Last winter, after “visiting” Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Montparnasse Cemetery, strolling through Parisian streets, aiming to sit for a hot chocolate at a café, a brand new plaque caught my attention at 37 rue Froidevaux.
They took Paris by storm and created the greatest war photographer of all time. She was a Jewish girl born in Stuttgart, Germany. He was a Jewish boy from Budapest, Hungary. Both decided to go to Paris. What a fluke! Photography was never the same.
This is the love story of Endre and Gerta, known by the world as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.
In the end of summer of 1933, after living in Berlin for 2 years, followed by a couple of months back in Budapest, 20-year-old Endre Friedmann managed to escape to Paris, where he would change his name to Andre and struggle to make a living, basically leaving his beloved Leica at pawnshops, week after week. Instead of spending his days in matchbox-sized hotel rooms, he made his home with other refugees at coffee shops in the Rive Gauche, where Le Dôme soon became a favorite.
In the fall of 1933, 23-year-old Gerta Pohorylle left Leipzig, Germany, where she had been living since she was 18, and moved in with Ruth Cerf sharing an apartment in Montparnasse, Paris. Both girls met at a leftist group back in Germany and soon found jobs in the effervescent City of Light. Within less than one year, many of their German friends had fled the Nazi regime moving to the French capital, where they would constantly gather at coffee shops in Quartier Latin, especially Le Capoulade.
Le Dôme is still right in the same place, although it’s more like a fish restaurant than a café. Unfortunately, Le Capoulade has given its space to a fast-food chain store.
With Stein, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, as Hemingway would say, Paris was a feast! But living there was expensive, salaries were on the low side, and jobs were scarce. While Gerda was working as a receptionist at a psychiatry clinic, after his experience working in the darkroom for a German photographer, Andre was trying to make it big in the same field. Until September 1934, and one afternoon that fall changed the history of photography forever.
Andre met Gerta, who escorted her friend Ruth to a photography session shoot by Andre in a small square in Montparnasse. At the time, Friedmann was working as a publicity photographer for Swiss companies and in lack of models suiting the brief he received, he invited Ruth, whom he saw at Le Capoulade, to pose for him.
Resembling the then-famous actress Elizabeth Bergner, with boyishly-short blonde hair and plucked eyebrows in a petit frame, although just as poor, Gerta had such a style that she seemed to be quite taller and always looked quite elegant. In contrast, Andre was bohemian, dark-haired, toned skin, with thick and remarkable eyebrows, quite short, and quite underdressed.
Their romance did not start right away, but they became good friends. He was soon part of the German refugees’ group and she was well-accepted into his recently-formed photographers’ group that would meet constantly at Le Dome, with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and David “Chim” Szymin. In a few months, the couple was together, and as he taught her how to properly use a camera, she polished his ways, insisting that to succeed he would have to have the proper manners and proper clothes, working as his “manager.” Andre always wanted to live a life out of the ordinary and Gerta’s polished ways were just right for that. She nagged about his bohemian, reckless, and irresponsible ways, as he was prone to rely on drinking and gambling when things were not going so well, but he accepted and tenderly referred to her as “the boss.” By then, Gerta was working at a picture agency and Andre, despite the sale of some of his work, was still trying to make his name in the business.
And that’s when the magic begins. They come with a plan to create a threesome. Gerta would be a secretary and sales representative, Andre would be the hand in the darkroom, and they would work for a famous American photographer visiting Europe, who was too busy to mind low-paying French editors, by the name Robert Capa. His two employees would act on his behalf. But the thing was, there was no such person, Robert Capa. He was an imaginary persona, adopted by Andre.
The scheme did not last for a long time, but they were able to sell their work and make a name for Mr. Capa, and by 1937, they had rented the apartment at the second floor of 37 rue Froidevaux, with Chim, and opened Atelier Capa. Life was turning. Soon Andre assumed the name Robert Capa, and Gerta changed hers to Gerda Taro.
Being both leftists, they naturally were drawn to documenting the political scenery both in France and abroad, and as soon as they heard about the rise of Franco, they decided to go to Spain. Time was spent at La Coupole, Le Dome or Café du Croissant, nearby the offices of left-wing Front Populaire.
They soon were assigned by Republican-supporters Vu and Ce Soir newspapers to cover the Spanish War. In the previous year, Capa had shot the famous picture of a Spanish militiaman dying now known as “The Falling Soldier.” They spent a couple of months together before Capa left to Paris while Taro stayed in Madrid, to finish her assignments for Ce Soir. She was covering the Battle of Brunette one day before her return to Paris.
And that’s when magic ends. She was leaving battlegrounds when the car she was in was hit by a Republic tank out of control. Gerda Taro died on July 26, 1937, and was buried at the Pere Lachaise cemetery, in Paris, on her 27th birthday, on August 1. She left a heartbroken, inconsolable Capa behind, who came to be the greatest war photographer of all time.
In years to come, from bar to bar, be it at Hotel Commodore or Hotel Scribe in Paris, or in Hollywood, alone or in the arms of women like Ingrid Bergman and Hedy Lamarr, Capa has never forgotten the love of his life, until his untimely death, stepping on a landmine, covering the Indochina war, on May 25, 1954.
Paris in the eyes of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro:
- 37 rue due Louvre – Paris Soir – Heart of the Media Quarter
- 12 Boulevard Haussmann – Hotel Commodore
- 1 rue Scribe – Hotel Le Scribe
- 146 rue Montmartre – Café du Croissant
- 37 rue Froidevaux – L’Atelier
- 108 Boulevard du Montparnasse – Le Dôme
- 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse – La Coupole
- 63 Boulevard Saint-Michel – Café Capoulade