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Slim Aarons meets the McMahons

In this article I’m going to discuss the famed American photographer Slim Aarons and the photographs he took of Calgary’s McMahons. Frank and George McMahon were among Calgary’s most interesting residents in the post-war era. The brothers were responsible for a number of works featured on this site. Both owned large country estates – the Francis M. McMahon House and the George L. McMahon House – and their company Pacific Petroleums Limited built three office buildings: the Petroleum Building, the Pacific Building, and Pacific 66 Plaza. Today they are best remembered for having financed McMahon Stadium.

Unlike many of Calgary’s wealthy oilmen, who were spartan in character, Frank McMahon used his massive wealth to live a glamorous, aristocratic lifestyle. Outside of his business activities, he backed racing horses (with his friends Max Bell and Bing Crosby), collected art, financed musicals, and founded a distillery. Mr and Mrs McMahon kept a string of residences across North America. In 1960 they sold their Calgary mansion and moved to Vancouver, where they acquired an even larger home at 2010 SW Marine Drive. The also kept a New York apartment across from the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. Sometime in the late 1950s they bought “Concha Marina” in Palm Beach, the former residence of Isobel Dodge Sloane. Later, they purchased “Crow Lane House” in Paget, Bermuda, designed by the famed Wil Onions.

Slim Aarons (1916–2006) was one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. Aarons become known for his images of the ultra-wealthy at leisure, or in his words, “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” Aarons’s archive is now owned by Getty Images, on whose site I found the pictures. From what I can discern, Aarons photographed the McMahons on three separate occasions: at Frank’s home in Palm Beach circa 1960, at George’s home in the Bahamas in April 1972, and at Frank’s home in Bermuda in August 1977.

Set 1 – Palm Beach, ca. 1960

The first set of McMahon photographs date sometime around 1960. They are black-and-white and were taken at “Concha Marina” (102 Jungle Road), Frank and Betty McMahon's Palm Beach residence. “Concha Marina” was designed by Addison Mizner in 1924 for George Sloane and his heiress wife Isabel Dodge. The McMahons purchased the house in the late 1950s. More recently it belonged to Ivanka Trump.

The photographs feature Betty (Betz) McMahon and her two daughters, Francine (born 1957) and Bettina (1959–2014). A 30 January 1964 New York Times article by Charlotte Curtis, “Palm Beach Winter: An Island Playground Bubbling with Social Activity,” profiled Mrs McMahon and her home. The article, which referred to her as the “mistress of Concha Marina,” was later published in a collection called The Rich and Other Atrocities.

Set 2 – Lyford Cay, 1972

The second set of photographs was taken in April 1972 at the Lyford Cay, Bahamas home of George L. McMahon and his wife Kay Staples (1916–2007). The photographs were taken during a visit by Betty McMahon (Frank’s wife) and her eldest daughter Francine. Betty is in the leopard-print shirt and Kay in the white dress.

In the fall of 1967, George and Kay McMahon left Calgary for the Bahamas due to George’s health. At the time they left, George said about Calgary, “I don’t know of any place where I would rather live and I regret that illness makes it necessary that I leave.” I haven’t yet found the address of their Bahamas house. George died in Calgary in July 1978.

Set 3 – Bermuda, 1977

The final group was taken in August 1977 at Frank McMahon’s Bermuda residence, “Crow Lane House” (17 Harbour Road, Paget). This house was built in the 1930s and was designed by local architect Wil Onions (1908–1959), who had received his degree at McGill.

In the photograph of the pool, the woman in white appears to be Betty McMahon. The second photograph is of Frank and Betty’s younger daughter, Bettina.