Tuesday, August 31, 2021

News Over the Air—A Detroit Station Did it First

An August 1920 publicity photograph. Left to right: Howard J. Trumbo, manager of the local Thomas A. Edison Record Shop, operating a phonograph player; Elton M. Plant, Detroit News employee and announcer, behind 8MK's De Forest OT-10 radio transmitter; and engineer Frank Edwards.  Note the use of a horn to pick up music from a phonograph--the microphone as we know it had yet to be invented when station 8MK went on the air in 1920.

On August 31, 1920 Station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan broadcast the first news report Americans ever heard on that newfangled doohickey, radio.  The station had just gone on the air for the first time less than two weeks earlier, on August 20.  The Detroit News owned the infant operation but seemed either a little ashamed of it or unsure if they had just thrown good money into a mere fad.

In fact, the station was issued an amateur license by the United States Department of Commerce Bureau of Navigation, the agency then responsible for radio regulation, instead of the experimental license issued to other early commercial broadcasters.

The Scripps family owned newspaper hired Michael DeLisle Lyons, a teenage whiz kid and tinkerer to build a transmitter in the Detroit News building and had him apply for the amateur license in his own name. He built a transmitter licensed from a design by radio pioneer Lee de Forest.   Lyons was an employee Clarence “C. S”. Thompson, a New York City associate of de Forest and the owner of Radio News & Music, Inc.  which was attempting to market broadcast services to newspapers.  The Detroit station turned out to be their first and only customer.  As an amateur station it broadcast on the fringe of the available spectrum designated then as 200 meters, the equivalent of 1500 AM.  

Later that year young Lyons and his brother Frank built that nation’s first radios for police prowl cars for the city of Toledo, Ohio.  When in their first use of operation radio communications led to the quick arrest of a prowler and the story went national it, spurred other departments to adopt the bulky, balky new technology.

An early Detroit News announcement aimed a radio hobbyists with instructions on how and when to tune in.  Note the promise to broadcast elections results--another radio first.

The infant station’s news broadcasts were read by newspaper staffers and adapted from the content of the paper.  At first the company would not allow broadcast of any news that had not already hit the streets in print for fear of “giving away the product.”

Few homes could hear them anyway.  The audience consisted mostly of radio hobbyists including other amateur broadcasts who were becoming known as HAMs and those who built their own crystal sets.  Home receivers with amplification and which did not require headphones were about five years in the future with the introduction of the vacuum tube.

W. E. Scripps, an early aviator, heir to the publishing empire, and publisher of the Detroit News with his family in 1927.

Despite its limitations, the Scripps family was encouraged by a small but enthusiastic response.  They applied for a commercial license and on October 13, 1921, the station was assigned the call letters WBL broadcasting at 833 AM, with weather reports and other government reports broadcast at 619 AM.

On March 3, 1922 the stations call letters were changed to WWJ.  In the following year the Department of Commerce re-organized its assignments of frequencies and dropped the requirement for a separate frequency for weather and government reports.  WWJ’s was changed three times during the late 20’s before settling at 920 AM in 1929.  A war time shuffling of frequencies in 1941 moved the station to 950 AM at which it continues to broadcast to this day.

The station has maintained a regular schedule of news broadcast through all its incarnations of call letters, frequency or ownership to this day.  Since the mid-70’s the station, now a CBS Radio network affiliate, has broadcast as a 24 hour a day news and talk station.  It remains a Detroit institution and is frequently the highest rated radio station in its market.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Texas Could Really Use Molly Ivins Now—So Could We All

Molly Ivins, the extraordinary newspaper columnist, wit, and the enemy of foolishness, vanity, and avarice at every level of government, was born on August 30, 1944 in Monterey, California.  But she was raised in and around Houston, Texas and was a passionate Texan all her life from the tip of her head to the paint on her toenails.  

Her father was an autocratic oil company executive and she grew up in privileged circumstances.  At her tony private prep school she wrote for the school paper and enjoyed performing in stage productions.  Whatever she tried her hand at was pursued with the ardor of her admittedly big personality

Molly Ivans as a young reporter, left, and a student editor, right.

After an unhappy freshman year at Scripts College, she transferred to Smith, a Seven Sisters college that brought her close to the love of her life, Yale student Henry Hank Holland, Jr.  When he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964, Ivins was crushed.  She never found anyone who would measure up to his memory and stayed single the rest of her life, dedicating herself to her studies and career.  After a year of study in Paris, she graduated in 1966 and went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School the next year. 

Her first job was with Minneapolis Tribune.  After a stint as the first female police reporter in the city, she covered a beat called Movements for Social Change, where she notes that she wrote about “militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”  She had met her people.  

Ivans often tag teamed in Austin with another brassy Texas woman powerhouse, Democratic governor Ann Richards.  A later governor, George W. Bush, the Shrub, did not measure up.

In 1970 she left a perfectly good job to return to Texas to write for The Texas Observer, a progressive bi-weekly and burr under the saddle to the Austin establishment.  She became co-editor of the paper and the chief political writer, specializing in the doings of the legislature.  Before long her pithy accounts of that colorful body were being re-printed nationally and Ivins was soon contributing op-ed pieces to the New York Times and Washington Post and becoming a popular speaker on college campuses.

In 1976 the Times hired her, supposedly to loosen up their staid writing style.  She certainly did that, often clashing with editors over her colorful, salty language.  She was made Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief, which would have been quite an honor if she was not also the entire bureau covering 9 states—states that the editors hardly seemed to know existed or cared to know much about.  Her clashes with editor Abe Rosenthal were legendary. 

Ivan was no dour, solemn, commentator, which made her a tough fit at the staid New York Times.  

She was delighted when the Dallas Times Herald offered her a position as a columnist.  She became such an irritation to Dallas city authorities and others with lots of wealth and influence that the paper sent her to Austin.  After the Herald folded, Ivins moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where she continued her Austin-based column and her relentless attacks on cupidity.  From her seat in Austin, she chronicled the rise of George W. Bush, who she referred to as the Shrub.  When he was elected President, Ivins ended her 19 year run at the Star-Telegram and wrote a nationally syndicated column carried in more the 400 papers. 

                        Ivans soldiered on with cheerful gusto to the end.

In 1999 she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.  She battled the disease with typical ferocity and good humor, twice being declared cancer free only to have the tumors return.  In December 2006 she took leave from her column to again undergo treatment. She wrote two columns in January 2007, but returned to the hospital for further treatment then died at her Austin home on January 31, 2007, at age 62.

Here is what I wrote in a blog entry the next day:

Flags at half mast, folks. Molly Ivins, a true American hero has died.  When we can least afford to lose her.  She was just about the only major liberal voice in the press who did not sound like, at least occasionally, a prig, twit, or snob.  She never forgot ordinary working people and their lives and they knew it

With keen insight, shrewd wit, and unparalleled Texas charm she belled the fat cats of politics.  From ordinary petty grafters in the state legislature all the way up to George W. “Shrub” Bush himself, no miscreant escaped her attention.

She fought up to the end.  Knowing she was dying she filed her last column in mid-January.  It ended:

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to stop this war. Raise hell! Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush’s proposed surge [to the Iraq War]...We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘STOP IT NOW!’

Amen, sister!


Sunday, August 29, 2021

New Orleans Déjà vu—An Anniversary Replay


Hurricane Ida is gathering strength as it barrels north in the Gulf of Mexico and will slam into the Louisiana coast as a strong category 4 storm about 1 pm this afternoon.  Passing west of New Orleans the worst of winds of more than 150 mile per hour and an expected storm surge of up to 17 feet at the mouth of the Mississippi and 8 feet upriver at Lake Pontchartrain are expected to be catastrophic.  It is exactly 16 years since Hurricane Katrina wrecked its devastation.

Hopefully the Big Easy and other vulnerable Gulf communities will be better prepared this time around.  Lessons of that big storm, reinforced by three storms that slammed the same area last year.  Sea walls and levees have been reinforced and raised.  Residents are more apt to positively respond to calls for early evacuations and plans for those evacuations are said to be better.  New Orleans and other areas have lost as much as a quarter of their pre-Katrina populations somewhat easing the pressure.  City and State resources have been pumped up.  And perhaps most critically the Federal response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be in the hands of competent and experience professionals fully backed by President Joe Biden who unlike George W. Bush actually believes that government can function.

Even before Hurricane Ida makes landfall in Louisiana power crews are at work trying to restore service in some areas.

On the other hand, Louisiana is already in the grips of one of the worst Coronavirus Delta variant outbreaks in the country.  Its hospitals are already overwhelmed.  Masking, social distancing, and sanitation protocols, only tepidly supported by the Republican governor and legislature will be impossible to maintain especially in crowded shelters and on evacuation busses.   Vaccination rates are low.  A sharp spike in new infections is likely just as hospitals are least able to deal with critical cases.

There is still political and social tension between the Democratic city government and the Republican controlled state that can easily scuttle cooperation and lead to new rounds of blame shifting and finger pointing when things go wrong.

Systematic racism is the political and cultural order of the day along the Gulf Coast.  Poor Black residents may still be denied equal access to emergency aid and be blocked from evacuation through or to wealthy white enclaves.

We can hope for the best but must be ready for the worst.

A look back at Katrina reminds us of an enduring rage and sorrow.

A Black mother and her children desperately sought refuge from flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with the eye just east of New Orleans.  Winds had diminished and the storm had been downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 3 and there was some hope that the city and surrounding Parishes might be spared the destruction predicted earlier in the week.  Although wind damage was severe, a lot of folks breathed deeply after the brunt of the storm moved past.

But the storm surge sent as much as 15 feet of water inland flooding the low lying coast from the Texas border to nearly Pensacola.  It pushed up the Mississippi and into Lake Pontchartrain.  Within a few hours the levy system protecting the city broke in several places and water inundated most of the city.  Especially hard hit were the low lying neighborhoods along the canals and directly under the levies, including the largely Black and impoverished 8th and 9th Wards.  By 11 p.m. Mayor Ray Nagin described the loss of life as significant with reports of bodies floating on the water throughout the city.

An enduring symbol of the criminal negligence in rescuing poor Black residents after Katrina--the body of a drowning victim rotting in the sun days later.

As horrible as the situation was, it was only the beginning.  Evacuation orders had encouraged many of those with vehicles to flee north.  But the highways were soon clogged and those late to leave were trapped.  No plans had been made for the hundreds of thousands of city residents without transportation, or the aged and ill.  The poor were essentially trapped in the city.  And as they drowned talking heads on television scolded them for not heeding the evacuation orders.

The story of the immediate misery of the next few days has been told and retold and is far too vast to be recounted here.  Suffice it to say the disaster unmasked incompetence at every level of government compounded by a blasé racism eager to blame the victims.  The response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by political toadies and lickspittles, became a national scandal.  But it was the inevitable result of George W. Bush’s administration which had as its highest goal to prove that government is inherently incapable of managing things efficiently.

The disaster created a diaspora.  Eighty percent of the New Orleans population fled.  Five years later less than half had returned.  And much of the city, particularly the Black Wards away from the restored tourist areas, remained a waste land.

The Black and poor Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans months after the storm.  Amazingly little has been restored to this day.

The youth group of my church, then known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock, spent a week there in July 2010, nearly five years after the storm, doing service projects.  They brought back video and photographic evidence of the distressing situation.  There will be work rebuilding and restoring homes in those districts for hundreds of youth groups for years to come.

When historians look back on the disaster and its long aftermath years from now, they may well conclude that this was the moment when the traditional cocky confidence of American exceptionalism bit the dust and the Empire began it precipitous decline.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Decades Later Emmett Till is Still a Victim and a Symbol

University of Mississippi students hold a bullet ridden Emmett Till historical marker before carrying it to a Confederate monument on campus. 

 The horrific and unthinkably brutal lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year old Chicago boy visiting rural Mississippi on August 28, 1955 for allegedly whistling at a White woman still challenges America’s racist character.   This year on the anniversary the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture announced that it was putting on display a bullet riddled historical marker from the site where Till’s mutilated body was thrown into a river weighted down with a 70 pound cotton gin fan blade.  It was the third of four markers vandalized, shot up by self-proclaimed Ku Klux Klansmen who posed for social media photos with their handiwork.  It was replaced a fourth time by a bullet proof marker which was also vandalized but not destroyed.

Before arriving at the Museum, the marker played a key roll in the bitter and divisive movement to remove Confederate monuments from public places.  In 1919 students at the University of Mississippi carried Till’s marker through campus after a panel discussion hosted by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to Memorial for the Confederate War Dead which had been the target of on-going protests demanding its removal—part of a wave of such protests sparked by Black Lives Matter Movement.  That movement owed its inspiration in no small part to Emmett’s mother Mamie who insisted that his horribly disfigured body be displayed in an open casket at his funeral to show “what they did to my boy.”

Mamie Till's decision to display her mutilated son's body in an open casket funeral helped rally the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

In 1955 Till’s martyrdom helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement.  Although I don’t recall his name being mentioned at Dr. Martin Luther King’s milestone March on Washington for Jobs and Justice exactly eight years later in 1963 that event, broadcast live on national television was a testament on how far the movement had come in just a few years.

But it also inspired the Klan, White Citizen’s Councils, and other night-riding terrorists.  The failure of local courts to convict the known perpetrators of the outrage convinced white supremacists that they were untouchable and had the full support of the wider community.  That led to years of lynchings, assassinations, assaults, bombings, and mob intimidation executed with impunity 

Eventually Federal intervention and enforcement, no matter how reluctant, shifting public opinion, and the simple weariness of many white Southerners with the cycle of protests and violent reprisal that was hurting the businesses.  Slowly a much ballyhooed New South” emerged that grudgingly accepted integration and Black voters with significant political power.  Old Firebrands and Alabama Governor George Wallace changed their tunes.  The Klan went back underground seldom to be mentioned or acknowledged.

Emmett Till, left, was linked to Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown whose deaths helped spark the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The overflowing outrage at police executions of Black citizens and the street confrontations of the Black Lives Matter Movement ripped the band-aid off an old scab.  The Klan and other white nationalist who had never really gone away but who operated on the fringes of society were empowered again by the Trump Era and the dog-whistle of “Make America Great Again.”  Attacks on Confederate monuments brought them to center stage as defenders of tradition and heritage.  Since Charlottesville violent confrontations with anti-racists and anti-fascists have become common.  Scores of groups swelled in membership.  Demanding their “First Amendment right to bear arms” often with the support and complicity of right wing state and local governments, has turned them out in great numbers in combat gear and armed with automatic weapons.  They even became emboldened to attempt coup d’état last January at the Capitol.  That comic opera putsch may have been premature, but they are laying the groundwork for a second insurrection.

Emmett Till is once again a convenient symbol and rallying cry for both sides of the great divide.  Not only was the river site marker defaced, but another historical marker at the site of the general store where Till allegedly insulted pure white Southern womanhood.  Has also been shot up on multiple occasions.  One of the markers is now on exhibit at The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

No one is yet raising monuments to Till’s murderers or to the current crop of terrorists, but it may only be a matter of time. 

Note—For a full review of Emmett Till’s life and death, his mother’s crusade, and the search for justice visit my 2015 blog post The Legacy of Emmett Till 60 Years Later.


Friday, August 27, 2021

Not Quite Indestructible—Margaret Bourke-White

                       Margaret Bourke-White in her element as an industrial photographer in 1935.

Sean Callahan, an awe struck admirer and author of the book Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer noted, “The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an 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 the pioneering photographer and war correspondent turned out to be not quite so indestructible.  In 1953 at the height of her creative powers and fame she began to notice alarming symptoms which turned out to be Parkinson’s Disease, then untreatable.  She endured a slow deterioration which forced her into semi-retirement by 1957 and ended all of her work by 1968.  She endured with the disease for 18 years before dying of it in near poverty on August 27, 1971 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Margaret White was born in New York City on June 14, 1904.  Her father, Joseph White, an immigrant secularized Polish Jew who was a naturalist, engineer, and inventor.  Her mother was Minnie Bourke, an American born Irish Catholic.  Both parents, however, eschewed their birth faiths and were ardent free thinkers.  The family, including young Maggie and sister and brother, were comfortably middle class, and soon left the city for the leafy small town of Bound Brook, New Jersey, a historic burb on the Raritan River in the north central part of the state.

Maggie, like her brother and older sister, worshiped her brilliant father, a perfectionist with high expectations of his offspring.  Her artistic mother was also a feminist who imbued her with the notion not to allow herself to be limited by customary gender roles.  All the children were imbued with a mission to serve humanity, even save, the world through relentless self-improvement and achievement.

While a student at Plainfield High School, Margaret picked up a passion for photography from her father who was fascinated by cameras and interested in nature photography.  After graduation from high school, she was interested in becoming a professional photographer—a business with few successful women practitioners—but followed her father’s advice to pursue science.

In 1922 White enrolled at Columbia University in New York to study herpetology—the study of snakes and reptiles.  But while at Columbia she took photography classes with Clarence Hudson White, founder of the Photo-Secession movement with Alfred Stieglitz which re-invigorated her interest in the medium.  Her time at Columbia, however, was cut short by the sudden and devastating death of her father after one semester.

White never returned to Columbia.  She restlessly moved from school to school driven by her often impossibly high expectations of the institutions, her own perfectionism, and a bristling refusal to bow to any restrictions placed on her as a woman.  Romance and its failure may also have played a part. White married fellow student Everett Chapman in 1924 and divorced him just two years later. She studied successively at the University of Michigan, Perdue, and Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, before finally settling in comfortably at Cornell, in Ithaca, New York.  Perhaps it helped that Ithaca reminded her of her New Jersey home.  When she graduated she left a remarkable portfolio of campus photos for the student newspaper which concentrate on buildings and architectural detail.

                                        Bourke-White as a young photographer.

Despite the odds against her, White was determined to pursue a career as a photographer.  A year after graduating from Cornell in 1927 she established her own commercial photography studio in Cleveland, Ohio where she specialized in architectural and industrial work.  Symbolically, she abandoned her married name and the adopted the hyphenated name Bourke-White to preserve her independence and honor her mother equally with her father.

In her early days Bourke-White struggled to get commissions.  Her breakthrough came when she got a job from the Otis Steel Company to document their production process.  Even though she had been hired by the company, their security agents tried to block her access in the shaky grounds that steel was a defense industry and photos of production could risk the national security and plant superintendents and foremen worried that a mere woman could not stand the intense heat and danger of being close to blast furnaces and molten metal.  She got her way around these objections with flirtatious eyelash batting, and when that didn’t work, terrifying bullying.

Bourke-White endangered assistants and herself to capture the drama of molten steel at the the Otis Steel mill in Cleveland.

Once in the plants Bourke-White quickly discovered technical challenges.  She set up what she thought were brilliant, dramatic shots of steel being poured then discovered in the dark room that the black and white film she was using was not sensitive to the glowing red and orange of hot steel—the molten metal came out nearly black in prints.  She solved the problem by lighting her shots by having assistants hold magnesium flares which produced a brilliant white light.  The aids sometimes had to be positioned dangerously close to the flowing steel and showering sparks, but she was heedless of their—and her own—safety.  The results were stunning.  No photographer had ever before captured the dazzling drama of hot steel.  When the shots were published, Bourke-White was recognized as a master of her medium.

That 1928 shoot led directly to a prestigious new job as associate editor and staff photographer for Fortune magazine in 1929.  In 1930 the magazine sent her to the Soviet Union where she became one of the first western photojournalists to document Russian industry under communism.  That trip would help make her welcome a decade later when she was posted to Moscow as a foreign correspondent.

In 1936 Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Fortune bought the failing old humor magazine Life just for its name.  He wanted to launch a new weekly newsmagazine that would rely mostly on photography to tell its stories—a newsreel on slick paper as he envisioned it.  Bourke-White, already working for him at Fortune and who had the strong support of Luce’s feminist wife Clair Boothe Luce, was his first hire for the new project.  Not only was she a photographer, but she set up the sophisticated photo lab that would be required to process and print the hundreds, often thousands of images that would pour into magazine every week from around the world.  When the new magazine hit the newsstands on November 23, 1936, Bourke-White photo of the Fort Peck Dam was on the cover.  The new magazine was an immediate success and almost instantly a national institution.

This photo of the Fort Peck Dam was featured on the inaugural issue of Henry Luce's Life Magazine.

Luce was an arch conservative and rabid anti-New Dealer, which was reflected in the editorial content of the magazine.  Hardly anyone, however, read Luce’s ranting editorials.  They turned to the magazine for the dramatic coverage of the world around them, including the stark poverty of the Depression years.  Luce never seemed to learn that the pictures that he printed worked against all of his politics.  Pictures by Bourke-White and others evoked sympathy for the plight of workers, and celebrated he triumphs of things like CCC camps and WPA public works projects and actually rallied public support for the New Deal.  Luce never learned this lesson and in later years coverage of his photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, the emerging counterculture of the ‘60’s, and the experience of grunts on the ground in Vietnam all worked against his personal political agenda.

Bourke-White, who had made her reputation photographing industry, turned more and more to human subjects in her coverage of the Great Depression.  In 1937 she toured the South dramatically documenting conditions there.  The results were iconic photos like the one published on February 15, 1937 of displaced Black flood victims lined up for food in front of a huge billboard of a smiling white family in an automobile with the tag line “World’s Highest Standard of Living—There’s No Way Like the American Way.”  Seldom was there a more deeply subversive photo ever published.

This Bourke-White photo is still used as a dramatic illustration the American class divide.

Besides shooting for Time, Bourke-White took her own photos on her swing through the South then collaborated on a book with Erskine Caldwell, the Georgia-born Southern gothic novelist best known for God’s Little Acre. Caldwell wrote the text and Bourke-White provided the photo illustrations and both collaborated on the captions.  Caleb Crain described the process in a 2009 New Yorker article:

Bourke-White lay in wait for her subjects with a flash and wrote with pleasure of having them “imprisoned on a sheet of film before they knew what had happened.” The resulting portraits are by turns sentimental and grotesque, and she and Caldwell printed them with contrived first-person captions.

The resulting book, Have You Seen Their Faces was published by Viking Press, with a paperback version by Modern Age Books following quickly.  It pre-dated the more celebrated collaboration of James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men published in 1941 by four years.

The work with Caldwell also led to romance.  The couple married in 1939 and divorced in 1942 largely due to Bourke-White’s lengthy absences on overseas assignments.

Those assignments came as tensions in Europe were on the rise.  She was dispatched to survey what everyday life was like under the Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, and Soviet Communists.  Despite being under tight surveillance and often escorted by handlers meant to make sure that she only took positive photos, her keen eye was able to pick out many telling moments.  In the Soviet Union, her earlier visit there led to unprecedented access, including to Joseph Stalin himself in an informal an un-posed session which even caught the usually stern dictator laughing.

When War broke out in 1939, Bourke-White applied for credentials as a war correspondent to various governments.  She even gave up her full time job at Time, which did not want to send her in harm’s way, in 1940 to become a freelance correspondent sending photos and articles to several American newspapers.  She did continue to sell pictures to Time and was eventually rehired by them to be a war correspondent.

In fact, Bourke-White became the first accredited American female war correspondent.  She was back in Moscow when Germany broke the Hitler-Stalin Pact and attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.  In fact, she was the only western photographer in the Capital as the city came under Luftwaffe bombardment which set of firestorms.  She photographed the burning city from the roof of the American Embassy.

Ready to fly with the boys of the Army Air Force in 1942.

When the United States entered the war, Bourke-White became the first woman correspondent.  She was first attached to the Army Air Force in North Africa and became the first woman to fly on Combat bombing missions.  At desert air bases she had to dive for cover from strafing, and dive bombing Stukas.  Later she was assigned to Army infantry and artillery in Italy where the Army was bogged down in a grueling mountain campaigning.   She won the respect of the troops for her courage under frequent fire.

In between, Bourke-White was onboard the British troop ship SS Strathallan bound to North Africa from England when it was torpedoed and sunk.  She turned to the experience into the photo essay Women in Lifeboats which appeared in Life on February 22, 1943. 

Toward the end of the war Bourke-White toured recently captured and occupied German territory with General George Patton.  She was with him at Buchenwald short days after the Death Camp was liberated.  The experience shook her to the core:

Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.

Buchenwald survivors.  Bourke's photo were some of the first images of Nazi horrors that Americans got to see.

The photos she took, and which were published in Time were among the first and most detailed images of the horror that Americans got to see.  After the war she assembled and wrote Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report On The Collapse Of Hitler’s Thousand Years.  It was an eyewitness account of devastated Germany after the war in which she displayed scant sympathy for the German civilians she held responsible for the rise of Hitler and still, in the face of overwhelming mounting evidence of atrocities, remained in denial about national guilt and their own responsibility for the wretched conditions to which they had been lowered.   It was a tough book—and a highly controversial one.  

Among Bourke-Whites most important post-war assignments was the independence of the Indian sub-continent and the bloody partition of India and Pakistan.  She photographed all of the key players.  Her photograph of Mohandas Gandhi emaciated from fasting and sitting at his spinning wheel became one of the most recognizable images of him.  There was a stern photo of Pakistani founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah sitting upright in a chair.  But it was the photos of the devastating partition violence that stood out.  Somini Sengupta, a noted Indian journalist working for the New York Times called Bourke-White’s photographs “gut-wrenching, and staring at them, you glimpse the photographer's undaunted desire to stare down horror…Bourke-White’s photographs seem to scream from the page.” In 1948 she was back in India and again photographed and interviewed Gandhi hours before his assassination.

Gandhi and his spinning wheel.

These pictures were taken just two years after her experience at Buchenwald.  Bourke-White had seen more than her share of the horrors that humanity was capable of.

She continued to do fine work for Life until her Parkinson’s forced her retirement.  Even then she kept up a limited amount of freelance work.  But the tremors of the disease made it increasingly difficult to hold a camera steady or to do the dark room work that she relished.  Experimental surgeries to her nervous system in 1959 and 1961 reduced the tremors, but drastically affected her speech.  And the procedures could not halt the slow march of her body toward paralysis.

Unable to do much with her camera, Bourke-White penned a bestselling memoir, Portrait of Myself published in 1963. 

She spent the rest of the decade in failing health and increasing isolation in her Darien, Connecticut home.  A generous Time-Life pension and royalties from her books and photographs could not keep up with the rapidly mounting cost of her medical expenses and the need for 24 hour a day nursing care.  By the time she finally slipped away, she was broke.

Burke-White’s photos are on display and in the collections of several museums including the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the New Mexico Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in the collection of the Library of Congress.

The rise of academic women’s studies almost on the heels of her death helped revive interest in Bourke-White and elevated her to new status as an inspirational role model.  Candice Bergen played her in the Academy Award winning film Gandhi in 1982 and Farrah Fawcett portrayed her in a made-for-TV bio pic, Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White in 1989.