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Photographer Harry Benson arrived in America 60 years ago, along with a band called The Beatles

Updated: Feb 9

WHEN THE BEATLES arrived in America for the first time, there was no shortage of photographers documenting the moment on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. 

But it was Harry Benson who captured arguably the most famous photograph that day, 60 years ago this week — and it was an image that almost didn’t happen. 

On Feb. 7, 1964, Benson traveled with the Beatles on Pan American World Airways Flight 101 from London, on assignment for The Daily Express. A seasoned photographer, he’d been documenting the band for nearly three weeks and had witnessed Beatlemania in full force in Amsterdam and Paris.

He knew Beatlemania would sweep America, too, and he realized the band’s arrival in the United States would be an historic moment. 

Sitting in first class with the four Beatles as the Yankee Clipper prepared to touch down at 1:20 p.m., Benson shared an idea with them about a picture that would capture the excitement of their arrival. 

“I said, ‘When you get four steps down the stairs to the runway, you turn around,’’ Benson recalled in an interview Sunday. 

“And they all said, ‘Yes, yes, fine, good idea.’ They got off the plane to walk down, and they walked down, and they walked past the sixth (step), the seventh. They’d forgotten to do it! I was shouting, ‘Turn around!’’’

The shouts from fans and photographers behind the barricades on the tarmac was drowning out Benson’s frantic yells, which can be seen in film footage of the Beatles exiting the plane. 

Luckily, Benson was able to grab the coat of Ringo Starr, the last Beatle to walk down the stairs, who quickly reminded the other three Beatles to turn around for Benson’s camera. 

“Thank you, Ringo,’’ Benson recalled in a first-person story in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. “I fired off three frames. One shot ran in the Express the next day under the headline: “Crazy…that’s New York as the Beatles arrive.”

Beatles fans know Feb. 7 marks the 60th anniversary of the band’s arrival in America. But for Benson, it’s so much more: It’s also the day he arrived in America. 

“I came here with the Beatles. I never went back,’’ the Wellington snowbird said with a laugh. “Sixty years. Geez, that's a long time ago.’’

The 60th anniversary of Benson’s arrival will be celebrated Feb. 6 at a private dinner for 150 friends at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City. The dinner, which will be preceded by a showing of the 2016 documentary Harry Benson: Shoot First, is being hosted by Benson’s long-time friend, Barbara Tabor, the chair emerita of the museum’s board of trustees.   

Benson, 94, plans to return to Wellington Feb. 12. Many photographs from his career are on display at the Holden Luntz Gallery in Palm Beach.  

Gigi Benson, Harry’s wife, said Starr is using a Harry Benson photo on the cover of a new vinyl album that will be released later this year. The cover photo is Starr toweling off after a dip in the ocean in Miami Beach in 1964. 

Two Benson photographs will be included in a special exhibit later this year at the Brooklyn Museum. The majority of that exhibit is photographs taken by Paul McCartney in 1964. 

Sixty years later, Benson said he never gets tired of talking about the Beatles. 

“They were young and they were very talented,’’ he said. “They were easy to work with.  And they brought me to America.’’

The invitation to a celebration of Harry Benson's arrival to America withthe Beatles uses Benson's iconic photo. (COURTESY GIGI BENSON)

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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