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Carl Mydans, 1907-2004
In the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift wished one: "May you LIVE all the days of your life."
For 97 years, Carl Mydans did exactly that. In all those years, he never lost the excitement of every day and the joys of new adventures. He maintained an equanimity about the vagaries and unpredictability of life that was a lesson to all those around him. On his first wheelchair "walk" after his right leg was amputated, he would say to the neighbors, or anyone else he happened upon in those first days, "Hey, we lost my leg and can't find it anywhere! Let me know if you see it around."
Thursday, Jan. 1, 2004:
Carl continued to look around the room; the smile remained as he would stop for a moment or two on certain items. The photograph of himself by Alfred Eisenstaedt, and the portrait he did of Shelley. Shelves filled with books of places and events. A framed LIFE magazine story with the headline, "My God, It's Carl Mydans," a story he wrote and photographed on his return to the Santa Tomas POW camp in which he and Shelley were imprisoned during World War II. Little windup toys in a basket, which Shelley used to enjoy. A small photograph of himself from three years ago, scribbling on The New York Times.
Watching and listening that day, there was another sound that could barely be heard, a sound that had long been ignored: the gentle noise of sand on sand in an unseen hourglass. Without saying it, we both knew this would be our last New Year's together.
I asked Carl, "What are you thinking about at this moment?" He was quiet for a moment and then looked directly at me and said, "Bill, I am thinking about what an amazing life I've had."
There is no one who could argue with that.
Saturday, Jan. 21, 1989:
The weather was cool, and traffic was heavy on I-95 heading north out of Washington, D.C. The inauguration of George H. Bush as the 41st president of the United States had ended the day before.
Carl Mydans, one of the first photographers hired by LIFE magazine in the 1930s, had photographed this event, as he had so many other historic and less than historic events in the last 50 years.
In hundreds of notebooks, Carl wrote everything, going far beyond who, what, when, where and why. His photographs tell stories, sharing with an audience those moments that are, indeed, "more than meets the eye."
On this day, there was just Carl and myself in the car, heading back to New York. It remains the best seven hours I've ever spent behind the wheel of a car.
On the eight-lane highway, surrounded by other vehicles, none of which had drivers that were able to read the speed limit signs, I listened to the stories that make up "More than Meets the Eye," a word book that Carl wrote in 1959. I found a copy of the book at the now-closed "Photographer's Place" in Soho, N.Y.C. In 1990, Carl signed it for me.
For those familiar with "books on tape," imagine your favorite book, being read to you in your car or living room by the author and you can discuss what you've heard and ask questions! It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I re-read that book today, I can hear Carl's voice and the excitement and emotion in it as he tells the story of how he, Slim Aarons and George Silk helped to "liberate" a German brewery from a few MPs, preventing a firefight between American soldiers and, in the process, making everyone a little happier, not to mention hungover the next day.
Gesturing with his hands, and a big smile on his face, he told story after story, each one seemingly better than the last.
At Carl's 97th birthday party in May of this year, a huge photograph of Carl and Slim was hung off the bookshelf in the living room. Slim is about 6 feet 6 tall and Carl was, shall we say, a little shorter.
Shortly after the party, the photograph remained. Carl was sitting in the living room, looked over at the photograph and said, "That's me with a friend who is a little taller."
Gordon Parks, another photographer who had worked at LIFE, was also there and Carl was enjoying the moment, being surrounded by his old friends with whom he had shared so many adventures. The party this year was a true celebration - not just of Carl, but of his friends, colleagues and family who were gathered, of lives well lived and the love and friendship that had survived the tests of time.
Carl, sitting in his wheelchair in the living room, smiled as he watched his daughter Misty and granddaughter Claire talking with Gordon Parks, and posing for photographs. There were many from the past who had come to celebrate with Carl, including John Loengard, a photographer, editor and writer; Dirck Halstead, a former Time photographer and now the publisher/editor of The Digital Journalist and a professor in Austin, Texas; Red and Milt Wohl, old friends of Carl and Shelley, and Seymour Topping, to name a few.
"Have We Got Enough Gas?"
Without fail, Carl would ask that question 50 yards away from his driveway as Sonia Brown, the weekend caregiver and friend, drove Carl's white Toyota. She would smile and say, "Yes, Mr. Mydans, we have enough gas." He would then ask, "And where are we going today?"
July 6, 2003, "Super Wal-Mart," Woodmere Commons, N.Y.:
As we entered this palace to consumerism, Carl is made momentarily speechless. This is not an easy thing to do. Wheeling through the store, Carl waved his arms, as he exclaimed, "Have you ever seen so much STUFF? This place is a big surprise to me!" That day's mission was to find an air-conditioner that would fit in an odd-sized window at Carl's house. In the end, the quest for the a-c was unsuccessful, but the roughly 50-mile trip and the experience of all that "stuff" was well worth it.
"No Fish," Glen Island, New Rochelle, N.Y.:
This was a favorite spot of Carl's. Many weekend days, Carl, Sonia and I would walk around the park. Carl would greet everyone, commenting on the number of people, dogs and boats as he toured the area. A concrete walk along the water encircled the island. On the north side was where all of the fisherman seemed to congregate. On a visit last year, Carl commented, "You know, I've seen hundreds of people fishing here and I have never seen anyone catch a fish!," as he gestured out past the guys with their poles in the water and empty "catch buckets" by their side. A fisherman overheard this and, smiling, said the "fish, whether we catch any or not, are a great excuse to be outdoors." One winter day. we met 2 sisters, Elizabeth and Katherine, who were sitting on chairs at the water's edge. Katherine was 98 and Elizabeth was "not saying." The day was very cold and windy, so Carl stayed in the car and waved to them.
There was an exhibit at the Hastings-on-Hudson Gallery, a photography show titled, "Only in America." In it were works by Joe McNally, John Maggiotto and another half-dozen photographers. Carl and I drove from Larchmont to see the show, and afterwards, we thought we'd walk around Hastings. As luck would have it, the Hastings Halloween parade was being held that afternoon. After stopping for a slice of pizza, we headed down the street and were surrounded by Frankensteins, Spiderman and Harry Potter! Ethan Makulec, a seven-year-old and the son of some friends, was dressed like Harry Potter. and Carl greeted him with a huge smile as they posed for snapshots. A half-block away, there were some kids in various scary costumes, making noises as they attempted to frighten people. In his wheelchair, Carl put up his hands and said, "OH! You are scaring me," with a huge smile on his face, telling the kids and everyone else he was NOT scared, but having a wonderful time.
In the spring of 2001, Carl and Shelley were sitting outside their house in Larchmont, and Carl exclaimed to arriving visitors, "Shelley, we are doing these people a big favor!" Shelley replied, as they relaxed in the sun, "What's that?" Carl explained that "the favor was showing how one could sit in a chair and relax in the sunshine, and be perfectly happy while doing absolutely nothing!" Shelley smiled and said, "I'm sure there are other things we can show." Indeed.
Carl & Shelley:
They were married for 66 years. After she died in March of 2002, it was very hard not to think about her and Carl together, and how they taught you what life and love really meant.
Shelley had attended an Episcopal church in Larchmont for years. I was a "recovering Catholic" and had joined an Episcopal church in Hastings. On many Sundays we would talk about that week's gospel, the sermon she'd heard and the one I had heard and discuss the different interpretations. For years, during Lent, I have given up chocolate (which, as everyone knows is a food group). One Sunday during Lent, Shelley and I were sitting in the TV room talking when Shelley said, "Let me get you something to eat!" I said I was fine and would just drink some water. She mentioned that water was boring and said, "I can give you fruit juice, a soft drink." I declined and she went off to the kitchen, returning moments later with a plate of Oreo cookies, chocolate-chip cookies, and chocolate candy. I said, "Shelley, remember? I have given up chocolate for Lent." Holding the plate, she looked left, looked right, looked out of the room into the hallway. She saw there was no one around. Then, in a whisper, and with a huge smile and a twinkle in her eyes, she said, "I won't tell."
In 2001, Carl was in Soundshore Hospital and Shelley was at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, recovering from a broken hip. She was sitting in the sunshine outside and asked, "Where is Carl?" I explained that I had just seen him, and that he was at Soundshore Hospital. She looked at me, and said, "Well, you know, we should be together." They are now.
All Over Again:
Over the years, Carl took many walks in his neighborhood, and would often, out of the blue, exclaim, "I love this place!" One afternoon, walking on Hommocks Road, we stopped to watch the golfers as they teed off, with many managing to send their golf balls into the little pond in front of the green. One of the golfers in the foursome looked at us and, laughing, mentioned how lucky we were to be able to watch such great golfers. In truly perfect weather, we just hung out and continued to watch a steady stream of golfers tee off and watched and listened as about a third of them splashed into the pond. Carl, his eyes leaving the golfers, looked at Sonia and said, "You know, if I had my life to do over again, I would think about golf!"
For someone who had spent the better part of his life photographing presidents, generals, kings and many others at the top, Carl truly cared about everyone and it always showed in his words and photographs. Aside from his work as a photojournalist, one had only to spend a little time with him to realize just how much he enjoyed being in the world and connecting with people.
Over the past few years, on many walks, in a myriad of places, Carl met hundreds of kids, dogs, and the odd cartoon character. Outside a Larchmont pizzeria, the "Cat in the Hat" was passing out balloons. Carl watched him handing balloons to kids, and said hello, as the man in the costume handed Carl a balloon, which he put around his wrist.
"Wait, It's Not Film, It's That Thing!!":
A December 2002 day and Carl was in the living room, smiling as his portrait was being made. After awhile, he said, "How many rolls have you shot?" A nanosecond later he said, with a huge smile, "Wait, I know, it's not rolls; it's That Thing!" From that day on, "That Thing" became the new technical term for a compact flash card.
In the past couple of years, Bill Pierce, another photographer who had worked for Time magazine for years, would often come to Larchmont to visit with Carl.
On this particular winter day, Carl was not doing well and had said, "I'm just worn out," as he sat in his wheelchair looking out the big picture window in the living room. Pierce had placed his camera on the couch. Then, it was picked up and put around Carl's neck and he was told, "Hey, you look pretty good with a camera!" He smiled as he gripped the camera, and the change in him was amazing to see. He went from being "worn out" to animated and smiling as he pointed the camera at those on the couch in front of him.
Early this year, sitting in his big blue chair, Carl was not feeling well, complained of being tired and announced, "I can't make pictures anymore!" I pulled an "analog" camera out of my bag, and put it around his neck. I sat in the little chair that had been Shelley's desk chair, hit the light and said, "Shoot me." He did. A couple of days later, I brought him a big print of the photograph. He looked at it and asked, "Who shot this?" I said, "You did!" Looking at the print, he said with a smile, "Hey, pretty good." Indeed.
On Jan. 6, 2004, shortly after Carl had taken my photograph, I sat in the chair on his right; he handed me the camera. Taking it, I looked through the viewfinder to see Carl with a little smile as he leaned toward me. I shot the picture. It was film, so we could not see it immediately. When the film was processed, I saw the photograph, but could not quite figure out what it was that made this portrait different from the hundreds of others.
A week later, Seth Mydans answered the question when I gave him a print. He said, "You know, this photograph is of Carl, and not an old man."
Things That Were Meant To Be:
Often we are disappointed when things do not happen the way we want them to and sometimes we are pleasantly surprised when things happen as they were meant to.
Carl Mydans' death on Aug. 16, 2004 made me very sad. Sad for myself, sad for his children, Seth and Misty. Sad for the hundreds of friends and colleagues who will miss him.
But, I am not sad for Carl. The end of his life happened as he had planned. He had done everything one can do in this life and left a legacy, not only of the words and pictures he created, but a legacy filled with examples of how to love and to live.
When the time came, he was ready. He died the way he had planned, on his schedule, with his children, Seth and Misty, and friends at his bedside. I was blessed with him in my life. Watching him through the last few days was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I would not have been anywhere else. He was 97, and very often would tell you, "I'm just worn out."
On Friday, as I sat by his bed, holding his hands, stroking his hair, kissing his forehead, he looked at me and said "Thank you." I told him that he was still the best-looking guy I know. He smiled and said, "You've said that before, and I still think you may be wrong." I told him again that I loved him. He replied, "Bill, I love you."
He closed his eyes and, breathing easily, went to sleep. His daughter Misty came in and stood on the other side of the bed; we talked and held his hands.
For years, David Friend and I would stand at attention and give Carl a salute when we were leaving. On Friday night, Sonia Brown, who had been the weekend caregiver, but who'd become much more than that to Carl, came into the room. She had been with him for the past three years. On most weekends, the three of us would head off for new adventures with Carl. At that moment, it was just the three of us, lost in our thoughts of past adventures, and how much we would miss Carl.
Later, around 10 p.m., Karen Schwartz, the social worker who has been working with the family for a number of years, came in and, with a smile, said, "No sleepovers; everyone needs their rest."
I kissed Carl, squeezed his hands, kissed Sonia and got ready to leave. Carl was watching me, and I stood at the foot of his bed and gave him the salute. God love him, he pulled up his right arm and, lying in his bed, saluted me back. Sonia and I could only stand there, holding back the tears as I said, "Carl, you are amazing!" He smiled and I left.
On Saturday, he was aware and said, "Hi, Bill" as I took his hands and kissed him. He had been getting pain medication and was very comfortable and pain-free.
Carl slept as Misty and I read Psalms from one of Shelley's bibles as we sat by his bed.
Sunday afternoon and he was farther away … he would open his eyes and look, but it was hard to see or understand how much he was seeing. Although, there was a nanosecond when I felt he was "there."
Monday, Misty and Seth and I were all by his bed; Carl was sleeping, the breath still "easy." Seth and Misty left the room, leaving me with Carl, as I just talked quietly to him, stroking his forehead and telling him, like I always did, just day-to-day stuff, what day it was, what the weather was doing. And then I would tell him I would be leaving. I imagined him saying, "Good, and when are you coming back?" Which was what he always asked.
Later, Misty and Seth and I sat in the living room, talking about Carl and all of those places they had been together. The three of us continued to talk a little bit more, then Seth said he was going out for a bit; Misty had a few phone calls to make and I took off to make a run to Manhattan to pick up film. Misty said, "FILM? Are you still shooting film?"
With Seth and Misty by his bed, as he had wanted, Carl left us on the night of Monday, Aug. 16, 2004. He will be missed by many.
God love him.
© Bill Foley
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