Fire Island PaJaMa Party

During vacations from the 1930’s through the mid-1950’s, artists Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and his wife Margaret Hoening French photographed each other on the beaches of Fire Island and later Cape Cod. Usually nude or donning simple costumes, they would also use found objects as props to create stark, surreal and/or erotic images. They passed Margaret’s Leica camera around, taking turns as subject and auteur. This collaborative authorship was reflected in the umbrella name they chose for this work, utilizing the first two letters of their first names: PaJaMa.

Years later Cadmus explained, “After we’d been working most of the day, we’d go out late afternoons and take photographs when the light was best. They were just playthings. We would hand out these little photographs when we went to dinner parties, like playing cards.”

The dynamic was complicated: Cadmus and Jared were lovers – a relationship that continued during the marriage. All three lived and worked in a townhouse at 5 St. Lukes Place in Greenwich Village.

A 2015 New York Times review of a PaJaMa exhibition noted that their photos “breathed eroticism.” While some of the hundreds of photos are masterpieces of magical realism, others appear to be figure studies for their painting. And then there are simple snapshots of nude men frolicking on the beach, enjoying the sun and surf.

Right: Jared French on Fire Island (1940) Left: Paul Cadmus’ etching “Youth With Kite”, 1941

Jared French and his considerable wares are the most frequent subject of the photographs, with entire rolls of film devoted to his nude poses and posturing. Cadmus and Margaret are slightly more demure although we do not know who was giving direction from behind the camera at any given time.

These three artists were joined by various friends and lovers through the years, fellow artists and writers that were part of their New York social circle.

Dancer/Model José Martinez appears in PaJaMa photos of the late 1930’s with Paul Cadmus

1938 PaJaMa photos of writer Glenway Westcott sometimes appear online mislabled as Paul Cadmus or Ted Starkowski.

Writer Donald Windham (with Cadmus & French), 1938

Photographer George Platt Lynes was a frequent guest with his own camera.

Jared French in Saltaire after the devastating hurricane of 1938.

West of Saltaire, the Fire Island Lighthouse served as a frequent backdrop.

Jensen Yow, Bill Harris & Jack Fontan, ca. 1950

Now well into his 90’s, Alexander Jensen Yow recently recalled the circle of artists, as well as his participation in PaJaMa photos of the early 1950’s. “Paul posed us and took the pictures. I was never out there with Jerry (Jared). There were plenty of personality conflicts all scattered around with these people, but I never knew what they were or anything… Jerry was always nice to me though. But his and Margaret’s was a strange relationship… She was crazy about Jerry but she was always in the background, you know. Always there. Jerry did what he wanted to do, and she tagged after him. I was so green when I met these people that I didn’t know how to act…. I tried to be discreet but it wasn’t easy.”

Paul Cadmus, “The Shower”, 1943
Margaret French, “The Moon by Day”, 1939

As with George Platt Lynes’ male nude photographs, the PaJaMa collection did not receive much notice or recognition until the 1990’s. They are now frequently exhibited in galleries and selections are a part of the MOMA collection.

PaJaMa, Nantucket, 1946

See Also:
Artist’s Muse: Chuck Howard
Artist’s Muse: Ted Starkowski
Artist’s Muse: Randy Jack
Buddy & Johnny: A Historic Photo Shoot

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