I went to work for Life in the summer of 1952. I was twenty-one years old, just out of college (where I had majored indistinctly in Greek and Latin, and had stumbled my way through the usual writing courses), and felt that it was about time I had a job. It was June. My classmates were all being drafted, or were trying to shove themselves into graduate schools, or were getting marriedoften all three things at the same time. I had a rickety deferment of sorts through the Massachusetts National Guard, which I suspected wouldn’t last, or last for very long. But I had a wondrous belief in my own invisibilityto the Army or to anyone elseand besides I too wanted to get married, or thought I did on the afternoon I went to see the personnel man at Life.
Life was in the “old building” thenone of the original gray-slab Leggo chunks of Rockefeller Center, currently occupied by General Dynamics. There was a wood-carved Mayan bird over the main entrance, which emitted weird whistling sounds on the houra demented tropical cuckoo clockand a large marble information booth in the center of the lobby, called the “fishbowl,” where Time-Life people used to meet before going to lunch. I thought it all very grand. In the corridor outside the personnel office, lean purposeful men in white button-down shirts, gray trousersstriped ties loosened, shirt sleeves rolled upstrode back and forth, carrying important-looking things under their arms. Mr. Bermingham, who was in charge of hiringand presumably firingseemed undismayed by my lack of journalistic experience; at any rate not visibly dismayed. He said that I might eventually find a place for myself there as writer. He said that they had their own approach to journalism anyway. He asked if I had any special feeling for picture journalism. Oh yes! I said loudly, in my most positive manner. He seemed reassured, if not by much.
I began work as a reporter-trainee, which is to say that I was one notch above the mailroom, and decidedly one notch below reporting. For the most part, I shuffled and sorted thousands of pictures. Life received virtually all the wire-service pictures each week, and it was my job to sort them out according to departmentsNational, Foreign, Sports, Medicineand take them around to the various reporter-researchers. I’d also gather up the old pictures, for which I was given a supermarket cart; and periodically I’d make courier trips to the airports for incoming packets of film from the overseas bureaus.
There were two of us on the job. Sid Paul, the other trainee, had been there first, about a week before me (since some of the men and women in this story are still at work, in a number of instances I have given them other names). He was a few years older than Ithin, crew-cutted, with a moustache, which was rare in those days. He had, clearly, substantial journalistic experience, and made it a point always to carry a reporter’s notebook with him “in case something should turn up.“ He advised me to do the same, which I did for a few days, except that nothing turned up. Sid confided that he was on the edge of breaking “a big gangster story,“ although he would settle for lesser stuff in the meantime. I remember him coming in, as usual about forty-five minutes latetossing his raincoat over the desk, joining me briefly at the picture-sorting counter. “Can you handle the pictures for a while,“ he’d say. “I have a story idea I want to get into Carter.“ Carter was the soberly efficient young man in charge of the National Affairs reportersor Newsfront, as it was called. Sid would flail away at the typewriter for a while, then hand me what he had written. “It’s the tallest TV tower in the East,“ Sid would say. “It’s a natural for Morse. I’m suggesting they use a helicopter and try for a full page.”
I admired Sid Paul enormously. He knew all the ropes, all the tricks. He knew who Ralph Morse was. He could see Life stories in TV towers. Also he had a girl, and not just any old college girla girl called Francie, who according to Sid, was secretly very wealthy, but worked in a nightclub in order to see how real people lived. I no longer had a girl, or was breaking up with mine, and was firmly convinced I would never find another. When Sid wasn’t making me feel dim with his stories about TV towers, he was driving me mad with tales of Francie. “Guess what?“ he’d say breathlessly, arriving at eleven in the morning, the pictures already shuffled. “Francie told me she was going to see her mother last night, but I followed her and … “ “You what?“ I said. “I followed her, and she went to a restaurant where she met this gangster, this old guy. I know he’s a gangster. A big car. Rings all over his fingers. You know the type.“ “Oh yes,“ I said. Then: “I’m going to kill her,“ he’d say thoughtfully. “You’re what?“ “I’m going to kill her,“ he’d say. “What would you do?“ “Oh, I’d probably do the same,“ I said. Sid picked up a couple of wire-service pictures off the Newsfront pile. “Hey,“ he said. “These ought to be going to Sports. They’re doing a big takeout on politicians and athletes.“ “They are?“ I said. “Sure,“ said Sid. “Kauffman is shooting in California.“ He gathered up the pictures and sauntered off. “Hi, Mait!“ he called to an older rather distinguished-looking man who was walking by. Maitland Edey was the assistant managing editor, I knew that much. “Hi, Sid,” said Mait.
Life was a friendly, first-name sort of place, whose physical layout then was somewhere between that of a well-scrubbed newspaper office and a conservative ad agency. The Newsfront reporters worked in an open area, a “bullpen,” as did the reporters in a few of the larger departments, such as Foreign and Entertainment. Writers and editors had small, wood-desk, linoleum-floor offices, which were virtually never kept closed. Sometimes, on a deadline night, a Newsfront writer might close his door. But that was only in an emergency. For the most part, the doors were always open. Everyone sauntered in and out. Everyone was pals.
In August, Sid Paul was promoted to full-fledged reporter in the Military Affairs department. We still saw each other a certain amountlunches where Sid would fill me in on his various enterprises, and on his still tangled relationship with Francie. But clearly a professional gulf now existed between us. “Just a minute, I have Admiral Vance on the horn,“ Sid would say as I stopped by his office. “It’s rather top secret.” I had been shuffling the wire-service pictures and pushing the damn supermarket cart for three months now, and was beginning to feel depressed about itas if I had been hired and retired without having had a job in between.
Then, one day, Tom Cavanaugh, a Newsfront reporter, mentioned that he’d heard there was going to be a reporter vacancy in one of the departments. He didn’t know which one. You ought to speak to Marian about it, he saidMarian being Marian MacPhail, chief of the Reporting staff, a kindly, bluff lady, daughter of Larry MacPhail, the sports impresario.
I went to see her after lunch, was in fact milling around outside her office, making chitchat with her secretary, Susan O’Reilly, a serious, square-shouldered girl from California who had nearly made the Olympics in the backstroke, and trying to arrange an appointment, which I thought would be the proper way to conduct such important business. “What in the hell are you doing out there?“ bellowed Marian. “If you want to see me, come in. If you don’t, go away.“ I went on in, and muttered my information about the new vacancy. “It’s in the Religion department,“ Marian said. “Do you want it? “ It all seemed part of a subtle and ironic schemefirst the supermarket cart, now the Religion department, one of the classic backwaters of America’s great weekly picture magazine. Still, it was a step up from picture-shuffling. “OK,“ I said. Marian looked at me. “What in hell do you want to do that for?“ “Well,“ I said in my most mature and corporate manner, “it’s a small department and I figure I’ll have a lot of responsibility.“ I had apparently struck a key chord. “Responsibility,“ Marian said. ”Well, I’m certainly pleased to hear that. I’ll speak to Bill about it.“ She stood up. “It’s not Newsfront, but I guess it has its merits. First, it’s small all right, so you can do things pretty much your own way. Secondly, it’s something Mr. Luce is interested in.“ She added: “I don’t know whether that’s a help or not.”
The Religion department of Life was indeed a small, a very small office, tucked away beside a lot of other very small offices on the twenty-eighth floorthe floor below Newsfront and Foreign and most of the important people. Two wood desks. One window. A bookshelf crammed with dusty books. Papers and files all tumbled about. And at the desk by the windowthe editor of the Religion department, Bill Thornton.
The instant Thornton and I met each other, we must have felt a mutual sense of dismay, although his I think was the more pronounced, and certainly the more plausible. Thornton was a Texan, but perhaps not most people’s idea of a conventional Texan. At first meeting he seemed kindly, confused, softspoken, vaguely intellectual, and Catholic, a combination of qualities which had apparently resulted in his being stuffed into the Religion departmentclearly not the flagship department of the magazine. Doubtless, Thornton had counted on his new reporter being one of the recently hired hotshots from upstairssome enterprising, aggressive, and orderly fellow such as Sid Paul, who would rescue him from his own disorder, and rescue his department from neglect. Instead, he had me. Not yet twenty-two years old. Probably wearing my J. Press brown suit, which was several sizes too small for me, but which I had found very natty at college and now wore nearly every day to the office. My hair was fairly long, at least a good bit longer than anyone else had theirs. “I’m glad you’re getting here now,“ he said, with obvious uncertainty. “The last fellow had to leave suddenly, and we have a big story about to close.“ “That’s good,“ I said, still trying to sound positive. Thornton smiled thinly. I smiled. “I think I better tell you,“ I said, “that I’ve never closed a story before.“ For a moment, Thornton looked sad. Then he recovered. “Oh,“ he said. ”Well, I am glad you told me. Yes. Well. It’s pretty simple. You’ll learn it fast enough. First off,“ he said brightly, “I need you to go and interview a couple of people.“ “Fine,“ I said helpfully. “I’d like to do that. I’ve never interviewed anyone before.”
In the end it didn’t work out too badly, although I was scared as hell about the interviews. Norman Vincent Peale was one. Billy Graham was another. And Father Robert Gannon, who had once been head of Fordham but was now at St. Ignatius on Eighty-fourth Street, was the third. Peale and Graham went OKthey were smooth old pros, and I think if a neighborhood dachshund had shown up with notebook and pencil he would have emerged with a presentable statement from either man. The story, in fact, was on the subject of preaching, and preachers. “Twelve Great Spellbinders,” Life called it when it appeared. Portraits by Alfred Eisenstaedt. My job was to pick up a couple of hundred words of “background” from the three remaining Spellbinders, which could be used by Bill Thornton for his “text-blocks,” which ran alongside the pictures.
First, I had tea with Dr. Peale, who talked about interior goodness. Then, twenty minutes in a hotel suite with Dr. Graham, who spoke about the virtues of young people. Father Gannon was a bit more difficult, because he was a bright, impatient man, who seemed clearly more aware than the others that he was wasting his time on a young nitwit and a blathery story. Also, heady from my relative successes with the Peale and Graham interviewsat least they hadn’t thrown me outI had decided to vary and develop my newfound reportorial manner so as to give my next subject, Gannon, some of the benefits of my gifts. Thus I did most of the talking, or at any rate a whole lot of it. At the end, Gannon led me to the door. “I’ve certainly enjoyed our conversation,” he said. A great compliment, I thought. I went back to Life and wrote it up. “What the hell is this?“ Thornton said the next day. “Fr. Robert Gannon, S.J., expressed interest in your views on the ecumenical movement. Is this what I really see before me? Do I see it with my own eyes? Tell me no. Please tell me no.” Thornton was evidently flipping out. I must help him more, I thought.
Thornton himself went off to do another interview of Gannon, which was probably good for him, being the first time he had been out of the office on a story in several years. The Eisenstaedt pictures had already been taken, processed, contacted, printedwere lying in piles on the spare chair and filing cabinets. The story was then ready to closethat mysterious and dreaded process.
“‘Spellbinders’ is closing tomorrow,” said Thornton one afternoon. Casual. Very professional. The captain takes command of his ship. Gone were the vagueness and disorderonly to be replaced, I discovered, by a gentle malaise of anxiety and worry. The next morning we were scheduled to show pictureswith a commentary by the reporter, meto Ed Thompson, the managing editor. Big Ed. The brusque, roughhewn managing editor from the Midwest, who had been hired a few years back to rescue Life from its too extensive dabblings in Culture and move it into News. Ed Thompson didn’t give a damn about the Renaissance Man series. Ed Thompson smoked cigars all day long. He swore aloud. He had been a colonel in the Air Force. He was the best damn picture man in the country, said hotshot Newsfront reporters admiringly.
“Are you sure you have all the pictures?“ Thornton kept asking. “Better bring the contact sheets. Do you have the contact sheets? Do you have them in the right order?“ Yes, I said. I was a bit offended by his anxiety. “What order?“ he asked. I showed him. “OK,“ he said distractedly. Then: “You have the research, right?“ “Do I bring it with me?“ I asked. ”For God’s sake, no,“ said Thornton. ”You’re supposed know it. Look,“ he said, “it’s very simple. We go in Thompson’s office. You start spreading out the pictures. You tell him who is in the pictures. Say it’s Billy Graham. You spread out the Billy Graham pictures. You tell him what Graham is doing in the pictures. You explain to himfrom the research you already knowwhat relevance Billy Graham has to the story.“ “Easy enough,” I said. I then stayed up half the night memorizing the research. We were going be a great team.
The next morning at ten-thirty, Thornton and I went into Ed Thompson’s office. It was an enormous officemodel airplanes on the large desk. Award plaques on the wall. One whole wall was covered with cork, and future Life covers were pinned to it; layouts; graphs. Thompson, a large man in a shirt, sleeves rolled up, a rumpled look, a roundish face, was seated at a table beneath the cork looking through color slides. He turned around. “Hello,“ he said gruffly. “What do you have there?“ Thornton stepped forward. “It’s the twelve Spellbinders,“ he said, as if bearing gifts. “Jesus!“ said Thompson. I was slightly in back of Thornton, holding a couple of hundred eight-by-ten enlargements. Thompson glanced at me briefly. “Hello,“ he said. “Let’s see those.“ He reached for the pictures. For some reason, I held them back. Hadn’t Thornton told me to spread them out? Thompson reached again. I clutched the pictures tightly. A strange expression came over Thompson’s face. Suddenly I lunged forward, past him, and began spreading out my pictures over his desk. “We start with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale … “ I said. “I don’t give a damn about Peale!“ said Thompson. ”We start with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale,“ I repeated. ”Give me those pictures!“ Thompson yelled, leaping out of his chair and grabbing at the remaining prints, which started falling to the floor between us. He sat down again. There was silence. “Jesus H. Christ!“ said Ed Thompson, the best picture man in America. “Ed, if you like, I can give you a brief rundown,“ said Bill Thornton, who was down on the floor picking up the prints. Thompson stared at me. He was still clutching about fifty of the pictures to his chest, a prize dearly won. He started to hand them back to me, then thought better of it. “OK,“ he said. He seemed quite out of breath. “Just leave them here. I’ll look at them later.“ He picked up his cigar. “Come on,“ said Thornton, and led me out. “You said to spread them out,” I reminded him. We were back in our tiny office. One of the messengers brought in the new issue of Jubilee, the national Catholic weekly. Bill Thornton was staring moodily out the window. “Sometimes you have to be more flexible,” he said.
In the six months or so that I worked for him, I never got to know much of Bill Thornton. He was generally friendly and easygoing when we weren’t doing anything, which was most of the time; and friendly and worried on the periodic occasions when we were called into action. “Mait needs a page and two halves,“ Bill would say, rushing back into the office after some late-afternoon summons from upstairs. “What do we have that’s ready? Worker Priests? The Argentinian Bishop?“ “How about The Prophet Jones?“ I suggested. “Father Divine meets The Prophet Jones. We assigned it last week.“ “Golly, we did?“ Bill would grab up the picture folder and tear back upstairsthen back to the office. “OK,“ he’d announce dramaticallyHearst’s star rewrite man“I’m set to write. Feed me the research!“ “Do you want some coffee, Bill?” I’d ask, always helpful. Bill was already typing from the few pages of research onto the special ruled paper that Life writers used in order to gauge their text-blocks accurately. “I’d better not,“ he said. “I’m pretty stimulated as it is.”
It was nearly spring. I continued in the Religion department. Thornton was working, not very surreptitiously, on an original (and unsolicited) screenplay about oil wildcatters. “It’s speculative, of course,“ he would say. “But I think it’s a natural for Walter Huston.” Our department was in receipt of a few scattered stories, mostly on Southern revival groups and submitted by bureaus, and was engaged long-term on a dim and grandiose scheme about the Shroud of Turin, which required extensive cabling between Don Whitfield in the Rome bureau and myself and not much else.
My colleagues upstairs in Newsfront all seemed to be involved in distant and fine-sounding projects. Tom Cavanaugh was in Boston on a story about MIT. Bill Loomis had gone all the way to Detroit with Peter Stackpole, who was photographing the new car models. Sid Paul had departed for the Chicago bureaua definite promotion. I, and Thornton, were clearly as far out of the mainstream as ever.
Then one day I ran into Mr. Luce in the elevator. This was not supposed to happen. No one was supposed to run into Mr. Luce in the elevator. In fact, a special elevator was set aside for him, and when he appeared within the building, the elevator door would be unlocked and opened, Mr. Luce ushered inside, the doors closed, and off he would whoosh to the silences and grandeurs of the thirty-third floor. But this one day, tearing back late from lunch as usual, I rushed through the lobby, glimpsed an elevator door closing, lunged past the starter, and there I was inside, the doors closing after me, the elevator in motion, with this tall, spectacled, balding gentleman, who appeared to be scowling and staring at the floor.
Presently he looked at me. Probably he thought that if he looked at me hard enough I would go away. I recognized our founder. The editor in chief. “Hello, Mr. Luce,“ I mumbled, or something like it, attempting to combine my best party manners with Time-Life camaraderie. ”Who are you?“ he asked. I told him. “Where do you work?“ he asked. ”The Life Religion department,“ I said. “Religion, eh?“ he said, brightening for the first time. “Lot of big stories in religion,“ he said. I nodded. He looked at me. “You have any?“ I don’t know what prompted me to say anything at that point but no, which was the truth, not counting the Argentine priest and a nun’s rock collection in Georgia. I said, quite wildly: “Yes. We’re planning a big essay on the Jesuits.” Luce stared again at me, and I realized why I had said it: two days ago I had come across a large photograph in the Times of Mr. Henry Luce and an important Jesuit monsignor chatting together at a theological gathering. The elevator started slowing downmy floor. Luce suddenly reached out and grasped my arm. “I’m glad to hear that,“ he said solemnly. “There’s a great story there.“ The doors opened and I lurched out. “Keep up the good work!” the founder called.
Back in the office, Thornton, as was his habit lately, was pacing the floor behind his deskan area of about five square feetdeclaiming tentative oil wildcatter’s dialogue. There were several boxes of colored slides on my desk. “Shroud of Turin,“ said Thornton. “Whitfield may be onto something. Send him an encouraging cable.“ Thornton continued his pacing. “What do you think of the Jesuits as an essay?“ I asked. “The Jesuits?“ said Thornton. “What have they done lately? You have to remember that this is a news magazine.“ I began peering through the color slides. Thornton sat down and started typing. The phone rang. “Yes,“ he said. “Right away,“ he said. His aide-de-camp voice. He scooted out of his desk toward the door. “Ed,“ he said. “Probably wants to look at the Argentine priest layout. Make sure it’s ready.“ In about ten minutes he was back. I had the Argentine priest layout ready for him. “I don’t want that,“ he said. He seemed quite red in the face, whether from anger or excitement of some sort I couldn’t tell. “Ed told me that he had just had a phone call from Mr. Luce. He said that Mr. Luce was very interested in our essay on the Jesuits. Ed, too, is very interested in our essay on the Jesuits.“ He paused. “Do we have an essay on the Jesuits?“ I told him no. I told him what had happened. “I see,“ he said. “Well, I told Ed that it was ’in the works.′ But I think you’d better do something on it pretty soon. You know, preliminary research. A script. They’ll never assign it.”
I did what Thornton suggested. I read a book about the Jesuitsa quite interesting popular biography by René Fülöp-Miller, which I found in the Time-Life library. I went to one of the local Jesuit offices and obtained a lot of pamphlets which told about the various Jesuit enterprises around the countrynotable teachers, picturesque seminaries. I even spoke with a couple of Jesuitsone, a solemn, smooth-talking young man who intoned endlessly about the Jesuit retreat movement, and what a help it was to businessmen; the other, an elderly, bumptious Irishman called Duffy, who had been a missionary most of his life, and spoke glowingly of good works in far-off places.
“Ed asked me again about the Jesuit thing,“ said Thornton. “Better do the script. And play up the retreat movement. I was on one once. It was very inspiring.”
I wrote the script that weekendlabored over it. Cups of coffee. Torn-up beginnings. I dredged a preamble out of the Fülöp-Miller book: the historic role of the Jesuits, their importance now, and so forth. I listed the various picturable enterprises they were up to, which was difficult, since most of them involved teaching. Of Father Hagerty, the eminent Tulane astronomer, I suggested that we take him out to Lake Pontchartrain on a “moon-drenched night” (I believe that was the phrase) and photograph him beneath the stars. Of Dr. Spaulding, the California geologist, I suggested that we photograph him on a field trip in the Sierras. There were worker-priests in Philadelphia. A Jesuit vineyard north of San Francisco. A labor negotiator in Texas. I threw in a long thing on the retreat movement, which sounded deadly. Also seminaries. Toward the endit was late at nightI remembered Father Duffy and his missions. I described Jesuits plying the shark-infested waters off Fiji in their sailing canoe. I described Jesuits hiking over the mountains of Central America, ministering to the chicle workers of Honduras. I described Father Archibald, the Alaskan missionary, taxiing his single engine Cessna across the frozen tundra. I turned it in. One copy to Thornton, another to Ray Mackland, the assignment chief.
“It’s certainly long,“ Thornton said distractedly. “What do you think we’re running here‘True Adventure’? Anyway,“ he said, “that’s done with.“ General silence. Cables from Whitfield in Rome expressing gratitude at our cables of encouragement. Cables from Whitfield requesting five thousand dollars in order to bribe one of the Knights of Malta. And so forth. One day, a phone call from Mackland’s secretary: “Isn’t there any place closer than Fiji where Father what’s-his-name does, uh, you know … ?“ I said I didn’t think so. Silence. One afternoon a senior editor stopped me in the hall. “I hear you have a big story going on the Vatican or something,“ he said. Silence. Then, one evening, one Saturday, when I was home, the phone rang. It was Marian MacPhail. “I don’t know what this is about,“ she said, “and I certainly don’t approve, but Margaret Bourke-White is flying in here Monday from California, and on Wednesday I gather you she are going to some damn place in Central America. You better get a passport and your shots.”
I did. And we left on Wednesday, a night flight on a DC-6 to New Orleans; and for a few weeks, almost two months, life was finally absolutely perfectly all that I had ever wanted it to beas I look back on it, a sort of delayed schoolboy dream of adventure, travel, excitement, even professionalism.
In the few days before leaving New York, Thornton seemed more distracted than ever. For one thing, I think he was having trouble with his agenthe had recently acquired an agentover the oil wildcatt screenplay. I don’t know what the other things were. “Don’t overlook the retreat movement,“ he said. “And make sure you get the captions right.“ My colleagues at Newsfront were full of expert advice. Tom Cavanaugh counseled me on the expense account. Jim Phillips had once had stomach trouble while on a story in Baltimore; he advised me not to eat anything while I was out of the country. Bill Loomis, and indeed all of them, commiserated on my having Bourke-White as a traveling companion. I had never met Bourke-White. She had been traveling with a band of South Korean guerrillas recently, and had been resting up from that experience in California. Her nerves had been badly shaken in Korea, according to reports. She had been taken out of Seoul on a stretcher, someone said. My friends, however, seemed less concerned with her health than mine. “She’ll work you to death,“ said Loomis. “All you ever do on a Bourke-White story is lug cameras. She has five cameras for every picture, and she shoots ten rolls of film for each frame they use. It’s a real bitch of a job.” I didn’t know what he was talking abouta real bitch of a job. Clearly that was the professional view. I said that I wouldn’t let her push me around. I didn’t say what I thought: that it sounded like the best deal I’d ever had, and that I’d have gladly carried Bourke-White herself in order to go on it.
We met at the Life photo lab, just before leaving the airport. Camera cases and equipment all over the floor. Bourke-White was a handsome woman, graying hair. She wore a peasant skirt, I remember, and was alternately worrying at and joking with two lab technicians who were trying to fix a tripod. Her manner to me was polite, almost formal at first, and enthusiastic about the story. “I think this is going to be fascinating,“ she said. “I want to know everything there is about the Jesuits.”
The plan was that we would spend a few days in New Orleans, photographing the Tulane astronomer, and others, before heading down to Belize in British Honduras. Early summer in New Orleans. Hot, steamythe first time I had been there. I was constantly excitedrushing between shooting dates to bars and jazz places, tearing around the tiny French Quarter as if the next turn in the street would doubtless reveal the never-revealed but always anticipated depravity of the city.
Bourke-White, I thought, was terrific. In the first place, she was intent on the Jesuit story, and so I didn’t have to sell her on an idea that I was only dimly familiar with myself. In the second place (or maybe in the first place, after all), although she was then probably twice my age, she was nonetheless a striking figurequite dashing, full of energy, and really very nice. She had been everywhere. She seemed interested in everything. Having a drink with Bourke-White at the Roosevelt after work seemed, in fact, a hell of a lot more fun than having a drink with Ralph Morse, or even with Alfred Eisenstaedt. She was also, evidently, a woman who had gone far in what was then very much a man’s world by energy and skill, as well as by a very definite ability at handling men. She would take a great lump of a Jesuit, sitting in his chair in a university, and somehow get him not merely to do something, to move, but also to reveal something of himself, his buried life, in motion and expression. And when he didn’t want any more pictures taken, when he proclaimed himself tired or late for something, and she still wanted morethen she would wheedle, joke, cajole, become aggrieved, dramatic, sexy, anything at all in order to get four more pictures. She would handle me too. “Don’t you think it might be better to shoot Father Hagerty in that fascinating astronomy lab rather than by the lake?“ And: “Don’t you think what we want to do is go to that fine lobster place across the river?“ And: “Don’t you think we ought to tell the waiter to chill the wine a little longer?“ And: “You just tell me when to be ready in the morning, and I’ll be there. Probably about nine-thirty would be right, don’t you think?“ She was imperious at times, but (so I thought) graciously so. “Please take the Hasselblad case,“ she’d say, “and the two Nikons, and, oh yes, the tripod. Can you manage?”
Of course I could manage. At times I remembered what my colleagues had said about how I should stand up for my rightsthat I was a reporter and not some photographer’s assistant. But none of that seemed to make much sense just then. I cheerfully lugged the Hasselblad and all the rest of it, arranged to talk to Jesuits I needed to talk to in intervals when she wasn’t photographing them, took down my endless captions in little notebooks, and felt finally almost professional and exhilarated.
We flew on to Central America. First, Belize in British Honduras. The hotel was on the water. White stucco. Neocolonial. It had just been completed, apparently, and we were among the first people to stay in it. Pelicans on the dock posts outside. Mangoes for breakfast. We had two rooms on an upstairs floor. “Two rooms?“ the desk clerk had said. “Yes, of course,” the clerk said. Sometimes I felt like her son. Mostly I did not.
We were together most of the time. In the evenings, after work, sitting in the near empty patio of the hotel, the air heavy and sweet, she told me snatches of her lifeof starting to take photographs in Cleveland, of traveling with Erskine Caldwell, whom she’d been married to, and of a trip to Russia, something about India, where she’d been on assignment during the civil war, about music, or anyway musicians. I gave her selections from my life, conscious that it had not yet existed, or perhaps had just then begun to exist: the girl I had broken up with; journalism, about which I had many grand ideas; even Jesuits. I remember walking back with her one eveningwe had been having dinner with the Jesuit bishop, a kindly, intelligent man, covered in robes and rings despite the hot night. Stray dogs trotting down the empty streets. Buzzards sleeping in the trees. I was aware of Bourke-White beside me. She was certainly not my mother. I was certainly not her son. What were we? No, certainly not what the desk clerk had thought. In truth, never in my life up to then, what with boarding schools and all those later variants of school boy- conceived conquests, or thoughts of conquest, had I ever felt open or at ease with a sexually attractive woman. Possibly, then, we were friends.
In Belize, I remember the mission schools we photographedshe photographed. I remember breakfast on the hotel balcony, drinking sweet, gritty coffee, reading the local morning paper, full of alternating accounts of agricultural committees and violent crime. I remember the heat. A group of German machinery salesmen. I remember Bourke-White seated on her bed, loading film. And I remember the balls of crumpled paper that were always in the wastebasket, on the floor beside the wastebasket. “Are you writing something?“ I asked. “Yes,“ she said. “I’m not an easy writer.”
We left Belize to go down the coast. Two Jesuits had a small mission in a fishing village. Dugout canoes. Choppy blue water. The smell of seaweed. There was a colony, perhaps a dozen families, of Carib Indians who lived on an outlying island. Jesuits visited them each month. We went along. A sailboat filled with camera equipment. The water was full of salt, light blue, and looked quite evil. We were shown a grinning man who had his arm taken off by a barracuda some months earlier. An enormous feast of fish upon the beach. Blessings from the Jesuits. Toothy laughter and hoarse, crackling singing.
We went inland now toward the chicle plantation. More Jesuit schools along the way. The chicle plantation had been closed by some disease. Father Hertzbergtall, fierce, unshaven, Germanictook us down a winding river in a rickety motorboat. He had an old handwinding gramophone along, and played jaunty 1920s music into the silences of the riverbanks. We spent the night in a clearing beside the river. The next morning about a dozen women and children appeared out of the foliage. Father Hertzberg said a small Mass, and heard confession. The women grinned disbelievingly at Bourke-White. Back on the coast, we heard of yet another mission, small remote outpost of Jesuits, high in the mountains near the Guatemalan border. “How do we get there?“ Bourke-White asked. “You go through the jungle. It takes about two weeks,“ the Jesuit said. Instead, we walked on a dirt road for about five miles, and then took a rickety bus back down the coast to San Jacinto, a province seat. I had thought we would then work our way back to Belize. Bourke-White asked me to call an air charter service in Belize and charter a bush plane to fly us over the jungle. The charter service said they wouldn’t do it. ”Then we’d better try to get Pan Am in New Orleans and see what they have,“ said Bourke-White. “Don’t you think?“ Unbelievably, it was arranged. (“Ask them if Ed Joyce is still around,“ Bourke-White said. “He flew me in a bomber over Anzio.”) Two days later a DC-6 landed on the primitive grass airfield at San Jacinto. It seemed a big planeoccupied by the two of us, and three gangling young men carrying equipment, and by the Pan Am crew, which included a steward and what seemed at least a forty-day supply of Argentinian champagne.
We sipped the champagne and flew above the jungle, above the foothills of the mountains, above the mountains. We were told the village was near a plateau, and that there was an airfield. We circled over seas of grass and treetops. The pilot had a map. I had a map. “This must be the place,“ the pilot said. “It doesn’t look like an airfield to me.“ “Of course it’s an airfield,“ Bourke-White said. “Just put us down. You’re terribly good. You’ll see how easy it is.“ We led down over an expanse of grass, lying between mountains. On the side of one of the mountains were white houses, even a church. “See, how lovely it is!“ said Bourke-White. Then: ”Oh, you are such a good pilot.“ We came in low. ”My God, planes have landed here?“ the pilot said. “Now, don’t worry,“ Burke-White said. “It’s all grass.“ We thumped along the field, or mountain, or whatever it was, bouncing at times into the airthen stopped. “Jesus,“ the pilot said. “That was just wonderful,“ Bourke-White said. Stairs were put down. In the distance, across the waving grass, a man in a pith helmet was leading a team of mules toward us. “Now be sure to send us the bill,“ said Bourke-White, going down the stairs. ”Life magazine. Rockefeller Center.“ “The bill?“ the steward said. “Well, you didn’t expect us to pay cash, did you?” said Bourke-White.
We climbed all afternoon on donkeys up into the mountains. There was a trail of sorts, mostly loose stones, and at times very steep. I thought it terrifyingbumping along atop some tiny steed, its feet periodically stumbling, slipping, my own hands clutching the pommel, the burro’s mane, anything. Bourke-White seemed quite at ease, invigorated. We went through a tropical cloudbursta sudden darkening of the sky, wild lightning in the distance, and then torrents of rain. We put our ponchos over the equipment. Everyone was soaked, then steaming, in the sun that followed. Bourke-White was whistling. “Isn’t this marvelous?” she said.
It was, tooespecially when we reached the village, San Miguel. White buildings scattered against the side of a green mountain. Red tiles. Atop the mountain there was a flat area with a church, and several other buildings. Father Timoney’s parish. It felt like the top of the worldsky and clouds just above one’s head, and green, dark green mountains, and then jungle rolling off in either direction as far as the eye could see. We were billeted in the schoolhouse. Two tiny rooms upstairs. Cool wooden floors. The smell of plaster. A large shy woman brought us tortillas and a kind of tea.
At night I couldn’t sleepthe room seemed hot and airlessand went outside. A full moon in the sky. Someone was standing on the far side of the courtyard, near a fountain. I went over. Bourke-White. “I guess I couldn’t sleep,“ she said. She looked strange in the light. “Is there something wrong?“ I said. “Of course not,“ she said, almost annoyed. We went back in. The next morning the sun already was burning hot when we woke upeight o’clock or so. We went with Father Timoney, once again on muleback, to follow him on his rounds. The four of usTimoney, Bourke-White, myself, and Joaquin, one of the boystrotting along on mules down one small valley, up again to another hillside. Clusters of small houses. Shacks really. Tin roofs. Papery walls. The children seemed scrawny and listless. Bourke-White took pictures everywhere. There was one old man, evidently dying, whom Father Timoney stopped a while to talk to. The shack was so dark inside that you could barely make out his face, which was old and gaunt and yellowed. Bourke-White wouldn’t allow us to leave. “I need more pictures,“ she said. I had seen her aggressive before, but somehow not like this. A woman, the old man’s daughter, motioned to Timoney. Timoney said that we must leave or anyway stop taking picturesthe old man felt that the camera would steal his soul. Bourke-White began to cry, or something like crying. “But this is so good,“ she said. “We must stay longer. We must.”
That night, back at the mission, I woke up once and heard her pacing the floor. Some other time I thought I heard someone outside my door, but nothing happened and I was too deep in sleep. The next morning she was sickthe large shy woman told me. I went in to see her. She seemed feverish, pale. The room was hot. I noticed more crumpled balls of paper on the floor. “Were you writing?“ I said. “Writing?“ she said. She seemed not to understand. “It’s just a bug,“ she said. “It will pass in a day or less.“ I spent the day talking to Father Timoney, and working over my notes in the shade of the courtyard. I found a bottle of native rum and brought it to Bourke-White. She still seemed feverish but less pale. That night there was some sort of native celebrationsinging, the music of guitar-like instruments, a kind of wailing, much drinking, dancing, loud voices. In the middle of the night, half asleep, I heard something fall in the next room. I went in. Bourke-White was sitting at the side of her bed. “I’m sorry I woke you,“ she said. “It was a jar or bottle. Clumsy of me.“ I picked up the jar. There were more balls of paper beside the bed. I picked one up. “I’m not writing anything,“ she said. “There’s something the matter with my hand or arm. I’m trying to fix it.“ “Does it hurt?“ I asked. “No, it doesn’t hurt.“ She laughed. “But it makes me clumsy. Now go to sleep.”
In the morning she was better, but not really well. Father Timoney came by. The old man in the nearby village was going to die soon, he said, and he was going back to him. We all went back. Bourke-White no longer seemed fragile and I wondered if she had ever been. The room was dark as before but now there were candles. The old man lay upon the bed. His eyes were open. He spoke in a soft but rasping voice to a woman beside the bed. There were other people in the room. A child was lying down at the foot of the bed. Father Timoney said some words in Latin. One of the women started to sing what sounded like an Indian song, which others joined in. At one point the old man smiled, or seemed to smile. I looked at Bourke-White. Not having cameras, or at any rate not holding, working a camera, she seemed grave and uncertain. We went outside. “My God,“ she said, ”how is it possible not to be afraid of death?“ “I don’t know,“ I saidit wasn’t a subject I thought much about. “That room was so hot,“ she said. Then: “Don’t you think somebody here might have some water, or one of those cold teas?”
The old man died that afternoon. We stayed with Father Timoney another two days in order to photograph the funeral: a strange, colorful procedure, half pagan, half Catholic. Bourke-White by then was completely professional, which I found reassuring. I remember her the last day there, an afternoon when we were taking photographs of Timoney against the tiny church. He was seated on a low wall, the range of mountains stretched out behind him. It was as always a sun-filled day, but this time there was a breeze, the sun felt cooler. A nice day. Bourke-White stood atop the wall, surveying the scene, her scene. Her head was very erect. Her eyes bright and close to laughing, as they often were. She jumped down from the wall. She had nice legs, I thought. “Come on,“ she said to me. “We’ve done it. Let’s go.”
I remember the trip back down the mountain. Parrot-like birds in the trees. The air still cool. The mules slipping and sliding, but I was an old hand at mules by then. It seemed like a marvelously happy time. We detoured several hours to see some ruins of a Mayan temple, a huge thing like a hill now, covered with vines and leaves, green, beautiful. Bourke-White took more photographs. We were in no hurry, nothing seemed to require any hurry, and for a moment there I had the feeling that we would never leave (perhaps as a child feels on vacations), that this is how it would always be, forever, Bourke-White taking photographs, and I munching dried fruit and chocolate and scribbling captions. But then we left. Back to the coast. Back to Belize for two hours. Back to New Orleans. In New Orleans we were to rest a few days before continuing to Texas and California and Alaska for more Jesuits. Instead, I had word waiting for me, via Bill Thornton and Selective Service, that I had been drafted. I went back to New York and to the Army. Bourke-White continued herself on the story, which appeared the next fall in Life. Fourteen pages. Photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. I had a Christmas card two years later from Father Timoney. He had been transferred to Samoa. He said we should visit him.
I have thought of Bourke-White often since that time. I saw her again briefly, right after the ArmyI had already departed from Life, and she was on her way that afternoon to California. She was going to photograph the coastline from a helicopter, I think. We said a cheery hello, good-bye on the street. I remember the wind was blowing her hair, gray hair. The usual camera cases were on the sidewalk. I saw her once after that, about seven years ago, not too many years before her eventual death from Parkinson’s disease, which had been the paperball disease that neither of us had known about in San Miguel. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut. “Do you remember the photographer, Margaret Bourke-White?“ my friend said. “She lives down the road.” I went by there on impulse. I knew she had been very sick, had nearly conquered Parkinson’s, had nearly conquered … She was different that day in Connecticutso many hard things had happened to her. She was also much the samethe eyes, that brave look. We talked briefly about the old days at Lifethat distant place or country where we had both once met, where she in fact had spent, or given, much of her life, and which I (on another orbit) had been passing through. The old days. Old friendsmany of my old Newsfront colleagues indeed were now running the place, although the mood of the place seemed to have changed. They were now tilting at television, shaving costs, worrying about the advertising. Bourke-White sat in a chair in a dark corner of the room. She seemed tired, but still with such vibrance. I remembered the old man in the dark room. I said then: “That night in the village, late at nightwere you afraid?“ She nodded. “I didn’t know of what. Later, I wasn’t afraid.“ I said: “It must have been hard on you that I was so very young.“ She smiled a bit. “No, that wasn’t the hard part.“ And: “You really were so green.“ And then: ”But the old man frightened me. I thought I had seen everything, but I had never seen him before.“ Shortly, I got up to leave. She waved. “Good-bye.” I said good-bye. Good-bye.
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