Time Magazine has published 100 photographs from America’s past. People who see the book are likely to identify with the ones that are related in some way to their age. Many are dark, many moving, but each is likely to take you back to the moment when you first saw it. These were the ones that struck me at 86.
1936 – The Migrant Mother – It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the year I was five and I never saw it until later in my life when the extraordinary picture of despair and strength reminded me that I had been alive then and my life was just fine while so much of the country was desperate for food and shelter. Each time I look at her face I am struck by how it could have been that so many were desperate and so many untouched.
1937 – I remember my parents conversations about the possibility of transatlantic air travel by Skyliner and hearing on the radio that the 804 foot long Hindenburg, a symbol of the future, would be landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. They discussed wanting to drive the short way down, but didn’t. Instead we heard the crash on the radio – The terror in the voice of commentator Herbert Morrison as the airship burst into flames that killed 36 passengers instantly while some jumped to safety. It happened just feet above the crowd that had gathered to welcome them. To modern eyes, mine too, the sight of a balloon filled with gas over a tiny passenger cabin underneath is a warning of inevitable catastrophe. But back then, it was the promise of future travel. And then it unraveled in one horrific minute.
1945 – The iconic sight of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square in 1945. This is a still life of the chaos enveloping them in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II. We hear none of the welcome uproar but photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt caught a still that even today is the symbol that brings it all back for us. Those of us who were young can remember the nationwide relief that unfolded as grownups bent their ears to the descriptions on the family radio. I was fourteen when I went alone to a Trans Lux Theater in New York and watched the spontaneous eruption. The long war that took so many lives was over.
1953 – At the invitation of Joseph P. Kennedy, photographer Hy Peskin took a weekend’s worth of pictures of Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy at play in Hyannisport for Life Magazine. The unmentioned side of the story was that Jackie hated sailing, the family’s favorite pastime. The Life spread fixed the newly engaged couple in the public eye as comers. I was a Vassar freshman when I met Jackie who lived across the hall just six years before this picture was taken. I never knew her well at all but now, seeing this picture, knowing it was the first resentment she held against the publicity required of public figures, knowing now what lay ahead for her. Slightly over two years of the glamorous life of being the President’s wife and then the tragedies: The assassination of her husband, the murder of her brother-in-law Bobby, the murder of their friend Martin Luther King. She faced it all with great dignity. And then of how carefully and seriously she managed to carve a final career in publishing in New York. Finally she had privacy. And then cancer killed her. If there is anything good in her timeframe, it is that she wasn’t alive when her son John died in the crash of his plane.