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BOMBS, BABIES, AND BODDY!
Q&A: HELEN BRUSH JENKINS, Ace Photographer


Helen Brush Jenkins

SEE SNEAK PREVIEW OF JOHN VERSICAL'S DOCUMENTARY ON HELEN'S LIFE, "FLASHES OF LIGHT," HERE: http://vimeo.com/15760162 Helen Brush Jenkins was a pioneering woman news photographer for the Daily News, and wife of photo editor Gib Brush. She made history by photographing the birth of her own children (printed in Life Magazine), and almost accidentally capturing an enormous Nevada atomic bomb blast that lit up the pre-dawn skies of Los Angeles like, well, dawn. She covered Harry Truman's 1948 presidential campaign, the installation of the "Big Eye" on top of Mt. Palomar, and dozens of other big stories of the day. A one-time taxi-dancer and roller-skating pro, Ms. Jenkins trained many a young photog in lab work, and guided cub reporters. Her specialities: children, what were called "women's stories," and features. The "Atomic Dawn" photo remains the probable highlight of her career. Below is the front page from the home edition of the following day, when  "Atomic Dawn" had been upstaged by the Korean War. Ms. Jenkins, who is retired and living in Chicago, is putting together a collection of her work for a museum exhibit. Producer John Versical is preparing a documentary on her career. She was interviewed by Rip Rense.

dailynewsatomiccrunch1.jpg (29012 bytes)RENSE: When reminiscing about old L.A. newspapers, everyone seems to mention the Examiner and the Herald-Express, or the Times, but seldom the Daily News---

JENKINS: Well, the Examiner was a lying paper, and the Herald-Express was worse than the Examiner. They lied, and did such terrible things. Helen Gahagan Douglas, when she was running for office, they sandwiched her into a picture with a big rackateer, like she was shaking hands with him! The Daily News was an independent, and no-you-can't-bribe-me paper. There was only once that I recall that they engaged in, not nepotism---oh, I know, it was an advertiser. They didn't kill the story, but they went soft on it.

RENSE: Seems to happen at every paper, at one time or another.

JENKINS: Well, not at the Daily News. We didn't do that! That made it a really unusual paper. They weren't afraid to print things that were untouchable. They were a good, honest, forthright paper. The Times was out to get 'em, and they got 'em. They created the Mirror to compete with them. To undermine the Daily News by taking its customers. (Note: The Times bought the Daily News---effectively just the name, which was merged with the Chandler family afternoon paper, the Mirror, as the Mirror-News.)

RENSE: I was looking at photos of the old building, and the old fire-engine red Studebaker Commander "radio news car."---

JENKINS: Red? I drove around in a red car and I didn't know it? They were red? Well, actually, I used my own car all the time.

RENSE: Tell me about the personality of the paper. How did it compare with the others?

JENKINS: Well, here's what it came to. We wrote truthful stories, and we didn't take favors or eliminate people because of their political power. And I don't think there is any other paper that I know of that could claim to do that. We were an honest newspaper. Not afraid to print the news---a lot of news that the other papers wouldn't print.

RENSE: So you were the only woman photog around in those days?

JENKINS: I started out being the only woman photographer in the living world! They were hard up. They didn't have anyone they could call on. (During WWII, there was a shortage of photographers at the local papers, as so many had gone to war.) So I went down and applied for the job! Lee Payne was the managing editor. Charlie Judson was on the city desk. Out of desperation, he said, "we'll try you out for a week." (laughs.) Want to know what my first assignment was? Sixteen hundred head of cattle had gotten loose in East L.A. near the stockyard, and they sent Sparky Saldana and myself out to photograph! I wound up riding around on the running board of my car, with Sparky driving, having fights with the cowboys who were mad at me because they figured I was going to stampede the herd. I got one picture of a cow on somebody's front porch, and another one chased me around a tree. Oh, God---what fun! And that was my beginning.

RENSE: Were you really the only woman photog in L.A. at that time?

JENKINS: Oh, yeah, for a number of years. Not only L.A., but in the U.S. and I believe also in Europe.

RENSE: You got the break because of the war?

JENKINS: Oh, yeah. I would never have been hired otherwise. Well, Margaret Bourke-White was photographer for Life Magazine at that time, and I have a picture of the two of us.

"Three hundred miles away! For a few seconds, it was daylight. It wasn't bright light, but it was like dawn. And they called it, the atomic dawn. And then it melted, and everything was black again. It was the most awesome thing I've ever seen in my life except for the birth of my kids."

RENSE: How did you become a photog in the first place?

JENKINS: I married one. I was a roller-skating professional, and I worked over in Hollywood at Sid Grauman's Hollywood Roller Bowl. I taught roller-skating there, and was also a performer. They sent (Daily News photog) Gib Brush over there on assignment to get a picture. Ha! So he shot a picture of me, really beautiful, doing an arabasque, and they ran it three columns in the sports section.

RENSE: I'll bet they did!

JENKINS: And he asked me out to dinner.

RENSE: Sly fellow. . .

JENKINS: No, he wasn't. He was smitten. So I said sure, there were some other people coming along. I worked in the afternoon and evening, and he says, well, I have to call my mother and tell her I won't be home. Well, that hit the bullseye as far as I was concerned. The guy was concerned about his family and mother to let her know what he was doing. So we went out to dinner, and the next day was my day off. He called at about 10 a.m., and said, "I'm working. I'm out in Pasadena on a stake-out, and I don't know how long I'll be there." We had a date the following morning to go swimming. And he showed up with Darr Smith, a reporter.

RENSE: The poor fellow who was accused of being a communist, along with Vern Partlow, in that terrible scandal late in the paper's life.

JENKINS: Oh, they were not communists! Vern Partlow was my best friend. He was the most adorable man in the whole world! He sang, and we sang. And we were always at campfires singing together. And I know his song, "Oh, a newspaperman meets such interesting people. . ."

RENSE: Sing more!

JENKINS: Next time.

RENSE: Oh, come on.

JENKINS: (singing)
Oh, a newspaperman meets such interesting people
He knows the story, now it can be told
He'll tell you confidentially off the record
about the charming people he has known
Boy, he meets politicians and grafters by the score
Killers plain and fancy, it's really quite a bore. . .
Oh, a newspaperman meets such interesting people
It's wonderful to represent the press
Ting-a-ling-a-ling, city desk
Hold the press, hold the press
Extra, extra, read all about it
It's a mess, needs the test. . .
Oh, he'll tell you the story about dear Sadie Smuggery
She wanted money for a new fur coat
To get it, she employed good old skullduggery
She up and slit her husband's only throat
And so and and so on. . .

RENSE: Thank you. That was wonderful.

JENKINS: Oh, I know!

RENSE: So you did sports photography also, right?

JENKINS: Oh, I did everything.

RENSE: Did all the photogs do everything?

JENKINS: I don't know. I suppose so.

RENSE: What do you mean, you don't know?

JENKINS: I think everybody did everything, but I was the only woman.

RENSE: After the war, Gib came back?

JENKINS: Yeah, and he was on staff, and so was I.

RENSE: Was that difficult for you?

JENKINS: No!

RENSE: Living and working together was fine?

JENKINS: Well, I didn't go on his assignments, and he didn't go on mine.

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The Daily News "Mobile Photo Lab" truck, parked in front of the building (repainted peach in the late '40s, to match the front page.)

RENSE: Do you recall the Daily News mobile photo lab panel trucks?

JENKINS: You know, I seem to remember that, because when we went to photograph people in sporting events---soap box derbies---I think we used them. At that time, I was very very pregnant, so I continued to work until weeks before the baby was born. Then I photographed the birth of the baby.

RENSE: Really? How?

JENKINS: You have to be here and I'll show you.

RENSE: You had to be there. . .

JENKINS: Gib was there, and he fainted.

RENSE: You photographed the birth of your own child? (The photos appeared in an issue of Life Magazine.) That's astounding.

JENKINS: It was a first. Another important event that I covered was the first atomic explosion in Nevada (the tremendous Feb. 1, 1951 test blast was actually part of a series of early A-bomb tests, and the fourth within a week.) Here's the way I did it. It was 5 a.m., and I had the early shift, and it was still dark, and so I came in, and the city editor called me over and said "They're going to shoot off an atomic blast at 5:25---get up on the Daily News roof and see if you can get it." Boy, that's something to figure out. So we used Speedgraphics 4x5 (type of camera) and I tried to ascertain---well, this is really a miraculous thing. I was the only one up there. So St. Joseph's Church was right there next to us. So I framed the horizon with the steeple of the church. And it was supposed to go off at 5:25. I got up there, got my camera set up, pulled the slide from the back, and was holding it over the lens. And at about the right time, I took the slide off of the lens so it started to expose. I had it set at F-16, and I'm counting. And I get to ten, and I said, "Oh, I've got to change the film!" And boom, it went off! So I got the lights of the city, and the steeple of the church on the right hand side, shadowy, and here is this huge, huge light that came---and it made kind of a half-moon, you know?

RENSE: The explosion was in Nevada, but you could see it from---

JENKINS: Three hundred miles away! For a few seconds, it was daylight. It wasn't bright light, but it was like dawn. And they called it, the atomic dawn. And then it melted, and everything was black again. It was the most awesome thing I've ever seen in my life except for the birth of my kids. So I grabbed my camera, ran down, and into Jack Smith, and I said, "I think I got it!" I put it in the soup, and developed it, and they put it on the entire front page. "Atomic Dawn." (It was upstaged by the Korean War in the next day's home edition---seen on this page.)

The photographers---every one, at the other papers---they were sent out to get the explosions and they never got anything, because the fog came in. I had the exclusive, and I had the only one in the world! And it's quite a picture, too.

I was about to put the slide back in the camera and turn it over, and I figured I didn't have time. I didn't do it, and I'm so glad I didn't. And exposure was enough to get the city lights and the lamp lights and a couple of cars that came along. And the church steeple.

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click pic for larger view

RENSE: That must have pretty well cemented your reputation around town.

JENKINS: Oh, no, it was cemented long before that. You know when I went out on a story, I was always scooping everybody. I was interested in my job, and I was very creative, and so on, and the guys would follow me around. They would shoot their pix, then I would set up something much better after they had gone. And they would come running over to shoot the same picture I had shot, so they wouldn't catch hell.

RENSE: Any other memorable assignments come to mind?

JENKINS: I went up to Las Vegas and went up in a B-29. It was battle conditions, and they had bullets that they were shooting at us. They were supposed to be soft-nosed, so they wouldn't hurt anything, and they came through the fuselage. So here I am, shooting a gun, trying to get them. Your bullets would hit the plane, and leave a powder mark. And that was kind of exciting.

RENSE: What do you remember of the Daily News building?

JENKINS: We were on the top floor, and we had this rickety old elevator, and sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. The earthquake that levelled Tehachapi, well, I was there at the city desk when things started to rumble and everybody ran to the doorways. I grabbed a reporter and off we went to Tehachapi.

RENSE: I've seen photos of the claptrap desks, the old wooden chairs, and---

JENKINS: Stop using those adjectives!

RENSE: I mean that it looked like a newspaper should!

JENKINS: Well, they had a railing that went through the photographic department, which was around in the back, and all the guys used to come there because we were right next to a whorehouse. And on the second and third floor of the whorehouse, these gals would take care of their customers, and run around naked, and the guys in the city room loved to come back there and see what was going on. We had that window open.

The library was right around the corner from us. The artists were across the city room, at the windows. The city desk was sort of in the middle. The reporters had their desks around the city desk. There was an edict that there was no bringing booze bottles in the city room, so Milt Phinney---we were all mavericks, anyway. So Milt used to have a teapot tied on a light rope, and he would have one of the copyboys or a cohort go down to the street. And he would send it down to the street, and the guy would take it over to Don's Bar, and fill it up with whatever, bourbon, and then come back, tie the teapot up, and Milt Phinney would bring it up hand-over-hand and through the window. That was legal!

RENSE: I understand the Milt Phinney wrote without notes:

JENKINS: Milt Phinney was a miracle man. The greatest reporter who ever lived. He was awesome. He never took notes. He had a little notebook in his pocket and a short pencil, and he kept his hand in his pocket. We went out on an interview once, and he talked to this guy for ten or fifteen minutes, and he finally said, "Well, you're here for an interview, shall we get started?" And Milt said, "Oh, I'm finished." And he had a photographic memory. And I used to go out with Sarah Boynoff, too. All the time.

RENSE: She was the great rewrite person.

JENKINS: Oh, yes. She was one of the top rewrite men. We always went on stories together. She was very, very good, and was married to Fred Cuhnradt. She was the best. Well, we had ALL the best! Jack Smith, Jack Jones. . .

RENSE: Was there a great deal of comaraderie?

JENKINS: Oh, yeah! We were a family. Everybody was very loyal to everybody.

RENSE: The Daily News attracted independent-minded types, free-spirits. This is what I hear from everyone, and what I've picked up from research. My dad was that way---

JENKINS: We were what you would say "no bullshit" people. Democratic? I wouldn't say that. But I couldn't imagine them being Republicans! The other newspapers were just rancid. We were clean, honest, upright. We told the story---we didn't color it. We didn't tone it down or slap it up.

RENSE: Why was the Daily News not more popular?

JENKINS: It was very popular!

RENSE: It was always third or fourth in circulation.

JENKINS: Well, it was a little newspaper! And we had old presses and a rickety building. But we were the only paper in town that told the truth, and we had a lot of subscribers!

RENSE: Why was it peach-colored?

JENKINS: It wasn't always peach-colored. More like orange. . .I don't know. I really think that it was so people would be able to grab it instead of the others. Also, it was a tabloid, so that made it very attractive to people who were riding on public conveyances. They could tuck it under their arm, and when they had coffee, they could fold it, and the coffee wouldn't go all over the paper.

RENSE: Very interesting pont. Tabloids were invented for people riding mass transit, of course. And up until the mid-50's, you had great mass transit all over L.A.---so the Daily News fit right in.

JENKINS: Oh, definitely! And then it was the gasoline rationing in the war. . .We aimed for the independent person that had some brainpower rather than the slimy stuff that the other papers put out---and they were real slime. The Times was more white collar, but the others were slime. Can you imagine taking a picture of Helen Gahagan Douglas, standing there, talking to someone, and cutting out that person, and putting in a very high priority communist? Some of the things they did were really outrageous.

RENSE: The Daily News seems to have had the best columnists in town, from the sports editor, Ned Cronin---

JENKINS: Oh, he was the best! He was very sought after. All the papers tried to win away the Daily News writers. But they weren't interested. They were interested in freedom of the press, and an honest paper, and having fun and telling the truth.

RENSE: ---to Matt Weinstock. . .

JENKINS: Oh, wasn't he good? Mr. L.A.? And his brother worked in finance. Herb Weinstock. Lu Haas was in the city room, and was assistant city editor, and photo editor for a while. And Jan (wife) worked in the art department. They did a lot of things, like spraying backgrounds that were too dark and that sort of thing. Our press was definitely not rotogravure, so it needed a little help with the blacks and whites.

RENSE: And the paper freely employed minorities, further distinguishing it from the other papers in town?

JENKINS: Well, yeah, of course. They didn't care whether you were Jewish or Irish or black or Mexican. They just cared about you being good at your job. Take me, for instance. Nobody would touch a woman---especially a photographer. I was there for twelve years or more.

RENSE: When it closed, there was no advance warning?

JENKINS: Yeah, there was.

RENSE: Lu Haas said he just came to work, and found it closed.

JENKINS: Everybody suspected it for some time, and they were trying to figure out how to save it. That is true. We came to work, and it was closing day. But no, it was not a surprise. After Boddy sold it, it kind of went downhill.

RENSE: What did you think of (publisher Manchester) Boddy?

JENKINS: He was the ultimate. The only way I can describe it is, Robin Hood. He was always the warrior that was for the people, truth, honesty, against corruption in politics.

RENSE: You revere him.

JENKINS: Yeah. I thought he was a great guy. And he was always looking out for his employees, too. When he lived out there (in what is now Descanso Gardens, which he created), I went out there several times. I did a story on camelias. He planted I don't know how many acres of flowers, and then he called in the laborers to harvest them. Then he took them to the market and just gave them away. I loved it!

EXTRA! 2005 L.A. (pardon the expression) Times
profile of Helen here.

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                                                          copyright 2003, 2012 Rip Rense