Margaret Bourke-White
the author

The Last Days of a Legend

She had been the world's most famous photographer, but by the time of her death from Parkinson's Disease, MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE was isolated from all but a few colleagues. Here, the author of a new Bourke-White collection recalls working with her in those final days, and how he came to know her as the consummate journalist.

By Sean Callahan

"Can you go up to Connecticut and meet with Bourke-White and find out what the hell is going on," said Dick Pollard when I walked into his office at Life. This was actually an order, not a question, since he was the picture editor of the magazine and I a newly minted junior editor. It was 1970 and Life was still the world's preeminent showcase for photojournalism. Pollard's title put him near the top of the masthead, but he had a special clout because he had been with the magazine since its beginnings in the late '30s. He had worked with all the great Life photographers, carrying their cameras, taking down the picture captions, comforting their spouses and lovers (and never confusing the two).

On this day, Pollard overlaid his authority with a theatrical crankiness. He said he'd been getting calls from gallery owners who wanted to put up exhibitions of Margaret Bourke-White's photographs, but he hadn't been able to communicate on the phone with her about the projects. "With my bad ear and her Parkinsonism--even if I can get her on the phone, I can't understand her," he said.

His bluster was a cover for a concern for an old colleague. Bourke-White was more than just a member of the Life family; she was a founding mother--the photographer who shot the magazine's first cover (November 23, 1936). Although she hadn't taken a picture for the magazine since 1957, her name remained on the masthead until 1969.

Ft. Peck Dam construction,
Life's first cover.

Bourke-White was more than just an in-house link to a glamorous past, however. She was a world-famous symbol of swashbuckling photojournalism, perhaps more widely known and celebrated than any photographer has ever been. Becoming whom she did in a male dominated world made her achievements only more legendary.

But by the late 1960s the celebration of the '30s, '40s, and '50s had been replaced by sickness and isolation. With no husband or children of her own, she relied on her Life family--now in the person of Dick Pollard--to help her deal with the outside world. As the new kid in the photo department, I was being dispatched on an errand by the adults of the household.

Margaret Bourke-White felt the first effects of Parkinson's disease while in Korea in 1952. The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on a Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed, was known to the Life staff as "Maggie the Indestructible." But fierce pride and a ferocious work ethic compelled her to keep her self-described "mysterious malady" a secret from her colleagues for years.

She had just turned 50 when she had to slow her career to fight off encroaching paralysis, first with physical therapy and then, in 1959 and again in 1961, with brain surgery. The operations stilled her tremors but caused her speech to become impaired. She went about writing her memoirs (an autobiography, Portrait of Myself, was published in 1963 and became a best seller) but in the following years she grew increasingly infirm and gradually withdrew from the world.

Two failed marriages and numerous passionate (and very public) love affairs had fallen victim to Bourke-White's professional life. The invalided Peggy White was alone and had few friends. She expressed no remorse at this. Her indomitable will was focused on overcoming her affliction and, when that became less likely, staving it off.

There were money problems, however. A pension plan set up in the '50s, though generous for that time, no longer adequately covered her escalating health care costs. Her precarious financial situation was compounded by personal generosity and less-than-responsible attendant care. With the help of a neighbor friend, changes were made in her nursing care. My task was to find a way to help her capitalize on her photographic accomplishments; these had long been neglected, especially by the photographer herself.

The woman I met in Darien, Connecticut--her home lay on a rocky hill at the end of a secluded road--walked haltingly with the aid of a personal attendant. By her cheerful expression she was happy to receive a visitor; but she spoke in a painfully slow, raspy whisper. This figure, who had been a popular and well-paid personality on the lecture circuit, a commentator on CBS Radio during the war, an intimate of writers (she was married to Erskine Caldwell for a while) and editors and politicians and who could hold her own in their lively debates, now struggled mightily to string a few words together.

With husband Erskine Caldwell
covering the Russian front, 1940.

My first reaction was embarrassment, but it was misplaced. Nothing stopped her from making the effort to communicate, and she greeted me with a warmth and enthusiasm that actually seemed inappropriate for a first meeting--that is, until I realized that we had this "family" connection.

Much of the conversation that day was small talk about the magazine. "Dick sends his regards; he says he's turning deaf but conveniently so when photographers petition him about how the editors used all the wrong pictures again. Yes, Eisie still comes into the office every day and still takes the milk carton home with him after lunch, forcing the rest of the photo staff to drink their afternoon coffee black." And so on. Her eyes soared in delight as I spun out the stories.

One of the strange side effects of her Parkinsonism was that her skin was smooth and luminous. Except when she smiled, there was not line in her face, and she was then 66. But the most compelling feature was her blue-grey eyes, bright and clear and penetratingly sharp. They seemed to follow my words as if they were being projected as subtitles. I soon realized that her eyes were not effected by the paralysis, and, whether consciously or not, this was how she animated her side of a conversation. Her eyes literally danced, and she used them to replace gesture, tone, and posture.

Tea was served, a tour of the house taken--the living room was wall papered in one huge, floor-to-ceiling, perfectly-stitched-together black-and-white photograph of an evergreen forest that she had shot in Czechoslovakia in 1938--and mementos of her remarkable career discussed. By the time it was dark we agreed that she should give some pictures to the Lee Witkin Gallery, which wanted to mount a show; as factotum from the magazine, I would help her do it. As it turned out, this was just the first of many extraordinary Saturday afternoons I spent at the house over the next 18 months, revisiting the history of magazine photojournalism through the eyes of one of its foremost practitioners with her at my side to guide me through it.

Moravian forest
scene, 1938.

After another visit it was clear to me that she had been the consummate photojournalist. She had lived for the story, and as soon as she told it in pictures, and later in books (she wrote or illustrated ten books, many of which were deeper and more personal explorations of subjects that had been photo essays in Life) she moved on to the next assignment.

Throughout her career she had little time for making fine prints or exhibiting them. Although she saw herself as a photographic artist of the stature of Stieglitz (whom in her 20s she had hoped to emulate), she had no time for the artifice of the art world. There just weren't many matted and signed vintage prints in Darien from which to make a gallery exhibition. There were, however, thousands of curling and faded work prints with crop marks and tape and log numbers--the residue of a working photographer.

When I made my report to Pollard it was decided that it was in both Bourke-White's and the magazine's interest to promote her work to the small but growing audience of photography enthusiasts--an audience that Lee Witkin had astutely identified. In my spare time I'd pull together an archive of saleable vintage prints that would be augmented by modern prints in a limited edition; these would be made under the supervision of George Karas, who now ran the Life Photo Lab but who, as a young man, had been Bourke-White's printer there.

A book of her photographs was needed--she never had published a real monograph--to serve as a catalog for a generation that had grown up not having seen her work. Interestingly, the publisher of that 1971 book, The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, The New York Graphic Society, was later reconstituted as Bulfinch Press, which is bringing out a new collection titled Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer.

This book, which I wrote the text for, contains many pictures not seen in the earlier one; indeed, some have never been published before. It should introduce Bourke-White to a new generation. Over the succeeding months of working with Bourke-White-- selecting vintage prints, preparing a portfolio that she approved and made futile attempts at signing, and collecting the details for the first mongraph--my ear became more attuned to her speech. We developed a verbal shorthand that often had me finishing her sentences in a number of versions until she signaled that I had finally got it right. And then we would both laugh at the verbal gymnastics that I had gone through. Maggie was indestructible of spirit.

And body too. On several occasions I would get so immersed in the prints and negatives that I didn't notice that she had padded off to get something to show me-- until I heard a frightening crash. And there she would be, helpless on the floor, with a big smile on her face.

In time, it became easy to see through the paralysis and years to the women who had captivated both her subjects and colleagues--male, especially. Though encased in a body that was slowly becoming a cast, the photographer's insatiable quest for perfection--"just one more, please"--was still there. Once, we were looking at the original negative (on deteriorating acetate film stock!) of a Russian ballerina made in 1931. It was what her biographer and photo critic Vicki Goldberg has called the "posed candid," a kind of carefully arranged informal portrait that Bourke-White invented. She was disturbed by something she seemed to notice in the image for the first time, although perhaps 40 years had passed since she held it in her hands. There was a shadow that shouldn't be there. And she proceeded to tell me how the picture could have been improved.

Semionova, Premiere Ballerina, 1931.

To many who got in the way of a Bourke-White photograph--and that included not just bureaucrats and functionaries but professional colleagues like assistants, reporters, and other photographers--she was regarded as imperious, calculating, and insensitive. But I was startled one day, after going through the pictures she made of Buchenwald and the aftermath of Nazi Germany, which she published in her book Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly 25 years earlier, when she began to weep.

Beginning in the late 1920s, Bourke-White's imagery--full of drama, romance, echoing pattern, and daring perspective--made her an innovative and acclaimed photographer. But that was not enough to make her a photojournalist. She also had the unerring instinct of a journalist, an instinct that led her to be the first Western photographer to document Soviet industry after the revolution, and to create a travelog of Czechoslovakia and other Balkan states just before Hitler moved in to ignite World War II, and to get herself stationed in Moscow just before Germany bombed its former ally. She had, in addition to the mastery of the medium and the eye of an artist, the daring, cunning, and intuition to be where news would be happening. Once there, she could rise to the occasion. In this regard she is the spiritual mother to photojournalists like Harry Benson, James Nachtwey, and Susan Meisalas.

When I last saw Bourke-White, in the summer of 1971, it was after she had taken one of those crashing falls, only this time her ribs destructed. She was bedridden in the hospital and unable to continue her physical therapy. In her weakened state, the paralysis advanced; there was now not even a faint whisper. I was on my way to Boston to deliver another exhibition to a gallery, and I pulled out some of the prints and try to talk with her. But this time she could only move her eyes, so we abbreviated our shorthand to one blink for "yes" and two blinks for "no."

I started my patter about what was happening at the magazine, reverted to my visuals--"what was it like shooting these snow geese from a helicopter?"--before I ran out of self-restraint. We had successfully bantered with her blinks taking me down the conversational path she wanted to traverse, but when my eyes started to fill with tears, she graciously let me know that she was tired and that it was time for me to go.

Two days later she died, but, fittingly for the heroic, larger-than-Life Margaret Bourke-White, the eyes were the last to go.


Sean Callahan was the founding editor of American Photographer, the predecessor to American PHOTO. He is Executive Producer of Road Runner, Time Warner Cable's high speed online service.


Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White in Darien are by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, copyright 1998, Time Inc.