A Hollywood Era Comes Out From the Dust

Share via
Times Staff Writer

A collection of nearly 7,000 photographs documenting four decades of Hollywood’s golden past were ordered removed Tuesday from a Canoga Park garage, where they were found stuffed into decaying cardboard boxes and covered with dust.

The photographs, which a museum curator called “a unique and irreplaceable chronicle of 40 years of motion picture history,” have become the subject of a bitter family dispute between noted Hollywood photographer Robert W. Coburn and his daughter.

Coburn, a leading portrait and still photographer for major studios like RKO, Samuel Goldwyn and Columbia between 1920 and 1965, amassed a collection that included most of Hollywood’s major stars.


It was Coburn who shot some of the most memorable stills of the late Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights” and supervised still photography for the films “Citizen Kane” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” among others. His portfolio also includes Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart.

But the collection slipped out of public view in 1960, when Coburn moved into a cramped North Hollywood apartment and handed over most of his works to his daughter, Julia Benard, for safekeeping.

According to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, the photos were nearly forgotten until earlier this year, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began preparing for a major retrospective of Hollywood photography and contacted Coburn for permission to use his work.

Coburn’s attorney, Alan B. Pick, said Benard refused, insisting that her father had given her the photos years ago as a gift.

Benard did allow museum curator David A. Fahey to view the collection recently. He expressed alarm at what he saw.

“I am concerned about the condition of these photographs,” Fahey, who heads the planned November, 1987, Los Angeles exhibit, said in a declaration filed in court.


The photos were stored in several small, decaying boxes, many of them gathering dust, he said, adding that they would be destroyed if kept in their present condition.

The dispute escalated when Coburn, 86, who now lives in Palm Springs, threatened legal action.

According to other declarations filed in court, Benard’s son, Clay, telephoned Coburn’s son, Robert W. Coburn Jr., and issued a threat to the entire collection.

“He told me if I pursued (it), the photograph collection might not exist,” Coburn Jr., who is also a Hollywood photographer and has work stored in the same garage, told the court. Asked what that meant, Clay Benard reportedly replied: “I think you get the drift. I’ll do something, I’ll sell it for $10 or something, and there would be no show, and you would just go into an empty garage.”

Neither Julia Benard, nor her son, could be reached for comment Tuesday.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Pick said. “On the one hand, we needed to file the court action, but on the other hand, merely filing the action put the photographs in jeopardy.”

Superior Court Judge Jack M. Newman issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday, allowing Coburn’s representatives to pick up the photos and place them in storage, pending a Nov. 24 hearing.


The younger Coburn, accompanied by a locksmith and two art movers, arrived at Benard’s vacant house on Gilmore Street late Tuesday afternoon and removed the photos from the garage.

“My photographs . . . represent my life’s work,” the elder Coburn told the court. “My hope is that I can share these photographs and their historical significance with everyone. However, I am 86 years old, and the longer that I am denied access . . . the less likely that I believe the significance or value . . . will be fully appreciated.”