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Rex Hardy: When I got out of Stanford, I wanted some adventure. I had run across Peter Stackpole, and I wanted to be like him. A chap I had gone to school with was going to open an office for Life, the new magazine, and hired me to cover Hollywood at $30 a week. The first picture I took of any consequence was of a newcomer named Robert Taylor combing his hair. It was captioned "Beautiful Robert Taylor" in the first issue. That issue listed only four of the photographers on the masthead: Margaret Bourke-White, Peter Stackpole, Tom McAvoy and Alfred Eisenstaedt. The other four were myself, Bernard Hoffman and Bill Vandivert in Chicago, and Carl Mydans in New York. After I was in Hollywood for several months, I got summoned to New York. I took the TWA sleeper from Burbank, which was the airport for Los Angeles, and met Wilson Hicks, who had become the picture editor. He said, "You get a raise to $40 a week," so I was living pretty high. Life's offices were in the Chrysler Building, where we could keep our equipment and wait for a summons. The summons only came every so often, but we had to show up at the office every day.
My three covers were all surprises to me. Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers had been taken on a movie set where they were rehearsing. I was just snapping away and made 30 or 40 pictures. Months later the magazine came out with one of the photographs on the cover. I took Harpo Marx at a weekend party in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He didn't have his wig and was sensitive about his baldness, so he made a little crown of leaves and put it on. I snapped his picture, and again to my surprise, there was Marx posing like a Roman emperor on Life's cover. The third was just as coincidental. Some editor suggested I go see Lucius Beebe, who was a well-known bon vivant at the time. We hit it off, and he put on a fancy vest and a top hat and wore a hearty watch chain across the vest. I thought that was a very good picture. Most of the time, I used a Leica, but here I used a 4x5 inch camera on a tripod. The photographer Otto Hagel suggested that I use flashbulbs located remotely, away from the camera. In those days, flashbulbs were the size of ordinary light bulbs, and you screwed them in and shot them off. I had bought some light fixtures, which I could carry around in a sort of suitcase. Otto was extremely good in technical matters. He had come from Germany with Hansel Mieth and photographed a lot for Fortune. He showed all of us how to arrange these lights and how to use the large cameras.
Henry Luce held court daily in a place called the Cloud Club, on the top floor of the Chrysler Building. I had the honor of having lunch with him there and looking around and seeing the likes of Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airways, and other tycoons. Luce was aloof and fairly cool. I can't say I knew him, but I came to know his wife [Clare Boothe Luce]. They were very kind to me. They had a big estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and they used to entertain on a grand scale on Sundays. Several times I was invited to lunch there. Later on, over the years, Mrs. Luce would pass through San Francisco and occasionally give me a telephone call. I've always thought extremely highly of her for her kindness to a very young man. I was 22.
Lifehad a picture of a different photographer in the back of the magazine every week, and whenever they had occasion to use me, they always referred to me as "Life's youngest photographer." I wasn't much younger than anybody else, but at the time it seemed so, and I was embarrassed by this tag. Peter Stackpole was the next youngest, and he's only a couple of years older than I. Of course, Miss Bourke-White (none of us called her anything but Miss Bourke-White) was a veteran. She had an office of her own, with a secretary, and adjoining that was a larger room for the rest of us. You tiptoed around her, but she was away a good deal of the time, up in Alaska with the Eskimos or in Europe someplace. Her secretary, Margaret Smith, was very good to all of us and did quite a bit for us. On a couple of occasions, I would rent a car with Margaret and go out to Newark, which was the airport for New York in those days, and pick Miss Bourke-White up from one of her trips. She always used a large camera on a tripod and had a collection of cameras which were absolutely beautiful, made of rosewood, with red leather bellows. She carried big suitcases around and had people following her, carrying -- well, she was so imperious that she could get a bank president to carry her lights for her, that sort of a thing. She wasn't like the rest of us at all.
And we didn't see much of Eisenstaedt. He used to come to the office occasionally, but in the office were mostly Mydans and Stackpole and myself. Mydans and I had an apartment in New York together. At one point, I had run into a girl I had known at Stanford who was then a researcher at Life, and I introduced her to Carl. At the end of 1937 I was sent back to the Coast to do another Hollywood stint, and Carl wrote me to say I might be surprised to know that he was marrying my friend Shelley Smith.
Carl was very nice to me. He was a little bit older than we were. He was helpful and cooperative, but Carl was primarily a journalist from the very beginning. The pictures he took were coincidental with him. Some of the photographers were more concerned with the artistic end of things. I was neither artistic nor journalistically inclined, really. I was inclined toward adventure and experience. I was doing what Mr. Hicks told me to do. I was sort of typed to be the "
LifeGoes to a Party" man, which I didn't much care about, but I did do a story on Haiti with a man named Alexander King, who was one of Mrs. Luce's friends.
King was mostly involved with theatrical people, and he became a Life editor, with a sort of roving commission. He wasn't a magazine type. He was a very eccentric but a very likable man -- a wild-haired fellow and a Hungarian. For some reason he got very interested in Haiti, which was having a war with its neighbor on the same island, Santo Domingo. He asked for me to come with him, and we sailed to Haiti on a ship, which was really the only way to get there at that time, although Pan American had a weekly flight.
We stayed in Haiti several weeks, taking various pictures around the place. We took some pictures of the President's inauguration. But what we really wanted to see was this war with the neighboring country, so we hired a car and driver and drove up into the mountains on a bad road, and took two or three pictures on the border and so on. Then we came back, and through some anthropologist King knew, we got involved in this voodoo thing. It took up several pages in Life, and I was very disappointed. It was simply a ceremony in the jungle. They massacred a chicken, did a lot of dancing around and beating of the drums, and I set off a jillion flashbulbs (which I threw in the jungle), but I didn't think the pictures showed very much. There's a double-page spread, as I recall it now, of various aspects of the chicken massacre, that sort of thing. Although it didn't seem to me that we accomplished a great deal, there were two or three dramatic pictures that came from it. We did go up to King Christophe's citadel, a really extraordinary place up in the mountains, but I didn't do much with the people themselves. If I had been older and wiser, I think I could have done more about photographing the essential Haiti. The squalor. I'd try to get at the heart of that very strange place.
John Loengard: When did you feel that you did get to the heart of things?
I don't know that I ever did. Maybe that's why I was glad to get out of it. I guess I lost my girlish laughter early. Partly due to Hicks.
You didn't like him?
He was oppressive to me. He was a very cold man, and I was a very young man on my first job. I don't think we ever got a commendation. He'd look at the stack of pictures and flip through them and say, "Where's your overall shot?" And that was the end of it. I don't know when Hicks came, but I think my summons to New York after a few months in Hollywood at the beginning was initiated by Hicks. I had taken some pictures of some aerial maneuvers that the Air Corps was doing at that time. They turned out quite well, and on the strength of those pictures, I think, Hicks ordered me to New York. He kind of let on that it was a good job, but I don't know that Life ever used it. That was the most discouraging thing. We never found out what was going to happen to our pictures. We would work hard on a particular job, and wait and wait and wait and wait, and the pictures either turned up or they didn't. I don't suppose a tenth of the pictures I took were used, or a tenth of the stories I did were used. This got kind of discouraging after a bit.
When I came back from Hollywood the second time, Life had moved from the Chrysler Building to the Time & Life Building -- not the present one, a smaller one nearby. Apparently, they had forgotten about the photographers, so we had offices around the corner. If we were summoned to Mr. Hicks' presence, we had to walk out the building and up the street to the Time & Life Building, and it wasn't nearly as homey as it had been in the Chrysler Building. In 1939 Mr. Hicks and I became discontented with one another. I missed California very badly, so I left and went back there as a free-lance. The Navy came along, and that was the end of it for me. I lacked the talent that the rest of these people had, as well as the temperament.
What kind of temperament?
I guess I lacked the ego of the performer. Others liked publicity more than I, and frequently there was jealousy about it. It was a kind of world that I didn't feel comfortable in. I was offered a commission as an officer in the Navy. I believed we were going to get in the war and should get in it. The Navy sent me to flight school, and from that I went to the Solomon Islands as the commander of a big B-24 bomber, which had one of the four bomb bays converted to mapping cameras. I spent the war years doing that kind of work, and I felt that I got the best education in the world in aviation. I got along with the aviation people. I felt more at home with them than I had ever felt with the photographic and publishing people, so I simply stayed in aviation the rest of my life.
On the Life staff 1936-39
Interviewed in San Francisco on August 15, 1993
Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown & Co. Copyright © 1998 John Loengard and Bob Adelman.