success as the leader of a big band. Are there more?

    Michael P. Zirpolo
    Author, “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials,
    Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan

  5. These are the only two the seller has. I suspect that few with Bunny will surface — unless a friend’s candid shot — because these are publicity stills to advertise a musical happening or a gossip-page event. Bunny and Lee worked together only on her 1933 dates and on the 1940 Porter session, I believe, so there would be fewer events to publicize. And perhaps Mrs. Berigan would be unhappy. However, a random thought: did Bunny’s death in 1942 act as an unconscious push for Lee to marry another famous jazz musician . . . the very gentle and not-suited-for-Lee Jess?

  6. dwayt@frontier.com

    Very good story about one of my favorite era singers. One small error, though. When saying Lee’s last official performance at New Haven Jazz Festival. She actually appeared at Joe Boughton’s Conneaut Jazz Party in 1982 and again in 1983 before passing. I have the Boughton Jump Record of her performing there with Keith Ingham, Lynn Seaton, John Von Ohlen, and  Bob Reitmeir. Thanks. Doug W.Table 4 Cleveland Allegheny Jazz Party

  7. I think I said that I saw Lee for the only time at the 1972 Newport in New York at Carnegie Hall. But since she died in 1975, is it possible you are confusing her with Maxine Sullivan? If you look at that recording, it’s Maxine. Another fine singer and great gracious warm person.

  8. Michael P. Zirpolo

    Bunny Berigan was often in CBS studio bands in the middle 1930s when Lee Wiley appeared on shows broadcast over that network. Berigan and Wiley appeared together on the “Saturday Night Swing Club” aired over the full CBS radio network at least once, in 1936. In addition, Wiley was in a recording studio on March 16, 1939 with Berigan when he cut about a dozen improvised trumpet solos later copied out and published as a guide to jazz improvisation. This recording session, which was relaxed in the extreme, also included a number of impromptu solo recordings by Berigan, pianist Joe Bushkin, and one by Lee Wiley accompanied by Bushkin, an absolutely stunning “You Leave Me Breathless.” These recordings are in the Bunny Berigan Archive at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wiley was also often in the Victor recording studios in 1937-1938 when Berigan’s big band recorded, and she spent many nights listening to the Berigan band when it had extended stays in Manhattan in the late 1930s. Their liaison may have started in the summer of 1935, when she was in Los Angeles with Victor Young, and Berigan was there as a member of the Benny Goodman band. It was still going quite strong in the spring and summer of 1940, when Berigan was temporarily being featured in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

  9. Thanks for the additional relevant data — I knew I could count on you! My only point is that Bunny and Lee were not necessarily a public couple in the manner that she and Victor Young, rehearsing for a show, or she and Jess, just married, were. I wonder at what time Lee shifted her attentions from Victor to Bunny, or if she did at all . . . matters that will not, I suspect, be explicated ever.

  10. She led poor Jess a merry dance, by all accounts. he later described the marriage as “that Wiley episode.” Still, she was wonderful, eh? …

  11. am looking for a nice photo of lee wiley can not seem tom locate. Any ideas would ben helpful. Thanx in advance

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