The story behind the ultimate symbol of the Post War American Elite
It’s an odd choice for an iconic picture. The light is coming directly from above and it’s harsh. The sun sharply reflects off the white marble around the pool. A blonde woman dressed in white shorts and barefoot, holds the hand of her son, a small boy with a buzzed haircut who is about to pat a blond Labrador. It’s midday, normally a photographer’s nightmare. Short shadows make spaces seem smaller. Angles are off. The subjects are looking away from the camera. Even the dogs are wandering off.
Another photographer might have discarded the image as an outtake from the shoot—others from that day certainly had more-conventional compositions. Instead, the photo, taken in 1955 by Slim Aarons of C. Z. Guest, wife of Phipps steel heir Winston F. Guest, became the symbol of the American aristocratic elite at the pinnacle of Post War-success.
Archly named “Nice Pool,” it achieved with one click of the camera the kind of social clout it would take an Instagram influencer years to build up today. From the moment the photo first appeared, the world was mesmerized. The artist and his muse, well-known in the smaller society world they traveled in, suddenly became globally famous.
Slim Aarons was then America’s premier lifestyle photographer. The blond woman was my great aunt, C. Z. Guest; the boy, her son (and my cousin), Alexander Guest; and the house, Villa Artemis, the Palm Beach estate built in 1916 for C. Z.’s mother-in-law, the formidable heiress Amy Phipps Guest, whose father was Andrew Carnegie’s partner at Carnegie Steel.
I spoke with Laura Hawk, Slim’s long-time assistant and the author of Slim Aarons, Women (Abrams, 2016) about Slim, C. Z., their surprisingly competitive relationship, and the photo that memorialized the WASP pantheon.
One of the most important relationships I think in C.Z’s life and for, for lack of a better word, the brand of C.Z., was with Slim Aarons. It seems they had a symbiotic relationship: He portrayed her glamor and she became famous as a result. Both were in this exclusive world, the most beautiful dream world you can imagine, and were willing participants in it. He needed her glamor, her beauty, that amazing-looking pool. And she needed him to put her there.
Even though I’m her great-niece, I’m not a C. Z. worshiper. There are things I greatly admire about her, but I also see her very much for who she was and how she sometimes behaved. While she was always perfectly kind to me, she didn’t always treat people well. If anybody was in her direct line, she could be a right pill.
All of the women of that era perfected the ability to laser in on who was beneficial, and ‘cancel,’ as everybody says today, those who weren’t. That’s just how it was.
They were very ruthless. If it had been a different time and they’d been better educated and taught that they could also do what men did, I think they would have been running Fortune 500 companies. They had so much energy.
I think that’s exactly it. Women’s power in those days—my mother’s era—was all about the social ladder. That’s all they had to exert their brilliance and power. How different things are today. Thank God.
How did the relationship, which you may or may not have seen firsthand, play out between Slim and C. Z.? How did they behave together?
I met C. Z. two or three times with Slim, always at some sort of big function, when they were both much older. The first word that comes to mind between them is ‘prickly.’ I mean, both were of course incredibly famous. Slim also got quite, I don’t want to say the word crotchety, but cranky, in his older years. And was sort of impatient with everybody, especially people who had any point of view and who didn’t just adulate him nonstop—which I’m sure C. Z. did not do.
It’s interesting to know how their relationship was at the end, that they weren’t really super-great buddies.
I honestly got the feeling they were in a little bit of competition.
She competed with everybody though, so that wasn’t unusual. Not people who were much younger, but she was a competitive lady.
And Slim was just impossible as he got older.
Was Slim gossipy?
No. He just loved to hold court and be the raconteur. And he loved telling his stories over and over and over again. But no, he wasn’t bitchy. He had no interest in the ins and outs of people’s lives, He was a little narcissistic in that way. I think he was just so driven by his art that nothing else really mattered to him.
He did choose that iconic image. Of all of the people he photographed for his second book, this one really stood out. Either he was so clever that he knew he’d captured the American Dream right there or maybe he liked her enough. Probably it was the former.
My guess is that it wasn’t even his decision, it was likely marketing driven. But I do think he understood very deeply that that image—along with “Kings of Hollywood,” the other image of his that comes to mind that just made him—struck a note in humanity. As different as the two photographs were, boy, did they both do it.
But boy, he loved that [Nice Pool] picture so much. He just loved what it did for him. I’m sorry, I’m the same way about Slim as you are with C. Z.; I don’t mind speaking my mind about him. I don’t mind it at all. To me, it was the whole package that made him so fascinating. Not just all of the wonderful things about him, but all of the difficult things too. Oh my god, was he difficult. To this day, I think he’s an incredible mixture of good, bad, smart, dumb … you know what I mean?
Completely. Look, if he was a plain vanilla person, I don’t think he would have gotten where he wanted to go. And you know, the whole story of him being Jewish from the Lower East Side but pretending to be from New Hampshire, that’s pretty interesting too. He was totally self-made.
I didn’t even know he was Jewish until he died. I worked for him for years and years and years and he always held true to the New Hampshire farm-boy fantasy story. And then came his funeral, and all of a sudden his Jewish cousins from New Jersey were like, “Well, he grew up with us.” And in walks a man who was 6’4”—which is what Slim was—who looked exactly like him. It was his first cousin! It was enough to make you sit down and have your eyes pop out of your head, it was just incredible. It was a wonderful story of a double life.
What is super-fascinating to me is that I can’t think of a single other photographer who so perfectly captured the WASP. This kind of high-class aristocratic circumference of the world. Nobody did it better, or more fantasy-like. The richness with which the WASP life was portrayed. Even the aristocrats were surprised, like, ‘that’s our life? Oh, okay, great, we’ll take it.’ And the person who accomplished this was an outsider hiding who he really was.
C.Z. wasn’t hiding who she was exactly—she did have Boston Brahmin ancestry. But the reality was, her father was from a nice banking family and her mother was on the stage, which was completely taboo in those days.
And what’s also interesting behind that photo is that C. Z. didn’t get along with her mother-in-law, Amy Phipps. They were both very, very strong women. So I was surprised C. Z. was even allowed to be photographed at Villa Artemis.
I’m fascinated by the person who made the dream. How did Slim become friends with all of these people?
Slim lived to be admired. And I can just see him becoming famous and meeting your great aunt. I’m sure he just instinctively understood how, as you were saying before, they could help one another. Whether Slim liked her or not was probably immaterial. He was ambitious. He knew that he had what it took to build an amazing career within the context of high society and aristocracies. And he understood that she was an important stepping stone. My guess is that he knew immediately ‘this is good,’ when he took that photo, patting himself on the back.
The photo is so extraordinary because it’s very simple. She’s wearing no jewelry, nothing. Just shorts. And those ridiculous dogs!
You’re right, it is incredibly simple, and somehow that’s part of it. And I love that in some renditions, the pool is a beautiful aqua color, while in others it’s more of a stark blue.
In your book, Slim Aarons, Women, you explain that he would spend all day setting up a shot but make it look like he just walked in and snapped it. Did he spend any time on the composition of this photo?
There’s a wonderful anecdote that Slim wouldn’t stop smoking for years because he rarely saw a place before he walked in to photograph it. And smoking was a way for him to excuse himself and walk around to take stock. I can just see him walking into [Villa Artemis] and thinking ‘This is it.’ Then asking C. Z., “Could you walk down there and, you know, walk around the pool a little bit?” And then Alexander maybe runs out, and it all just came together so incredibly.
And those shadows. Had it been a different time of day, the way the shadows were falling… Many artists probably spend dozens, hundreds, thousands of hours or days on projects, trying to get every single element to fall together perfectly. And some people never succeed, but man, this is it, you know?
Okay, so it looks like it was shot at midday? The light is actually surprisingly harsh for this kind of straightforward shot.
It looks like one or two o’clock. That’s another thing: Who would have thought a midday photo would work? In other pictures taken that day, C. Z. is walking among the columns, but she’s covered. And there’s an amazing one of her in a kind of wicker chair. God, I love that picture—why is that one not the one? Perhaps because you can’t see the ocean behind it? I don’t know. Why is that not the one?
Anybody who sees the “Nice Pool” shot basically wants to take out their arm and go, “Ah, there’s me, I want to be doing this in this beautiful pool with the beautiful wife, the beautiful child, the dog.” It’s the sense of majesty, the sense of leisure. It’s not an evening cocktail hour, when you can relax. It’s one in the afternoon, so normally you’d be working. It really was the beginning of the influencer—I hate that word, but it’s here. So she was, they both were, the influencers of their day.
Celebrities have a lot of currency on social media nowadays. But in my mind, top socialites don’t want anybody to know anything about them. They’re a smaller group now. They are very shy. There’s some understandable fear, you know? Of course, society still exists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo credits: "Nice Pool" — Slim Aarons/Getty Images; Slim Aarons Exhibition/Book Release — Matthew Peyton/Getty Images; C. Z.’s House — Slim Aarons/Getty Images; Laura Hawk and Michael Kors — Larry Busacca/Getty Images