Behind the Lens

The Man Who Captured the Beatles Magic

A new exhibit brings Harry Benson’s iconic photos of the Fab Four home to the Four Seasons Hotel in Paris, where Benson documented the newly famous group at work and at play.

Harry Benson

It’s 1964 and Paul, John, George, and Ringo are roughhousing in the Four Seasons Hotel, in Paris. The Beatles still have bowl cuts. They are wearing bathrobes and clobbering each other with pillows. In another black-and-white shot, they are boyishly sprawled on the rose-printed carpet of their suite, reading piles of fan mail. In others, the band drinks CocaCola from the bottle; queues up in a Madeline-like row; smokes; sings and plays the piano the concierge has sent up.

“At the time,” Beatles photographer Harry Benson says, “the Beatles were thinking their fame would only last about 15 months.”

Benson—now a celebrated photojournalist and portrait photographer—was 34 when his newspaper editor pulled him off a big assignment in Uganda and told him to go cover the Beatles’ French tour (he would summarily follow them to America). When the Fab Four played Paris, they naturally camped at the Four Seasons Hotel George V—and Benson was on the same floor, with his wide-angle Rolleiflex camera at the ready.

Now, 50 years later, the George V is exhibiting the resulting photographs mise-en-scène—in its lobby and rendezvous incontournable, Le Bar. The diptychs document the storied days the band spent as guests of the hotel. One evening, John Lennon and Paul McCartney sat down at the Gaveau piano and, in what seemed like minutes, finished composing “I Feel Fine.” Benson immortalized the moment.

“His images are the quintessential legendary photos that you always recognize and never forget,” in-house artistic director Jeff Leatham says. But by far the most recognizable is the one of all four boys having a pillow fight on the beds in one of their rooms (Benson doesn’t recall which). Harrison is on his back, and McCartney and Starr are swinging down. (Lennon holds his pillow like a cloud.)

The photograph was, in fact, a restaging of a real pillow fight that had broken out between the band members a few nights before. When Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, came to tell them “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had topped the U.S. charts and that they had been booked on The Ed Sullivan Show, Benson suggested the boys make war again, so he could photograph it and dispatch the scene to the world. Lennon protested, saying they’d look “childish,” and the rest agreed. But while McCartney was sipping a brandy, Lennon snuck up behind the future Sir Paul and clocked him on the back of the head. “And then it took off,” Benson remembers. At 2 a.m., the pillow fight raged from room to room, leaving the suite in disarray. Benson shot 15 priceless minutes of the moptops with their downy weapons, then quickly processed the film in the bathroom of his hotel room.

“The pillow fight negatives were developed in a small printing tank in the bathroom of my room because the bathroom was completely dark when the door was closed,” Benson says. “The negatives were washed throughly in the bathtub and printed on a portable enlarger which I placed on top of the toilet! And then about six small prints were transmitted to London via the telephone in my room. It took about a half-hour to transmit one photo.”

The papers were becoming insatiable. “After the photos were transmitted,” Benson remembers, “the office said words to the effect, ‘That’s fine, Harry, now what have you got for us today?’” “Beatlemania had begun!” Benson praises the Four Seasons because, despite the high-pitched fandom, “we all got a peaceful night’s sleep.”

“We are … proud that the hotel played a role in these incredible pieces of music history,“ hotel manager Christian Clerc says. “Harry’s photos will bring back great memories."

“I Feel Fine” is open at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, 31 avenue George V, 75008 Paris through June 30.