(Ethel Kurland suggested to your Editor that some excerpts from the manuscript of her autobiography might be of interest to readers of the Gazette. Herewith, a sampling of her fascinating encounters with celebrated passengers.)

by Ethel Kurland

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, addressing a group of young women, urged them to “live your dreams.” He spoke of the great changes that had taken place in the Armed Forces, with women in combat aboard ships, at West Point and other military installations, plus the role of women in Desert Storm.Now, women are no longer content to just learn typing; new horizons have opened. While opportunities for today’s women may be greater than ever, it was not always so.

When, therefore,as a teenager, I became the youngest ship news reporter covering the New York waterfront during the luxury liners’ glory days, I didn’t realize how unique this was until much later...It all came about because of my intense interest in New York’s waterfront. The glittering ocean liners tucked into the piers bore the names of countries I knew about but certainly never expected to see, like the Swedish-American Gripsholm, the Italian Rex, Roma and Conte di Savoia, Great Britain’s Queen Mary, Bremen from Germany and, the queen of them all, Normandie from France, the most luxurious liner ever built, a floating palace.

Although New York was my home town, I wandered around, at the age of seventeen, savoring every sight and carrying a small camera to record it all. I was always drawn to the waterfront where at night, the glittery reflection on the water transposed it into a Christmas-like scene. I never tired of seeing the ships dressed in their finery and I never thought all this could change my life. But it did.

One summer night, the sound of music and voices which carried across the water brought me once again to the waterfront. I saw people boarding the ships, women in evening clothes with orchids cascading from shoulder to waist. Gardenias perfumed the air. Stewards were hustling large steamer trunks up the working gangway.

I wondered where the passengers were going and what kind of world would receive them at the other end of their journey. Watching them that night, I had an idea: “What if,” I thought, “I were to take photographs of them boarding the ship? Perhaps they would buy copies of this great event.”

My camera was really an inadequate one but perhaps in time I would buy a better one.That night I made the decision that was to change my life.

The telephone book listed all the steamship companies and the nearest one was the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Line. I went there with some trepidation. What was I to say that would interest them? I decided to try and see what would happen. I didn’t know who to ask for but, spotting a sign that read PUBLIC RELATIONS, I turned to that desk, introduced myself to a man in his fifties and launched into my idea.

Although fully expecting to be rejected, with the courage of ignorance, I described what I hoped to do. Instead of turning me away as I had expected, this man was very cordial and actually receptive to my idea, but for a different reason.

“Take these photographs,” he suggested, “in front of our life preserver bearing the name of the ship. This will give us good publicity. I’ll give you a berthing sheet which lists the passengers and their home towns. Then send the photographs to their local newspapers with an account of their trip.” He then made out and handed me a pass to board all their ships!

I was ready to dance out of there but when I started to leave, he said: “Wait a minute, kid.” Opening his desk drawer, he bent down, took out a bottle of scotch, poured a too-generous amount and offered it to me. I had never tasted whiskey before. When he held his glass high and said “Good luck, kid!”

I downed my drink in one gulp, wincing a bit. This well-meaning man did not suspect that I was under-age. I had officially become a ship news photographer and reporter!

My pass read “N.Y. & Cuba Mail Steamship Company. Pass Ethel Kurland, Official Ships’ Photographer, to All Steamers.”The first ship I covered was the s/s Borinquin. When I flashed my precious pass to the man at the head of the gangway, he merely nodded and I entered this new world, wildly excited. Just before sailing time, the orchestra was playing a stirring Africa-Cuban medley and it was tempting to fling oneself into a wild dance. Outside on the deck were huge trays of bananas, small and red from Africa and sweeter than any I had ever tasted before. The passengers all wanted to be photographed against the New York skyline and somewhere the name of the ship was prominently displayed. They all wanted copies sent to them. When their local newspapers ran these photographs, whether they were the local banker or butcher, it was all big news in their town; my little career took off!

I followed up this good fortune by visiting all the other steamship lines to secure their passes which they readily provided, once I had shown them the clippings from the local papers and my name below as a credit.This was the biggest thrill of all and when small checks began arriving from these papers, I was launched into my career; heady stuff—the courage of ignorance had paid off. I was touring Europe at home.

Eventually, I was servicing 120 newspapers, a small syndicate in addition to providing the wire services like Associated Press, Reuters and United Press International with some scoops.

Things didn’t always go well. One day, as I passed a working gangway, I saw someone who looked familiar boarding. He was glancing nervously around as though he did not want to be seen. I suddenly recognized him as the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. Excited, I ran forward to ask if I could get just one shot. Unlike the paparazzi of today, we were polite. He hesitated, then agreed. I nervously hoisted my large camera, took one quick look at the ground glass image and clicked the shutter. Back in my darkroom, savoring it all, I developed the film but there was nothing on it. I had failed to remove the lens cap.

To board incoming ships, it was necessary to get up at dawn. A government cutter, crowded with people from Immigration, Health Department doctors and newsmen would arrive out at the Narrows, pulling up next to the ship. The first time, I was confronted with a serious problem, climbing a rope ladder.

Holding on was a trial, with one hand carrying the camera, the other a case of flashbulbs. Women didn’t wear slacks, only skirts. I was urged to go first on the theory that if I fell, someone would break the fall. I finally realized why this suggestion was made when I looked down to see the men looking up and chuckling. I was really not welcomed at first.

The men on board would immediately loosen their collars, break out a deck of cards and engage in a fast game of poker. I got used to their language and they got used to my acceptance of it all.

There were always fascinating new people arriving. Raymond Duncan, brother of the revered Isadora, came out on an icy deck wearing a toga tied with a rope around his waist, his long gray hair streaming to his shoulders and with sandals on his bare feet. The original hippie.

When Queen Marie of Rumania came on deck to be photographed, one bold photographer, not sure of how to address her, shouted “Look this way, Queenie!” And she did!

Gertrude Stein arrived one day with Alice B. Toklas in tow. Joseph P. Kennedy, newly appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, sailed with JFK, then seventeen. Gloria Vanderbilt, at sixteen, was sailing to Europe after a bitter custody battle between her mother and aunt.

Arriving one day was an elderly lady whose manner matched her severely all-black mode of dress.She was the widow of former President Theodore Roosevelt. She consented to be photographed but fixed me with a very stern eye when I asked for her residence. She said: “Be sure you get this right, young lady. We are the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, not the Hyde Park Roosevelts!” I did not quite understand the distinction then but later learned that the two branches differed wildly in political and social opinion. She wanted that made clear and did.

I had met Leslie Howard, his wife and son of an earlier trip and when he appeared on Broadway in Animal Kingdom, I visited him in his dressing room to renew the acquaintance. Despite his big success as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, he had little interest in other film work. During World War II, he left it all to work for British Intelligence. Returning from Portugal, his civilian plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe under the mistaken intelligence that Winston Churchill was aboard.

Aboard Gripsholm one day, I brought my 6-year-old niece Joy to see the playroom. I went to work and on my return, she seemed eager to tell me something important. I thought it might be some comment about the luxurious surroundings. But she whispered instead: “When are we going on the boat?” ...Despite my limited income, I had somehow managed to buy a 4x5 Graflex camera. I began to take the short, four-day trips to Bermuda and Nassau aboard both Monarch of Bermuda and Queen of Bermuda. The first trip was in the summer and I thought I was prepared for it. The purser had assigned a closet for me as a dark room and I came aboard with all the equipment, film hangers for the film to be developed, tanks for this use and for the water rinse after being bathed in hypo, the fixative. I stretched a cord across the room on which to clip the film to dry.

Then despite my excellent training, I suffered a disaster. I had asked for ice cubes for the developer, then tested it at the start with a thermometer; but I did not check it as the day progressed warmly. I had photographed at least a dozen couples, mostly honeymooners sure to want many copies of their big event. I began the developing process and saw to my horror that the very gelatin with these pictures was slipping off the film. It was a very harsh lesson I learned that day. Today, for those who think of themselves as photographers and send their work off to a lab for processing, I can only shake my head in dismay. They will never know the excitement and thrill of seeing the image emerge and know nothing of the magic of enlarging. Years later, in Carmel, California, where I lived, I met Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and we often spoke of this as a great loss.

I made 11 trips to Bermuda and Nassau that year. The ships docked and then turned around quickly and proceeded again. In Bermuda, there were fields of Easter lilies, visible as one entered Hamilton harbor and the scent was heavy...

I had to consider what to wear on board. I had several pairs of shorts and tops but no evening clothes for dinner. I managed to buy several at a discount store, very tight-fitting and too small but they had to do. I couldn’t wear panties or bra underneath for they showed the lines. I could wear nothing underneath. But what to do, how to keep my stockings up? I Scotch-taped the tops to my skin and no-one knew the difference.

Although I had been warned to always leave a ship promptly, I often worked until the last minute. And then it happened. Racing from an upper deck to reach the gangway, I was too late. The space between the ship and pier was though I was burdened with camera and a case of flash bulbs.

The crew exploded into applause, as did the visitors below waving off friends. But far above, on the bridge, the captain was looking down. Although I did not understand Italian, it was clear that an angry stream of invective was raining down on me. A very large fine was imposed on the steamship company if anyone was caught on the ship. They would have to be taken off later by the pilot out on the ocean. I was never late again.

Shortly after starting this new venture, I had a discouraging setback. A newspaper strike had been called in New York and even though I was on the fringe of it, I decided to join them in witholding my pictures from those papers not cooperating. One of these was the Staten Island Advance. There were many passengers from this borough and, for several weeks, I took no photographs of them.

Then I had a call from the owner of this chain who asked me to come and see him at his office. This was S. I. Newhouse, who was building a considerable empire of newspapers.

He waved me to a chair and scowled at me. In a decidedly unfriendly tone, he demanded: “Young lady, what do you think you are doing?”

I had anticipated an opportunity to ask him about some details of the strike to better understand the issues. Very naiveley, I started to explain that I could not cooperate by supplying photographs to the papers while the others were on strike. He launched into a tirade, telling me in no uncertain terms that henceforth his papers would not use my services any more.

This was my introduction to the world of labor/management. I was shocked by his anger and indeed, he meant what he said. It was several years before I was able to resume this service. (Ethel Kurland, copyright 2000)

(Ms Kurland’s photographs and anecdotes offer an unique insight into the world of the ship news corps that was such an intrinsic part of the New York harbor and passenger ship scene in the old days. We wish her every success in finding a publisher for the complete version of her memoirs.)


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