My first camera was my father's Kodak. He was an early Russian revolutionary who worked on pamphlets with his coeval Leon Trotsky, around 1905. Somehow, the ancient camera made it to my Bronx basement. There, my father taught me the magic in the little box. He put a sheet of toilet paper on the film plane and showed me the upside down world of photography when I was 10.
It was a short step from here to scoring a tiny 16 mm Univex in a cereal box and making it work. It was 1936, I was 14, and I produced and developed several shots of my prize-winning soap box racer - that one of my galleries would kill for. From there, I earned money developing and printing at 50 cents a roll. I began to make and sell kiddy pictures with a $10, ancient Graflex with a stationary back. I could cover half a frame with a cardboard blind and get two shots on one full sheet of film. I built an enlarger from a coffee can. It focused up and down my coalbin darkroom wall on some slats from an expanding table I had found in the vacant lot separating my house from the baseball diamond of James Monroe High School. Hank Greenberg lofted home runs over that fence, one of which rolled into my yard.
What was your first commercial job?
In 1939, the year I was 17, I noticed that the windows of shops on downtown 57th Street were lit by then-new neon lamps. I lugged my $5 tripod downtown at night and began making Graflex time exposures of displays. My first and best sale was to the Hammond Organ Company. They bought five at $5 each and began sending me to churches, where I photographed Hammond organs, often near corpses in coffins. I loved these bodies - because they didn't move through my long-time exposures on outdated DuPont film. That year, I was probably in more churches than any Jewish kid in New York. I had two brushes with fame: I photographed Lily Pons at her home organ and as I later figured out, she probably wanted something more than my help in uncricking her neck. Every time I saw a movie of her, I wondered about her neck.
My second brush was outside Tiffany's, down the street from Hammond Organ. There, bubbling with springtime bonhomie, was Cary Grant in a houndstooth sport coat. He was waiting for someone. I wheeled my big Graflex around, and instead of shooting first, I stupidly asked, "Are you Cary Grant?" "Oh no, my lad," said Cary Grant, "Oy wishe I werrre."
The war intervened, during which you were navigator on B-24s that flew 52 missions. When you returned, your career began to take off, no more department store displays or corpses in churches. How did you get your break at Life Magazine?
I was about to fly my most memorable mission from Washington. We had just missed transporting a USO troop with a planeload of WACs to postwar Germany. But now we were merely flying an empty C-54 when, at 250 mph or so, we hit a snowstorm over Prince Edward Island. It was Sunday, March 23rd, 1947 and our gas stop would be in Newfoundland. Flying blind, we were talking to the tower at Harmon Field, 30 miles away, who ordered us to head north and let down over the water until we'd cleared the storm. Our maps showed no mountain higher than 2200 feet. I was standing between pilot and co-pilot, peering ahead from our storm-tossed plane, desperately trying to see Harmon Field, which the tower said was bathed in sunshine. Suddenly we crashed; it was as if we had driven a car at high speed over a two-foot curb.
The pilots cursed as they lost control and I hit the floor. We seemed to be slip-sliding on the water. In 20 seconds of tobogganing, while I was curled in a tight ball waiting for the second crash, I said, "Goodbye, Jane" to my daughter who was six months old that day. Suddenly, we came to a smooth stop, as on an elevator gone mad, then sane. We figured out that we had crashed a couple of hundred yards back on a snowbank and slid all the way down to within half a football field of a 1500-foot drop. Had we not crashed, we would have flown into the looming mountain.
A helicopter kit was flown up from Hamilton Field, Brooklyn, and reassembled to lift us off the mountain. An Air Force chaplain had visited Florence that day to tell her to expect the worst; very few fliers survived crashes in the mountains. Her mother instantly went into mourning but Florence was calmer, she knew I'd survive. Jane - who has just been accorded the LA Bar's highest award for practicing Intellectual Property law - had just learned to say,"Da-da".
I resourcefully peddled my pictures of the crash to the AP and then Life and Look Magazines. To Look after Life had made fifty prints before they discovered they had pictured a European plane crash in the snow, a few weeks earlier. Handing me the prints, Joe Thorndike, the editor of Life who had been reading over my shoulder as I teletyped my story to the Washington Post , said, "Lieutenant, how would you like to work for Life as a writer?" I shook my head, "How about as a photographer?" "We've already got too many photographers - all these refugees. " Alfred Eisenstaedt was politely waiting to speak to Thorndike.
Bottom line - Look used my Life prints for a four-page story whose captions I wrote to their layout. Look editor Jack Gunther, offered me a job as a photographer. I'd have a chance to work with their newest hire - fotog, Stanley Kubrick. (Poor Jack, fascinated with wartime aviation, and a WW2 survivor - would die in the mid-air collision of two airliners over Bryce Canyon in Utah, six weeks later.)
The Washington Post did a big first-person layout, and their editor, Phil Graham, offered me a job as a feature writer for $12,000 a year. He knew my work. I had scored a full-page D-Day poem in his paper, as well as seven other lead stories, in his think section in 1946-7.
It was a toss of the mental coin. I figured I could always be a newspaper writer - so Art Buchwald was hired by the Post instead of me, I think. Look was OK, but not Life. Look was like the Chicago Trib, I was told, kind of a hayseed outfit. Life had the cachet that 60 Minutes does now. So I took the Life job.
I distinguished myself one night after I'd been there six weeks. I was straightening out a story I had worked on at the Waldorf, doing the captions on the Forbes celebration for the 50 men who had made America great. I was correcting a story that was about to go to bed with wrongly-identified Forbes business tycoons. The art director, at home, sounded drunken and I couldn't reach anyone else. So I wrestled my way through Life's guard structure to the small building across the street, where they kept their darkroom and negatives. I found the file of fotog Al Fenn, printed the six proper negatives on Life 's enlarger, pasted them over the bad pictures. I then raced my new layout to the plane at LaGuardia waiting to fly Life 's next issue to the Donnelly plant in Chicago.
Next working day, Managing Editor Ed Thompson thumped my back and shook my hand. "You smart f*cking little Jew - where'd you learn to make a darkroom print?" He shook his head and offered me a promotion as a Washington, DC reporter for Life and Time. From there, I became Life's youngest bureau chief. At 26, I found myself in San Francisco. Eight weeks, into my reign, I had a contretemps with Earl Warren. On Election morning, 1948, he posed for five or six phony "voting" pictures. I wanted my fotog to get him actually voting - for a story to be called, "How many times did Warren vote?"
So much for one of your little questions! (You are giving me an excellent chance to improve on my Album autobiography of the year 2000!)
My pleasure! You've published dozens of books and your photographs have graced the covers of 1,000 magazines beyond Life and Time, including Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire and Boy's Life. That's a really large body of work. I recently read about one of your more outlandish projects, although I'd bet that there were plenty more. This one has to do with heart surgery. Can you share that episode, or should I say escapade?
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