In a just world, Phil Pessoni would receive the widespread recognition he so deserves. After all, the man has far more anecdotes than any of us can ever hope for – he was dear friends with the late Jackie O., among others in the Kennedy clan. As for wild tales, he’s equally peerless. Pessoni slyly grins as he reminisces about driving out to Andy Warhol’s Montauk mansion in his ‘57 Jag when two dobermans and an armed man accosted him and his companion on the long gravel driveway.
Yet Mr. Pessoni lives among us, quietly contemplating his past while mostly focusing on the present. This means enjoying his family, his retirement, and his beautiful beach house on the Connecticut shoreline. Recently, however, Mr. Pessoni, taking stock of his achievements, compiled a nearly 300 page memento to his beloved past. He titled it Developing Friendships at Lexington Photo Labs (New York City 1964-1981). The book teems with pictures, correspondences, and private musings during his halcyon days as owner and operator of what became the hub of NYC’s elite. As wondrous of a feast for the eyes such a ponderous collection might make, Pessoni has no intention of professionally publishing the book. When the obvious is pointed out, which is that doing so would be tantamount to printing his own money, Pessoni shrugs off the idea and says that he’s only interested in preserving part of his legacy for his family. When pressed a bit further, he reveals shadings of what might very well be the cornerstones of his generation: loyalty and integrity.
Pessoni, who grew up in Middletown, and graduated from Wesleyan, tried his hand at various careers. He cut his teeth in the Hartford banking game before working on Wall Street for a few years. He even did some care-taking for a spell. But it was his tenure as owner of the Lexington Photo Lab from 1964-1981 that Pessoni calls his “extended adventure period.” It was at Lexington, located in NYC at 17 West 45th Street, where he began to gain the confidences of high society, the Kennedy family among his most prominent clients.
Pessoni’s first exposure to film was in the mid-60s when he began assisting a friend who opened a processing lab in the basement of an apartment. It was there that Pessoni says he had what turned out to be a slow burning epiphany.
“The time working at his lab was enlightening,” he says today. “It seems to have awakened my long dormant artistic side. It also didn’t hurt that there was an endless flow of models, photographers, writers, and musicians coming and going.”
When his friend proved to be perhaps a better mentor than businessman, the basement operation went awry. Jobless and hungry for his own taste of success, Pessoni borrowed some cash from his parents, purchased the necessary equipment, and opened up shop. He had found his calling. Lexington – aptly named since it was on the corner of Lexington Ave. – had some lean early years, yet would evolve into one of the city’s most respected labs.
“It didn’t hurt that one of my best clients turned out to be Peter Beard,” Pessoni says, his gratitude rich and earnest. “Peter, who everyone knows was married to Cheryl Tiegs for a time, was a legend of giant proportions on the NYC social scene. And his work was, and remains, absolutely peerless.”
Beard, whose African photos and diaries comprise a handful of books – The End of the Game being the most notable – is a Yale grad turned self-proclaimed adventurer.
“Peter’s energy and creative genius had no limits,” says Pessoni. “I was thrilled to be in his orbit. It could at times be nerve-wracking to work on his projects, but the exhilaration and challenges were so rewarding.”
Poring over Pessoni’s book, it’s astounding to see what the man has packed into a career. From photos of gorgeous models to warm letters from Jackie O. to press releases touting his own exhibitions, his connections and accomplishments are as wide-ranging as they are impressive. In one such image, taken in the early ‘70s, Pessoni is seated next to the former first lady, the two of them proudly holding one of Beard’s photos entitled “Walking Cheetahs.” In another, taken around the same time, Pessoni can be seen with Caroline Kennedy, the pair standing in front of a wall of the latter’s photos, all of which were developed at Lexington and displayed in its gallery.
When asked how he had come to work with and for the Kennedys in particular, Pessoni reveals that it was 1968 and Jackie had just married Aristotle Onassis before taking her family to Skorpios for the summer.
“And Peter Beard was dating her sister, Lee Radziwell, who went along on the trip,” he adds. “Anyway, Jackie needed someone she could trust to process her film. So Peter suggested Lex Labs – and, ultimately, me.”
When the matter of making money from his book comes up again, Pessoni looks indifferent.
“I’m sure there’d be plenty of genuine interest in a lot of what’s gone into my book,” he adds. “There’s a good amount of pretty captivating history there. I know that. But…”
He doesn’t finish the thought. He doesn’t have to. He’s likely too modest to say that it was never about making a name for himself – and certainly never about betraying confidences for quick and easy cash. But rather it was about the work, the journey, the adventure of it all; it was about carving out a modest niche and enjoying not only the fruits of his labors, but the spectacular memories he gets to muse over forever.