Monday, April 30, 2018

Remembering where we were

Conservatory Garden, BHT (Before Hat Luncheon). Sunday, 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, April 30, 2018. A mainly sunny weekend in New York, with some passing, sometimes steady rains in the evening hours. Coolish but warm in the bright Sun.

The Good News. The trees are beginning their spurt into leafdom and the flowers around the base of the streets on a lot of streets and avenues adds an honest and calming dimension to the hustle bustle and madness of us crowds. I couldn’t resist catching a glimpse. And neither could JH, as you can see.
Last night I had dinner with Gigi and Harry Benson, and Linda Buckley at Sette Mezzo. The Bensons, who winter in Palm Beach, were finally back in town for the warmer seasons up north.

Staley-Wise Gallery, downtown on the corner of Prince and Broadway, hosted a book signing last Thursday evening for Harry Benson’s book, “RFK: A Photographer’s Journal” (PowerHouse Books) commemorating the 50th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles in June 4-5 (at just about the midnight hour).  Harry had been sent by the Daily Express of London.  To cover what had been scheduled to be the California primary for the Democratic Presidential ticket in June, 1968.
Harry and Gigi .
Harry Benson signing a book for Cornelia Bregman.
Harry signing books.
Along with the evenings hosts Etheleen Staley, Taki Wise and George Kocis; friends who gathered to congratulate Harry and wife, Gigi, who edited the book, include Linda Buckley, Anne Eisenhower, Adriana Echavarria, Juan Esteban Orduz, Geoffrey Bradfield, Cornelia Bregman, Walter Bernard, David Margolick, photographer Jonathan Delano and Harry’s friends and colleagues from his Life magazine days: Jim Gaines, M.C. Marden, Peter Bonventre, Jim and Joyce Seymore, Maddy Miller
George Kocis, Keltsey Mattachione, Harry, Taki Wise, Etheleen Staley, Mike Sidow, and Nate Rehn-Daly.
Anne Eisenhower, Adriana Echavarria, and Juan Esteban Orduz.
Jim Gaines, Walter Bernard, and David Margolick.
Jim Seymore, M.C. Marden, Joyce Seymore, Maddy Miller, Harry, and Jim Gaines.
Yona Serota, Joan Teeaford, and Etheleen Staley.
Jonathan Delano, who photographed the evening, and Harry Benson.
For all of us who were alive at the time, what happened that night right after Senator Kennedy had won the California primary, remains in memory as one of those moments where you remember where you were when you heard.

The murderous incident occurred around midnight California time and so most of us in the East were fast asleep when the news came out. I recall seeing it first in a headline of the New York Daily News at 9 a.m. riding on the 86th Street crosstown bus on Wednesday morning. It was only two months to the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee. Seeing that News headline seemed unreal to the point of confusion and disbelief.

Harry holding court. Click to pre-order R.F.K.: A Photographer's Journal.
Harry Benson’s assignment had begun only a week before when he was sent to follow the Senator on his trip to Los Angeles where his brother John had been nominated for the Presidency in Los Angeles only eight years before. Harry kept a diary of this trip. That, with the photos he took covering those days are the book.

Our dinner last night brought it all back with Harry’s experience of the fateful and tragic voyage of RFK which as fate would have it, Harry covered it all from beginning with a Kennedy family holiday on the Snake River in 1966; to the night  at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles which ended the dream; to the funeral and train ride to Arlington Cemetery. Harry’s photographs of RFK give an intimate portrait of an extraordinary man and the legacy he left behind.  Harry’s own 1966-1968 hand-written journals from the campaign trail provide the text. 

“Saturday, July 2nd. I first met Bobby Kennedy when I flew to Boise, Idaho to photograph his family vacation on the Snake River, also called the River of No Return.  Earlier when I had spoken to his press office, they were non-committal about the Senator’s whereabouts and would only say that he would be away for a few days. However, they had told LIFE magazine and the Associated Press exactly where to find Bobby. Luckily for me, there was a LIFE photographer, Enrico Sarsini, on the plane to Boise, whom I recognized from some of the Civil Rights marches we had been on with Martin Luther King Jr.  He  was a jovial sort and told me to come along with him. I have to admit after working on London’s Fleet Street, where the competition between journalists is fiercer than in America, if it had been the other way around I probably would not have told him where I was going, but would have kept the exclusive to myself.

Tuesday and Wednesday; June 4-5/ Ambassador Hotel/ Los Angeles.

“I don’t know why I covered Bobby’s speech that evening. I hadn’t planned to go to the celebration because everyone knew he would win the California primary. I was planning to have dinner with friends, and I had hurt my wrist in a fall that afternoon on the hotel tennis court, but something told me not to miss it.  A bank made up of young kids was playing, providing the upbeat background music. Everyone was jubilant, shouting in unison, ‘Bobby! Bobby! ' It was very crowded. Bobby didn’t join the celebration until very late, around midnight or after. I stood on a chair to get some photographs of Bobby’s sister, Jean Smith, and to capture Bobby’s victory speech from the podium. Bobby ended his speech with a victory sign and the words 'On to Chicago,’ which brought a roar from the crowd.”
Photograph by Harry Benson
“Bobby started to work his way toward the kitchen exit and I started out the other way, but it was so crowded I decided to follow Bobby. As I neared the kitchen door I heard a girl scream, a horrifying scream, and I instinctively knew what had happened. Sometimes I think I heard the shots, but I’m still not sure. The scream told everything I needed to know. We had walked out of happiness and into hell.”
Photograph by Harry Benson
“Bobby was lying on  the floor with blood coming out of the back of his head. Ethel was well behind me but she was brought over to him somehow. By then I had climbed up and was standing on a flat table in the center of the room. It was the warmer where food was placed before being taken into the dining room. Jesse Unruh threw me off the hot plate and I found myself two feet from Bobby. That’s when I saw Ethel bend down and I heard her say: ‘I’m with you Bobby, I’m with you.’ His eyes glazed over and a rosary was placed in his hand He did not say anything. Ethel turned around screamed ‘Give him air, give him air!’  The whole room started to move. It was hell.

“I had covered all the civil rights violence, all the riots in this country, and I’d been to the Congo and Nigeria and Cyrus. There’s something about violence, you feel it, there's no mistaking it. So I knew at once he’d been shot. After that I kept telling myself ‘Pull yourself together, pull yourself together.’”
Photograph by Harry Benson
It seemed like a very long time before an ambulance arrived, and later, everyone blamed each other for the delay. Kennedy was lifted by the legs and shoulders and placed on a stretcher.

“I was bruised all over from being shoved around. It was like having  been in a fight. I was black and blue and had a bump on my head where my camera had banged into it. When the police started throwing everybody out of the kitchen, I ducked and went back around to the other side of the room. When it was all over, I was the last photographer to leave the kitchen. The police put up a rope of sorts, made of sheets or something like.’”
Photograph by Harry Benson
“On the floor was a pool of blood. A young woman ducked under the rope and placed her straw boater where Kennedy had fallen. That was all that was left. I will always remember that moment.”
Photograph by Harry Benson

“Some one from the Associated Press called my wife, Gigi, in New York and woke her up about 5 a.m. New York Time to tell her that five people had been shot but not me. I called later. Daily Express  editor David English called from London and wanted me to dictate another story for the paper. He said, ‘I hope you've been at the hospital all night.’  I told him I’d been through a horrific event and standing outside the hospital would be useless. I never went to the hospital. I had had enough emotion, enough drama. I couldn’t do any better. I knew Bobby was dead when he left the kitchen.

“I called the FBI and told them I had these pictures, including one of a girl in a polka dot blouse. They had been looking for someone in a polka dot dress to question, but they never came to look at my contact sheets. It was really unbelievable.

“the next day I flew back to New York to prepare for the funeral and train ride that would end with RFK’s burial in Arlington Cemetery, where his brother the president had been laid to rest.”

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