My mom’s Harcourt portrait

This being the Fourth of July, I thought about posting something about one or both of my parents. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and earned the Silver Star by doing so. My mother, a registered nurse, was assigned to a U.S. Army hospital in Paris, and treated American soldiers who were wounded there and elsewhere.


Lt. Alta Widener Frederick

Instead, I decided to tell you how my mother’s time in Paris resulted in her having something significant in common with Marlene Dietrich, Simone Signoret and Bridget Bardot.

The picture of my mom that I’ve posted here has been in the family forever. She is in her Army uniform, and the word “Paris” is printed down in the lower right-hand corner. So I knew the portrait was taken during her time in Paris, and I never figured there was much more to know about the story than that.

But not long ago I realized there was another word above “Paris.”


Studio Harcourt in Paris was perhaps the world’s most famous photo studio of its day. Founded in 1934, the studio was located in an impressive limestone mansion on a quiet street near the Champs-Élysées. Actors and actresses, entertainers of all kinds and famous politicians made their way to Studio Harcourt from all over Europe to get their portraits taken.

th[7]The studio was affected by the German occupation, and some of the studio’s principals, who were Jewish, left the city. But the studio continued to operate through the war years.

Harcourt brought a new look to portraiture, using lighting and camera angles developed in the movie industry. And they included some of their own techniques, like making sure facial features were in sharp focus while hair, cheeks and foreheads were slightly blurred. They did this by covering the camera lens with a woman’s stocking, then burning a hole in the very center with a cigarette.


Marlene Dietrich

(I checked this little factoid by looking closely at my mother’s picture. Sure enough. Sharp eyes, nose, mouth and chin, slightly blurry hair.)

Once Paris was liberated, it didn’t take long for American service men and women to discover that Studio Harcourt was not to be missed, and many Americans returned home with Harcourt portraits. Including Mom. Those Harcourt portraits did much to spread Harcourt’s reputation to the U.S.

Studio Harcourt is still in business, and it still relies on many of the lighting techniques that it developed more than 80 years ago.


Simone Sigoret

In 2000, the French government bought Studio Harcourt’s historic negatives taken between 1934 and 1991. There were about five million such negatives in all, involving about 550,000 people. So the negative of my mom’s Harcourt portrait now resides in the French National Archives.

2 thoughts on “My mom’s Harcourt portrait

  1. Really wonderful piece, Bill. A great shared memory of your beautiful mom, and a fascinating history lesson, to boot. Plus, it’s always nice to see pix of . Marlene and Simone. Thanks for sharing your writing.



  2. Hi again, Beverly.

    A memory just drifted across my mind that may have involved the Rolodex. Bill Frederick was working the night desk in Boston in the early ’70s when we go a a call from nx sports that undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano had died. He was from Brockton, Masss. Bill was able to contact Rocky’s close friend Peter Fuller, owner of THE posh Cadillac dealership in Boston, despite the fact that Fuller had a closely guarded, unlisted number. Possibly, Bill got that one from the Rolodex. In any case, Bill worked the BH night desk for a number of years and might have other Rolodex recall. I’ve cut him in on this message. Youse guys are on your own from here. Really fascinated by what you’re undertaking; may you get buried beneath an avalanche of remembrances from former Unipressers.


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