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Photographing the Thirties and Forties

Marvin Zuckerman
January 6, 2017

by Marvin Zuckerman

All photographs by Katherine Joseph, © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg, courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Discussed in this essay: Katherine Joseph: Photographing an Era of Social Significance by Suzanne Hertzberg. Bergamot Press, 2016, 149 pages.

Sing me a song of social significance,/ There’s nothing else that will do./It must get hot with what is what,/ Or I won’t love you. --Harold Rome, Pins and Needles

PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED with scores of superb photographs, this book is the result of a daughter’s meticulous reconstructing of the life and times of her mother’s young life before she became the author’s stay-at-home mom. In 1990, when her mother Katherine died at the age of 81, Suzanne Hertzberg discovered a trove of hundreds of magnificent photographs, as well as some letters, diary pages, and calendar entries. When had her mother taken these incredible photographs? Why? Where was she when she took them? How had she come to take them?

To find the answers to these questions, Suzanne Hertzberg undertook years of dedicated research, detective work, archival searches, and interviews with those still alive who remembered her mother. The result is a beautiful volume with scores of incredible, fine, full-page (8 ½” x 10”) photographs, accompanied by an informative, easy-to-read narrative written by Suzanne, providing us with the fruits of her resourceful investigations to uncover the mystery of her mother’s youth.

KATHERINE JOSEPH was born in the Ukraine in 1909. Her parents and uncles emigrated to America when she was still a very young child, landing in Chicago, and then pushing on to El Paso, Texas. There they opened a dry goods store, jewelry store, and various other businesses. Returning to Chicago in the late 1920’s, her brothers developed a new kind of shoe store (modeled after the French fashion salon) where you sat and a salesman went into the back and brought out shoes for you to try on until you found the ones you wanted. A new idea! It caught on, and soon her brothers owned a chain of shoe stores called Joseph Salon Shoes, with stores as widely dispersed as to reach even into Beverly Hills, California.

Katherine adored her mother but set her sights on a life and career independent from the control of her miserly father. At the age of 18, she left home, went to New York, and never took another nickel from him. Somehow she had learned the art of fine, journalistic photography and was hired to be a staff photographer for the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union), then one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country, with about a half million members, an abundant treasury, and an influential, intrepid, honest, savvy, ebullient president, David Dubinsky. Hertzberg writes: “The ILGWU provided kindred community, social purpose, artistic opportunity, and economic independence.” Or as Studs Terkel puts it, “This is more than a daughter’s poignant remembrance of her mother, a rebel girl of the '30s. It’s the story of immigrants’ kids surviving the Great Depression and finding triumph in rank-and-file labor unions.”

In her lively narrative, Hertzberg tells us about her mother’s romantic liaisons, her independence, her stamina, her strength, her feminist behavior decades before the current wave of feminism. She describes Katherine, who abandoned her young adventurous life to become a peanut-butter-and-jelly mom as follows: “In the fifties she wore shirtwaists and heels, but in the thirties and forties she wore slacks and sensible shoes. . . . She was more Katherine Hepburn than Donna Reed.”

[caption id="attachment_58847" align="alignleft" width="315"]Frank Sinatra and Vice-President Henry Wallace in Chicago, July, 1944 Sinatra and Vice-President Wallace in Chicago, July, 1944[/caption]

The photographs Katherine took are gift enough in this book. They are, as Studs Terkel also says in his remarks, “In the tradition of Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange.” But without Suzanne Hertzberg’s clear and engaging narrative, the viewer would be left in the dark as to how her mother, Katherine Joseph, came to photograph William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies in Mexico. Or Frank Sinatra shaking hands with Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s VP, and Harry Truman, his succeeding VP. Or Norma Shearer shaking hands with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Or photos of Johnny Weissmuller (the famous Tarzan of the movies and Olympic swimming champion) and Mickey Rooney. Or garment workers at work in New York garment factories. Or inside a Mexican gold mine. One could go on naming many more such intriguing and beautifully photographed images.

The story of the iconic photograph at the top of this article -- President Roosevelt, David Dubinsky, and a bevy of young women garment workers, taken in the White House -- is an interesting bit of social history.

In 1931, the soon-to-be-elected-president of the ILGWU visited the Labor Olympiad in Vienna, where he was impressed by the wide-ranging cultural and athletic pursuits provided by the European labor movement, particularly the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland, one of the successful competitors in the Vienna Labor Olympiad. Dubinsky resolved to someday broaden the ILGWU’s activities, creating what later came to be called, “social unionism.”

In 1938 he backed the idea of creating a labor musical, performed by ILGWU garment workers, that would comment, in a lighthearted way, on labor-management strife, world affairs, politics, etc. This was Harold Rome’s Pins and Needles, his first musical, later highly successful on Broadway. Eleanor Roosevelt saw it, loved it, and persuaded Franklin to have it performed in the White House. Cameras were not permitted in the White House for this occasion, but Katherine Joseph had smuggled one in her handbag. Surrounded by the players and Dubinsky, FDR said, “Does anyone have a camera?” Katherine whipped out her camera, and the rest is history.

IN 1941, between stints as staff photographer for the ILGWU, Katherine Joseph and two of her girlfriends, one a Chicago labor organizer, the other a glamorous French émigré, undertook to travel through Mexico. They were provided a complimentary car by the Willys-Overland Company (the company that went on to produce the World War II Jeep), which was advertising its new “Americar.” The idea was to have Katherine photograph her journey south of the border to prove that “Even a woman can drive an Americar [!].” During her travels through Mexico she photographed Mexican poverty and rural life. By obtaining press passes, she was present at state events where she photographed American celebrities sent there by the Roosevelt administration to counter growing Nazi influence in Mexico. At one of these events, she met and photographed Norma Shearer, Johnny Weissmuller, Joe E. Brown, Wallace Beery, and Mickey Rooney.

womens-auxiliarySubsequently, on May Day, 1941, she witnessed a huge popular turnout as 60,000 trade unionists marched in Mexico City. Among her striking photographs of this event, is one of 2500 women, armed with club-like batons, marching as the Women’s Auxiliary to the Workers’ Militia.

The three attractive women naturally drew the attention of the men they encountered in their travels. One of them was a German businessman and mining engineer who offered to take them to see some gold mines in the interior of Mexico, “deep in the Sierra Madre, a place so remote that no American woman had ever visited.” This was a difficult journey through the rough countryside, on mules. It turned out that William Randolph Hearst, among his many Mexican holdings, secretly owned a gold mine in the interior of Mexico at Tayoltita near San Dimas, with a company town built up around it. Their German friend took them to it. Katherine got her shot of Hearst and Marion Davies relaxing at a bar in Acapulco, where they had gone to get away from the negative publicity connected with the showing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

In July 1944, Katherine Joseph was given her last assignment: photographing the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where FDR would be nominated for an unprecedented fourth term. The progressive Henry Wallace had been FDR’s Vice-President and should have been nominated as his running mate. But the machine decreed otherwise. Because of FDR’s failing health, afraid Wallace might succeed FDR as president, in the traditional smoke-filled back rooms they fatefully made sure Harry Truman was the VP nominee instead. Katherine Joseph captured stunning photographs of Frank Sinatra, a loyal Democrat then, smiling and shaking hands with both Wallace and Truman.

THERE ARE A FEW errors in the captions for some of the photographs: P. 16, this photo was taken at an ILGWU convention most likely in Atlantic City, not New York; p. 23, “Sascha” Zimmerman, VP and Manager of ILGWU Local 22, not Isidore Nagler; p. 23, Frederick H. Wood of China War Relief, not William Green, AFL President; p. 99, not Adolph Menjou with Johnny Weissmuller and Mickey Rooney. But these are minor errors that can be corrected in subsequent editions.

One more cavil: The author says (p. 67) that during World War II, “Only the Zionist and Orthodox communities were sounding the alarm [about the Holocaust] through the Yiddish-language press.” This is totally wrong. There were four daily Yiddish newspapers in Ne2w York at the time with large circulations. None of them was Orthodox or Zionist. One was communist (Freiheit); one was liberal (Der Tog); one was religiously oriented (Morgn Zhurnal); and one was social-democratic, Bundist-oriented, with a huge readership at its peak of over 275,00 (Forverts). All of these newspapers prominently publicized and voiced outrage at the Nazi atrocities. Also the ILGWU and the whole Jewish labor movement in New York organized rallies and repeatedly appealed to the government to do something about the Nazi persecutions. Again, this misunderstanding can be corrected in subsequent editions.

Altogether, Hertzberg has put together a fascinating book of beautiful photographs accompanied by an amazing life story.

Marvin S. Zuckerman heads the Courtlandt Literary Agency. His writings and translations been published in Yiddish, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, and elsewhere. He edited the three-volume Three Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature and wrote Learning Yiddish in Easy Stages, published by the National Yiddish Book Center. He last appeared here with "Two Days with I.B. Singer."