Percy Saltzman Interview: KARSH OF COURSE


Karsh, of course, is the internationally renowned photographer, whose striking black and whites resonate round the world.

His subjects are the rich and famous, ranging from a scowling bull doggy Churchill, to a bearded, frowning Hemingway, to the bent back of Pablo Casals, hunched over his hulking cello, shot from the rear, backlit from in front.

Of Armenian descent, based in Ottawa, Karsh climbed to fame on the back of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, himself a noted climber on the back of the Rockerfellers.

Oleaginous, smooth, silky, slippery, unctuous and Uriah Heepish, Karsh's deferential and obsequious demeanor was the acme of cloy.

With me he was the exact opposite. Abrupt and brusque and dismissive, he treated me like a peon, I a mere TV interviewer, several rungs down from his aerie altitude.

We clashed - In pooblic. On the boob-toob. I asked him how much he charged for his portraits.

He rose to his full height of five-five, and spat: "Incredible that the CBC should permit such a question!"

As if this spontaneous query of mine had to be vetted in advance by some CBC censor before it even passed my lips.

I was taken aback. Jolted. A new experience for me, a newly minted TV star. I lost my aplomb. I should have said - instantly - "but, sir, I know you charge $1500 - It says so right here in Macleans Magazine".

But I was so rattled, I forgot the damn thing, right there, in my lap.

So I cowered and cringed and crumpled.

And that was that.

In the forty years since, not a day goes by that I do kick my ass at my sluggish response. Why was I so slow? Why was I not smart? Why was I a wimp, a limp dick? What a chance I had had to prick that overweening phony?

But there it was. Sad to say, all my best interviews were conducted in my car driving home from the studio, rehearsing all my glib adlibs, all unspoken, no one there but myself, in the gathering gloom.

As Harry Mannis once rebuked me on air: "And you think you're a good interviewer!" Dear Harry, decent and clean cut and neat, dead now. I was interviewing him on TV about his duties as a renowned CBC Radio staff announcer, he of the mellifluous, mellobell organ tones.

And in the heat of the moment, I quite forgot I had just asked a question which I had just asked a moment before, and so had got gob-smacked. Good on him. Tell it like it is. Quite right. I deserved the rebuke.

It may look easy to just sit there on Camera and chat with my guests. It's not. It's hairy. It's live TV. Long before the procrustean bed of video tape. And its sweaty under the kliegs and under the guillotine of the stop watch.

The mind plays strange tricks. For instance, I'd forget the name of the guest I was interviewing. Panic time. How embarrassing.

Before the interview began, I would write the guest's name in ink on the palm of my hand, so I could take a quick glom, if need be. It didn't work. The sweat and strain had run the ink into a blurry smear. So much for that ploy.

Well as my first wife used to say when I botched the beast with two backs: "Next time better!"

Only there is no next time.