04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
BACK IN THE '40S AND '50S, HIS CAMERA ALWAYS at the ready, Marvin Smith rubbed elbows with the likes of elegant young Lena Home, big-band maestro Duke Ellington and middleweight champ Sugar Ray Robinson. "Our studio was sort of the place where people would drop by—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte," recalls Smith, 88, whose partner and identical twin, Morgan, died of cancer in 1993. He says he and Morgan were never star struck, even finding some celebs "a little rough" for their taste. Still, he says, "they were wonderful times from what I came from." Born to sharecroppers in Nicholasville, Ky., the twins, whose work is collected in the recently published Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, took odd jobs in New York City and, in 1939, set up a studio near the Apollo Theater. Throughout their career, they signed their work as one: M. Smith. "Whatever we did, we did for the both of us," says Smith. "The work is not mine—it's ours."
Smith was studying art in Paris on the G.I. Bill in 1951 when he traveled to the South of France to meet Picasso (left) and his family in Vallauris.
"Because he was allowed to play, I became a baseball fan—like many of us, I imagine," says Smith of Robinson (giving a batting lesson to his son Jackie Jr. in 1948), who in 1947 became the first African-American to play on a major league team.
"He liked to be photographed," says an amused Smith of entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (celebrating his 61st birthday in the middle of Broadway in 1939). "Many times, he would let us know what he was going to do, so we could cover him."
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson
"He was on all the time," says Smith of Anderson, Jack Benny's famous sidekick and, in 1940 (right), his costar in the movie Buck Benny Rides Again.
Eartha Kitt and Orson Welles
"The twin-ness of them was the charm," said Kitt (with Welles at Bricktop's club in Paris in 1950) in a documentary about the Smiths. "They were like two people working in one."
The heavyweight champ (at the Cotton Club in the '30s) "was a buddy—a wonderful, wonderful person," Smith says. "When we went to the training camp there were always some girls who wanted to go."