by William E. Marks
There he was, the world's renowned icon of photography, Alfred Eisenstaedt, sitting in the sun on a canvass director's chair. The setting was the grass yard next to a Menemsha Inn cottage named "Pilot House". As I exited my car and started walking across the yard, I saw Eisie's head move slightly as his knowing eyes looked me over. He was wearing a pair of shorts; a sun-bleached short-sleeved blue cotton shirt; a Yankees baseball cap with "NY" on the front, and a pair of dark sunglasses. The time was mid-August, and Eisie's face, arms and legs were deeply tanned. As time went by, I was to learn how Eisie liked sporting a tan, especially on his face. He once commented, "My face is always tan, just like that famous actor, George Hamilton."
My purpose for meeting with Eisie was to interview and photograph him for a Martha's Vineyard Magazine exclusive. The story was to focus on his upcoming book and the first-ever commercial sale of his photographs. Eisie wasted no time in sizing me up, "How long have you worked for the magazine?" he asked. "I am the magazine's founding publisher and editor," I answered. "Oh," said Eisie, then after a brief pause, "it is a beautiful magazine, I liked reading the story Walter Cronkite wrote a few years ago."
Eisie pointed to a nearby cushioned chaise, "make yourself comfortable," he said, I'll have Lulu bring us something to drink. Do you like iced tea?" The way Eisie orchestrated the moment made me feel as though he was creating a photographic setting. After meeting Eisie's lovely sister-in-law, Lulu, Eisie and I sat in the Vineyard's hot August sun and chatted away. He told me about his wife Kathy, who died from cancer in 1972, and with whom he shared twenty-two Vineyard summers. He told of how thankful and blessed he was that Kathy's sister, Lulu, now helped him to organize his home and travel plans. "Without Kathy and Lulu, I would have been dead long ago," Eisie said. It wasn't too long before I was shirt less and sitting there in my khaki shorts and rope sandals; listening to Eisie's fascinating stories of life, photography and travel. Without doubt, Eisie was one of the most traveled people I had ever met. In the silent moments between words spanning a range of subjects, there were soft whisperings from a southwesterly breeze floating uphill off the visibly distant waters of Vineyard Sound.
Yes, this was Eisie's idyllic Vineyard setting at its best. Little did I realize - this was the beginning of a wonderfully loving relationship. For years to come, Eisie and I would share in our mutual love and admiration of water and nature. Eisie loved photographing island scenes with water in them. He loved sitting for hours at the picture window of his Menemsha cottage looking out over the ocean while listening to music through his headphones. Eisie's special chair and chaise were set up on the screened porch of Pilot House so he always had the optimal water view. One summer, overgrown bushes blocked his view. He complained for days. I told Eisie and Lulu that I would gladly trim the growth if the inn's owners, Richard and Nancy Steeves permitted. Richard Steeves telephoned me and said he was overwhelmed and just didn't have time to trim back the growth this year. Eisie stood on the porch deck like Napoleon - giving me marching orders as to what offending invaders he wanted cut down.
All too quickly, a couple of hours passed by, and the demands of being a magazine publisher beckoned me to the office. When I asked Eisie's permission to take his picture, he said, "yes, you may photograph me, but make sure you do not take a picture of my knees." The disfigured shape of his knees had caught my eye earlier. After taking a few snaps of Eisie's upper torso, I asked him about his knees--this is what he told me: "I was drafted by the German army during World War I. I still remember the day it happened, April 12, 1918. I was fighting on the Flanders front, bullets and bombs were flying all around. Suddenly, a piece of shrapnel hit my right leg here (pointing to the outside of his right leg just above the knee). The shrapnel went through the leg and then hit my left knee. I ended up the only survivor of my artillery battery. I am lucky I didn't have my legs blown off or cut off by the field doctors. My left leg was in worse shape because of the shrapnel hitting the bone of knee. That's why I have this big lump there. It took me years to walk on my own two legs without assistance or the support of crutches or canes. Sometimes when I think about that war, I can still see surreal pictures of the muddy battlefield; the bloated corpses of horses and men; and even to this day, I can still smell the sickening stench of death. It was horrible." The look on Eisie's taut face when he relived this moment was of tight jaw, wide-eyed, flared nostril horror.
Eventually, as years passed, Eisie granted me permission to take photographs his knees as well his day-to-day life in a myriad of settings. Another thing I was to eventually learn about Eisie was how bothered he was for being renowned as a photographer of people. "I always wanted to be known as a nature photographer," said Eisie many times over the ten years of our friendship. "When I was growing up in Germany, I always liked the outdoors. I liked walking, hiking through the woods, running, climbing, roller skating, playing in the sun with friends. When Henry Luce hired me and three other photographers, we had no idea what type of publication we were taking pictures for. Luce called it ‘secret Project X.' In November 1936, the first issue came out, it was called LIFE Magazine. Five of my pictures are in that first issue. Luce kept giving me assignments to photograph people and I kept telling him that I liked photographing nature. Even though I did get nature assignments, the pictures I seem to be remembered for are my photographs of people. Luce kept telling me that I had a natural gift for photographing people. I guess in many ways he was right. But I prefer to be known as a nature photographer. I can see it now," says Eisie with an ironic laugh, " the writing on my gravestone will read, ‘Eisenstaedt, the man who photographed the sailor kissing the nurse.'"
One day while sitting with Eisie in his office at TIME, he proudly waved his child-like hand at the tightly packed, ceiling high rows of steel shelves that supported stacks of photographic storage boxes. The only office space without shelves of photographs was a little corner by the entry door where Eisie sat in a wooden arm chair at his time-worn wooden desk. "There are tons of photographs in this room, "said Eisie, "and I can tell you what the weather was, what film and camera settings I used, what the people talked about and many other details surrounding each photographic moment. I remember all these things like it was yesterday," he says with a strong voice filled with pride. "So far, I have taken well over one million photographs, and have traveled throughout the world on over 2,600 LIFE assignments." After the gusto of this statement, he hesitates for a moment, his facial muscles relax and his eyes slightly tear as his softening voice goes on, "But in all my travels, I have found no place more beautiful than Martha's Vineyard."
On the island of Martha's Vineyard, Eisie felt inspired to perform what he called "photographic experiments." Eisie once said, "I like taking photographs of the local environment and my friends. I bring all kinds of lenses and prisms here to see what I can do with them. When on the island I can take my time and photograph what I want when I want. It is nice to relax and take photographs without a deadline or tight shooting schedule."
Eisie was first introduced to the Vineyard in July 1937 by Roy Larsen, publisher of LIFE Magazine and vice president of Time Inc.. Eisie, had been living in America for only two years, and had yet to travel around his newly adopted country. Needless to say, Eisie was elated when Larsen assigned him to do a story about some remote island off the coast of Massachusetts. At the time, there was a ferry strike in progress, and travel between Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod, for those without access to a private boat, was nonexistent. Eisie took the train from New York to New London, Connecticut in order to rendezvous with Larsen for prearranged transport to the Vineyard. Larsen, who had a summer home on Nantucket, owned a high-powered twin-engined speed boat. What a thrill Eisie must have experienced from the wind, splashing waves and sun as he and Roy Larsen traveled up the coast on the waters of Rhode Island Sound. "After passing the Elizabeth Islands," recalled Eisie, "Larsen guided the boat across Vineyard Sound so we ended up passing by the Gay Head cliffs. In all my life, I had never imagined something like this could exist in nature. It was so unbelievably beautiful that it made my eyes fill with tears."
To listen to Eisie recall his first meeting with Martha's Vineyard is like hearing someone reminisce about the first days of discovering a life-long love. After Roy Larsen dropped Eisie off at the Edgartown Yacht Club, Eisie took a room one block up from the harbor at the Great Harbor Inn, which is now the Kelley House. After his five day assignment of photographing the Vineyard was over, Eisie was so infatuated that he returned several times over the next six years. He would often rent a room without electricity at a Gay Head inn called the Totem Pole. In 1949 he married Kathy Kaye, with whom he couldn't wait to share his Vineyard experience. Fortunately, it was also love at first sight for Kathy when they visited in 1950 and stayed at the Menemsha Inn. Ever since, Eisie never missed a summer vacation on the Vineyard. This was his place of rest and play, a place to have fun while refining his art of photography. Almost to the very last day of his life, Eisie could be seen traveling around the island with his Leica camera and photographing to his heart's delight.
In making his statement about never missing a Vineyard summer vacation for over fifty years, Eisie always provided one qualifier - it is about the one summer he was late for his usual month long August vacation at Menemsha Inn. He was on assignment in the Galapagos, and the shoot extended into early August. Being a man of punctual habit, Eisie recalled in his later years, "I ended the assignment on the Galapagos before I was fully satisfied with what we had completed. But, for some reason I felt I wanted to return so I could have my summer on Martha's Vineyard. That was the only August in fifty years I arrived late for my August vacation. Now, when I look back, I sometimes think I should have stayed longer at the Galapagos. The unspoiled nature there is amazing."
But to miss a summer season on the Vineyard meant missing time with his island friends. Every August, Eisie's and Kathy's galaxy of close friends and acquaintances would gather for walks; slide shows; gallery exhibits; garden teas and cocktail parties; beach outings; lunches and dinners. Compared to the Eisenstaedts' New York socials, their Vineyard socials were relatively relaxed, informal gatherings. After Kathy's death, her sister, Lulu, continued the tradition of hostessing remarkable teas, luncheons and dinners at the Pilot House. Every summer, an eclectic parade of people made their way to Eisie's Menemsha cottage.
Eisie's hindsight of staying longer in the Galapagos to complete the shoot to his satisfaction speaks of the photographic perfection he strived for. In reaching for perfection, Eisie exercised patience with his art form as well as with people. In shooting the photo entitled, Sailboat Near Gay Head, 1971, once said: "It was a beautiful August afternoon, and I was working on taking a photograph of the Gay Head cliffs with just the right light. While I was photographing, I saw two sailboats far across the Vineyard Sound near Cuttyhunk. I decided to wait and see of the boats would come near the cliffs on their way to Menemsha. After several hours, one of the boats did approach the cliffs and I was able to take this photograph moments before it disappeared behind the cliffs. I remember setting up a tripod and using my Leica with a 400-millimeter lens.
"As I was taking this photograph, a father and his young son, who had a camera, were standing nearby. I overheard the father say to his son, ‘The famous photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt would probably love to take a picture of this scene. Go ahead son, show me how Eisenstaedt would take a picture of that sailboat.' Feeling flattered, I walked up to the man and told him I was Alfred Eisenstaedt, but he didn't believe me! I even took out my wallet and showed him my identification, and all the man did was get angry and walk off with his son. I could never understand why he behaved so."
Another memory of Eisie's is photographing the aftermath of hurricanes Carol and Edna in August and September of 1954 respectively. Due to the inconveniences of travel after Hurricane Carol, and because of Eisie's interest in photographing the damage, he and Kathy extended their stay at Menemsha Inn. Ten days after Carol, news was heard of hurricane Edna making its way up the coast. Thinking two hurricanes could not strike the same place, Eisie and Kathy went about hosting a slide show of Eisie's rain forest shots in Surinam and the Duke of Edinburgh's trip to Canada. Low and behold, on the evening of the show, Hurricane Edna struck Menemsha. Eisie remembers standing atop the hill overlooking Menemsha and taking his camera in and out of his jacket to take pictures as Edna's rains came and went. He was strong and sure-footed then, and was able to crouch and steady himself against the powerful 100 mile-per-hour winds as he recorded the event.
About 30 years later, when Hurricane Bob struck the island on August 19, 1991, it was a different story. Eisie was entering his fragile stage then, and when the electricity went out at Menemsha for about two weeks, things came a little testy. I did my best to bring Eisie and Lulu food, water, and an ice cooler for refrigerated items. Eisie blessed me many times afterwards for providing these little but vital conveniences. As soon as other parts of the island received power, I drove Eisie and Lulu to a friend's home so they could shower and do a load of laundry. "You're a good man," Eisie would often say to me.
For over fifty years, Eisie photographed local Vineyard people such as Richard and Nancy Steeves, Tom and Midge Good, the Littlefields, Donald Poole, as well as personages such as David McCullough, Lillian Hellman, William Styron, Thomas Hart Benton, Thornton Wilder, Ruth Gordon, Walter Cronkite, James Reston, Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, Katherine Graham, President Bill Clinton with family, and many others. I knew Eisie for the last ten years of his life, and since I always toted a camera in those days, I had the rare opportunity (with his permission) to photograph him photographing. Over those ten years, I snapped thousands of pictures of Eisie in almost every conceivable situation.
On Martha's Vineyard, when Eisie photographed Kaye Graham at her West Tisbury home overlooking Lambert's Cove Beach at Mohu, it turned out to be a playful late afternoon (a time chosen on purpose by Eisie). Kaye greeted us at the door and walked us around her house so Eisie could get a feel as to where he would photograph her. After checking a few locations with his hand held light meter, Eisie chose the outside deck overlooking Lambert's Cove Beach and the ocean beyond. The slightly overcast sky produced a flat light, which was pleasing to Eisie, since he always used ambient light, either indoors or outdoors. Kaye was dressed leisurely in white slacks with a dark sweater. After a series of shots in various places on the deck, Eisie asked Kaye to cover her neck with a scarf or piece of jewelry. Kaye returned wearing a colored silk scarf. After a series of more photos, Eisie was still not satisfied. Kaye offered us some iced tea and light food.
After eating and talking for about a half hour, Kaye asked me why I was photographing Eisie photographing her. I explained to Kaye that I was a close friend and that I may use the pictures in my magazine. With that, Kaye said that she would like to get in the act and take some photos herself. So, after our break, the three of us had fun photographing each other. Me shooting Eisie with Kaye, Kaye shooting Eisie photographing me, Kaye shooting Eisie and me, Eisie shooting me and Kaye. As luck would have it, the photograph Eisie would eventually select for his book Eisenstaedt Martha's Vineyard, was a candid shot of Kaye smiling at Eisie as she sat on the deck railing holding her Canon camera at the ready to snap another photograph. To this day, whenever I look at this picture, I recall the serendipitous levity that produced such a vivacious photograph of Kaye Graham. For a time, I guess, we let ourselves become children at play. Of course, the grand finale' of this scenario was when we mailed each other our respective pictures so we could relive, in a fashion, the fun time we shared.
Another Vineyard personage I photographed with Eisie was William Styron. Because of my history with Bill Styron (Styron was a guest on my TV show The Vineyard Voice and featured in my magazine), Eisie asked me to arrange the shoot. The photograph Eisie ended up using in his Vineyard book was of Bill Styron sitting alone in his yard reading a newspaper. In the background is Styron's private dock surrounded by distantly moored boats. Besides photographing Eisie photographing Styron, I also took some shots of Rose Styron when she joined us during the session.
Perhaps it is this kind of sharing, for better or worse, that has made photography the force it has become. And it is this force that defined Eisie's life for over 70 years. Eisie was always proud to let you know that he was a successful photographer in Germany long before leaving his homeland for the United States. In the early 1930s, Germany was publishing more magazines than any country in the world, and Eisie's new genre of candid photographs were in great demand. Having gained recognition in Europe for his journalistic-style photographs, Eisie was honored as one of the few photographers allowed in to photograph the first meeting of Hitler and Mussolini in 1933. Shortly after, as Hitler's rise to power shut down many of Germany's magazines, Eisie fled from Germany in 1935 with his widowed mother. "It was one of the best decisions I made in my life," Eisie once told me with a big grin as he let out a childish laugh.
When it came to sharing his photographs with Vineyard friends, Eisie was most generous. He loved taking photographs of island people he found interesting. On many occasions, Eisie would mail signed prints to the people he photographed. It always excited him to receive a glowing thank you note or telephone call. On the flip side, as amazing as it may sound, there were some people who lacked the wherewithal to take a little time and let Eisie know that they received his pictures. This bothered Eisie greatly. Sometimes he would telephone and ask if they received the photographs. A weak apology and perhaps feigned embarrassment would result. Such people never received another Eisenstaedt picture.
And, even though Eisie often amusingly referred to himself as a "mouse" (he was 5'3" with shoes on), his memory was of elephantine proportion. I bore witness to Eisie's world recognition and legendary memory while in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Eisie was doing a show for Circle Galleries in LA, and I met up with Eisie and Lulu a day after the opening. I was in LA sharing time with an old college friend, Michael King, who was the owner of King World. Michael invited us to a private party he was sponsoring for the first elected woman President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary Robinson. While at the party, a curious thing happened. In attendance were many high-profile actors and actresses; as the evening wore on, the President's husband (an avid photographer) found out that Eisenstaedt was present. Almost in disbelief, the party came close to to a halt as the President and her husband came over to greet Eisie. Then, much to my amazement and I am sure that of others, Ireland's first family posed for numerous pictures with Eisie. The president's husband even took a few snaps with a camera that one of his aides was carrying. What was curious about this scene, was the fact that Ireland's first family was obviously not familiar with the names of many of Hollywood's attending elite. However, they were very familiar with the name of the internationally famous Alfred Eisenstaedt, and were flattered to meet and be photographed with him.
The next day, I took Eisie and Lulu to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion for lunch. I had previously met Hefner's right hand man, Dick Rosensweig, when he and his wife were vacationing on the Vineyard. Before eating, Dick gave us a tour of the Mansion's grounds with its famous pink flamingos and aviary. Afterwards, we were seated at the dining room table and served drinks and hors d'oeuvres by a white-gloved attendant. Eventually, Hugh Hefner made his monogrammed black silk pajama appearance at the head of the table. After talking about his new family life; the novelty of having children and their playthings in the Mansion; and other personal and Playboy-related conversation, Eisie suddenly brought up the subject of some negatives he wanted back from Hefner. It was obvious that Hefner was taken aback by Eisie's request. "What negatives would that be?" asked Hefner. "Don't you remember," said Eisie, "I photographed you and your daughter Christy over thirty years ago on (I forget the exact date Eisie gave). You asked me for the negatives so you could make copies. You never returned them to me!" Looking embarrassed, Hefner turned to his attendant and said, "Could you make a note and have someone look for Mr. Eisenstaedt's negatives." Then, turning to Eisie he said, "I am sorry, I'll make sure the negatives are returned to you if we find them." As we drove away after lunch, Eisie said, "He'll never send me the negatives, he was just saying that to be polite."
In his circle of friends and co-workers, Eisie was known for his blunt honesty. If you offended him or did something that he didn't like, he would tell you so. "It bothers some people when I tell them what I think," said Eisie one day, "but life is too short for me to pretend when someone is being rude or thoughtless. So, I tell them. Sometimes people get offended and don't talk to me. I can't help that."
Over the ten years of knowing Eisie, he would occasionally tell me things about myself that bothered him. One thing that bothered Eisie the most was my occasional lack of punctuality. To Eisie, being on time was of great importance. Eventually, I made an effort to be as punctual as possible when meeting Eisie. After a while, I followed the example of Menemsha Inn owner, Nancy Steeves, and began expressing some of the things Eisie did that bothered me. The fact that our emotional corners softened and our friendship was secure, provided me with one of the greatest friendships of my adult life. With Eisie and Lulu I could be myself and always feel their love and acceptance.
This love also extended to my daughter, Sarah, when she came to visit during Christmas. Sarah and I traveled from the Vineyard to New York and shared a Christmas with Eisie and Lulu. As always, Lulu prepared a mouth watering gourmet dinner with a festive table setting. One of the gifts Sarah gave to Eisie was a wireless, silent TV watching system. Since Eisie's hearing was beginning to fail, he would inadvertently turn the television volume up high when visiting Lulu. The wireless system enabled Eisie to better enjoy listening to his television programs while also allowing Lulu the freedom to talk on the phone or entertain guests.
The great loves of Eisie were his family, close friends and his art. Following these, was his love of music. In his youth, Eisie learned to play piano. "My parent's paid for me to take piano lessons when I was very young," he says, "but I never developed into a virtuoso. Who knows, maybe having nimble fingers helped me to take good pictures. I have photographed many famous musicians." One of Eisie's favorite past times was to sit with headphones on and listen to classical music. When moving from Queens to Manhattan, Eisie gave away over one thousand records from his collection. To replace his record collection, Eisie made tape recordings of his favorite musicians. After his death, Lulu gave me Eisie's tape collection which carry his scratchy writings for identification. Listening to the music Eisie recorded has, to this day, added special enjoyment to my life. Besides the treasure of Eisie's music, I am blessed to have several portraits of myself that Eisie gave to me over the years. Eisie also gifted me several signed pictures (including V-J Day); some old camera bags; tripods; an old Leica camera, as well as other photographic equipment. Certainly, I was most flattered. In Lulu's words, "William, the way Eisie sometimes talks about you, its is like hearing a father talk about his son."
Eisie took the last photographs of his career in August 1993. These were pictures of the Clinton family in the private courtyard setting at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. Owned by Eisie's two friends, Bruce Blackwell and Brandon Mayhew Wright, the Granary Gallery sold Eisie's pictures through a special arrangement with Time-Life. Eisie chose the courtyard for two reasons - he wanted the First Family to see his photographs and, he wanted some versatility in improvising with ambient light.
A few days leading up to the shoot, Eisie asked me to drive him to the gallery so he could get a feel for locations. We spent most of the day taking light readings in different places of the courtyard and marking the floor with pieces of tape. Depending on the time of day, Eisie had predetermined several locations for placing chairs. Eisie would have me stand and sit in various places, and he would then take his readings. At this stage of his life, Eisie was in great pain with crippling arthritis. Any movement brought pain. Every shuffling footstep came at a price. Even at age 94, Eisie had his wits about him. Thinking ahead, he fastidiously planned the entire First Family shoot to work around his physical limitations. By the time we finished working out the details of the upcoming shoot, Eisie was exhausted.
During the days prior to the shoot, Eisie prepped me for my part, "William, I will need you to change my camera lens for me while photographing the President. My hands are too stiff to do that any more. Pay attention, I will raise my finger to signal you when I need you. Also, this is most important, you will be the only photographer who will record this event. Take as many photographs as you can. Especially try to get pictures with Lulu in them, she likes Mrs. Clinton and it would be nice to get a picture of the two of them together. Now, there is one more thing you must not forget to do. You must not forget to ask the President if it is okay for you to take a picture of me with the President. This is something I cannot ask. You must ask." Each day leading up to the shoot, Eisie would remind me about asking the President's permission to photo the two of them together.
The day and time Eisie was to photograph the First Family was kept in strict confidence at the request of Clinton's contact people. When the morning of the day arrived, everything was ready. Eisie had double checked all his equipment and loaded fresh film. The phone rang and we were informed that the shoot was scheduled for about 11 AM. I was loading Eisie's camera equipment in the car as Lulu and Eisie made their way from the cottage. Just as Eisie passed the phone, it rang. Answering the phone, he talked briefly with someone and said, "I can't talk right now, I have to go and photograph the President." "Who was that?" asked Lulu. "A reporter from the Associated Press who was asking to do a feature story on me." said Eisie.
We arrived at the gallery and were greeted by Bruce, Brandy and the gallery's manager, Chris Morris. The Secret Service was already there. As the hour ticked by, more and more news photographers began showing up. When questioned by the Secret Service as to why they were there, the photographers said they just happened to be in the area. It didn't take the Secret Service long to figure out that there had been a leak. To Eisie's dismay, the photo session was canceled. It was only later that we learned that Eisie's off hand telephone remark about going out to photograph the President had circulated quickly amongst the press. On a small island, gossip and news tend to spread at the speed of light.
A few days passed and it was the next to last day the Clinton's were to be on island. The telephone call came, Eisie was to photograph the Clinton's at the gallery after they attended morning church service. Again, we waited at the gallery's courtyard. This time the First Family showed up. After greeting Eisie, the gallery owners, Lulu and myself, the First Family walked around shaking hands with well wishers while taking time to view Eisie's pictures and ask him questions. Eisie loved entertaining the Clinton's with his stories. When Eisie asked Chelsea which photograph she liked best, Chelsea chose one depicting young ballerinas. To Chelsea's pleasant surprise, Eisie promptly gave it to her as a gift.
I found the Clinton's to be easy people to talk with and enjoyed sharing thoughts with them on Eisie's work and the island's environment. After things settled down, the courtyard was cleared of everyone but the Clinton's, Eisie and myself.
Eisie took his time and sat down in a chair facing another chair he had me place in a prearranged location. Eisie asked the President to sit in the empty chair. Raising his camera and looking through the lens, I heard Eisie mutter to himself, "dam it." Lowering his camera to his lap, Eisie asked me to remove all the framed photographs hanging on the wall behind the President. "They are distracting," said Eisie. After the pictures were removed, Eisie began to do what he is famous for--placing people at ease while photographing them. At first, Eisie her took pictures of the First Family in various positions: Bill with Hillary; Hillary, Chelsea and Bill; and finally, the President by himself. Occasionally, Eisie and the Clinton's would laugh as Eisie made comments about how beautiful they looked together. During the entire shoot, I did only one lens change after Eisie gave me his raised finger signal. Amazing as it sounds, Eisie shot only one roll of 36-exposure black and white film.
Just as Eisie squeezed off his last shot, I was positioned off to the side photographing Eisie photographing the President as Chelsea watched in the background. After taking his last photo, Eisie said, "I am done." After waiting a moment, he then looked over at me and said, "William, come here." I got up off my knee and went to Eisie's side and put my ear to his face. "Don't forget to ask!" said Eisie quietly with a stern look in his eyes. "I didn't forget," I whispered, "I'll just take a few more pictures so it doesn't seem obvious that you just asked me to ask." Eisie's eyes lit up as he smiled. Eisie then looked at the President and said, "William will take a few more photos and then we will be done."
Again, I returned to my former knee on the ground position and began taking a few more snaps. As I was looking through my lens, I saw President Clinton motioning to me to come over to him. I got up and went over. Clinton motioned for me to bend over so he could whisper something. Putting my ear to Clinton's face, Clinton whispered, "Do you think it will be okay with Eisenstaedt if you take a picture of me sitting with him?" I had all I could to suppress laughing as I answered, "I don't know. Let me ask him." Standing up next to the President I said allowed, "Eisie, the President wants to know if it is okay with you for me to take a picture of you sitting with him?" Eisie's eyes sparkled as he sat there in pregnant silence of about three seconds. "Of course it's okay," replied Eisie.
Looking through my camera lens, Clinton appeared like a giant next to Eisie. After I took of few snaps, Hillary and Chelsea got into the picture and, as a fitting finale', Lulu also joined in.
The above story is accurate and true. It is also the story I ended up telling at Eisie's memorial service in the Chilmark Church after his death at age 97.5 years at Midnight, August 24, 1995. During the last days of Eisie's life, he asked me to drive him to various Vineyard places dear to his heart: the Granary Gallery to look at his pictures and visit with friends and admirers; to see West Tisbury's fair grounds and farmer's market; the Chilmark Church flea market; to witness the churning waves at Squibnocket Beach from hurricane Felix; the Keith Farm on Middle Road; to stop and spend some quiet time next to the Gay Head lighthouse while looking down at the clay cliffs and remarking about the beauty of a nearby patch of Queen Anne's Lace wildflowers; to travel to Lobsterville, and finally, to see his beloved Dutcher's Dock at Menemsha while watching the sun set.
While sitting in the parking lot near Dutcher's Dock, Eisie once told me the story of how a newspaper man named Rodney Dutcher helped raise money for a fishermen's fund after the 1938 hurricane. Eisie also recalled how he photographed Menemsha after hurricanes and storms; at sunsets; in dense fog, and during early morning light. Most of all, Eisie talked about sharing time at Dutcher's Dock and walking the Menemsha Bulkhead with his late wife Kathy, and Kathy's sister, Lulu.
On one occasion while sitting in my car facing the ocean at Menemsha Beach, for some reason Eisie said, "William, thank you for taking me to Lucy Vincent Beach that time. It was a beautiful day. The warm water was nice to walk in. Maybe someday you will write a book about water. Who knows? Do you think?" Looking into Eisie's weathered face and deep blue eyes I said, "Maybe Eisie, who knows, maybe someday I will find the time." Eisie's eyes were an unusual deep blue because of the implants he had in 1984 and 1985 to remedy cataracts. That is when Eisie stopped driving.
Eisie did not die alone in his Menemsha cottage. Lulu and I were with him.
The last day of Eisie's life began as usual for a man of ebbing energies. Lulu dressed Eisie and I helped him out of bed into his wheel chair. After breakfast, he took a little nap. When he awoke, he read the New York Times obituaries while sitting at the window facing Vineyard Sound. As the day warmed up, I treated Eisie to one of his favorite things, a trip to the outside shower. He loved the sensation of warm water pouring down over his head and shoulders. Since Eisie's circulation was failing, the heated water helped to give him a feeling of comforting warmth and lifted spirit. After the shower, Lulu made us some lunch. Afterwards, I had a thought - take some pictures of Eisie signing the V-J Day photo he gave me. I asked Lulu if she thought it would be okay, and she said, "Bring it in and see if he is interested. It may do him some good." For about five minutes, Eisie showed a hint of his old self as he posed for my camera as he had so many times before. When taking these pictures, little did I know that this would be the end of my ten-year photo essay on Eisie. As I removed the roll of film from my Minolta camera, Eisie looked up at me and said, "I am dying."Lulu looked over from the kitchen sink and admonished, "Poppy, don't talk like that!" Shortly after, Eisie took another nap. While Eisie was napping, Lulu asked me to stay the night. She said she did not want to be alone with Eisie because he seemed unusually frail.
I slept on the fold-out bed in the room next to Eisie's and Lulu's bedroom. I couldn't sleep. On and off through the night, through the open bedroom door, I could here Eisie asking Lulu to shift his position in the bed to help relieve the pain in his legs and back. Just about midnight, while Eisie was telling Lulu what position to shift his body for comfort, his head dropped and he stopped talking mid-sentence. Lulu called Eisie's name. By the time Lulu got to the bedroom door with my name on her lips, I was already entering the room. I tried CPR while Lulu called an ambulance - Eisie's spirit would not return.
The paramedics arrived and also failed to get Eisie's heart to start beating. After the hospital protocol, Lulu and I returned to Eisie's beloved Pilot House, the place felt empty without him. I lit a candle and Lulu and I spent the night talking about Eisie and the journey of life. In the early morning, we took a drive to the Black Dog restaurant and shared breakfast while watching the sun rise above the ocean. We were both exhausted but yet, there was a sense of wonder at the sharing of Eisie's life. Looking out from the Black Dog's porch, the sun's warmth touched our faces; boats stirred in the harbor; the day's morning ferry sailed away from its slip, and the restaurant soon filled with the chatter of summer people.
Over the next few days, I was busy helping Lulu prepare for Eisie's memorial service at the Chilmark Church, and to organize the after-service gathering at Eleanor Piacenza's (a relative of Tom Benton). Lulu chose five people to speak in Eisie's memory - author David McCullough; former Time-Life editor, Ralph Graves; family friend and attorney, David Nierenberg; LIFE picture editor, Bobbi Baker Burrows, and myself.
Lulu and the presiding Chilmark Church Reverend Arlene Blodge, chose me as the last speaker because of my close relationship with Eisie. Being a bit nervous to be sharing the podium with such renowned people, I worked long hours preparing a speech. When the day of the service arrived, I humbly listened to the four other eloquent and moving speeches that were sometimes spiked with humor. It was wonderful to hear the overflowing church fill with waves of tearful laughter and sobs as each speaker recalled sharing life with Eisie. When my turn arrived, I approached the podium on the flower-filled alter and faced the audience. It was then that something strange happened - I heard Eisie's voice. "Tell them the story of the President," said Eisie's voice. I froze for a moment as chills ran up my spine. Shrugging off the thought as coming from my subconscious, I looked out at the audience and began reading from my prepared speech. Again, I heard Eisie's voice. Something made me look over my left shoulder. Hanging there on the wall was an enlarged picture I took of Eisie years ago - I could actually feel his eyes. This time Eisie's voice insisted, "William, tell them the story of the President!" Feeling a cold shiver run through my entire body, I set aside my speech and told the story Eisie requested. To the apparent reaction of Lulu and the audience, the story of Eisie photographing President Clinton was well received.
As an afterthought, I guess, even in death - Eisie is still calling the shots.
|Portfolios||Camera Corner||War Stories||Dirck's Gallery||Comments|
|Issue Archives||Columns||Forums||Mailing List||E-mail The DJ|